To Live and Die in Gitmo

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Tim Dirven/Panos

Today, even the people most intimately involved with the events of June 9, 2006, can hardly remember the names of the men who died that night. In the official literature, they are often referred to by their Internment Serial Numbers, the prevailing nomenclature of the Guantánamo Bay detention center: 588, 093 and 693. But before they were numbers, they were people. All thought of themselves as Allah’s fervent disciple, only to end up American prisoners of war, stashed away on the forlorn edge of Communist Cuba.

The three men had recently ended a hunger strike. They had little else in common.

Mana Shaman Allabardi al-Tabi (588) was a Saudi national who joined a religious charity called Tablighi Jamaat, which was believed to have links to Al-Qaeda. On January 17, 2002, “detainee was captured with four other individuals who were dressed in burkas trying to avoid capture” as he was leaving the Pakistani city of Bannu, on the border with Afghanistan, his Department of Defense file reads. On March 8, 2002, he was handed over to American forces and shipped to Guantánamo Bay, where he was described as “belligerent, argumentative, harassing, and very aggressive”—and useless when it came to intelligence about Al-Qaeda. He was cleared to be “transferred to the control of another country for continued detention.”

Yasser Talal al-Zahrani (093), also Saudi, was the son of a prominent government official. Jihad tugged at him in the early summer of 2001, when he had finished the 11th grade. “After sitting at home for approximately two months and hearing that sheiks from neighboring towns were saying jihad in Afghanistan was a religious duty, [al-Zahrani] decided to travel to Afghanistan,” his Pentagon file says. He went to Pakistan, then Afghanistan. Instead of starting his senior year of high school, he learned at a Taliban training center how to use a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a Makarov pistol. He served as “a fighter on the front lines of [the Battle of Kunduz]” during the American invasion of Afghanistan, where he was captured by the Northern Alliance. Al-Zahrani was turned over to American forces on December 29, 2001. His intelligence value was also minimal.

Ali Abdullah Ahmed (693) was a Yemeni who, according to his Department of Defense record, was “a street vendor who sold clothing…and was prompted to travel to Pakistan to receive [a religious] education upon hearing God’s calling.” He was captured at a safe house in Faisalabad that was alleged to be under the control of Abu Zubaydah, then believed to be one of Osama bin Laden’s top officers. Branded by the Pentagon as “a mid-to-high-level Al-Qaeda” operative, Ahmed arrived in Cuba on June 19, 2002. Later, government investigators realized there was “no credible information” tying him to terrorism. But this wasn’t the Palookaville slammer: If you tell the world, as the Pentagon did, that your island prison is home to “the worst of the worst,” you won’t want to advertise your errors and hyperboles. So they kept Ahmed.

The night all three of them died, about 460 detainees were in American custody at Guantánamo Bay, most of them inconsequential actors in an international drama they hardly understood. Some thought America was the Great Satan; some probably couldn’t find it on a map. Prisoners from the global War on Terror had first arrived on the southeastern shore of Cuba on January 11, 2002. They were housed in the cages of Camp X-Ray, whose barbed wire became, depending on whom you asked, symbols of America’s might or its cruelty.

On April 28 of that year, Camp Delta opened on the easternmost edge of the camp, near the border with Cuba. It was separated by high, parched hills from the naval station, which had been leased by the United States since 1903. The detainees were housed in cell blocks atop cliffs that drop steeply toward the Caribbean Sea, with its alluring and infinite expanse.

Sergeant Joseph L. Hickman arrived at Camp Delta on March 10, 2006. He is a native of a tough south Baltimore neighborhood called Brooklyn who had joined the U.S. Marine Corps when he was 18. “It was there that I found my place in the world,” he writes in his new book, which will be published later this month. Hickman left the Marines in 1987 for a job at a security firm, re-enlisting, with the Army this time, in 1994. He stayed for four years, then worked as a civilian in prison transport and executive security. In the wake of 9/11, he joined the Maryland National Guard and was assigned to the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion. Four months later, he was thrilled to learn of his unit’s deployment to Guantánamo Bay: “Finally, at 41, I had my chance to meet the enemy.”

01_16_Gitmo_02 Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman was a guard at Camp Delta. Joseph Hickman

He would meet that enemy in more intimate quarters than he probably imagined. On May 18, 2006, Hickman was part of a quick-reaction force (QRF) that responded to a supposed suicide in Camp 4, a section of Camp Delta where the detainees are housed communally in cells that hold 10 men. The suicide attempt was a ruse. The detainees had lathered the floor of the cell with soap and assailed the slip-sliding QRF with “a volley of piss, feces, and metal objects,” including a pole from a dismantled fan. Despite the close confines, Hickman gave the order for one of his soldiers to fire an M203 grenade launcher, whose 40 millimeter rubber rounds were deemed “Evil SpongeBob” by some in the platoon. Hickman thus became, in his own estimation, the first American soldier to give the order to fire on detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Helped by blasts of pepper spray, Evil SpongeBob quelled the revolt, and Hickman was praised for his “exemplary leadership” in a commendation signed by Colonel Michael I. Bumgarner. Months later, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., then the commander of the base, remembered the “gutsy call” to fire on the detainees.

On June 9, a soldier floored by a cluster headache asked Hickman to stand in for him as the sergeant of the guard that evening. At 5:15 p.m., Hickman and his men showed up for duty, prepared to guard Camp Delta for the night. For the first hour of the shift, Hickman’s position was at the primary entrance to Camp Delta, Sally Port 1. As evening prayers were starting in the cells, at about 6:30 p.m., Hickman went up to Tower 1, at the northern edge of Camp Delta.

Fifteen minutes later, he saw a white van enter Camp Delta and park at Alpha block. Hickman would later write that he witnessed escorts marching a detainee into the back of the van, which had no windows in its rear portion. He noticed they were using metal handcuffs, not the plastic flex cuffs that were standard issue at Camp Delta. Hickman told me the van returned about 20 minutes later and picked up a second detainee, driving away with him.

The van came back to Alpha block once more. “As they were loading the third detainee,” Hickman recalls, “I went to [Access Control Point] Roosevelt ahead of them to see where they were going.” ACP Roosevelt leads out of Camp America, into the sun-blasted hills that hide the detention center from the naval station, which looks a lot like a slightly rundown South Florida strip: McDonald’s, bowling alley, ball fields. Hickman claims that the van turned left, heading down a road that led not to the naval station but a private beach for officers. He says the only other destination could have been what he calls in his book Camp No (as in no such place), a secretive facility outside the wire he had correctly surmised was a CIA “black site.” (An Associated Press report much later confirmed that the site did exist: It was named Penny Lane, and its purpose was supposedly to turn detainees into CIA assets who could infiltrate jihadist networks.)

The white van returned to Alpha block at 11:30 p.m., heading for the detainee medical clinic. That, says Hickman in his book, is when “everything changed.”

01_16_Gitmo_11 A U.S. Army Military Police checks in on a detainee during morning prayer at Camp V in the U.S. military prison for 'enemy combatants' on June 26, 2013 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Joe Raedle/Getty

‘Boo-Freakin’-Hoo’

“Three detainees being held at the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, committed suicide early on Saturday, the first deaths of detainees to be reported at the military prison since it opened in early 2002,” James Risen and Tim Golden of The New York Times reported from Washington in an article published June 11. Citing the military officials who controlled the drip of news out of Guantánamo Bay, Risen and Golden wrote that “the three hanged themselves in their cells with nooses made of sheets and clothing, and died before they could be revived by medical personnel.” Twenty-five detainees had attempted suicide on 41 separate occasions since Guantánamo had opened. This trio, it seemed, had been the first to succeed.

Even today, it is impossible to independently confirm much of what goes on in this most remote and secretive of American outposts; information is a scarce commodity on “the island,” as the base is universally known by its American denizens.