Guantánamo prisoners a curious varied group

In this handout photo from the Department of Defense, military police escort a detainee inside a holding area at Camp X-Ray at Navy Base Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing on Jan. 11, 2002.
In this handout photo from the Department of Defense, military police escort a detainee inside a holding area at Camp X-Ray at Navy Base Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing on Jan. 11, 2002. U.S. NAVY

One of the first prisoners to appear in a fluorescent orange jumpsuit towered over his guards, perhaps suggesting the stature of a Somali or Sudanese man.

Another arrival was short - like a child - raising questions of whether all inmates at Camp X-Ray are adults.

Mostly, they speak Arabic, U.S. commanders say. Some speak English, and talk to their guards without a military linguist's help. Three are believed to be British subjects. Another is said to be Australian-born and bred.

Perhaps the most reviled men on Earth, given their capture 8,000 miles away in the havoc of Afghanistan, the 110 prisoners so far penned up at this seaside Navy base are a curious, varied bunch with one common denominator:

Each morning, after Army MPs wake them, each prisoner gets down on his knees like a traditional Muslim - and prays.

U.S. military officials still flatly refuse to give the names, ages or nationalities of the men who, in four separate shipments, have shuffled in leg chains from Air Force cargo planes called Starlifters.

But, based on more than a week of interviews with soldiers and first-hand observation, they are emerging as a far-flung, cross-cultural cast of characters who, in the words of Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, reflect a "very broad representation from nations around the world."

So much so that, base commanders reported, some were captured with foreign passports that helped aid in their identification.

One captive is said to be Mullah Fazel Mazloom, once the Taliban's army chief of staff, for sure a prize. He survived capture by the Northern Alliance and a bloody Taliban uprising to ultimately reach this off-shore U.S. terrorist detention center.

Another is David Hicks, 26, of Adelaide in Australia. "He last contacted his parents from Pakistan in mid-September, then he went over to Afghanistan, " says Julian Hammond, an Australian attorney working in Brooklyn, N.Y.

How and why Hicks fell into the hands of U.S. forces isn't known.

By Saturday, reports from Bosnia said, six Algerians, ages 26 to 41, were also on their way - suspected of plotting attacks on the U.S. and British embassies in Sarajevo, allegedly as part of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Officials would not confirm it at the public affairs office here.

Also unclear is whether there were any children Saturday among the 110 prisoners confined to 8-by-8-foot chain-link fence cells about a mile from a Cuban minefield that separates this base from Fidel Castro's Frontier Brigade.

Some MP guards inside Camp X-Ray have said some of the captives look young, apparently in their teens. The latest batch of 30 to arrive from Kandahar on Thursday included a masked and manacled prisoner in an orange jumpsuit who was of child-like stature.

But military spokesmen have refused to say whether there are minors among the inmates, citing policy that forbids them from giving personal details on the people the Pentagon calls "detainees."

When they have characterized them, which has been rare, base commanders and ordinary soldiers describe the prisoners - so far - as a mostly docile group still assessing their half-a-world-away transfer from Kandahar, where temperatures plunged to 25 degrees last week, to the sizzling Caribbean.

"They just flew in from a country where you're freezing - and now they're burning up, " said Army Col. Terry Carrico, commander of the Army Military Police unit from Fort Hood, Texas, that guards the prisoners behind razor-wire-topped cyclone fences.

Still, doctors say some differences have emerged among those described by the Marine commander as "the worst of the worst." Based on 45-minute medical checkups and questions, some had received "First World medicine" before their capture, said Dr. Chris Berry, Camp X-Ray's chief medical officer, an internist.

An example? One had received eye surgery, something likely unheard of in remote regions of Afghanistan but surely available in the royal-financed clinics and medical centers of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.