What It Feels Like… To Be a Prison Guard at Guantánamo Bay

Esquire

U.S. Military Police stand in a cell block in Camp Delta where detainees from the U.S. war in Afghanistan live April 7, 2004 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

By Christopher Arendt, 24, Student

I liked working night shifts, because whenever they were awake, I wanted to apologize to them. When they were sleeping, I didn’t have to worry about that. I could just walk up and down the blocks all night long.

There was usually one detainee who would lead the call to prayer at five in the morning. That person was in the very last cell. The detainees, they sang beautifully. It was so eerie to hear, because it was such a beautiful song, and to hear forty-eight detainees just get up in the morning and, in unison, sing this gorgeous song that I could never understand — because Arabic is way out of my range of possibility — it was really intense.

Camp Delta is on a cliff that overlooks the ocean. I had never been to the ocean before in my whole life. There have been a few times in the military when I’ve been so stricken by the juxtaposition of how awful what is happening inside the moment is, and how aesthetically beautiful it is at the same time. Seeing the first couple detainees start preparing for prayer, and then at the same time the sun starting to come up over this cliff base — that was probably one of the most confusing moments of my life.

Every day you walked down the blocks, forty-eight people in two rows of twenty-four cells, and you have no idea what any of them are there for. They’re just sitting in their cells. You give them food, and if they get crazy, you spray them with this terrible oil-based chemical. Then you send these five guys in to beat the shit out of them.

I grew up in Charlotte, Michigan. This was the first time that I ever met any Muslim person before in my life. My family lived in a trailer in a cornfield on a dirt road. I enlisted when I was seventeen, on November 20, 2001. Oh, my God, I met a lot of new people by enlisting.

I had bought two pornos before I left for Cuba, and I had no idea that I would get so depressed that those wouldn’t even interest me. I ended up cutting them up, and I put the remnants of the pornos all over my wall. I made a wallpaper on my half of the room of all these like really grotesque pornographic photos. My mom had sent me a packet of dinosaur stickers, so all of the particularly obscene shots I covered with dinosaurs, and I would just sit and stare at that for a long time.

During the span of a few months, I worked maybe half the time on the blocks. It wasn’t a whole lot of time, but it was really starting to break me down. I couldn’t deal with it. I tied a 550 cord to the ceiling fan that was in my room and I tried to hang myself, but I ripped the fan out of the ceiling. I’ve never been happier about poor construction. That was about two months before we went home.

One thing I miss is the cups. The detainees were only allowed to have Styrofoam cups, and they would write and draw all over them. I’m not totally familiar with Muslim culture, but I did learn that they don’t draw the human form, and I’m not positive if they draw any creature, but they draw a lot of flowers. They would cover the things with flowers. Then we would have to take them. It was a ridiculous process. We would take the cups — as if they were writing some kind of secret message that they were somehow going to throw into the ocean, that would get back to somebody — and send them to our military intelligence. They would just look at these things and then throw them away. I used to love those little cups. — As told to Lily Percy

And on the other side of the bars… ~Abo

What It Feels Like… To Be a Prisoner at Guantánamo Bay

By Murat Kurnaz, 26, Author, Activist

They used to beat everybody. There was a man — he was really old and couldn’t see and couldn’t hear. If the guards told him something to do and he didn’t do it because he couldn’t hear, they went into his cage and beat him up. They did this for a couple minutes, and after that they took him out and brought him to isolation. That happened to me as well, a lot of times.

There doesn’t need to be a reason. First they would use a pepper spray. It’s burning. It is hot. You have trouble breathing and opening your eyes. All of your face is burning — your eyes especially and inside your nose. You can’t open your eyes because they are burning very hot. Since you have trouble breathing, you have to cough all the time. Then they’d punch me with their elbows. After they were done, they would write something down as to what could be the reason for it.

We were allowed to do the call to prayer every day, but they used to play music over us at the same time. The music some of the time was rock music, but most of the time they played the [American] national anthem. Or they used to kick the doors.

The worst thing about being in Guantánamo was having to live in the small cages. Most of the time there was nothing in there with me. Sometimes I had only my shorts on and nothing else. Nothing else except my shorts and myself.

I never lost my hope, of course. Not losing my hope is an important part of my religion.

Read an excerpt from Kurnaz’s book Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo at esquire.com/wifl08.

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