From Chapter Four, “Caged in Camp Delta”
Ed.'s note: James Yee, former U.S. Army Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, here recounts his experience at Gitmo's Camp Delta.
For the first few weeks, I did my best to manage what was clearly going to be a demanding schedule. Every morning, I arrived at Camp Delta by 7:00 a.m. and didn’t leave until late in the evening. Most of my time was spent on the blocks: detainees wanting to see the chaplain could make a request through the guards, and there were always more requests than I could handle, despite my long shifts. But every day I would make my way inside the wire and do the best I could.
The first time I went to the blocks on my own, I felt very nervous. I had expected to come face-to-face with hundreds of Osama bin Ladens, but most prisoners were friendly and seemed overjoyed to see me. As soon as I entered a block, many responded as they had to Chaplain Hamza. They’d yell to get my attention. “Chaplain! Chaplain!” or “Yusuf! Yusuf!” Often they didn’t have a specific concern they wanted addressed. Instead, they were bored and grateful for any variation in their routine. “As-salaamu alaikum,” they’d yell, hoping I’d stop and engage in conversation.
It took me a few weeks to visit each of the nineteen blocks of Camp Delta and introduce myself to the detainees. There were approximately 660 prisoners from dozens of countries: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, North Africa, Russia, France, Turkey, England, and Australia. There were even Uighurs, members of a Muslim minority from northwestern China.
Many prisoners initially thought I was just another guard. But I would speak to them in Arabic and they often relaxed after I asked their name, since none of the guards or other U.S. personnel ever did. Instead, they were addressed as the last three digits of the prisoner number assigned to them, called their ISN number,* or simply as “detainee.” We were not allowed to call them prisoners, as that could have been construed to mean prisoners of war. It was impressed on us not to imply that they had POW status.
I was immediately struck by the harsh conditions in which the detainees were held. They were allowed out of their cages for fifteen minutes every three days, and only if they cooperated. There was a small recreation area at the end of the block where they were taken. It was about twice as big as a cell and was surrounded by a chain-link fence and covered in razor wire. Sometimes the guards placed a soccer ball inside and detainees kicked it around by themselves or jogged around the small space in the hot sun, either barefoot or in flip flops—the only type of footwear they were allowed. It was their only opportunity to exercise, other than what they could manage inside their cages.
The prisoners could shower only after their recreation time. This meant that they would go at least three days—and often longer—without washing. The individual sinks in their cages offered a limited opportunity to wash, but 660 men sitting for days on end in the hot Caribbean sun without a shower could create an overwhelming body odor.
Religion had become the central force in the prisoners’ lives. All of the prisoners practiced Islam. They prayed five times a day. During Ramadan, which had begun shortly after I arrived at Guantanamo, nearly every prisoner fasted—not taking anything to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. As I walked through the blocks, most of the prisoners could be found sitting on their bed or on the floor, reading from their Qur’ans. I would never disturb them in their prayers or while they read. When they weren’t reading them, they did their best to keep their holy books in a clean place, in adherence of Islamic law which dictates that the Qur’an be treated with the utmost respect and is never handled carelessly or placed anywhere dirty. They would wrap the books in their sheets and place them on the end of their bed. Others would rest them on the bed frame, leaning against the mesh wall.
Several prisoners had influence over the others. I observed that typically two types of leaders emerged: English speakers who could talk to the guards on behalf of others and Islamic scholars. My first week on the block, I met a young Kuwaiti the other detainees called Fayiz al-Kuwaiti. He was in his late twenties and had an extraordinary knowledge of Islam. The prisoners in his block considered him to be what Muslims often call a “student of knowledge,” meaning he was committed to the traditional study of Islam.
When I introduced myself to him, he was interested in speaking to me in depth about the idea of a Muslim working at Guantanamo. This was a topic that many prisoners often broached with me. “Do you struggle with your role as an American soldier and a Muslim?” Fayiz asked me. I patiently explained to him that I could easily do both. He was very polite to me, even though I heard the guards talking about the fact that he was one of the prisoners often targeted for long interrogations.
Another Islamic scholar was a Saudi named Ahmed al-Makki. His last name meant that his family had originated in Mecca, and he told me that he lived so close to the sacred mosque in Mecca—which I had visited on my pilgrimages—that he could see the mosque’s minarets from his house. He had memorized a famous treatise on Islamic beliefs entitled The Three Fundamental Principles of Islamic Theology and he later wrote it down verbatim from memory. “Chaplain,” he said to me each time I stopped to see him, “you must visit me and my family in Mecca on your next pilgrimage. We would be honored to have you as a guest for dinner.” I was amazed by this man; despite being held in detention for so long and facing an unknown fate, he was able to maintain this hope.
A Saudi detainee named Shaker was one of the prisoners who spoke English as well as Arabic. When I met him, he was eating the lunch we gave the detainees: meals ready to eat, or MREs. The came in a heavy plastic wrapping and inside were packets of food like tuna pasta and pound cake. The meals were high in calories and often led to constipation. Shaker called out to me, “Chaplain you know what we call this lunch we eat every day? MREs, or meals that refuse to exit,” he joked.
Shaker was Arab and had settled in London after marrying a British woman. They had three children and his wife had just given birth to his fourth child after Shaker was captured. “My youngest son, we named him Faris, I’ve never seen,” he told me. “My wife doesn’t know anything about what happened to me, and I’m so worried about her.” I’d often see him writing letters to his family on stationery provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Shaker paid close attention to the guards and had an uncanny knowledge of the prison rules. During my first few weeks at the camp he led a hunger strike meant to protest the policy of indefinite detention. Somehow Shaker had learned of the camp policy that directed if detainees refused to eat nine consecutive meals, they would be taken to the detainee hospital and force-fed through an IV tube. Therefore he instructed the prisoners who wanted to take part in the hunger strike to eat one piece of fruit every day—which the detainees were usually given at breakfast. That way, they could not be considered skipping meals and would not be taken to the hospital. As with every other hunger strike, the prisoners realized their attempts to effect change were futile and they abandoned the effort after several weeks.
The guards knew that Shaker influenced the other prisoners and did their best to interrupt his attempts to organize his block. I also noticed that he and others like Fayiz often would be moved several times a week to different blocks. But within days, they assumed a leadership role on their new block, which they exercised until they were moved again.
A handful of prisoners spoke English well, and I was surprised to learn that several men from Great Britain were being held at Guantanamo. I got to know three of them particularly well. They were caged in adjacent cells and they told me their names were Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul. Rhuhel was the most energetic of the three, and the most talkative. During our first meeting, Rhuhel told me that the three men had grown up together in Tipton, England, near Birmingham. Their families were close and the men were like cousins.
The three men from Tipton often wanted to talk to me about the conditions of their capture, as did many prisoners. They had been among the early detainees held at Camp X-Ray. Rhuhel described to me in great detail what it had been like. He said that after they arrived at the camp, the prisoners were brought to a large open area to be processed. The area was covered in gravel and had no shading from the sun. They were forced to kneel here for several hours. Their hands and ankles were shackled and soldiers put painted goggles over their eyes and heavy, industrial earmuffs over their ears. I knew this technique—we called it sensory deprivation, and it was meant to confuse the subject. The sun was too hot to bear, and Rhuhel told me that he begged the guards for water. But every time he spoke, he would be kicked and told to shut up. After several hours in this position, his legs went numb. He’d try and stretch his legs but that always meant another kick in the ribs. When he was finally allowed to get up, he couldn’t walk. Other prisoners had passed out in the dust and flies were swarming around them, as if they were sickened animals. Before being allowed to enter a cell, they were thoroughly searched by guards, although he had already been searched countless times. He was ordered to remove his orange jumpsuit and spread his buttocks. Some guards forcefully stuck their hands into his rectum. He winced when he told me that. “I feel as if I have been raped, Chaplain,” he said to me with horror in his eyes.
Conditions inside Camp X-Ray were far more severe than at Camp Delta. Rhuhel said the prisoners were prohibited from speaking to each other or to the guards. Buckets were placed in the cages for use as a toilet. Seldom emptied, they’d produce a rancid odor and attract flies. The young Brit also recalled that when the sun rose and set, there was no cover from the searing heat. The prisoners would curl in a corner of their cages, attempting to crawl inside their orange prison jumpsuits to shield themselves from the sun’s harmful rays.
All three of the Tipton men told me they never committed a crime and their arrests had been a serious mistake. They swore to me that they were not members of al-Qaeda, as their interrogators had alleged, and they had never met Osama bin Laden. Rhuhel told me, “I think what happened on September 11 was terrible. But suggesting I was someway linked to it, when I’m innocent, is just wrong.”
Whenever the discussion turned to details of a prisoner’s capture and claims of innocence—as it often did during my first few weeks at Camp Delta—I did my best to be clear about my role. There was nothing I could do about why they had been arrested and I had no influence over their release. It was very important to me that the detainees understood that; I didn’t want to give them false hope. “There’s nothing I can do about that, brother,” I would always respond. “You must understand that is something over which I have no control.”
I was reluctant to allow the detainees to speak to me in any detail about their capture or their experiences before their arrest. Soon after the first detainees were brought to Guantanamo, President Bush declared that the worst prisoners would eventually be brought before special military tribunals to determine their guilt or innocence. Typically conversations between chaplains and prisoners are considered privileged or confidential. But again, standard rules didn’t apply at Guantanamo. Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, a Joint Task Force attorney, had made it clear to me that my communication with the prisoners was not considered privileged. Consequently should any of the detainees face a military tribunal, I could be called to testify against them and would have to reveal anything that we discussed. As a chaplain, I was not comfortable with that—it was not my role to gather intelligence to be used against those to whom I provided support. Yet because mine was the only friendly face in the crowd, I expected they might confide in me. I had to walk a very fine line.
Nobody working inside the detention operation knew much about the specifics of any detainees—that information was confined to the Joint Intelligence Group, commonly called the JIG. Other than the detainees’ country of origin and their ISN number, personal details were meant to be kept from the military police (MPs) and linguists who worked on the blocks. Of course, we had been well briefed on the idea that the detainees being held at Camp Delta were among the most dangerous terrorists in the world. During the newcomers’ briefing, the troopers were told that many of the prisoners were responsible for the attacks of September 11 and would strike again if given the opportunity.
After September 11, I grew accustomed to seeing images of that day used to motivate service men and women, but reminders of the attacks were especially prevalent at Guantanamo. From the moment we stepped on base, the connection between the hijacked planes and our mission was spelled out. At the newcomers’ briefing, Captain Polet presented a slide show that included images of the September 11 attacks as well as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. It also included bloody images of the aftermath of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1996 attack on the U.S. military complex at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. These were all military installations and each attack had claimed the lives of soldiers. The message was clear: this could happen here, and that could be you. Member of al-Qaeda had already infiltrated the Caribbean, we were briefed, and they were willing to do anything possible to “free their Muslim brothers.”
But over time, the description of the detainees as hardened terrorists began to be contradicted by the impression I was developing of most of them—men like Rhuhel, Fayiz, and a young man who looked incredibly young when I first saw him, sitting on the floor of his cage reading a book. When he saw me passing, he called out in perfect English. I stopped outside his cage and he told me his name was Omar Khadr, and he was from Canada. Even though I tried not to ask too many personal questions, I couldn’t help myself.
“How old are you, Omar?” I asked.
“I’m fifteen,” he said. I did my best to not register surprise. “What are you reading?” He held up a Disney book, filled with colorful pictures of characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. “Where did you get that?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t from the library.
“The interrogators gave it to me,” he said. I thought perhaps they had done that as an insult—the fifteen-year-olds I knew would have considered themselves far too old for such a thing—but Omar seemed to get a kick out of it. When I passed his cell later, he was curled up asleep on his steel bed frame, the book clutched in his hands.
In the newcomers’ briefing, we had been warned that the al-Qaeda manual directed its members to always maintain their innocence if captured and swear they are being wrongly accused. But I began to question if perhaps we hadn’t made some mistakes here. Many of these men did not seem like terrorists. Perhaps the act of steadfastly claiming innocence was a practiced al-Qaeda strategy, but it would also be the response of an innocent person. How were these prisoners to prove their innocence if the act of seeming innocent was deemed a measure of their guilt? It was syllogism as unbreakable as the mesh walls of the cells. Besides, if some of these guys were al-Qaeda terrorists, I thought, they were putting on a hell of an act.
Excerpt from James Yee, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire (Public Affairs, 2005). Reprinted by permission of Public Affairs.
James Yee is an American former United States Army chaplain with the rank of captain.Aimee Molloy
Molloy is a New York-based writer, journalist and has written for Architectural Digest.