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Club Gitmo

What it's really like behind the wire.

12:00 AM, Mar 19, 2008 • By JACOB LAKSIN
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Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

The mood is grim as we descend on Guantanamo Bay and the unnerving shudder of our turboprop plane as it tilts toward the runway isn't even the chief concern. I'm traveling with a contingent of lawyers for the detainees, and the three-hour flight from Florida has felt like an extended trial at the detention facility, complete with a unanimous guilty verdict. Summarizing the hostile consensus, a blond-haired lawyer from San Diego mutters something about a "black hole."

He's not entirely wrong. In the deep blackness of the Caribbean night, Guantanamo, outlined by a thin garland of a landing lights, does have the feel of a geographical nowhere. But it's on the ground that the view of Gitmo as a land beyond law, where the most obscene cruelties are routinely visited upon harmless innocents, breaks down completely.

Case in point is the notorious Camp X-Ray. In 2002, the camp became a stand-in for the alleged horrors of Guantanamo Bay when pictures of detainees in orange jump suits, kneeling and handcuffed, became public. Up close, the camp is indeed intimidating. A sprawling expanse of decaying sheds and weed-choked confinement cells, X-Ray would make an easy target for anyone seeking proof of American neglect and abuse. Inconveniently for this caricature, the camp was shut down a mere months after it was opened in 2002; it has stood abandoned ever since. Today, the camp's sole residents are butterflies, lizards and an improbably menacing creature called a banana rat.

Of the camps currently in use, none come close to justifying the concerns of the Gitmo's critics, let alone Amnesty International's feverish judgment that it is the "gulag of our time." Visiting Camp 4, Gitmo's medium-security compound, one can see detainees walking about freely. And though the fact that many of the detainees wear unruly, Islamic beards is slightly disconcerting, it is consistent with the military's intention to make their detention as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.

Toward that purpose, Camp 4 offers a number of diversions, courtesy of American taxpayers. There is an outdoor basketball court, and a 6,000-book library, from which detainees can check out everything from hobby magazines like Bird Watcher's Digest, to commentaries on Islam, to Agatha Christie thrillers. The latter come complete with white stickers blocking the author's photo, lest the detainees deem the grande dame of the mystery novel too much of a seductress. "By western standards it wouldn't be very offensive, but [the detainees] would have a problem with that," explains Julie, Gitmo's head librarian, somewhat apologetically. Detainees can also check out DVDs--nature documentaries and international soccer matches are particularly popular--and a flat-screen television is available at the camp for viewing. And, just as American troops stationed on the base can take academic and vocational courses, Camp 4 has a special classroom where detainees can learn English, Arabic, or Pashtu.

Special care is taken to allow detainees to practice their religion, which is invariably Islam. A kit of provisions issued to Camp 4 inmates includes not only bare necessities like a toothbrush and a uniform, as well as luxuries like prescription glasses and electric razors on selected days, but also prayer beads and oils, and a Koran that guards are under no circumstances permitted to handle. It is a measure of the deference--one might even say reverence--shown to the Muslim holy book that the military doesn't even provide a sample copy on a display table of representative items shown to journalists. "Out of respect," explains an officer in charge of Camp 4, who declines to be identified for security reasons.

Less hospitable conditions might be expected in camps 5 and 6, Gitmo's maximum-security complexes. To some extent, that is the case. With a narrow bed, a metal sink, and a small slit for a window, the cells in Camp 5 are no one's idea of paradise. Within those confines, however, the detainees are granted substantial privileges. Climate controlled, the cells come equipped with a communications system that allows detainees to talk to the guards. Beneath the beds, one finds stenciled arrows pointing to Mecca, and detainees can elect their own imams, or prayer leaders--a concession that may well favor more extreme elements in the detainee population but which the military is nonetheless determined to grant.