Skip to content Skip to footer

Landing on Mars: A First Impression of Guantanamo Bay

The entrance of the prison at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on June 8, 2010. (Photo: Richard Perry / The New York Times) One pair gray flip-flops SPF 55 sunblock White linen shirt Cabana-style straw hat Judging from my suitcase, I am destined for some tropical paradise. My wardrobe is purposed for scorching days, balmy nights and miscellaneous aquatic activities. But I am not headed just anywhere and the contents of my suitcase don’t stop at the above.

  • One pair gray flip-flops
  • SPF 55 sunblock
  • White linen shirt
  • Cabana-style straw hat

Judging from my suitcase, I am destined for some tropical paradise. My wardrobe is purposed for scorching days, balmy nights and miscellaneous aquatic activities. But I am not headed just anywhere and the contents of my suitcase don’t stop at the above.

  • Three legal pads
  • One mini recorder
  • Five copies official military invite to travel letter
  • One unclassified case docket for Majid Shoukat Khan

Five days ago, I received notice that I was invited to observe the next military commission to be held on Guantanamo Bay (GTMO), Cuba. The defendant, Majid Shoukat Khan, is charged with conspiracy, murder, attempted murder and spying in violation of the laws of war. His arraignment is scheduled for Wednesday, February 29, and there are talks of a potential plea bargain.

It was never under these auspices that I imagined I would travel to Cuba. I romanticized that I would one day covertly slip in via Canada or Mexico, forgo a stamp in my US passport and go on in search of the island’s best ropa vieja. I envisioned myself in Havana, the air heavy with sweet tobacco and sugar cane, my hips swaying in time with classic Latin beats. Perhaps GTMO wouldn’t be so different. Just yesterday, my trip host informed me that a sample itinerary was compiled on my behalf. I would be beach bathing, bowling and taking leisurely boating trips along the bay. The itinerary from Officer Alexander indicated that this trip would be nothing short of a perfect holiday filled with dinners, boating, sightseeing and games. In fact, I was so graciously welcomed that I half expected to see a chocolate mint on my turned-down bed upon arrival.

Incongruously, this intense welcoming came on the heels of reports filed by military counsel that living conditions on the island have seriously deteriorated for detainees. The New York Times reported prosecution counsel statements that conditions had careened below the minimum humane treatment requirements under the Geneva Conventions and amounted to violations of the laws of war. It was hard to fathom that one small corner of an island could harbor both great hospitality and such hostility. But maybe that was the point.

I boarded the train from New York to Washington, DC, from where I would catch a military commissioned flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As the train shoved off, I tried to rectify my thoughts. I tried to qualify my excitement for a trip that promised beautiful white sand and sunsets with the gruesome reality that I would only see those things as a periphery to the larger purpose of witnessing a man being tried for terrorist acts and murder.

The train scrolled by the sleepy suburbs of Baltimore. I stared out the window in pause. Images of Victorian carved homes and painted picket fences flashed briefly in the window and then quickly whizzed off. These rustic American streets seemed so serene and yet they fostered the defendant, the man who spent his formative years in Maryland and allegedly used his local savvy to concoct plots to explode Baltimore gas stations. The man who was charged with attempted assassination of a Pakistani president by suicide vest, who allegedly couriered funds that would later be used to destroy an Indonesian hotel, had once been nothing but a boy on these very streets.

The train lurched on, passing BWI Airport and finally reaching DC. I fought my way into the cab line, and thoughts of Khan and the island persisted. I wondered what he might be thinking. Did this plea deal promise some hope of freedom in the future? And what length would he be willing to go to entertain that hope? Khan had already twice tried to escape the prison by gnawing through his own arteries. His suicide attempts seemed an act of such desperation and suffering and conjured for me the image of a rabbit caught in a bear trap.

As a child, I once saw the abandoned bloodied limb of a small animal clamped tightly in a metal snare. I squeaked with fright as my uncle tried to calm me by explaining that the animal’s instinct was to be free and that it would choose liberty at any price. I couldn’t help but wonder if Khan was that rabbit, and if so, what price he would pay.

After some confused circling, the cab dropped me off at the Holiday Inn Express across from Andrews Air Force Base. Here, I would sleep for a few hours before a 3:25 AM wake up call and 4:30 AM departure to Andrews. When my nerves eventually settled, I fell into a deep sleep upon plush down bedding with the hushed broadcast of the Oscar’s rumbling in the background.

I lurched immediately upright upon the first ring of the wake-up call. My body was covered in sweat and I was shivering – a sign that my GTMO jitters were not completely allayed. I hurried to ready myself and made it to Andrews a few minutes before the 5 AM “show time.” I sat in the still-empty departure gate and watched as fellow travelers began filing in. Some in full fatigues, some in civilian attire, but marked by the signature military cropped hair and posture; some in mixed business attire, some with bags of cameras and lenses, one in red velvet wedges – it was clear this was a diverse group. Chatter of the Khan plea deal soon filled the air. Some suspected that Khan would be freed to his wife and children in Pakistan in exchange for four years of time and testimony.

At nearly 8 AM, the call for boarding was announced and each group of individuals was separated and boarded by class. First the family of servicemen boarded, then defense and prosecution counsel, next the nongovernmental organizations were called and finally media were able to take their seats in the back of the plan. Each respective group was placed in separate rows from the next. It was here I realized that we were all traveling for separate tasks. Counsel was busy making last minute preparations for the commission, media was ready to write and rapid-fire any developments and we were here to “observe.”

The plane itself was what looked to be a retired Miami Air 747. The seats had obvious signs of use and were missing stuffing, restitched and even duct taped in places. The craft bore the obvious markings of a much older jet. The rows and aisle were extremely narrow, passenger windows were small and a smallish movie monitor appeared above every third or fourth row. As the safety video began, the monitors creaked and snapped as they were lowered from the ceiling. Shortly after take-off, a steward pushed beverages through the cabin on a cart borrowed from Air India. The soda cans that lined the top of the buggy clinked rapidly as we hit rough air. I made one last review of Khan’s case file and then I closed my eyes. I prayed for sleep and it came.

Two hours later, the captain announced that we had begun our initial descent. I rubbed my eyes and peered out the window and over the plane’s expansive wing. There in the distance – Cuba. The coastline had no discernable features yet; it simply appeared as a greenish brown band on the horizon. The plane lowered and swayed right, tracing the perimeter of the island from afar. Because the US is not on friendly terms with Cuba, we had to maintain a 12-mile distance from Cuban territory at all times. It was explained to me that the flight would be much shorter if we could fly through Cuban air space, but instead, we had to circumnavigate the island until reaching our small sliver of bay.

The craft descended further in preparation for landing. Now, Cuban soil was visible from both sides of the plane. The actual terrain was completely opposite from my lush, jungle-like expectations. The land was dry, arid and largely barren. The bay was peppered with large, jagged rock formations jutting out of the red earth. I had the distinct feeling that we were landing on Mars. And I suddenly felt quite alien in this place.

Drawing nearer, I saw deep blue and turquoise waters breaking upon a shoreline blemished only by guard towers and industrial hangers. The plane pitched and yawed with the powerful trade winds as we grew ever nearer to the swollen bay. With a final drop, the familiar sound of rubber wheels hitting pavement alerted us to our arrival. Looking around the cabin, it was easy to identify the first-time travelers. Our noses were glued to windows and silly smiles glazed our faces. We made it – Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Disembarking bore a striking familiarity to boarding – first family exited, then counsel, next observers and last media. We were immediately greeted by military escorts and ushered into separate lines. In total order and efficiency, our bags were identified and segregated in a transport van and we were ushered to the passenger ferry.

The true splendor and beauty of the bay first made itself apparent on the ferry ride from the airstrip to the Naval Station. The sea offered a magnificent spectrum of violet, aquamarine and gold. The far-off waters reflected a perfectly captured yellow sun. All around the bay, cacti, shrubs and palms grew wild, their leaves dancing in the wind. The air was moist and warm. I let the tropical breeze tangle my hair. I was carelessly enjoying myself. But as the base came into view, a heaviness overcame me. It felt wrong to feel joy in this place, knowing that many had suffered here without charge. But not enjoying was not part of the itinerary – our hosts had created an eclectic schedule to please all tastes.

After reaching the Naval Station, we were immediately whisked off to a leisurely lunch at the galley. The chow hall resembled a large college cafeteria, replete with flat-screen TVs displaying sporting events and news, neon signs announcing various beverages, sprawling salad bars, ice cream bins and giant pots of hot coffee. Ironically and possibly as a nod to the locale, the special of the day was a Reuben sandwich.

After lunch, we were escorted to Girl Scout Beach for sightseeing, sea glass collecting and walking along the rock-studded shore. Next, we were taken to Cable Beach, where large concrete slabs intersected with harsh waves and harbored families of large iguanas. From there, we drove to the Lighthouse Lookout where derelict, homemade boats littered the yard. The crafts, we were told, were confiscated from migrant Cubans attempting to flee the island in search of the Florida Keys. Many hopeful escapees had battled the brutal seas all the way from Havana, 400 miles away, with hopes of claiming asylum. One such boat was a simple two-man canoe, hand carved from a tree trunk. I took out my camera and flashed shots wildly – capturing the giant, rusty lighthouse; the dilapidated boats; and the ferocious sea. Moments later, my escort approached me and asked to see my camera. He scanned through the pictures until arriving upon one of a bottomless wooden boat and kindly, yet sternly, requested I delete it. In the background of the photo appeared a rotating satellite that sat upon the distant cliffs. This was something I was not to point my camera toward again. I erased the photo – a gentle reminder of where I was. This was not a beach holiday; I was, in fact, at a highly guarded and highly shrouded detention facility.

After several more hours of meandering the visitor-friendly parts of the bay, we were transported to our accommodations – Army-style barrack tents with nine double-file cots. Fittingly, the name of our home was Camp Justice and bore the slogan, “Honor bound to defend freedom.” Directly across from our tents stood a structure that appeared markedly different from the appealing places we visited earlier in the day. The building, which appeared to be crafted of white aluminum siding was enclosed by a double perimeter made of forest-green sniper net and topped with unforgiving spirals of barbed wire. Every five to ten feet, a large “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” sign was affixed to the fences. The area was so institutional and frightening I felt unsettled even looking upon it. This, we were told, was the facility where Khan’s commission hearing would be held.

Khan has been held for more than a decade in detention and, if rumor is correct, will be detained for at least four more before sentencing. This Wednesday at 9 AM (EST), after spending a third of his life captive, Majid Shoukat Khan will finally get his day in court. Updates on the plea agreement would be dispatched immediately after the hearing.

Editor’s note: Coverage of this week’s military commission hearing at Guantanamo in the case of US resident Majid Khan is a collaboration between Truthout and Seton Hall University School of Law, Center for Policy & Research.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $13,000. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.