The abandoned Camp X-ray has been left to rot after it was closed following pictures of detainees in orange jump suits imprisoned there caught the world’s attention. Sean Rayment goes to see what has become of this notorious prison.
By Sean Rayment, in Camp X-Ray
I am standing inside one of the dilapidated interrogation huts in Camp X-Ray, one of the most notorious prisons in history.
It’s hot, dark, airless and smells of rotting wood. The floor is uneven and my guide, a US soldier, warns me that there may be snakes.
I walk gingerly to the centre of the room where a wooden table is bolted to the floor. The hut is divided into two rooms, each the mirror image of the other.
There are no windows, just space for an air-conditioning unit; the ceilings and walls have been soundproofed.
It is in these rooms that men picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan were allegedly tortured: threatened with snarling dogs and, some detainees claim, subjected to simulated drowning – a process now, notoriously, known as water boarding.
Camp X-Ray has now been lying untouched for more than ten years, since it was closed in April 2002, and is now overgrown with weeds and vines. It is now bizarrely, almost a nature reserve, home to snakes, wasps and a peculiar rodent, similar to a giant guinea pig called a hutai, known locally as banana rats.
“Why is it still here, why not pull it down?”, I ask my guide.
“Crime scene”, he responds. “Allegations of torture, apparently”.
Ten years ago, however, this sinister place was at the centre of the world’s attention.
After the United States and Britain invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, suspected al-Qaeda operatives began to be captured.
At first they were held in special CIA detention camps such as the one in the Bagram Air Base, a few miles outside of Kabul.
But in early 2002 the US Department of Justice advised the Bush administration that Camp X-Ray in Cuba could be considered outside the country’s legal jurisdiction and be used to hold terrorist suspects without trial or as prisoners of war.
The innocent and the guilty arrived on transport aircraft deprived of all their senses: blindfolded, wearing ear protectors, chained at the hands and feet, and wearing the notorious orange boiler suits.
There were alternatives to Camp X-Ray. Detainees could have simply been shot dead but that tactic would have delivered no intelligence. Another alternative was prison ships which would endlessly circle the globe in international waters. But such an undertaking would have just as controversial, and a logistical nightmare.
Brigadier General James Lettko, the deputy commander of Joint Force Guantánamo, shifts uncomfortably in his seat when I ask if the use of Camp X-Ray ultimately served as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda?
“Think about what was going on just after 9/11. We went into Afghanistan in October and then started to capture detainees at terrorist training camps around the winter of 2001/2002,” he says.
“Think about the state of emotions within the US government. There was a determination to bring those suspects to justice and I think it was necessary.
The US government had to find a place where they could take these detainees and process them, and keep them out of the fight. That meant they had to be detained in a camp some place and for what ever reason they
decided not to keep the detainees in Afghanistan and Camp X-ray was a result of that decision, that urgency to bring the detainees out of theatre.”
My guides lead me to the centre of Camp X-Ray. They ask me for my impression and I explain that it is reminiscent of a Second World War prisoner of war camp.
I do not speak the thought of “concentration camp” because I know they will be offended, and, as I remind myself, that thought is just an emotional response.
They look at me and shrug – I think they feel the same but they refuse to say. Instead they warn me about the wasps: “Everything is big in Cuba,” one jokes.
Camp X-Ray is divided into five compounds, four of which contain six cell blocks and one containing four, all enclosed by wire fences topped with barbed wire.
Each block contains 10 cells, effectively cages, roughly seven feet by seven feet with a concrete floor and a large corrugated iron roof.
The camp is completely deprived of privacy and wholly open to the elements. Several 20 foot wire fences topped with more rolls of razor wire ring the perimeter.
Time and again throughout my visit, senior officers tell me how much conditions have improved since the time when Camp X-Ray was in operation, adding that it was “only” open for 90 days and “just” 82 detainees were held there.
After an hour or so I walk, relieved, through the main gates of Camp X-Ray. On a perimeter fence is a sign: “Honor Bound To Defend Freedom.”