View Full Version : The Battle for Guantanamo - Part IV

17-09-06, 03:54
VI. The Suicides

To some of Colonel Bumgarner’s officers, it seemed that the latest group of hunger-strikers were being allowed to get too comfortable. They had hospital beds, air-conditioning, attentive nurses and a choice of throat lozenges to ease the pain of their feeding tubes. The arrangement also allowed some of the hospitalized detainees to communicate relatively easily.

By late November, while many of the strikers were maintaining their weight, four or five of them were becoming dangerously malnourished, Dr. Edmondson said. By sucking on their feeding tubes, they had figured out how to siphon out the contents of their stomachs. Others simply vomited after they had been fed.

On Dec. 5, the guard force ordered five “restraint chairs” from a small manufacturer in Iowa. If obdurate detainees could be strapped down during and after their feedings, the guard officers hoped, it might ensure that they digested what they were fed.

Days later, a Navy forensic psychiatrist arrived at Guantánamo, followed by three experts from a Bureau of Prisons medical center in Missouri. Bumgarner said the visitors agreed with him that the strike was a “discipline issue”: “If you don’t eat, it’s the same as an attempted suicide. It’s a violation of camp rules.” In addition to feeding prisoners in the chair, some of the more influential hunger-strikers were sent off to Camp Echo with the hope of weakening the others’ resolve. The number of strikers, which was at 84 in early January, soon fell to a handful.

Lawyers for the detainees were appalled. The lawyers quoted their clients as saying detainees had been strapped into the chairs for several hours at a time, even as they defecated or urinated on themselves. The doctors told me later that they had run out of options. “I would have preferred to have waited,” said Dr. Edmondson, the chief base physician, who other officials said opposed the restraint chairs. But he added, “I seriously believed that we were going to lose one of those guys if we didn’t do something different.”

In the spring of 2006, General Hood and Colonel Bumgarner were suggesting that the mood at Guantánamo had turned. A handful of hunger-strikers were still at it — a few young Saudis and Yemenites, and Ghassan al-Sharbi. But the officers saw them as zealots whose threat to the smooth operation of the camp could be controlled. Otherwise, disciplinary infractions and attacks on the guards were down, they said, and many of the detainees were responding positively to new incentives for good behavior.

In an interview in late March, Hood said he believed that many young Arab detainees — sheltered, passionate young men who had gone to Afghanistan to fight what they thought would be a noble jihad — were beginning to see the light. They hadn’t been radicalized at Guantánamo, he insisted. Rather, as conditions at the camp had improved, their preconceptions about Americans had worn away. “They discover, ‘You guys aren’t so bad.”’

“I think the hard-core people have lost ground over the last four years,” Hood said. “They are clearly losing ground.”

As he prepared to turn over his command in April to Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., Hood was upbeat about the future. “We are going to establish the most world-class detention facilities, and we are going to show the world that we’re doing this right,” he said. “Every provision of the Geneva Conventions related to the safe custody of the detainees is being adhered to. Today at Guantánamo — and, in fact, for a long time — the American people would be proud of the discipline that is demonstrated here.”

Six weeks later, as guards in Camp 1 patrolled one of the blocks, they came upon a detainee comatose in his cell and frothing at the mouth — symptoms of an apparent overdose. “Snowball” — the guards’ radio code for a suicide attempt — was called out over and over. In all, five detainees were found to have ingested medication that they and others had hoarded, and guard officers concluded that at least three were making serious suicide attempts. (Military spokesmen said that only two had really tried to kill themselves.)

Later that afternoon, May 18, a riot broke out among the “highly compliant” detainees in Camp 4 as guards moved to search their dormitories — and their Korans — for pills and other contraband, officials said. Detainees in one block of the camp set on guards who stormed their barracks after another guard saw a staged hanging and mistakenly called out “blizzard,” the code for multiple suicide attempts. The guards’ quick-reaction force fired rounds of rubber bullets and voluminous blasts of pepper spray to contain the disturbance.

Doctors later determined that the detainees had ingested sleeping pills, antianxiety medication and antipsychotics — whatever they could get their hands on. Since none of the men had been prescribed the medicines they took, it was evident that other detainees had colluded in the plan. (A cache of about 20 more pills was later found in one prisoner’s prosthetic leg.) Still, the military authorities seemed uncertain how to respond.

Some officials recalled the detainees’ premonition about three of them having to die. The medical staff tried to more closely monitor detainees with mental-health problems. But that screening apparently did not factor in the possibility that the men might have been determined to kill themselves for other reasons — like loyalty to a cause.

Sometime before midnight on June 9, three young Arab men, who were being held near one another in a single block of Camp 1, moved quietly to the backs of their small cells and began to string up nooses that had been elaborately made from torn linens and clothing. The bright lights had been turned down for the night. Still, the prisoners had to work quickly: guards were supposed to walk the block every three minutes.

After anchoring the nooses in the steel mesh walls of their cells, the three — Mani al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, both Saudis, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed, of Yemen — piled clothing under their bedsheets to make it appear that they were asleep. They stuffed wads of fabric into their mouths, either to muffle their cries or perhaps to help themselves suffocate. At least one of the men also bound his legs, military officials said, apparently so he would not be able to kick as he died.

With the nooses pulled over their heads, the prisoners slipped behind blankets they had hung over the back corners of their cells and stepped onto their small, stainless-steel sinks. The drop was short — only about 18 inches — but adequate. By the time they were discovered, doctors surmised, the men had been asphyxiated for at least 20 minutes and probably longer. Military and intelligence officials said it appeared that the other 20-odd prisoners on the block knew that the suicides were being prepared. Some may have prayed with the men, the officials said, and a few may have assisted in carrying out the plan. What is certain is that in contrast to most previous suicide attempts at the camp, none of the detainees made any effort to alert the guards.

When doctors reviewed their files on the three men, they found that none of them had shown signs of depression or other psychological problems. All three had been on hunger strikes — one of them since the previous August — and at least two of them had been evaluated when they abandoned their protests. One doctor recalled one of the men telling him brightly: “I’m sleeping well. I feel well. No problems.”

What the men hoped to communicate by their deaths may have been contained in brief notes they left behind in Arabic. The notes have not been made public, and a Navy investigation into the suicides continues. But military leaders at Guantánamo were not waiting on its outcome. They concluded immediately that the suicides were a blitzkrieg in the detainees’ long campaign of protest. At a news conference hours after the suicides, the new Guantánamo commander, Admiral Harry Harris, described them as an act of “asymmetric warfare.”

VII. Tightening Up

I sat down with Colonel Bumgarner one blazing afternoon in late June, as he was preparing to give up command. He looked tired and stressed, and slumped into a chair in his small, cluttered office. As Shaker Aamer did the previous summer, Bumgarner used words like “trust” and “betrayal.” Bumgarner, at the time we spoke, was briefly suspended from duty while the military investigated whether he improperly disclosed classified information to a North Carolina newspaper reporter who, around the time the suicides occurred, had been in Bumgarner’s headquarters reporting a feature article on the colonel from Kings Mountain. (He was absolved of any wrongdoing.) But he seemed more worried by something else: Had he completely misunderstood the prisoners he was trying to reach?

“We tried to improve their lives to the extent that we can — to the point that we may have gone overboard, not recognizing the real nature of who we’re dealing with,” he said. “I thought they had proven themselves. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I did not think that they would kill themselves.”

Bumgarner said he could not discuss the suicides because of the Navy’s continuing investigation. But several officials said that the three detainees had taken advantage of some of the colonel’s quality-of-life reforms, including the nighttime dimming of lights and the availability of extra clothing. There were also indications that Ghassan al-Sharbi, the colonel’s onetime interlocutor, had helped plan the suicides, two of the officials said.

Looking back, Col. Kevin Burk, the commander of the military police battalion, said: “With any population like this, you’re going to have a battle. It wasn’t like we were all going to ‘Kumbaya’ together. But we were trying to find that middle ground, where the tension in the camp would even out. As far as we could see, no one had really tried to find that equilibrium before.”

It is unclear if or when the military might try again. By most appearances, Guantánamo has been tightening up. Since the May riot and the suicides, the military has increased security to prevent further disturbances or deaths. In its ruling on the military tribunals in June, the Supreme Court left the government no choice but to abide by the minimum standards of treatment contained in the Geneva Conventions. But what other privileges and freedoms the detainees are allowed may come even more into question as the Guantánamo population is winnowed down to a harder core and joined by the most notorious terror suspects captured by the C.I.A.

One hint of Guantánamo’s future may lie in the retrofitting of Camp 6, the brand-new medium-security facility that was to have opened this summer. Until this spring, the new camp was to embody the sort of conditions Colonel Bumgarner and other officials had hoped to institutionalize, with spaces for communal meals and larger recreation areas where compliant detainees could play soccer and other sports. After the riot and the suicides, the camp was substantially remade. When it eventually opens, military officials said, it will look somewhat more like Camp 5, the maximum-security unit down the road.

Tim Golden, an investigative reporter for The Times, has been writing about terrorism and detention issues since 2004.