While most captives are spending their 14th Ramadan at Guantánamo, an Army platoon sergeant mobilized with the California National Guard is celebrating her first here.
All are Muslims, away from home and family, for this holy month when the devout fast during daylight hours and devote themselves to prayer.
But that might be where the comparison ends. The soldier is a woman and the 116 captives are men. She chose Islam, came to Guantánamo for just nine months and, as the only Muslim she knows here, prays alone. The prisoners were born to the faith, mostly share meals and prayer communally and do not know when, if ever, they can go home.
While the military has upended prison life in consideration of their Islam—delivering most meals and medicine to captives at night, force-feeding hunger strikers after dark— Sgt. 1st Class A, as she can be known, says her Ramadan is mostly imperceptible as she carries out her duties in charge of some 30 guards, from an office outside the razor wire that encircles the war-on-terror prisoners.
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“I'm a soldier. My mission comes first,” she said during an interview in a conference room not far from a prison compound.
The sergeant is a 47-year-old mother and grandmother who was raised in the Pentecostal Holiness Church but chose Islam 19 years ago. By then, she says, she had also chosen the U.S. Army, enlisting voluntarily.
So, she spends her days on duty in an Army uniform, without the headscarf of the faithful she wears at home.
“Would it be nice to be able to wear it? Yeah, that’s fine,” she says. But she adds that she knew when she enlisted “what the uniform is.”
Islam, she says, makes her a better soldier, “thoughtful, compassionate, understanding — all those things you need as a leader. That’s where I pull my strength from.”
It was morning and the hunger pangs of fasting had yet to set in. For this interview, this sergeant on her first deployment in 20 years of service looks just like the soldiers in the room monitoring her strictly limited, 30-minute interview — battle dress, combat boots, a regulation cap ready for when she steps outside.
“Me, I chose to be a soldier. This is the uniform that we wear,” she said in a wide-ranging, if brief, conversation watched by several soldiers empowered to censor the recorded interview. But none did.
Here at Guantánamo she goes about her business by day skipping meals, sometimes feeling a grumbling in her stomach at times when comrades troop off to the cafeteria. Hers is a solitary Ramadan. She starts her mornings before sunup with breakfast and prayer in her quarters at Camp America, a glorified trailer park, works out of sight of the detainees in the Detention Center Zone, then heads back after dusk for a break-fast meal and more prayers.
At home, she says, she’d be breaking her fast with her children, ages 13 to 25, Muslims like her. But here she prays alone in a time of year she sees as meant to teach the faithful the meaning of going without.
“I get the most blessings out of that,” she said. “The reality is, Ramadan is to remind you of people who don't get to eat, people who don’t get to participate in ... the comforts that we have.
“Ramadan puts you in that position to where you know what it feels like to be hungry, not to eat. You know what it feels like not to be able to participate at any time of day with that intimacy that we as humans need with your mate,” she said. As she sees it, it’s about “controlling your anger, controlling how you respond to people.”
A got to this remote base in mid-March, and said she sees no need for Ramadan to interfere with her management routine — op-temp, they call it, for operational tempo.
Food is a fixture of the holiday, which features a nightly feast. For reasons the prison leadership would not explain, beyond a vague blame of “logistics,” this year’s Pentagon catering contractor has omitted a traditional lamb dinner from the detainee meals — something that prison staff pointed to year after year as proof of the prison’s cultural sensitivity.
A says her Ramadan has been without typical treats, too — unless you count the fresh fruit her soldiers sometimes bring her at work to eat at the day’s end.
Unlike the 116 captives who were born into their faith and know no other life, she came to Islam in 1996 not long after she came to the Army through, of all things, fashion.
By then she was a mom, working in civilian life as head cashier at a grocery store in Atlanta. Now she’s a self-described woman of many trades — a life coach, poet, author and beauty consultant in northern California.
Then, she says, she was working at a strip mall near a shop specializing in modest Muslim clothing. A shop worker asked her to model some. She agreed, so long as it was colorful clothing, not the drab attire that some associate with Islam.
“The prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, wore color — and so did his wife,” she said after invoking her motto, “ABC — Always Be Cute.”
The clothes fit, and then so did Islam. So now she belongs to a mosque in Oakland, Calif., a two-hour drive from her home, not unlike the distance some National Guard troops drive to drill. And the comparisons don’t end there.
“My soldiers, my peers, they show me the same love, the same understanding, the same respect as if I was standing in the middle of a masjid in Oakland,” she said, referring to her place of worship.
One evening last week, hours after her interview, five captives were about to pray, each man to a single cell in a maximum-security lockup called B Block. Moments before the prayers, the prisoners realized there were visitors on the block and one called out something about human rights, Barack Obama and asked to meet the commander’s cultural adviser. One captive said they were hunger strikers.
“We don’t have any rights,” a captive announced. “And we haven’t done any crime. Where is the American freedom?”
Soldier censors erased that audio from a Miami Herald video, leaving the cellblock imam’s prayer call that ended the protest, the sounds of flushing toilets, then evening worship conducted by each man in his cell.
Most captives however are praying communally this Ramadan, according to commanders, and living in minimum-security confinement. More than 20 could be seen praying a night earlier, hip to hip in an outdoor recreation yard.
Muslims are scarce among the 2,000 or so troops and civilians who staff the prison. Some are linguists, contractors on the cellblocks, mostly men, who conduct their prayers at a mosque not far from the base McDonald’s — a drive from the Detention Center Zone that is home to both A and the captives. So she prays alone, knows no other Muslim here.
But if you think she has any affinity for the men behind the barbed wire, you’d be wrong.
“Not particularly, because the Quran teaches us that, you know, you follow the laws, and if you break the laws then it is what it is. I don't believe in using the religion to break the laws because the Quran is clear on that.”
It was suggested to her that of the 116 captives here, just one was ever convicted of a crime. The rest are, so far, in Law of War detention, akin to a prisoner-of-war.
“For me I've been charged to do a job,” she replied of her duties handling logistics and personnel issues for her platoon. “The other part of that, that's somebody else’s responsibility. Not mine.”
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