National Geographic : 2005 Apr
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA a haircut, while a third shouted in Arabic to the guy in the next pen. The most dangerous are kept in a 19-million-dollar super-max security unit. The U.S. government asserts the detainees receive first-rate medical care and that food is prepared to meet Muslim dictates. "Some say they've never eaten so well'"says Chief Warrant Officer Thelma Grannison, who headed the cafeteria. "A lot have gained weight." But many detainees have succumbed to depression-and some have attempted suicide-not knowing when, or if, they will ever be free. During my visit an officer and a translator read a statement to each detainee through a cell door describing the Supreme Court's decision last June to allow them to challenge their detention in U.S. courts. Before I could gauge their reactions, we were hustled away and told a detainee was about to make a scene. Several released detainees have alleged abusive interrogation methods such as beatings, humiliation, and sleep deprivation-charges supported by an International Committee of the Red Cross report, as well as by recently released internal government documents. The U.S. military says any wrongdoing will be investigated. "We get painted with the same brush as Abu Ghraib," Brig. Gen. Martin Lucenti, Sr., told me as a waiter at the Bayview Club restaurant filled our wineglasses. "We are not Abu Ghraib." I came away from Guantanamo with the sense that the clarity that stirred the pulse of the soldiers during the Cold War was gone. Even though the war on terror has revitalized the base's purpose, the mood was strangely lethargic. The detainees are in limbo, and the soldiers are too-serving their time but yearning to get back to their lives. Even the fate of Guantanamo itself is up in the air, since it may no longer make sense to keep detainees at a base so far from U.S. courts. "Right now everything is under review," said press officer Lt. Col. Leon Sumpter. In this gritty place-shaped by decades of fending off an enemy right outside its fence-such uncertainty may be the hardest burden to bear. 5 CUBA CONTROVERSY Join our forum and share your thoughts on the detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo at nationalgeographic.com/magazine/0504. Exercise is a solitary activity for an inmate (above) whose vivid uniform marks him as uncooperative. He gets 30 minutes three times a week, followed by a shower. On the opposite side of the base, staff gather in an open-air theater to watch a first-run movie. With a golf course, a shopping mall, and a McDonald's, Guantanamo almost seems like any small town with a maximum security prison-but there's no escaping the role it plays in a world increasingly on edge.