Touching Down at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay
I traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to monitor pre-trial hearings in the U.S. Military Commission case against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri who is accused of planning the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen on 12 October 2000 that killed seventeen U.S. sailors and wounded dozens more. This New York Times article discusses the al-Nashiri case, including its victims, the prosecution and defense, and the Judge.
I explained in my previous blog posts all about my current mission to Guantanamo Bay, as a student at Indiana University McKinney School of Law (after being nominated by the school’s Military Commission Observation Project, which is part of the school’s Program in International Human Rights Law).
My plane from Joint Base Andrews (near Washington, DC) touched down at Guantanamo Bay at 1:20 p.m., Saturday, 23 July 2022, after 3 hours of flying over the ocean and Caribbean.
In this blog post, I talk about my arrival at Guantanamo, and my pre-arrival and post-arrival impressions of Guantanamo (it is not like I expected!). This post ends with my retiring to sleep in a frigid tent, anticipating Sunday morning breakfast at a Guantanamo military mess hall.
After an uneventful flight – on a comfortable charter plane where I watched episodes of The Office on the in-flight entertainment station – we deplaned on the extremely windy tarmac and queued outside a nondescript hangar-like building. Many of the buildings at NSGB are rectangular, one to two stories tall, beige or gray in color, with few windows and without any distinguishing features except for small signs indicating the building’s purpose.
Once inside, we showed our passports and U.S. government form 5512 to the people checking us in at a counter. They did not appear to be military, although three men in military uniforms were standing just inside the next door leading to the air terminal waiting area. I recall being slightly intimidated by their presence, not because they were acting threatening or holding large guns or doing anything out of the ordinary, but because I am not used to seeing members of the military anywhere except on television. That feeling of unease quickly wore off – members of the military are obviously all over the base at Guantanamo Bay, in uniform and not, and they are just regular people like the rest of us, going about their days, doing their jobs.
From the counter where they were checking documents, we were directed straight through the terminal waiting room, then back outside into the wind to two more busses waiting to pick us up. Our escort told us that our checked luggage would be following the busses, which were taking us to the ferry across Guantanamo Bay. We asked if it was always that windy and were told that it is around that area near the air terminal.
The Guantanamo Naval Station is on land around the body of water that is Guantanamo Bay, and the traditional way from the airstrip to the main part of the base is via ferry ride directly across the Bay.
Once we arrived at the ferry dock on the Leeward Side, we all shuffled onto the ferry, with Tom, Yumna, our escort and I heading to the top deck.
We were reminded not to take pictures of “the golf ball” or the windmills. I had no idea what they meant by “the golf ball,” but figured I would know it when I saw it, since no one was taking pains to explain what that meant. I still do not really know what it is, but you can see it from multiple vantage points on base – it’s a tower on a hill with a large white dome at the top, which I assume (but do not know) is some type of radar or surveillance equipment. Throughout the trip, they basically reminded us not to take pictures of any infrastructure with antennas, fences, or construction sites, which is a very large percentage of the viewable landscape of the Naval Station.
What pictures we did get, although pretty, fail to capture how beautiful the Bay is with its crystal blue water, fossil covered cliffs, and desert style shrub grasses, cacti, and trees. It was not at all what I imagined (tropical island). It was closer to the landscape of Arizona or Southern California. The ferry ride was our first introduction to the beauty of Guantanamo Bay.
Upon docking at the other side of the Bay after an approximately twenty-minute ride, we boarded other buses that took us to a small building where we could get the ID badges we would need to enter the Expeditionary Legal Complex (ELC), which is where the Military Commissions are held.
We waited outside that building while the group in front of us finished up, then Tom, Yumna and I headed inside. This small building was our first exposure to the extreme air conditioning used in many buildings and tents at Guantanamo Bay; they keep it cold inside.
We also met more military guards and we noticed that many, if not a majority (based on my observations and one of my fellow traveler’s concurrences), of the military personnel at Guantanamo Bay are young, in their late teens and early twenties.
After showing our passports, the guards made our badges and handed them to us on lanyards. They told us not to photograph the badges, which we must return before we leave back for Washington, DC.
Then at about 4:00 PM, we finally headed to the tents that were scheduled to be our homes for the next week.
Tents and Dinner
The tents where we were assigned to live for the week are structured canvas / plastic supported by steel rods forming a half moon shape, about 25 feet long by 15 feet wide (rough approximation). Tom and I share a tent that has four cubicle rooms separated by wooden dividers, with a hallway in the middle and two rooms on each side of the hallway. Each room has a doorway with a thick curtain for privacy.
Each tent has a dedicated air conditioning unit to keep it cold – purportedly to prevent bugs and critters (for example banana rats and iguanas) from entering.
The tents have windows that we are planning to keep closed to keep in the cold air. The canvas is made of a thick material that blocks out sunlight. A switch on the electrical box just inside the front door of the tent controls the lantern lights strung up throughout the tent; one switch controls all the lights. It’s too dark to see inside without the lights, so Tom and I have to coordinate our sleeping schedules, so we do not keep each other awake. Alternatively, you can turn out the lights and work by flashlight in the tent.
Each of the 4 rooms in each tent has a twin size bed, a dresser, small table, and outlets at the end of an extension cord connected to the lights. The outlets still work even if the lights are out, so there is no issue charging phones and laptops overnight. The extension cord has three, 3- pronged outlets.
A plastic bag in each room contained sheets for the bed and a blanket and pillowcases. Our tent did not have pillows, so Tom went to another tent and secured pillows for each of us. Yumna was assigned to an identical tent next to ours.
Across the road from the tents are three shipping containers: one contains a laundry room that is nicer than any laundromat I have ever been in; the middle container has six separate doors on the outside, each leading to a stall bathroom with toilet, urinal, and sink with mirror; the third also contains six separate doors leading to individual stalls each containing a shower, sink with mirror, and small bench.
The living conditions are much more comfortable than I had anticipated.
The showers and bathrooms are clean enough for my personal taste (although other observers have different opinions), and the beds are perfectly suitable for a good night’s sleep after long days exploring the island and witnessing sometimes emotional, and always legally complex, court hearings.
Dinner and Exploring the Island
On our first day, our escort picked us up at the tents at 5:00 PM to take us to dinner.
She explained some of the dining options: the bowling alley has two restaurants, Spinz and Bombers; The Windjammer Club has two restaurants, O’Kelly’s Irish Pub and The Windjammer; a restaurant called The Bayview; a McDonald’s; a Subway; and The Galley.
We went to the bowling alley, and could choose between Spinz and Bombers, as they are set up food court style and have different kitchens and two different menus (unlike O’Kelly’s and The Windjammer, which are dining room style restaurants that have the same food menu / kitchen).
At Spinz, I got a vegetarian wrap and a bottle of water. The tap water on base is not potable. Together my meal cost approximately $5.00.
At that point in the evening, around 5:30 PM, my mind was fried, and I was exhausted. A sense of unreality pervaded my mind, like I was finding myself in an episode of the Twilight Zone. I knew before going to Guantanamo Bay that there was a bowling alley and restaurants like McDonalds, but I did not expect it to be a 100% “Americanized” existence. I do not know why I did not expect that; it is a US Military Base.
But I had expected Cuban influence, and there is not a readily apparent Cuban influence on Base at Guantanamo Bay. We did hear about the Cuban Community Center that is near the Northeast Gate, and although we requested to visit several times throughout the week, we were not able to due to scheduling conflicts.
I had expected the existence of the prisoners and prison to be the center of focus and attention of everyone on base, but they are not even close to the center of attention.
Guantanamo looks like a typical small town or suburb in Indiana, with the exception that there are people in uniform here, with nondescript featureless buildings, and military vehicles all around. Experiencing suburban American life in a place that housed a former CIA black site where people were repeatedly tortured over a series of weeks to months in the early 2000’s, and where people are still held without charges. Of the 36 men at Guantanamo, 20 are being held without charges, but have been “recommended for transfer with security arrangements to another country.” The juxtaposition of being in the American suburbs, thinking before I left that I would be in a heavily Cuban influenced community focused on the detention center, creates a strong feeling of cognitive dissonance. That feeling would grow over my next few days.
After dinner, our escort gave us a tour around some of her favorite spots around the Base. We went to the Marina and Girl Scout Beach and got some beautiful pictures of the water and geography. We traveled to a road, surprisingly not far from residential areas of base, and pulled off to the side at a point where we could look down on Camp X-Ray, the first detention facility set up at Guantanamo Bay to house prisoners following the 9/11 attacks. We were told that we could not take pictures of Camp X-Ray, although some pictures exist on the internet. The link to the pictures also has a brief history of Camp X-Ray.
It was important to me personally to see Camp X-Ray. I had read about it. I had heard about it. Seeing it exist in person is a different experience. Any veil that was left over my eyes, coloring my perception of what the prisoners’ experiences were like here, neutralizing it, sanitizing it, was lifted. I have stood a stone’s throw from a site where men were tortured. I cynically wondered about the existence of black sites at Guantanamo Bay that may be kept hidden in the hills. Subsequently, through references in Court testimony and research online, I learned about the existence of a site called Camp Echo II at Guantanamo Bay, where Mr. Nashiri was held and tortured. This all happened during my lifetime, endorsed by the government that my tax dollars support; supported by the military/intelligence industrial complex that shows “Be All That You Can Be” advertisements on my television and on our city buses, that sets up recruiting tables in high school cafeterias; justified by politicians and military officers that still sit in positions of power. The use of evidence derived from “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” is still being litigated in Court, including being litigated in military commissions at Guantanamo.
I would later speak to a police officer and member of the military at Guantanamo Bay (but not Military Police). This individual was 20 years old. He was born after the events of September 11, 2001. He told us that when he learned of his assignment to Guantanamo Bay, he wondered why that location sounded familiar. He is part of a generation of people who grew up without hearing Guantanamo Bay mentioned frequently on the network news.
The Rest of the Night
We got back to our tents at around 8:00 PM, with a plan to be picked up by our escort the next morning, Sunday the 23rd, at 8:00 for breakfast.
I talked with Tom about his experiences as a Family Court judge in Ohio, his PhD in Judicial Studies, his dissertation, and his expectations for the upcoming week of court hearings. We then retired to our separate rooms, and I went to sleep at approximately 10:00 PM.
Sunday 24 July 2022
The next morning, I showered at approximately 6:30 AM. I let the water in the shower run until the rust was cleared from the pipes and the water ran clear. Shower shoes or flipflops are highly suggested in the showers, but they are generally clean facilities.
Our escort picked us up at 8:00 AM and took us to The Galley, where you can purchase an “all you can eat” breakfast for $3.85. There are a variety of options at The Galley for both vegetarians and meat eaters alike; I opted for garlic rice, hash browns, fresh cantaloupe and pineapple, waffles, and coffee. There is also a variety of cereals and pastries.
By the way, at the Gally you must pay in cash. They do not take cards. There is an ATM at the NEX (Navy Exchange), which is an all-purpose grocery and small department store.
We spent the rest of the day touring the island with our escort.
We went to a monument commemorating Christopher Columbus’ second landing in the Americas, the Lighthouse Museum, and “Windmill Hill,” which overlooks a large portion of the Base. Windmill Hill, colloquially so-called due to the four windmills perched across the crest, has the only view of the current detention facility that we would be able to see on this trip. It is miles away from the rest of the base, secluded, and mostly surrounded by hills and water. Looking in the other direction from the crest of the hill is a view of the rest of Base. We were told that we could not take pictures from the top of Windmill Hill.
The Lighthouse Museum is a small four room structure sitting at the base of a lighthouse built in the early 1900’s as the only means of navigating the Bay at night before modern technology made the lighthouse obsolete. Now the lighthouse stands as a monument to a bygone era of seafaring and serves as a popular photography spot on Guantanamo Bay. Unfortunately, we were told that people are no longer (or at least not currently) allowed up in the lighthouse “due to safety concerns”.
The museum itself is stuffed full of pictures, maps, typed information, and artifacts outlining the history of the US presence in Cuba and specifically at Guantanamo. We probably spent more than an hour wandering the little museum.
We spent from 12:00 PM – 3:00 PM back at the tents resting and writing.
At 3:15 PM, Yumna and I drove with the escort to the library in town. The library looks like a typical branch library found in the United States, with rows of books, a children’s corner, a “free books” cart (from which anyone can take books without paying), and chairs and tables for reading.
We sat at the Library tables until 6:15 PM writing and talking about our experiences so far.
At 6:30 PM, we picked up Tom from the tents and went to dinner at the Windjammer Café, where I got a “non-meat” burger and sweet potato fries. I don’t know what the “non-meat” was, but it tasted good.
We retired to the tents for the night at approximately 8:30 PM, with an agreement to meet at 7:00 AM the next morning, Monday, to get breakfast at The Galley and be at the Expeditionary Legal Complex by 8:30 AM to get checked in for our first day of Court Hearings.
J.D. Candidate 2025
NGO Observer, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL)
Indiana University McKinney School of Law