For years, Guantánamo prison has portrayed the lives of the Army guards on mostly nine-month duty as a lonely, isolated business. Disconnected from family, they peer through cells at angry and resentful enemy prisoners. Only after hours do they phone home, check email or manage a Skype chat at Internet cafes or in the solitude of their quarters.
In stark contrast, for the captives who’ve spent more than a decade in detention, the disconnect from home and family is much greater and getting worse. Sixty percent of the prisoners are Yemeni, from the Red Sea nation shattered by civil war and air strikes. Their country is imploding, and so is their precious link with family.
“It’s the biggest issue that everyone’s talking about, and it’s been this way for months,” said attorney Pardiss Kebriaei, who recently visited with two Yemenis at Guantánamo. “It’s not helping an already desperate situation.”
Spiraling violence in the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden has partially paralyzed the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross — the U.S. military’s partner in connecting captives and their families — cutting contact with wives and children and stirring anxiety in the cellblocks.
On the prison’s free satellite TV, they see their country in chaos from car bombs, air strikes and homelessness. It magnifies their sense of helplessness in a place where early interrogation techniques were designed to do just that — make them feel helpless.
The Pentagon has 115 captives at Guantánamo today, nearly all held by the United States for more than a decade. Sixty-nine of the captives are Yemeni — 42 of them approved for repatriation to security arrangements, if their nation stabilizes.
This problem compounds misery upon misery
David Remes, lawyer for Yemeni detainees
The Soufan Group, a think tank with expertise in Yemen, estimated recently that more than 2,000 civilians there “have been killed through inaccurate coalition bombing and indiscriminate Houthi shelling.” Aid workers are not immune. Two Red Cross workers were shot dead earlier this month.
So Red Cross communications between Yemen and the U.S. Navy base in Cuba have suffered with the growing warfare. Sometimes it’s too perilous for family members to reach Red Cross offices in Sanaa, Aden and Taiz. At other times, it’s too risky for the aid agency to go to the Guantánamo detainee’s relatives to arrange the phone call, something the U.S. military requires for a captive to get a call from home.
“There are currently areas in Yemen where we don’t have access because of the immense security risks involved,” said Nourane Houas, the Red Cross protection coordinator for Yemen, in an email from Sanaa. “It’s frustrating that the fighting prevents us from doing more. And we know it’s frustrating for the detainees, as well as their families.”
Twice since late March, the Red Cross had its Washington, D.C., office notify the military at Guantánamo that a captive’s family member had died. The prison, in turn, had to notify the prisoner. The agency wouldn’t elaborate on whether the kin had died of natural causes or in the war. Nor would it say what prevented the prisoner from hearing directly from home.
The lost links are “a huge issue” for Yemeni captive Sanad al Kazimi, 45, who hasn’t heard from his wife and four kids since February, according to his lawyer Martha Rayner. They apparently fled Aden and are OK, according to a message he got at the prison via the Red Cross.
But “he’s extremely stressed about it. I saw him in early August, and he’s struggling to cope with this on top of all the other stress of being indefinitely detained,” Rayner said. Kazimi has been a prisoner of the U.S. military or CIA since his 2002 capture in Dubai and wants to talk with his family to ask directly if they are OK.
Part of the problem is that, just like for the hundreds of guards who do temporary duty at Guantánamo, phone and video calls are emotional lifelines for the prisoners — those approved to go and those who aren’t. Red Cross links have brought prisoners photos of babies born during their time in captivity, word of the deaths of parents and, since 2008, phone calls from home as a perk for cooperative captives.
For their first six years at Guantánamo, the prison only permitted the Red Cross to bring messages between the captives and their kin. Then, as now, U.S. military staffers read the mail and censored information they didn’t think the prisoners or their families should know.
Then, with the blessing of Adm. James Stavridis at the U.S. Southern Command, the Red Cross started family phone calls in April 2008. Video calls for some came later.
Prisoners who spent years in CIA “black sites” were excluded. For the rest, calls worked like this: A captive was taken to a special cell and shackled to the floor at a prearranged time for the call from home. Prison staffers listened in and could cut the line if conversation strayed into forbidden topics. On the other end, Red Cross delegates verified that family was on the call, either from an ICRC office or from a relative’s home. No recording was allowed.
Then this summer, a U.S. Navy medical officer at the prison’s psychiatric ward offered that instability in Yemen had become a key source of stress for the prisoners. Military mental health professionals were devoting “a lot of counseling time dealing with that.” Now detainee lawyers, in a rare example of harmony, echo that prison doctor on the No. 1 source of anxiety.
Into this vacuum, some of the detainees’ lawyers now call their clients’ families, using Arabic translators to help track them down before each visit. For years, lawyers brought treats to the meetings — Big Macs from the base McDonald’s or traditional foods for a taste from home. Since May, the military has forbidden food at meetings. So now all the attorneys can offer is word from home.
“I always do that before a visit to Guantánamo because the guys are really, really worried,” said David Remes, who represents 18 Yemenis. “The detainees don’t know if their families are alive or dead. This problem compounds misery upon misery.”
We work hard to mitigate such incidents or circumstances
Navy Capt. Chris Scholl, Guantánamo prison spokesman
On one occasion, Remes recalled, he was chatting with the sister of a captive named Muhammed Khusruf, 65, in troubled Taiz when the woman politely tried to break off a conversation: “Do you mind if I hang up? We’re being shelled right now.”
Remes made contact later so he could tell his client that his sister Fatima was fine.
Similarly, the Red Cross sometimes sends messages to the prison that it has heard from captives’ families, and that they are alive.
Which raises the question: If an attorney can call a captive’s kin, why can’t the prison? Lawyers who do it want the prison to waive the Red Cross role, something the commander has sometimes done, and use their 2,000-strong staff to try to connect worried Yemenis with family.
Yet if prison leadership is troubled by it, or doing anything to bridge the divide, there’s no sign of it.
“Any incident or set of circumstances related to the health or safety of detainees’ family members can create anxiety for the detainee and potentially impact their behavior,” Navy Capt. Chris Scholl said by email from the prison. “Therefore, we work hard to mitigate such incidents or circumstances.”
He did not elaborate but said there was no plan “at the present time” to offer calls beyond those initiated by the Red Cross.
The lawyers call the prison’s posture callous, particularly since the overwhelming majority of Yemenis are cleared for release — on paper that says they can be repatriated once the security situation settles down, or once a third country will agree to resettle them. Family reunification is considered key to a successful, peaceful re-entry into society; yet some cleared captives don’t know if their family has survived the latest explosion.
Scholl offered no explanation of why the prison wants Red Cross delegates on the other end of the line.
But the staff may still be smarting from what happened in 2009 when an al Jazeera reporter, who had been imprisoned at Guantánamo himself, interviewed a young captive by phone. Prison officials apparently thought the reporter was the captive’s uncle. And the since-repatriated, 21-year-old captive from Chad described allegations of abuse.
“All the detainees want to know is how are you doing? Are you OK? Are you in danger?” Remes said. “I have clients who haven’t spoken with their families since the violence began in July 2014.”
Yemen expert Charles Schmitz, who has worked as a court-approved Arabic-English translator, said developments back home must be alarming to disconnected detainees.
“They’re stuck in Cuba, they can’t do anything for their families, and their families are in danger,” he said. “They’ve either fled to the village where supplies are very low or they’re in a city, which could quite possibly become a major battle zone. This exacerbates their feeling of their most precious thing is in danger and they can’t do anything.”
Family comes first, but the politics of the moment complicates matters. Lawyers for some Yemenis who can’t go home want their clients sent to Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program as a way out of Guantánamo. But Saudi Arabia is carrying out the bombing campaign against the Houthi, prompting Schmitz to observe that in their opposition to the Houthi, “Saudi Arabia and al-Qaida are on the same side of the conflict, as is actually the United States with its support of the Saudis.”
Prison camp statement
“The health and welfare of the troopers and the detainees is our top priority. Any incident or set of circumstances related to the health or safety of detainees' family members can create anxiety for the detainee and potentially impact their behavior. Therefore, we work hard to mitigate such incidents or circumstances. At the present time, there are no plans to change facilitation of ICRC phone and video calls. We regularly look at plans and procedures and update them as necessary and when able.”