Wednesday, May 26, 2010

11 days at Guantanamo Bay Cuba

May 1 2010
Imran Siddiqui
Urdu VOA News
Guantanamo Bay Cuba

I woke up to the sound of the bugle, and stepped outside my temporary tent where the media had been set up to rest and recuperate from the arduous events of covering the 1st Military tribunal hearings under Obama administration, of US VS Omar Khadr, in 97 degree Fahrenheit at Guantanamo Bay Cuba. Though hot and humid with dust blowing left to right but the morning was unusually calm, I could see the dim lights of Cuba across the crystal clear blue waters of the Caribbean.

I got dressed in the small make shift showers that has only cold water running or boiling, with small little pots used as latrines. At least they had flush systems. I started the walk through media tents towards McCalla hanger, a giant crude hanger where the media reporting rooms had been set up in camp justice, away from the detention centers and the courts.

Today the hearing was set to start at 7:30 am but Omar Khadr didn't show up third day in a row but as soon as we began to listen to the proceedings, we found out that today is the big day, a final chance for us to visit and film the infamous Camp delta that houses Camp 4, 5 and 6 where most of the 185 detainees are held.

A few days back we were bumped off the list as there were too many journalists to cover this, but this 2nd and final tour that was especially planned for those broadcasters who had missed the last trip was something that we just couldn't afford to miss. Yesterday I had missed a live radio show for VOA Radio because of extreme heat, lack of sleep, exhaustion and nausea, with body aching to the bones because of the run around with all the gear and today my colleague from VOA TV Ashna for Afghanistan, knew that he had to make a choice, he had 2 live TV shows lined up back to back, but the van for the camps was leaving and he had 5 minutes to make a final call to his management, but no one was answering at VOA. JTF or Joint Task Force planned this trip on a very short notice because of security concerns, they said, and just as the van was about to leave, my colleague, hopped on board.

Driving through the beautiful valley roads with lush green hills on both sides, but in front of us was the long road and beyond that a stretch, were blue waters of the bay, a part of the Caribbean. we cant tell you exactly where it is because of security concerns but beauty was staring at me right in the face in the middle of one of the worlds most controversial places, Guantanamo bay, a place filled with controversies of alleged torture and abuse.

As we approached the camps we were asked to leave any electronics in the van, after a few security check points we were finally in the main corridors, walking towards the spot where the detainees are given "life lessons". It looked like a class room where according to Deputy LTC lieutenant Colonel Andrew Mcmanus, JTG Joint Detention Group, the detainees attend their daily class session where they learn life skills to develop a resume once they leave the camps.

We saw their clothes, their books, their dvds, their Nintendo games, other toiletries provided by the staff, but most interesting of all were copies of the Quran and prayer rugs. There were painted signs that direct towards mecca, the direction where Muslims face to pray, in the class rooms as well as in their cells. The detainees are allowed to pray 5 times a day.

After going through some more corridors we entered an open court yard where the detainees hang out, they get 20 hours a day of recreation time. This is where they can eat, have conversations, watch big screen TV, that has more than 200 channels.
They couldn't see us because of the one way mirrors in front of them but we could see them.

After that, we moved on to the main sleeping cells, small, cramp, housing quarters where they had a bed with a mattress, a small latrine in the cell, a place to keep their books or reading materials. A small place to sit down and read and an intercom system. But no matter what you call it, It was a jail cell, should I say a decent one compared to where I was once locked up in Pakistan...? Maybe! But these detainees have been living here for the past 8 years without any trials.

We soon moved on to another court yard where some of the detainees were having conversations with each other, maybe 4 or 5 of them. Most of them were speaking in Arabic, I tried to look for Urdu speakers but nothing. Everything we were recording we knew its going to get op-sect, its called operational security or in easy words, censorship, but I just kept rolling, mindful of not to record too much of front face shots because, we want to come back to work on this if need be. The birds, the different voices, the wind, but its not a walk in the park , even though it might sound like one. Its still a detention camp a thousand miles away from Washington DC.

The officials at the camp said that, they try to cater to whatever the detainees demand, variety of food dishes, halal meat, approximately 6000 calories per meal with desert and fruits. I started thinking about my calorie intake since the past week at Guantanamo. It was pretty low compared to that.

But this does not justify what's happening at Guantanamo bay detention camps. That's what Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada said.

Obama administration is seeking a plea deal agreement according to Washington post, in the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian national who's been in GTMO since 2008. He was 15 when he was captured from the battle grounds of Afghanistan. How old he is right now, go figure. The military tribunal commissions have been updated, with new revived mandates and laws but little or no time for the defense or the prosecution nor the judge to study them in order to ensure all the detainees get real trials and justice served. Commander David Iglesias, former JAG and the chief adviser to the prosecution has stressed on the fact that this time around, all the detainees will get the justice they deserve and the ones who wanted to take innocent lives, will be held accountable in the court of law.

And how long will it take, that only time can tell.


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