Guantánamo detainees get a dose of culture

Detainee Suleiman al Nahdi, a 33-year-old Yemeni, sketched this greeting card for his American attorneys at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, last year.  Military censors stamped it SECRET and put it in a secure file until his attorneys got it declassified.
Detainee Suleiman al Nahdi, a 33-year-old Yemeni, sketched this greeting card for his American attorneys at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, last year. Military censors stamped it SECRET and put it in a secure file until his attorneys got it declassified.

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Prison camp staff will soon start offering art and geology classes to long-held war-on-terrorism detainees. English is now being taught as military jailers tinker with how to distract captured jihadists.

President-elect Barack Obama may be pledging to empty the controversial prison camps of the 250 men called enemy combatants, but absent an evacuation order from the White House, the military is planning for the long haul on this, the lone American outpost on Communist soil.

''We want to keep their brains stimulated. We're not here to give degrees,'' says Zak, an Arab American who serves as the prison camps' cultural advisor, a secular job. "Once they are engaged and busy, they leave the guards alone.''

Plans include hand-held Game Boy-like electronic games to circulate through the cells, newspapers from Cairo, more ''movie nights'' featuring videotaped sports and expanded lessons in English as a second language.

The idea is to help men captured across the globe think for themselves. The one thing they most want to learn, says Zak: ``When am I going home?''

But change comes slowly to this 45-square-mile U.S. Navy base bunkered behind a Cuban minefield with small-town amenities and the population to match: fewer than 10,000 troops and their families, foreign laborers and U.S. government civilian support staff.

Meantime, it's business as usual behind the razor wire.

Prison camp days for the 250 or so detainees revolve around a routine. Five calls to prayer. Three meals, for most men passed through a slot in the cell called a ''beanhole.'' And an option to visit a recreation yard.

Guards walk the block. Lawyers sometimes arrive from the mainland, which means being shackled and shuffled to a cramped visitor's room where the client is chained to the floor.

After seven years, 17 men are facing trials, a process now in doubt.

Obama has said he wants alleged terrorists tried in U.S. courts, not the special military commissions that have so far convicted two men here as war criminals -- Osama bin Laden's $200-a-month driver and the al Qaeda founder's media secretary.

There's also a secret facility here called Camp 7, for former CIA captives -- those now considered the worst of the worst.

They are men like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who reportedly boasted that he both plotted 9/11 and cut off journalist Daniel Pearl's head ''with my blessed hand,'' and a man known as Hambali, long considered by Indonesians to be al Qaeda affiliate enemy No. 1.


These men are guarded by a clandestine unit called Task Force Platinum, so secretive that no one will say how they fill their hours.

For the 230 others, the military staff has warmed to the idea of offering distractions, if not rehabilitation.

Successive prison camp commanders flatly refused to teach the men English, arguing they would use the skill to eavesdrop on their guards.

Now there's a contract English teacher. And an Arabic instructor teaches the language of the Koran to Uighurs and Uzbeks awaiting a country to resettle them.

Art class was a natural. Captives have taken to drawing to pass the time alone in their cramped cells. Geology classes seemed a good idea, too, he said, since they're about earth and science -- not touchy topics, like the heavens and politics.

''We really have some good artists among the detainees,'' says Zak, a U.S. contractor who doesn't want the world to know his family name. ``They draw greeting cards for family. They draw weapons. They draw whatever. One time, one detainee drew the world's map.''

Weapons? ''They draw whatever they want,'' he said. ``You can't stop a detainee from thinking.''

Defense lawyer Kristin Wilhelm reacted to plans for art classes with disdain.

A year and a half ago, she said, a Guantánamo client named Suleiman al Nahdi, now 33, sketched greeting cards for people at her Atlanta law firm -- only to have military censors stamp them SECRET and stash them in a vault. She appealed and got them declassified.

''It was always my view that the government was afraid to allow the drawings to be released because it humanized my client,'' said Wilhelm, noting that he has been cleared to return home.

His release now hangs on his homeland, Yemen, reaching a repatriation agreement with Washington.

Wilhelm observed, dryly, that the nascent liberal arts program now ``reflects that these individuals are humans and should be permitted to express themselves through the use of art. Too bad it took seven years.''

Still, camp commanders won't be offering arts classes that require sharp objects.

''We keep it simple,'' says Zak. ``Give them 12 crayons.''

And, so, solo pursuits are still a focus.

Copies of Al Ahram newspaper will soon circulate in Camps 5 and 6, if the camps' Egyptian-born librarian, Mohammed al Abdel Aal, makes good on his plan.

It would serve as an alternative to what commanders call the DNN -- Detainee News Network -- in which the captives pass between the cells whatever tidbits they get from their lawyers and guards.

On Election Night, says Zak, the results swept through the camps so swiftly the captives were chanting ``Obama, Obama, Obama.''

Books about Islam are favorites, prescreened to make sure they have moderate messages. An Arabic copy of Richard Nixon's Victory Without War is popular, says the librarian.

''I give them the books to give them a good education, to show them a life better than they came from,'' explains Abdel Aal, who studied Egyptology before marrying an American and moving to the United States.

FBI agents found him at a Food Lion in West Virginia, he said, and enlisted him as a contract translator. ''I'm not the one who brings them here,'' he says, displaying the personality he peddles with his books on the cellblocks. ``I'm not the one who takes them out of here.''

By the time workers unstring the Christmas lights at a downtown McDonald's, a Puerto Rican National Guard contingent will have relieved soldiers from New Mexico. A Florida National Guard unit has already been tapped next year to replace Wisconsin troops who produce a weekly newsletter.

Like the windmills high above the base on John Paul Jones Hill, the prison camps were once a source of pride and fascination -- a Pentagon outpost of the war on terrorism where day-trippers from Washington could visit the camps and be home for dinner.

Now they're just there.

They occupy a sliver of the base.

Last week a lone reporter attended the war court arraignment of Mohammed Hashim, an illiterate 32-year-old Afghan accused of spying on U.S. troops in his homeland. ''We're moving forward. The mission continues,'' says Army Col. Bruce Pagel, the Pentagon's deputy chief prosecutor for war crimes. ``We're not allowing ourselves, within the bounds of reason, to become distracted.''


Still, should the military empty the prison camps -- send some men home, others to the U.S. for trial -- Navy commanders like to note that the century-old base itself has ``an enduring mission.''

There's a landing strip for American military and intelligence aircraft hunting drug traffickers and Florida-bound balseros. There's the port where, in September, the USS Kearsarge resupplied for relief efforts in hurricane-stricken Haiti.

Often, this base houses about 30 Cubans and Haitians picked up at sea. They live in renovated barracks, eat in Navy cafeterias and bag groceries at the commissary for tips while U.S. diplomats seek another country to resettle them.

Asylum-seekers here cannot go to the United States under a Clinton administration disincentive plan to discourage Cubans from wading through the minefield to reach the base as a way-station to Miami.

So should the alleged al Qaeda members go elsewhere, there's still plenty to do, says Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum. 'The calls to `close Guantánamo' refer only to the closure of the detention operations conducted here,'' says Storum, the detention center's public affairs officer. ``Operations at Naval Station Guantánamo continue to have enduring strategic value, as they have for more than 100 years.''