So what do troops at Guantánamo think of commander's Nobel?

10/15/2009 12:27 AM

12/08/2014 3:56 PM

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Here in the land of limbo, the news of President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize landed with more of a whimper than wild enthusiasm among those waging their part in the war on terror.

Most troops interviewed this week reflected the surprise of their commander in chief on waking up to the news Friday morning. More than a few hadn't heard about the award for the president who pledged to empty the prison camps here until they were asked about it in an interview with The Miami Herald.

"I've been fishing," said Navy Petty Officer Daniel LeBoy, 23, of Puerto Rico, a Yeoman Third Class who was mobilized from a personnel job on a West Coast aircraft carrier.

Now he walks the cellblocks in Camps One, Two and Three on 12-hour shifts and mostly shuns the news, he said. "But I think it's a great thing," he said Wednesday, crediting Obama's campaign to "reach out to the entire world" with a message of friendship.

Others disagreed. "Someone else got gypped!" cracked Army Sgt 1st Class Steve Rougeau, 52, of Orlando, a former corrections officer now with the Florida National Guard escorting visiting reporters.

"On the first day, everyone was surprised," Rougeau said. "I didn't know that he had done something on a grand scale. So many people deserve the peace prize who've done more than he has in his 10-month tenure."

Obama turned the spotlight on this isolated outpost in the Caribbean -- and earned international admiration -- on his second full day in office by pledging to empty the prison camps by Jan. 22.

With 14 weeks to go and White House officials warning they may miss their own deadline, defense lawyers have reported that it has fed cynicism among the 221 remaining detainees. Most are approaching their eighth year in detention, most without charges.

"I would not be surprised if the common reaction is, 'What did he do to earn it?'" said defense attorney David Remes, who represents 17 Yemenis awaiting word on whether the Obama administration can reach a repatriation agreement with their government in Sana. "As far as they're concerned, he's all sizzle and no steak."

Still, the Nobel news did provide a distraction in the cellblocks. Word reached the men "the same day -- through family phone calls, through the lawyers, through the live TV they give them," said a Jordanian-American named Zak who is on contract to the Pentagon to work as the command staff's cultural adviser.

Arabic and Pashto language linguists who work at the camps got the first word not from news reports from Oslo but from the captives themselves, Zak said.

"They see it as something good," he said. "The detainees are waiting, just like everyone else, to see what Jan. 22 brings. We are all in limbo. We don't know."

Moreover, the prize is likely to feed the fascination with the new American president among the detainees who learned of his election the very same night in November and taunted their captors with chants of "Obama, Obama, Obama."

Since then, copies of Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope -- both in English -- have been in hot demand at the detention center library, reported Rosario, a civilian librarian who declined to give her full name to reporters during a recent visit by Dutch and Belgian TV crews.

Camp staff ordered 10 copies each about three months ago through the Pentagon's requisition program, she said. But they had yet to arrive, leaving the single copies in constant circulation.

What do they like about his books?

"Maybe because Obama traces back to a Muslim family," she said, then demurred. "We don't ask, and they don't tell."

The chief jailer, Army Col. Bruce Vargo, learned about the prize the same day on the news -- not from detainees.

Still, Vargo declared himself "happy" for his commander in chief, then added a bit wistfully: "I wish I could win the Nobel Peace Prize."

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About Carol Rosenberg

Carol Rosenberg

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Carol Rosenberg reports on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the place, policy, people, war court.


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