What we know now is that torture, and all manner of human rights violations—violations of US and international law—definitely took place at the prison (much of it described in Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray‘s harrowing Guantánamo: What the World Should Know). What Naomi Wolf (The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot gives us here so viscerally is a firsthand account of the prison itself. Although it’s obviously been scrubbed clean, sanitized for the numerous visiting journalists, we are left with a portrait of inhumane conditions, evidence of humiliation tactics, and lies and disinformation up and down the chain of command.
As the military handlers made pleasant jokes about the heat, I took in a low-tech vision of Hell. This was the site of the first scenes from Guantánamo, where men sweltered in kennel-like cages. These were the cages themselves: about 50, each about 8ftx12ft, an aisle down the centre for guards to move in, a slab of corrugated iron on top of each cell, and a pipe with a funnel at groin level, in which to urinate; open to the elements; no walls, no true shade. Concrete floors. There had been buckets for defaecation, MC1 Dwight told us; but the prisoners had thrown the faeces at the guards. There was a communal shower, now crumbling — but the prisoners had not liked to shower in groups, naked.
The scene was being reclaimed by nature: vines and brambles were swallowing the wire, twisting around the doors. At 10am the humidity was so intense that sweat was pouring down our faces. The temperature was close to 40C. I went into a cell; grinding heat, drenching humidity, pure exposure to the sun. It was as if you were being cooked in a man-sized convection oven. “Look out!” shouted Petty Officer Dwight. “Banana rats!”
I looked up and shrieked, staggering to my feet: climbing across the wire walls and on to the roof of the cell was a 40lb rodent, with a long wiry tail, the size of a bulldog. Another one scurried along the base of the wall, a baby on its back; a third made itself at home in the undergrowth of the neighbouring cell — big, grotesque creatures with no fear. I imagined what it must have been like to try to sleep in that black heat, these animals slipping in and out of the cages with their great claws and teeth.
Behind the cages was the interrogation hut — a plywood shack painted with a red cross. A one-man cage stood near by. From Human Rights Watch reports and documents in Michael Ratner’s book Guantánamo: What the World Should Know, I knew that this was the notorious isolation cell. Prisoners in a detention camp are so cowed by the sight of the isolation cell and those held in it that they become compliant, since isolation is far more damaging psychologically to many prisoners than anything else.
“This is the isolation cell?” I asked Petty Officer Dwight. “Yes,” he said. Then he advised us that the detainees themselves had requested it. “They asked that other detainees who were disruptive and disturbing them be taken here for a ‘time out’. This was a ‘time-out’ area … if someone was to act up and they needed a ‘time-out’.”
It was the first of many times I would look at PO Dwight — a decent guy whose true passion was hairstyling — and wonder if he believed what he had been trained to say. But he gave this, and other “facts”, with a kind of innocence. He took us into the interrogation rooms. About 25 chairs were stacked in a corner — unusual chairs for a military setting. The seats were padded; the structure itself was made of a bamboo material; and, oddest of all, each of the arms of the chairs curled into an elaborate spiral. I leant in more closely: on each chair’s arms was a clear mark from what appeared to have been several layers of gaffer tape. I looked at the legs of the chairs, where a prisoner’s ankles would be: the same apparent gaffer-tape marks.