COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A dozen graduate students from the University of South Carolina are spending spring break documenting the daily lives of military and civilian residents at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. Their work is the final portion included in a national project illuminating America’s more than 100 years at the site.
“We want to tell the long history of Guantanamo. So many people have only a post 9/11 understanding of what has occurred there,” said Allison Marsh, the USC public history professor organizing the student trip.
“We want to capture a voice of the people who call Gitmo home,” said the professor, using the base’s nickname.
Their work is to be included in a national effort known as the “Guantanamo Public Memory Project,” led by Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.
The project has produced an exhibit that began traveling the country in 2012. It also has a website (www.gitmomemory.org ) and documentation effort conducted by the students from schools that include Brown, Tulane and Rutgers Universities as well as the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of California Riverside, to name a few.
Each group of students from the various schools focused on a different “chapter” of Guantanamo’s history, Marsh said. Her students are gathering oral histories from base residents, collecting information on the environmental history of the naval base and also documenting sites like its lighthouse, she said.
Britney Ghee, one of the students accompanying Marsh, said she’s had experience with military men and women in her family and knows their communities are very tightly knit. Since Guantanamo is so isolated from the surrounding Cuban communities, Ghee said, she intends to study “how that makes life different there.”
The students are recording interviews with members of the military, their dependents, civilian contractors who work on the base as well as Jamaican and Filipino nationals who work there. They are on the base from March 6 to March 13, Marsh said.
The United States seized Guantanamo Bay from Spain during the Spanish American War of 1898, and signed a lease in later years with the Cubans guaranteeing access to the 45-square-mile area. But following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959, relations with the young revolutionary’s Soviet-style government severely deteriorated.
In intervening years, the naval base has been a key strategic location for U.S. naval forces in the Caribbean. It also served as the site for Haitian refugees and Cubans picked up at sea after fleeing the Castro regime in the 1990s. In 2002, the site became infamous as a detention camp holding the post 9/11 terrorism suspects.
The USC portion of the study does not require any interaction with those involved in the detention center, Marsh said, although there are interviews with former guards and former inmates gathered by other students that have been included on the project’s website.
“They will have no contact with the detainees or the guards. Given the topography, they won’t even be able to see that see that portion of the base,” Marsh said of her students.
The group is also gathering artifacts and memorabilia that will be included in their display when the university’s McKissick Museum hosts the main exhibit from Sept. 17 to Dec. 17, Marsh said.
The group is bringing the project’s traveling exhibit to Guantanamo. The display consists of large banners that detail the various chapters of the site’s history, including photographs and quotes from historical figures.
Liz Sevcenko, the director of the memory project, said the project offers people a chance to enter into a conversation about difficult historical topics from various perspectives.
“The intent was to open a global, ongoing dialogue that is grounded in a historical perspective,” Sevcenko said.
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