Journey to Guantánamo: A Week in America’s Notorious Penal Colony – The Nation

Sabri Al Qurashi, Untitled (Chained Detainee), 2012.
If it’s your first visit to Guantánamo Bay, you might be forgiven for expecting the world’s most notorious prison site to look more like a garrisoned penal colony than a sleepy suburb in Southern California. But when you realize that the actual detention facility is tucked away in a far corner of this 45-square-mile naval base, and that what you can and cannot see will be determined almost completely by the same US government that invited you to observe the military commissions here, you arrive at the conclusion that your week on this occupied spit of Cuban territory will probably be a little strange.
If you believed in omens and premonitions, you might have been able to see something like this coming. In that case, you probably would have considered it meaningful rather than just odd that while you and the rest of the small media crew were waiting to be admitted to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland at 6 am to board a charter flight to Guantánamo, the large-screen television in the waiting room was, for reasons unknown to you, playing the movie The Matrix.

If it’s your first visit to Guantánamo as a member of the media, you will be told of the requirement that you must display your media credentials wherever you go. After you arrive on the base, you will notice that the members of the media are the only people wearing anything around their necks, making everyone stare at your chest and repeatedly ask you who you work for. Several days later, when you find yourself searching for something to eat at the naval base’s bowling alley, a man in civilian clothes who looks to be a member of the military will approach you and ask, “Does it make you feel bad that nobody wants to talk to you because of that thing around your neck?” To which you respond, “Are you instructed not to talk to members of the media?” After which he will respond with a half smile, “I’m not saying, but I’m saying.”
Even if it’s your first visit to Guantánamo, you will know that since January 11, 2002, the US government has imprisoned some 780 Muslim men and boys here (the youngest prisoner at Guantánamo was 13 years old). You will have read a 2006 study of the first 571 detainees, which found that 86 percent of them were not captured by US troops but were handed over to coalition forces in Afghanistan or Iraq in a cynical exchange for monetary bounties. You will also know that of the 780 total detainees, more than 730 have been released, the vast majority never having been charged with any crime. At the time of your visit, you will read that 38 men remain at Guantánamo (though the number is now 36, as one man, Sufiyan Barhoumi, was recently repatriated to Algeria and another, Assadullah Haroon Gul, was returned to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan). And you will know that of those 38 (now 36), 19 are being detained even though they have been cleared for release by the US government. Your wonder at this fact will be superseded by the knowledge that an additional five men are being kept in indefinite detention because the US government says they are still too dangerous to be released, but the government has not charged any of them with a crime. And you will know that 10 men are currently facing charges in a military commission system established to try “alien unprivileged enemy belligerents,” as the Military Commissions Act of 2009 refers to the men. You’ve come to observe the pretrial-motion hearings for one of these 10 men.
“What exactly is a military commission?” you will ask yourself before leaving for Guantánamo. You will read on the website of the Office of Military Commissions that they “are a form of military tribunal convened to try individuals for unlawful conduct associated with war.” You will see, on this website, how the United States has used versions of military commissions during or after the Revolutionary War, the Mexican-American War, the US Civil War, and World Wars I and II. The aim of this list, you believe, is to illustrate a legal legacy of military commissions, but all it shows you, really, is that, for a young country, the United States has a long history of warfare.
You will also recall an oft-repeated sentence from Justice Robert H. Jackson, chief of counsel for the United States during the Nuremberg trials in 1945: “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow.” And you will note that the Nuremberg trials took 10 months to complete.
The case you are here to witness has been in pretrial-motion hearings for eight years.

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On your first full day at Guantánamo, you will be asked by your hosts from the military to sit through a media orientation. At this briefing, you will politely be told the guidelines of what you can and cannot photograph and where you can and cannot go. One of the public affairs officers—the one who refers to the Cuban government as “our partners down the street”—will ask that you and the other journalists consider the ways that the 5,700 to 6,000 people living on the base (about a quarter of whom are directly assigned to the prison) live their lives. We’re a small community, she will tell you, and we care for each other. She will begin pitching other stories to you, such as the $9 million animal clinic to be built to care for working dogs and house pets. (Construction on the animal clinic had been delayed because, in 2019, Trump reallocated the funds to pay for his border wall, much to the consternation of the animal care community, which calls itself Operation Git-Meow.)
The public affairs officer will also boast about the multicultural and multi-faith character of the people working on the base, mentioning a local mosque in passing. You will express some interest in the mosque and ask her how many Muslims live here. She will say she doesn’t know, at which point someone from the media group will quip, “At least 38.” You chuckle at the dark joke and watch as the public affairs officer does not crack even the hint of a smile.

First images: The earliest prisoners taken to Guantánamo kneel, bound and blindfolded, in a holding area at Camp X-Ray as they wait to be processed. (Shane McCoy / Greg Mathieson / MAI / Getty Images)
If it’s your first visit to Guantánamo, chances are you will at some point ask the public affairs officer assigned to you if it’s possible to view the site of the original Camp X-Ray. You will already know that Camp X-Ray was where the first 20 War on Terror detainees held at Guantánamo Bay were brought. You still remember that iconic picture of the detainees, the one where they are shackled and on their knees in the gravel, their hands covered in oversize black mittens, eyes hidden behind blackout goggles. But it’s always the Bob Barker orange jumpsuits that jump out of the picture. You also know that the prison was a series of open-air cages, completely exposed to the elements. Even zoos offer more protection to the beings under their control, you remember thinking.

Welcome to Gitmo: Lance Cpl. Robert Devlin displays the restraints used for transporting detainees to Camp X-Ray, 2002. (MAI / Getty Images)
Then you recall the recently repatriated prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani, who arrived at Guantánamo already suffering from schizophrenia. Al-Qahtani was the subject of what the government called the “first special interrogation plan” at Camp X-Ray. You think of the ways, while at X-Ray, that he endured the unendurable: 48 days of sleep deprivation, interrogations that lasted for 20 straight hours, forced nudity, forced grooming, sexual humiliation, religious humiliation, prolonged stress positions, beatings, threats with military dogs, and so much more. You find your mind isn’t really capable of conjuring what such a combination of horrors would feel like.
One day, the public affairs officer finally does drive you past the husk of Camp X-Ray. You learn that the US government has at various times sought to tear it down, but there’s also a 2005 court order to preserve it: After all, it is a possible crime scene. When you hear that in 2018 the government claimed it could be destroyed because the FBI had created a 3D digital version of the site, you find your mind racing back to The Matrix. But it hasn’t been demolished. You know this because you see it from the window of the car. It’s smaller than you imagined, and decrepit. It’s also weirdly close to the street and maybe a mere quarter of a mile from a suburban neighborhood. The guard towers are still visible.
The public affairs officer apologizes and says his bosses have said “no pictures.” It’s hard to reconcile this command with a national security concern. There are legions of photos of Camp X-Ray all over the Internet, and the ramshackle camp has long been abandoned, with the empty guard towers plainly visible to the naked eye.
You believe yourself to be reasonably well informed about this prison (officially referred to as JTF-Guantanamo, where “JTF” stands for Joint Task Force). And yet the proceedings you have come to witness concern a man you have never heard of before. There is something meaningful in this, you think. Ever since it was activated as a detention center in the War on Terror, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proudly boasting to the world about the Bush administration’s creation, Guantánamo has accomplished an extraordinary feat, operating as a site of blazing visibility while being simultaneously shrouded in invisibility—the most famous place in the world representing America’s most infamous clandestine activities. What does Guantánamo stand for, you think, but a place you’ve been directed to look at but are not allowed to see?
You wonder at how a similar visibility/invisibility dyad holds with the men being detained. Some are globally recognizable for their alleged infamy, while others are as noticeable as a black cat in a dark room. You think about this man on trial (though as yet there is no trial, only endless pretrial hearings since he was charged in 2014) and about his near invisibility. Now, especially as Guantánamo recedes even further from public view, you again realize how invisibility functions as the first step to being forgotten forever.
The US government calls the man whose hearings you are here to witness Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi. He calls himself Nashwan al-Tamir. A CIA report identifies him as “Nashwan ‘Abd al-Razzaq ‘Abd al-Baqi (true name).” His jailers probably call him “026,” the last three numbers of his Internment Serial Number, which is 10026. (Detainees are referred to by the last two or three numbers of their ISN, according to the memoirs of ex-employees and ex-detainees of Guantánamo.) Meanwhile, you discover that the name tapes on the uniforms of service members deployed to JTF-Guantanamo don’t contain names at all, which is not the case with the other service members on the base, whose names are written across their chest. Instead, the letters on these name tapes refer to duties, such as “ISGF” for Internal Security Guard Force. A published account says that, at least at one point, the members of JTF-Guantanamo were instructed to call the men in their custody “detainees” and not “prisoners,” because that “could have been construed to mean prisoners of war,” recalling the Geneva Conventions. The name of the site where these trials, which are not (yet) trials, are being held is Camp Justice.
One day in Guantánamo, you find yourself talking to Mark Denbeaux, the legendary Guantánamo lawyer and one of the attorneys representing the CIA’s first post-9/11 captive, Abu Zubaydah (given name: Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn). You already know that Abu Zubaydah was tortured almost to death in CIA black sites around the world. You also know that the interrogation team torturing him sought and received “reasonable assurances” from CIA headquarters “that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” You realize that Abu Zubaydah has now spent 20 of his 50 years on earth “without meaningful communication with the outside world,” as his lawyers wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court. You’ve read the Supreme Court’s decision, published on March 3, 2022, in which the justices repeatedly labeled what happened to Abu Zubaydah as “torture.” You recall that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the UN Security Council believe he was never a member of Al Qaeda. You know that he has never been charged with a crime. You know that he is still in Guantánamo. While you are talking to Denbeaux on the grounds of Camp Justice, you will ask him about the site, and you will hear him say, “It’s not justice, but it is a camp!”
A fact you discover about Camp Justice that will trouble and nag at you is that the camp has been erected on the same place, the old McCalla airfield, that was once used to warehouse Haitians seeking asylum in the US. You recall the coup in Haiti in 1991, which ousted the first democratically elected president of that struggling Caribbean country. Tens of thousands of Haitians fled their homeland for safety, with more than 10,000 prevented by the US Coast Guard from reaching US shores and instead placed in a massive tent city on the grounds where you currently are. You will read about the Haitians who met the US standard for asylum and were then forcibly tested for HIV. You will learn that hundreds of HIV-positive asylum seekers were moved to a separate camp, Camp Bulkeley, the world’s first HIV detention camp, and held there for almost 18 months while the US refused to admit them. You learn how the detainees resisted, activists organized, and lawyers sued the government, which eventually closed Camp Bulkeley and the other camps. But holding the Haitians in indefinite detention at Guantánamo, you discover, foreshadowed the legal argument made by the lawyers who crafted the policy of keeping the War on Terror prisoners in indefinite detention. You reflect on this land on which you are standing, a silent land full of memories of confinement and control, an archaeology composed of multiple sedimented layers of anguish and despair.

The first Gitmo: A Haitian refugee is detained at Guantánamo in 1992 after fleeing violence following the coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. (Steve Starr / Corbis via Getty Images)
When you do arrive at the courtroom in Camp Justice for the pretrial hearings you are here to observe, you will pass through several security measures and then sit in the viewing gallery. The following signs will be posted on the walls: “No binoculars or other visual enhancement devices.” “No Google Glasses.” “No classified discussions in this area.” And your personal favorite: “No drawing, sketching, doodling, etc.” You are separated from the courtroom by thick panes of soundproof glass. When the proceedings begin, you will hear everything that is happening in front of you, but only after a 40-second delay, which is, truth be told, a mind-fucking long period of time. The reason for the delay, you are told, is that if any classified information is disclosed, then those in the viewing gallery will hear only static. This situation leads to a jarring, asynchronous viewing experience. For example, when the judge walks into the courtroom, the uniformed member of JTF-Guantanamo who is observing you observe the trial will instruct everyone in the viewing gallery to stand. When the judge sits, which you can see, everyone will sit. Forty seconds later, you will hear the judge say, “You may be seated.” You will already be seated.
Video monitors above your head project the proceedings to the viewing gallery with the video and audio synchronized. You find that the natural tendency is to watch the proceedings on the monitors, where they seem more lifelike, instead of live and directly in front of you. You wonder if your sense of reality is beginning to suffer.
As you watch the military commissions in action, you realize that trials are never solely about the guilt or innocence of the accused. Every trial everywhere, regardless of the kind of tribunal, is first and foremost a trial of the very system being used to adjudicate guilt or innocence. An accused person may be found guilty or not guilty, but if the system fails its own test of justice, then it’s really all of us who are condemned.
In the course of your research for your trip, you will learn of that moment in 2013, during pretrial hearings for the five men accused of the 9/11 attacks, when the audio and then the video from the courtroom were abruptly cut, much to the surprise of the trial judge, the lawyers in the courtroom, and even the court-appointed security officer. It was later ascertained that the CIA was watching the proceedings remotely and had initiated the censorship, a capability unknown even to the judge at the time. You will read about how, in that same year, listening devices were discovered in fixtures that looked like smoke detectors in the rooms where defense counsel would meet with their clients. The government later admitted to placing them there. You will learn that, in 2015, an interpreter translating for the defense was exposed as having previously worked for the CIA in secret overseas “black sites” after the men on trial recognized him in open court. You will hear from the defense how evidence is routinely withheld from them, with the court placing no sanction on the prosecution’s behavior. You will read that in these military commissions, the accused cannot see some of the evidence being used to convict them, and defense attorneys cannot even discuss such evidence with their clients to determine if any of it is remotely true or accurate.
You will see the hospital bed at the back of the courtroom before the accused, Nashwan al-Tamir, is brought in. Later, you will be speaking with Susan Hensler, the lead civilian defense counsel, and she will tell you that her client suffers from a degenerative spinal condition. When he was captured in Turkey in 2006 and taken to a CIA black site, she explains, he informed the agents that he had a serious spinal disease. “They used it against him,” she says, and neglected to provide him with proper care. Later, in 2010, medical personnel at Guantánamo independently diagnosed her client with the ailment, and it was widely known that he needed surgery. Yet, for years, he was denied care. Then, on September 5, 2017, he collapsed in his cell, and a team of specialists was flown to the naval base from the US mainland to perform a series of surgeries on the man to prevent paralysis. He still requires another surgery, Hensler explains: “My client lives in incredible pain.”
You will discover the 2019 report produced by Physicians for Human Rights on health care at the prison. “Mr. al-Tamir’s treating neurosurgeon recently testified that, as a result of his quick succession of spinal surgeries, Mr. al-Tamir could suffer from neuropathy, chronic pain, and muscle spasms for the rest of his life,” you will read, along with this sentence: “The medical care situation at Guantánamo is not sustainable and should be expected to worsen rapidly over time, as the impacts of both torture and indefinite detention exacerbate medical complications otherwise associated with aging.”

Forever prison? A US soldier descends a guard tower at Camp Delta in 2010, a year after President Obama had vowed to close it. (John Moore / Getty Images)
It’s not only the detainees who have aged. The detention center, too, is slowly deteriorating. You know this because several defense lawyers for other clients are also in Guantánamo the week you are there, even though their cases are not being heard. The lawyers have come because the government is allowing lawyers and their clients to visit Camp 7, which had fallen into disrepair. (Journalists have never been able to visit Camp 7.)
There are multiple prisons at JTF-Guantanamo, you have read. After Camp X-Ray, there was Camp Delta, which initially contained Camps 1, 2, 3, and eventually 4. Camp 4, where detainees who cooperated in their interrogations were often sent, was opened in 2003. It was less restrictive than Camps 1, 2, and 3. Prisoners lived communally, wore white instead of orange, and were afforded more privileges than at Camps 1, 2, and 3. A more permanent prison, Camp 5, which was designed on the US maximum-security prison model, opened in 2004. Camp 6 was modeled after a county jail in Lenawee, Mich., and was meant to be more like a medium-security facility. It opened in 2006, at a cost of $37 million, paid to a subsidiary of Halliburton.
And then there is Camp 7. You learn that it was opened in 2006, in a top-secret location, though some have said it can be spotted via satellite imagery on the Web. You learn that the CIA ran Camp 7, its own black site on the base. You discover that Camp 7 housed the so-called high-value detainees after they had been transferred from other CIA black sites around the world to JTF-Guantanamo in 2006. In 2021, they were all moved to Camp 5. (You will also be told, by at least three defense lawyers for different cases, that labeling someone a high-value detainee is almost completely arbitrary, that the designation often has less to do with the person being labeled and more to do with the uncomfortable fact that they were in the custody of the CIA’s RDI group, which stands for “Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation.” In short, prisoners who had been tortured by the CIA were often classified as high-value detainees.)
The lawyers are visiting Camp 7 to gather evidence of how their clients were treated and perhaps to argue later that statements made by clients at Camp 7 should be excluded from trial, since Camp 7, as a CIA-run site, was so similar to the other black sites that statements made there should be considered gathered under torture or conditions tantamount to torture. The lawyers may also argue that the conditions of confinement were so terrible at Camp 7 that any possible future sentence handed down by the commissions ought to take those conditions into account.
A few days later, you ask Susan Hensler about Camp 7. She can’t tell you many details because they are classified. She does tell you that being in the cells of Camp 7 was “like being in a coffin.” Camp 7 is “falling down,” she explains. There were “animal feces everywhere.” A dead tarantula was found in front of her client’s old cell. The whole place, she says, “was full of dead things.”
You will have investigated the charges against the accused in this case and learned that he is charged with crimes that sound like they were levied against him in the 19th century: perfidy, treachery, denying quarter. Such is the language of military justice, you surmise, while wishing that waging war was just as archaic. You read the document that charges him with these crimes and find out that the charges cover activities that span a decade, from 1996 to 2006. The accused is alleged to have been one of Al Qaeda’s liaisons to the Taliban and someone who “coordinated al Qaeda’s operations with Taliban and other associated groups’ and persons’ operations against U.S. forces, coalition forces, and civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” including plotting to assassinate Pakistan’s then-president, Pervez Musharraf. The accused man’s planning and actions are alleged to have killed or injured civilians and coalition forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he is also alleged to have led a group of Al Qaeda members to help the Taliban destroy the historic Buddha statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. You wonder how much of this, if any, is true, noting how the aim of any tribunal must be to separate truth from lies and justice from revenge.
From the viewing gallery of the courtroom, you will witness, through three layers of soundproof glass, hours of questioning, but the questions will be directed at the judge in the case of US v. Hadi al-Iraqi. You will learn that he is the fifth judge in this case, and that this is his first time at Guantánamo. As with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, you are told, the military commissions provide the opportunity for the prosecution and defense to voir dire the judge, to question him to determine his impartiality. Much of the day is taken up with this task. You listen, on a 40-second delay, as Susan Hensler asks the judge:
Do you have any Muslim family members?
I do not.
Do you have any Muslim friends?
Not that I can identify, no.
Do you have any Muslim acquaintances?
Not that I can identify, no.
Have you read any books on Islam?
I’ve—well, in the broadest net, I would say I’ve read The Looming Tower, which I guess you could say would reach to discuss Islam.
You wonder about Americans who don’t have even acquaintances who are Muslim and whose readings on Islam are limited to a single book about terrorism.

System on trial: The presiding judge, Navy Capt. J. Kirk Waits, addresses Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi during his arraignment in 2014. (Janet Hamlin, court artist / AP Photo)
To have already had five judges in a case that, eight years later, is still stuck in pretrial hearings seems like a lot, you will think. Then, you will hear Hensler explain how “the very first judge in our case…applied for a job with the Department of Justice in 2014. This fact didn’t come to light until five years later, in 2019,” she will say, “and, as a result of that, last year the appellate court found that we were entitled to a do-over of the entire case.” The fourth judge in the case, you learn, left after being offered a fellowship with the FBI. He also didn’t disclose to the court that he had applied for the fellowship with a law enforcement agency. “With respect to the military commissions, it is widely accepted that they’re a failure,” Hensler will say. “How many years are we into this? I’ve been on this case for almost five years, and we’re farther from the starting line and much farther from trial than when I started five years ago.” You begin to wonder in which direction time travels when you’re in Guantánamo Bay.
You will start asking almost everyone you meet how long they have been at Guantánamo. You hear about the “special category residents” (SCRs) but are not allowed to talk to any. These are Cubans who worked on the base before the Cuban Revolution and felt they couldn’t return to their homes after relations soured between the Cuban government and the Americans in the early 1960s. They were offered the opportunity to remain on the base, and many were eventually given US citizenship. Some moved to the United States, but others chose to keep living on the base. Today, you are told, there are 17 SCRs left, most in their 70s and 80s. You meet a Jamaican worker who tells you he’s been there for 35 years, though he returns to Jamaica frequently. Jamaicans, Filipinos, and (most recently) East Africans are “TCNs” (third-country nationals) who labor on the base, doing work like serving food to Americans and cutting their grass. Many are paid a fraction of the federal minimum wage, you are told, and you read the same, but the rules you signed in order to visit the base indicate you cannot interview any of these workers. Most of the military service members who are there are on year-long deployments, you learn. One person—not a guard, but someone associated with the military commissions—tells you he’s been at Guantánamo for six years. Wow, you say. That’s a long time. He nods.
The prisoners who remain at Guantánamo Bay, most of whom have not been charged with any crime, have been there anywhere from 14 to 20 years.
You will meet one of the lawyers representing Ammar al-Baluchi, another “high-value detainee” and also the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, allegedly the “principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.” The lawyer, Alka Pradhan, will describe a 2008 report by the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General that is now declassified and that her team had recently appended to court filings. She will explain how her client was not only tortured but also used as a “prop” so interrogators could practice specific “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) on him for training purposes.
You’ve read how the CIA contracted two psychologists—James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen—to devise these EITs, a euphemism for torture, which included “walling.” This was a practice in which detainees would be stood up against a flexible plywood wall and have their faces wrapped with a towel. Interrogators would grab the ends of the towel and repeatedly slam the detainee’s head against the plywood. You will read the report, which will confirm what Pradhan said: that al-Baluchi was repeatedly abused to the point that it was the interrogators who got tired.
You’ve read before that torture is never useful for intelligence gathering, for the rather obvious reason that whoever is being tortured will say whatever they think you want to hear to stop the torture. Then, in the report concerning al-Baluchi, you will read how “Ammar also explained that he was afraid to tell a lie and was afraid to tell the truth because he did not know how either would be received.”
You will come to understand how Guantánamo is the strangest of small-town America. Everyone shops at the same supermarket, the NEX. This is confirmed when Pradhan tells you of the time she “ran into Dr. Mitchell”—the same Dr. Mitchell who, with Jessen, devised the EITs—“in the deodorant aisle” of the NEX. “He looked at me, asked, ‘Which one should I get?’” she tells you. “I do not feel qualified to answer,” she told him in reply.

Small Town, USA: A school bus passes a McDonald’s—just another ordinary day at Guantánamo. (John Moore / Getty Images)
At the conclusion of the first day of these pretrial hearings, the judge will declare the commission in recess for two months. You will wonder what you are supposed to do for the rest of the time you are on the base.
Days later, you and other members of the media will be taken to see the base’s cemetery, which requires special permission to visit. You will be driven up a hillside and past some ammunition bunkers to find yourself in a clearing with more than 300 headstones sitting on an old battle site from the Spanish-American War. You wonder if any graves will date from that period, but none do. The earliest is from 1902, an American sailor (born in Japan) named Kumaji Makamota. Behind the cemetery is a fenced-off area with a simple sign that states “Islamic Cemetery,” but no one appears to be buried there. (The remains of all nine Muslim men who died at JTF-Guantanamo have been repatriated, you read.) Other gravestones will sadden you. You see a bunch that simply read “Unknown Haitian Refugee Jul 4 1994,” “Infant Girl Haitian Refugee Sep 27 1994,” or the like, and you can feel your heart breaking a little inside your chest. Then you will see a number of other gravestones with names, birth and death dates, and a curious inscription below them. The gravestones memorialize Cuban citizens on what must be considered Cuban soil, and yet each gravestone reads “Cuban exile.”
A few days later, you will arrive back at Joint Base Andrews, where you will be required to fill out a customs declaration card. The standard form asks you to name the “countries visited on this trip prior to US arrival.” You ask your public affairs officer, who is still with you, what to write, and he replies, “Cuba.” At Andrews, you will be met by Customs and Border Protection officers, even though you have never been outside the base or seen a Cuban person the entire time you’ve been at Guantánamo.
You will not really be sure where you have been this whole time. It never felt like Cuba. When you visited the Catholic church on the base, which flies both the Cuban and the American flag, the priest confessed to you that it’s not Cubans or Americans but Filipino workers who make up the bulk of this congregation. And the language you heard the most after English on this base was certainly not Spanish but Arabic.

Nowhere man: A detainee stands in a cell block at Camp 6 of the Guantánamo Bay detention center in March 2010. (John Moore / Getty Images)
On the flight back, you will begin to reflect on your time in Guantánamo, wondering about the military commission system and how keeping clients so inaccessible to their lawyers is one more hurdle that makes mounting a defense so difficult. You will think about the fact that some of the men being tried by the military commissions are now reportedly in talks for plea agreements. As many of the men are facing the death penalty, these plea agreements, you read, will allow the death penalty to be taken off the table. Instead, the men will be sentenced to life in prison. The question that logically follows is: Where?
Reports indicate that these men are refusing to be sent to a supermax prison in the United States. Their lawyers have impressed on them what the conditions of confinement are in supermax prisons, you learn, and they’re dismal. Up to 23 hours a day of solitary confinement. The men may now prefer to remain in Guantánamo, where conditions have eased in recent years. You read that, even before they were moved to Camp 5, the men had been able to walk without shackles between two separate blocks, and lockdown was generally limited to four hours a day. They could enjoy an open-air recreation area. They could pray together and cook meals for one another in a small kitchen equipped with a refrigerator, a microwave, and an assortment of spices.
Meanwhile, Nashwan al-Tamir has never faced the death penalty. A plea agreement of life imprisonment for him? “That would not be a just outcome for my client,” his lawyer will tell you.
Weeks later, you will discover that al-Tamir has entered a plea agreement. You will read the transcript from the hearing and learn that he has agreed to plead guilty to several battlefield offenses. The judge will tell him, “You are charged with liability for substantive criminal acts committed by a person other than yourself. Are you aware of this?” To which he will respond: “Yes, sir.” These acts include an attack on a “military medical helicopter as it attempted to evacuate a United States military casualty from the battlefield,” for which, as a commander, he bears responsibility. He will accept responsibility for the deaths of three coalition forces in Afghanistan who were killed by car bombs or suicide bombers: a German soldier, a Canadian soldier, and “one military member of either the British or Estonian militaries.” He will plead guilty to entering into an agreement with Osama bin Laden and others whose purpose was “forcing the United States and its allies out of Afghanistan and Iraq.” Gone are the allegations of blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan and many of the other offenses with which he was initially charged.
You will learn that his sentence will likely be 10 years in prison. But you will also read that the actual sentencing phase of this trial will not take place for another two years. The delay is explained as giving the US government time to find another country where he can be transferred, preferably one that can provide him with his much-needed medical care. But, you will think, the delay also means that, after more than 14 years in Guantánamo and despite the conclusion of this trial, the man will remain at this prison, at least for the near future.
Where is the accountability in all of this, you wonder? What justice do these commissions bring? What truths do they hide? You begin to see more clearly the ways that the military commissions are designed not to find truth but, more than anything else, to protect the CIA from disclosure and from the responsibility it has for the unspeakable things it has done. And you begin to wonder about your country, one that seems to wish we’d all forget about the penal colony of Guantánamo Bay, but also one that routinely imprisons people in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in prisons on its own territory.
Where exactly were you this whole week? It’s hard to tell, but now that you are back and have begun reflecting on what you have seen, you begin to feel more alienated from your nation—a rich and admirable nation in many respects, but also one that seemingly seeks to do whatever it must to evade justice for what it does and has done. And then you start to think that maybe that sense of being exiled from your country while still being on its soil, as strange as it sounds, may not be such an impossibility after all.
Moustafa BayoumiMoustafa Bayoumi, a professor at Brooklyn College, is a co-editor of The Edward Said Reader (Vintage) and the author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin Press).
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