I didn't mean to take such a long blogging break there, but life kinda got a little hectic there for minute. Right now it has calmed waaaaaay down, which is great cause I was in dire need of more "me" time.
Let's get right to it. I'm sure you are wondering where the hell I went...and the answer will probably surprise you. This is going to be a long post....fair warning.
Remember that crazy trip I took to the Middle East last year?
Well the same folks called asking if I wanted to go to GTMO..you know...the hot topic detention camp in Cuba...and I agreed to go.
What's cool about these trips is the group they invite to come on them...it's not a media junket...it's a varied group of professionals, so the crowd alone is pretty engaging, not to mention where they take you. I would never ever ever have gone to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar or Cuba. I would never, otherwise, have access to top leaders of our Defense Department. These trips, to say the very least, have certainly made me think.
Plus, we get to take military aircraft wherever we go...which this time meant a KC-135, or refueling plane which has this hose on the bottom that can refuel other aircraft in mid-air. To top it all off, I got to sit on the jump seat in the cockpit as we came into a landing in Cuba.
Once in Cuba (holy crap! I still can't believe I was in Cuba) we went in for a briefing with the top brass on base. I was later told that the briefing we got was pretty similar to the one that congress members get when they come down to tour the facility. History of GTMO, history of the camps, briefing on the status of the camps and the new facilities, lots of talk about the military tribunals, the precautions to keep the detainees and guards safe, talk about the medical care detainees receive, the way that the guards honor detainees' Muslim traditions, and how GTMO is striving to be the most transparent detention facility in the world, a declaration that some folks might snort at, a declaration I would have snorted out just 2 weeks ago. But after being toured around, debriefed and having the opportunity to grill the head of detainee affairs for the Pentagon every and any question I have ever had about the US detention centers and detainee practices world wide, I think I might just believe them.
After a quick lunch they brought us on a tour of all of the camps. This is the moment where just thinking about it before the trip made my stomach flip-flop. It's one thing to have an idea about a detention camp, but to be there, to see it, to see detainees, brings it all home in a big way.
I was extremely trepidatious to go on this trip, afraid of what I might see. I had searched the web and found photos released by the DOD that scared the bejesus out of me. Men in orange suits, shackled to the ground, wearing eye masks. It wasn't pretty. I thought that all detainees (they don't call them prisoners) lived in outdoor cells exposed to the weather, shackled to the ground all day long, hauled off to torturous interrogation rooms located underground...after all, those were the only photos that came up in my query and isn't that how it is in the movies and on TV?
What I saw was very different from those images. I was surprised how many concessions we made to the detainees' Muslim traditions, everyone gets a Koran, everyone gets a prayer rug, every cell has an arrow to Mecca. In fact there were arrows to Mecca everywhere. The detainees get special halal meat and bread. Certainly more things than I thought the DOD was giving them.
There are 6 camps at GITMO. Camp X-ray, the original camp from 2002 is now overgrown and closed. Camp 1, an outdoor camp, is closed. Camp 2 & 3, outdoor camps that embodied what I thought I would mostly see, outdoor cells made of wire mesh that were definitely rustic, were nearly emptied out. Most detainees have been moved.
Camp 4 was totally surprising....these were communal living camps. (what?!) I had no idea these existed at all. 10-12 guys sleep in a cabin-ish barrack setting with access to the outdoor rec area for most of the day. When we showed up the detainees were doing laundry and their clothes were hanging out to do dry. Because guys who get placed at Camp 4 are seen as being "compliant" to camp rules, it's seen as an honor to be there and they get special privileges. One being white outfits, which I am told are, highly regarded by those in the camp. We were told that it was so important to them to keep their whites clean, that they asked, and received special khaki outfits for when they are outside in the rec area. They were washing their khaki outfits when we were there.
Our escorts then took us to Camp 5 & Camp 6. I had NO IDEA anything like this was at GTMO. Here were maximum security prisons modeled off of American prisons in Michigan and Indiana. They were air conditioned, enclosed, and much more of what I would think of when I hear the word "prison" or "detention facility"
Camp 5 is where the more "high profile" guys are (we were told there are no detainees at GTMO from the war in Iraq, rather all of the folks were thought to be enemy combatants with Al Quieda ties, which I was surprised about.) The guards had put a cover over the cell doors for the detainees’ security and to respect their privacy. We had walked in during prayers. Imagine this....you are in a high security prison facility and you heard beautiful Arabic songs as detainees have their own prayer session. Certainly a memory that will stay with me.
It was here that they showed us interrogation rooms. Also- way different then I thought they would be. Here is how we were told interrogations go down:
Detainees come into an interrogation room, which are outfitted with a TV, a fridge, a Persian rug, a coffee table, and a tea maker. There is also a nice couch or chair for a detainee to sit in. (I saw three examples of these rooms) According to our escorts the detainees have 2 hour "custodian interrogations" where the interrogators talk to them and ask questions. They insisted that they are usually quiet conversations, no water boarding here folks, and sometimes these interrogation sessions are just a time for the detainee to get out of their cells...again, not what I expected to hear.
We then went to Camp 6, which just opened in December. Here we were able to see detainees in their cells. Gah. Weird. They couldn't see us cause we were behind this huge sheet of 1 way glass. I've never been to a prison...I was surprised by how much the detainees paced in their cells. It's like the guards and the detainees paced in unison. I wonder if all prisoners do that?
In addition they took us to the camp hospital. Nice clean facility. Everything you could imagine at their fingertips. In fact, they have more access to care then I do at this moment...what with my limited health insurance policy and all...
I'm glad I went. I asked questions to top officials about torture, treatment, policy, conditions...the whole 9 yards. Hell, I even queried about those pictures I found on the Internet. I might not have gotten the answer I expected (something to the effect of: it was after 9/11, we didn't know who we had, and were abiding by the Geneva Convention and trying to protect America) but I had the opportunity to exercise my right to ask those questions and hear those answers, and that in itself was worth it all.
To read another person's perspective of a similar trip, and to read info on what we were told, check out Tom Fiedler's op-ed from the Miami Herald in early January here. This is pretty much exactly what the DOD said about everything.
And to bring it all back around to what this blog is truly intended for here is a photo of a cute little hat that I knit up while on this trip: I took this photo down at the window where the refueling pilot sits during a refueling mission. Probably the best view I have ever had from an airplane.
back to basics tomorrow gang...no more war talk till I get the next unexpected phone call.....