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Guantanamo Up Close


It's hard to really know what life is like for prisoners in the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For years the Pentagon has allowed journalists to come down to watch the military tribunals, but it's rare to get a tour of the prison itself. NPR's Arun Rath is there now, and he has spent the weekend seeing Gitmo up close. Hi, Arun.


MARTIN: What did the U.S. military allow you to see on this visit?

RATH: Well, we were allowed to have a tour of camps Five and Six. Camp Six is where most of the prisoners are kept, the most compliant prisoners, as they call them. They are allowed to live in communal living conditions, interact with each other, go out and play soccer on occasion. They have a garden there. We also saw Camp Echo, which is the transitional camp where prisoners are kept who are basically on their way out of Guantanamo. And we were able to see the detainee medical facility as well, along with the medical director there.

MARTIN: So you got to see a little bit, anyway, of how these people, how these detainees spend their time. What struck you the most?

RATH: Well, it was really powerful watching them through the gating and seeing, you know, these groups of four or five men praying together, just sort of living their life. But it was also very cut off. You know, it was hard to get a sense of what life was really like for them. I have to say the most powerful thing that struck me on this trip was getting to see some of the detainees' artwork.

I know it might sound odd, but the thing that just blew my mind was a beautiful model of an old sailing ship made from cardboard, bits of old cloth, discarded T-shirts. And, Rachel, it was magnificent. The detail was extraordinary. You'd think it's something that somebody built from a kit until you look at it up close to see the improvised materials it was made out of. It really kind of blew my mind.

MARTIN: This was a highly choreographed tour. The military was obviously letting you see what they wanted you to see. But we know Gitmo's history, and it's been - you know, there have been some horrific scenes there over the years - abuse by guards, abuse coming from prisoners. Did you see any evidence, lingering evidence, of this part of life in detention there?

RATH: Well, the short answer is no. I mean, as you mentioned, this is a very scripted, very controlled tour. Camp X-Ray wasn't a part of this tour. Camp X-Ray is where the prisoners were first kept when they came to Guantanamo. One thing we did get to see, though - now, they don't give details anymore about hunger strikers, but did get the opportunity to talk with a senior medical officer - that's naval Captain Richard Quattrone - and asked him about the force feedings where they put a tube up the detainee's nose, down the back of his throat, to force-feed them nutritional supplements.

He described this as very humane. He said that prisoners were - the ones who were being force-fed mostly didn't need to be restrained. There were sitting calmly for it. And he made it sound like a fairly calm, humane procedure, although that's not the description we've heard from people who have been through it.

MARTIN: The prison population there has been dramatically reduced over the years. There are now 76 detainees left, right? What's their status?

RATH: Of those 76 - more than 30 of those 76 had been cleared for transfer. And I think it's pretty safe to assume that the Obama administration is going to work very hard to transfer all of them, you know, as soon as they can. But that leaves us with around 40 people - the irreducible 40, you might call them - the ones who were in Camp Seven who we didn't get to see.

These are some of the ones who were on trial in the military commissions or considered too dangerous to release. That's the problem that we will have at the end of the day because there is no plan right now for what to do with them, and we're not hearing anything about any kind of plan for how to deal with that in the long term.

MARTIN: NPR's Arun Rath joining us on the line from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Arun, thanks so much.

RATH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.