U.S. NAVAL STATION Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — Eternal vigilance is the price of being a guard at this U.S. military detention center, where some of its 166 detainees from the war on terrorism believe they are “still in the fight.”
Whether attempting to engage soldiers in political debate, passing messages to one another or trying to injure a guard or other inmates, the detainees keep their military monitors on the lookout for signs of trouble, unrest and conspiracy.
News of scandals — such as Muslim world protests over a YouTube video produced in the U.S. that disparages the Prophet Muhammad and American troops accidentally burning Korans in Afghanistan — can further aggravate a tense environment.
Some detainees have held hunger strikes and sit-ins, thrown their feces and urine at guards, fashioned crude weapons and disrupted activities with yelling, cursing and fighting.
Army Sgt. Maj. Michael Baker, who looks after the guards’ health and morale, said some detainees believe they are “still in the fight” and work to undermine or overthrow their guards.
“They believe that the war’s still going on for them, and they try to manipulate the soldiers each and every day,” he said. “Any little piece of intel, they’re just trying to put a piece of the puzzle together, and they’re trying to pass it on to their internal leadership amongst the detainees.
“The detainees have their own rank structure inside — who’s in charge, who’s not — and it’s no different from any other prison in the United States,” he said. “There are uprises and things like that. Sometimes it’s peaceful, just sit-ins. Sometimes it gets out of hand, where they do go too far and they do attempt to harm a soldier.
“They’ll try to pass notes, any type of verbal messages. They’ll try to yell from one place to another. They’ll try to get soldiers to pass information to each other,” the sergeant major said. “A lot of stuff is written in stuff we don’t understand, so we have to get it passed off and have someone interpret it for us.
“For the soldier, [it’s] ‘eyes on’ all the time, because if you turn your head once, they’ll try to pass something.”
Guards also keep watch for detainees who try to fashion crude weapons from materials such as cardboard and DVDs, and for detainee-on-detainee violence.
“They try to take on their own justice sometimes, which we do not allow,” Sgt. Maj. Baker said. “It’s unacceptable.”
‘Walk on eggshells’
Some detainees keep up with current events via their access to newspapers, television news and the Internet. When they become upset about reported events or crises, their guards must respond with heightened vigilance.
“We had a specific detainee who didn’t like the Koran burnings and got upset about it, and so he did something to end up in Camp 5,” said Army Sgt. Matthew Baker, 23, referring to the area that primarily houses detainees deemed to be the highest threat to themselves or the guards.
In another instance, camp leaders warned guards to be extra vigilant after the YouTube video of “Innocence of Muslims” — a poorly made movie produced in the U.S. that denigrates Islam — sparked anti-American protests across the Muslim world.
“We didn’t really know the full story, but they were like, ‘Hey, be on the lookout for detainees who might be offended by that, or acting differently than usual because they heard about it,’” Sgt. Baker said.
Before guards deploy to Guantanamo Bay, they spend time with a cultural adviser and learn how detainees greet one another, why they have to pray the way they do, and how to say a few words in their native languages.
Detainees often get frustrated when misunderstandings arise, especially as a result of language barriers. Some detainees speak English, and an interpreter is always available if necessary.
Sgt. Baker, who has worked at the military prison at Fort Lewis, Wash., said guards have to be a lot more careful when communicating with detainees at Guantanamo.
“Here you have to really think about what you’re going to say to the detainees,” he said. “You pretty much walk on eggshells because you could say the wrong thing and mean something else, and they might get upset about it. Whereas in regular prison, you might say, ‘No, you can’t have that, or we don’t have any more,’ and that’s the end of the conversation.”
Cultural sensitivity is important to ensure safe and normal operations, the guards say.
“First off, you have to respect their religion,” said Army Spc. Danny Aoun, of Garden Grove, Calif., who works in the medical facility where the detainees receive health care.
“They pray five times a day. It helps to kind of understand a little bit of their religion and what they believe in,” the 24-year-old reservist said. “You pretty much have to respect their religion the same way anyone respects anyone else’s religion. Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs.”
Focus on the mission
Army Pfc. Morgan Alford, 19, runs into other issues as one of about a dozen female soldiers at the maximum-security camp.
Standing 5 feet 5 inches and weighing 137 pounds, she says her training has equipped her with tools to deal with difficult situations. She said she first tries to de-escalate a predicament, often by removing herself from the situation.
“You don’t want to disrespect them, so you just stay away from the detainees who don’t like to see females. It can get pretty intense if you do walk by and they see you but you just go through, don’t even say anything. You don’t come back with any smart remarks,” said Pfc. Alford, a native of Elkton, Md. “It’s tough some days, but you always get through it.”
She said she keeps her focus on her duty.
“I don’t establish a relationship with them. I stay away from that. Go in and do the mission, and that’s it,” she said. “I don’t ask how their day is. I’m there to complete the mission, and that’s about it. It’s just you treat them with respect and humane treatment. That’s the biggest thing.”
The guards say they work hard to dispel images of abuse and mistreatment at U.S. detention facilities, such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
“There’s a lot of documentaries and things like that out there that talk about torture and beating and being disrespectful to detainees, and absolutely none of that goes on,” said Spc. Aoun.
“We’re very professional with them, and all those misconceptions about how they’re being treated here, it definitely does not take place,” he said. “We always make sure they’re safe, treat them with care. I think by doing that over a long period of time, it slowly helps to change the perception of this place.”
The Guantanamo detention center is divided into six areas:
The medical facility.
Camp 5, where the most dangerous detainees are held.
Camp 6, a medium-security facility where prisoners can pray, exercise, eat together and play sports.
Camp 7, which houses high-value detainees such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Camp Echo, where detainees can make phone calls and meet with their attorneys and representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Camp Iguana, which houses detainees who are classified as “no longer enemy combatants” and await release. The Obama administration has cleared 86 for release.
Camps 1 through 4 have been closed. Congress stymied the Obama administration’s efforts to close the Guantanamo facility and transfer its prisoners to the U.S. mainland to stand trial in civilian courts.
The soldiers work 12-hour shifts in the camps, alternating day and night shifts every three months.
Their typical workdays are 16 or 17 hours long and include physical training. During their yearlong tours, they participate in morale-building activities such as volunteer work, team sports, fitness competitions, bowling, movie viewing and snorkeling.
“They go inside the camp for 12 hours with these detainees who are verbally assaulting them, trying to throw feces, urine, whatever on them,” Sgt. Maj. Baker said of his troops. “And they remain professional. Setting the example for America.
“Some kids would just crumble at what they do, and to ask of them what we don’t ask of everyone else,” he said. “These guys are on the front lines every day with these detainees. And they’re in the fight.”
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