It’s lunchtime on the communal cellblocks for cooperative captives, and detainees dressed in tan and white camp uniforms are steadfastly refusing the guards’ offer to wheel in food carts.
Only if a prisoner pulls shut a gate to a chute called a sally port can a soldier lock it remotely and send in the meals. And one by one, every block but Delta Block refuses. Some captives call out that they don’t want the food.
Over at Charlie Block, an angular looking detainee is stubbornly ignoring his guards, sitting at an empty, stainless-steel picnic table, watching footage from Mecca on Saudi TV.
Within an hour, the guards systematically trash a lunch that looks like it could feed 100. Unopened juice bottles go in the garbage first, then Styrofoam boxes of pita bread and special dietary meals. Buffet tins of stewed tomatoes, rice and sweet-and-sour stir-fried beef follow.
It’s hunger-strike time at Guantánamo. And while the military and their captives dispute when it started and how widespread it is, it was clear from a three-day visit to the prison-camp compound this past week that the guard force is confronted with its most complex challenge in years.
Hunger striker could die
Although it’s camp policy to prevent a captive from starving himself, the prison staff talks about the possibility that a hunger-striking captive will be found dead one day.
Lawyers for the men say the strike was sparked in early February by an unusually aggressive search of prisoners’ Qurans that to them amounted to desecration. Prison staff says no Qurans were disrespected, no policy changed.
All sides blame long simmering frustration with President Barack Obama’s inability to deliver on his promise to close the facility.
The prison’s Arab-American Muslim cultural advisor, a Defense Department employee, says he and the chief guard, Army Col. John Bogdan, have been trying to negotiate with the detainees. But it may be that nothing short of an airplane ticket will end the deadlock.
“They are serious,” says the advisor, who goes by Zak. “They have lost hope.”
Says Army Capt. Jason Wright, the lawyer for a 30-something Camp 6 Afghan hunger striker called Obaydullah: “There’s no constructive engagement” in the standoff over handling of the Quran. “There just appears to be a stalemate.”
In years past, captives staged hunger strikes in single-occupancy cells where meals went in, containers came out and camp staff could closely monitor consumption.
This protest began in Camp 6, the place where in better times the military would boast that up to 130 cooperative captives could eat and pray in groups, play soccer and go to class — and troublemakers were removed one at a time.
They pointed to perks like PlayStations, food pantries and wristwatches that helped keep the captives cooperative. The detainees were inside the cellblocks, with guards watching through cameras, and posted just outside.
Military: ‘Hunger strikers’ cheating
On Wednesday, the Army captain in charge of Camp 6 since January said all the cellblocks but one had refused their food carts for “around three or four weeks,” and were subsisting on snacks such as pita bread and peanut butter that were stashed in their pantries or thrown over recreation yard walls from Delta Block.
The captives are still drinking water. But the communal meals ended weeks ago, complicating the calculation of how many meals in a row a particular detainee has missed.
Guards now are keeping checklists, trying to track a captive snacking or slipping into a food pantry — an increasingly complex task because the commanders say the no-longer cooperative captives of Camp 6 have covered the cameras in their individual cells with empty cereal boxes, making it hard to look inside.
“All they can do is watch TV and movies and play PlayStation. It’s pretty boring for them now,” said the Army captain, who gave his first name, John. On Wednesday, Capt. John said “the pantries are getting thin It’s now just beginning to be a problem.”
The strike is by no means universal.
On Delta Block, a chubby, elderly prisoner closed the gate and received the lunch cart. He systematically unloaded buffet trays into Delta’s designated food pantry. Minutes later, other Delta captives filed inside.
From a distance, some of the men in Camp 6 seem slim, their clothes clearly baggy as they can be seen standing on cellblock scales to check their weight. The elderly captive who unloaded the food cart at Delta Block, however, had a potbelly.
Commanders point to scraps of pita bread and used individual portions of peanut butter in trash bags otherwise filled with empty water bottles at the exits of supposedly hunger-striking cellblocks, and snicker that the captives are cheating and eating.
Still, the boycott of the popular arts and life-skills classes is total, camp commanders said. Soccer games are rare.
Camp 6 has stopped requesting items from the detention camp library. But the chief librarian, who gives his name as Milton, said four copies of the last Twilight episode are still in circulation, as well as John Madden NFL 2013 and NBA 2K13 — for the PlayStation mounted inside each Camp 6 cellblock.
Defense attorneys who speak with the captives paint a far more desperate picture. They wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, saying that their clients report frequent fainting spells and some captives coughing up blood.
Lawyer: Captive’s waist has withered
Kuwaiti captive Fayez al Kandari, 35, told his lawyer he was down to 108 pounds this past week, and lost 32 pounds in his hunger strike.
“His cheeks were sunken and sallow. He was exhausted,” said Ohio federal public defender Carlos Warner. During a meeting Wednesday, Warner said, Kandari’s waist looked like that of the lawyer’s 6-year-old child.
(A military weight chart released years ago says Kandari was five feet six inches and 136 pounds when he arrived at Guantánamo in 2002.)
The Pentagon staff is at times dismissive of the claims — “Nobody’s coughing up blood. They’re using ketchup or biting their tongues,” said Zak, the cultural advisor — but also concerned that somewhere in the communal camp a captive may be stealthily managing to starve himself, out of sight of the cameras and checklists the military uses to scan physiques at prayer time.
“It’s all about using the hunger strike as the weapon,” said Zak, blaming a hardcore group in detention for a decade or longer as inciting others to forgo food. “We might be hit with one behind hidden cameras, that one suddenly dies.”
The Navy prison camps spokesman, Capt. Robert Durand, said “stealth hunger strikers” are a concern. Captives who openly refuse meals agree to be led off to a tube-feeding while none of the others are watching.
But some detainees may be trying to thwart the system, Durand said, by accepting a meal but not eating it.
Most numbers are guarded secrets at the detention center, where about 1,700 Pentagon troops and contractors are assigned to feed, watch and manage the 166 captives. But a visit made clear that the communal camp was being slowly drained, from about 130 prisoners last year to perhaps to around 80 prisoners now, and the maximum-security prison is slowly filling. By Thursday, the Camp 5 commander estimated occupancy at her 125-cell lockup at “a little under half.”
In her camp, she said, some are eating and “some of them aren’t.” What would stop the fasts? “They want to be released,” she replied. “That’s pretty much the only thing I’ve gotten.”
Tensions mounted around inauguration
Relations started to sour in Camp 6 around the time of this year’s presidential inauguration.
Throughout Obama’s first term, the one that started with a pledge to close Guantánamo’s detention center by January 2010, Camp 6 was presented as a model POW-style prison — and the lockup for many of the captives cleared for release by a 2009 task force. Now, more than three years later, about 90 captives are cleared for release but are still in Guantánamo because of a combination of Congressional restrictions and no place to send them.
On Jan. 2, in an episode only disclosed two months later, a guard fired a round of rubber pellets into the $744,000 “SuperRec” soccer field.
The irony is the facility was built with remote-controlled gates to alleviate guards from escorting captives to the recreation yard. Less contact caused less friction, was the explanation. So each side could keep to itself.
But then a detainee scaled a fence to get the attention of a guard in a tower, and a guard pointed his rifle at him. The captive climbed down immediately, but other captives saw the guard with the rifle and hurled rocks at him. A ricocheting rubber pellet struck a Taliban elder in the throat, according to both military and attorney accounts, but he was not hurt enough to merit hospitalization.
Then in February, new Army guards at Camp 6 undertook a shakedown of the cells — something the detainees say through their lawyers was unusually aggressive in the seizure of personal items, from legal mail to family photos. The detention center said it was business as usual.
Unauthorized electronics were also seized — for example a handheld game called a Nintendo DS that the spokesman, Durand, said wasn’t approved for use. Commanders worry that clever captives were trying to rig up equipment and prepare “a propaganda video” to embarrass the prison, he said.
The captives launched a hunger strike, even if it was only partial at times, and notified an International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in mid-February that it was underway. While one ICRC delegate was in a Camp 6 recreation yard, according to multiple accounts, he was splashed with a mixture of feces and urine hurled by a detainee.
In the past year, Congressional restrictions meant only five detainees left the prison — two Uighurs ordered released by the courts years ago were resettled in El Salvador, two convicts were repatriated to Canada and Sudan as part of court-approved plea agreements and a Yemeni man who had attempted suicide for years went home dead, after what the prison concluded was an overdose of hoarded drugs.
Not one of those men was living in Camp 6.
ABOUT GUANTANAMO’S HUNGER STRIKE
• Attorneys for the hunger strikers and the military agree that the men are drinking water but disagree on how many have shunned food for up to two months and whether the men are snacking on the side.
• One detainee has been listed as a hunger striker since 2005 because, once on the list, a captive has to have affirmatively eaten nine meals in a row to get off. That man, identified in court papers as a Saudi, has compliantly gone twice a day to military clinic to get his nutritional supplement, according to the military. There medics pump a can of Ensure into his stomach by a tube inserted in his nose, aside from the occasions when he chugs the can on his own.
• Military medical teams use a calculus of missed meals, reduced body weight and complicating health conditions to decide when to declare someone a hunger striker. More than 21 days as a prison camp defined “hunger striker” likely gets a captive a tube feeding, according to a Navy physician at the prison hospital who would not be named.
• Detainees designated as hunger strikers generally consent to the tube feedings rather than being forcibly shackled into the restraint chair, according to detention center spokesman Navy Capt. Robert Durand. Or, as the prison’s top physician put it, “When it’s time to feed, they present.”
• Passing out constitutes consent to a tube feeding, Durand said.