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Guantanamo: "America meets Tropicana"


A review of 2002 by the ICRC's Daniel Cavoli who has been running the ICRC team visiting internees held by the US at Guantanamo Bay. Broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on the Today programme.

There are rare moments working for the ICRC that the drama and the historical significance of what one is witnessing trigger s a strange physical reaction - a chilling of the nerves, a constriction in the throat. You know immediately that the moment will become frozen in time.

Since the shattering events of September 11, I have had more of those moments than in my entire career with the ICRC.  From being part of the first international team into Kandahar after the US-led bombing, to watching the first plane load of prisoners bound for Guantanamo from Afghanistan to arriving myself in that strange place in Cuba which has been catapulted from obscurity, I have been both strangely privileged and in some ways burdened with the responsibility of being part of some of the most defining and profound events of recent history.

I like the rest of the world, watched with horror as the events of September 11 unfolded in front of our eyes.

I had worked closely with the Afghan population years before in Pakistan when the ICRC ran a large medical operation. I felt an immediate overpowering need to go back there during what I knew would be another chapter in their long epic  struggle.

Thus it was that I found myself travelling across the magnificent mountains between  Pakistan and Afghanistan on a dazzling winter’s day on our way to Kandahar, former Taliban stronghold  where we were to begin visiting the first of those captured by the US and allied forces.

Weeks later, watching as that first plane took off dramatically for Guantanamo in the blackness of an Afghanistan night, I was thinkingof the promise we had given the prisoners t hat the ICRC would be there to visit them, wherever they would be. As I left Afghanistan myself feeling the usual mixture of relief, exhaustion, and the guilt of abandonment, I was strongly hoping that I would be able personally to make good on that promise.

Of course I was not aware at that moment to what extent Guantanamo Bay would become the eye of a storm which raged around the world, between seemingly polarised cultures, between lawyers, politicians, debated endlessly in the media. And I would again be part of history.

The US authorities unhesitatingly gave the ICRC access to Guantanamo Bay - a natural progession of what we had already started in Afghanistan. Despite the US having refused to give the prisoners Prisoner of War status - the process by which this was reached having been publicly disputed by the ICRC - they nevertheless committed themselves to treating the prisoners in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. They also respected the ICRC’s global working practices: that is unimpeded access, being able to speak to every prisoner without witness and arranging for the exchange of Red Cross messages between prisoners and their families.

While my colleagues in Washington and Geneva continued to discuss the legal questions with the US, I had to try to put the furore out of my mind and focus on my and the team’s work ahead of us: to give prisoners the chance to discuss any issues they had concerning their condition and treatment and try to address these through my regular contacts with the military in the camp.

Nevertheless, sitting on that small plane, as head of the second ICRC team in Guantanamo, I could not help but be gripped by a strong sense of trepidation, and somewhat weighed down with the awesome responsibility. I knew we would be viewed with a certain mistrust by everyone, and I recognised that the world was scrutinising this small patch of land avidly. the stakes for the I CRC could not be higher.

Guantanamo Bay is a somewhat surreal place at the best of times, a curious fusion of Americana and Tropicana. On the one hand it is like many small provincial American towns with the supermarket, dry cleaner, which doubles as a car rental shop and a couple of restaurants, includingly, inevitably, McDonald’s! On the other, there are the iguana which one has sometimes to slalom around as they plod slowly across the road, the palm trees, the dreaded mosquitoes, and the oppressive heat.

The sweltering heat dictates the whole pace and rhythm of life, it is inescapable, it makes you feel you are working in slow motion. It even seems to dull any of the usual vapours which one would expect in a place crowded with people. The only lingering smell I have is of the smoke which clogs our trailer office from my cigarette loving colleagues.

The first thing I did was walk through the camp on a tour. I remember vividly walking through the camp for the first time, I recognised faces, and they recognised me, shouting out my name eagerly. They were welcoming and it was a moving moment.

Right from the start we worked flat out, seven days a week, and long hours. Each prisoner was brought to a specially designated place where we received them. Experience has taught me not to direct questioning, but simply allow them the time and space to evacuate anything which may be inside.

We also have to allow ourselves, although not in a passive way, to be their punch-bag, to enable them to vent frustrations. Whilst at times draining, it is almost the aspect of ICRC work which I personally find the most satisfying, despite the inevitable frustrations - you are in a privileged position as the only contact the prisoner has from the outside world, the rapport is much more personal than when the people we help are unfortunately because of the urgency of the situation, render ed as faceless “beneficiaries”. Of course we hear harrowing stories of loss and uncertainty. I felt personally powerless at not being able to shed light on their eventual fate.

The work would not be possible without the full cooperation of the detaining authorities, in this case, the US. Whilst building a rapport with the prisoners, it is important to say that we crucially invested as much time and energy in building a relationship with the US military in Guantanamo Bay. I could sympathise with their attitudes, recognise that they were also individually traumatised by September 11, and were also in this claustrophobic place, away from family. The work of the ICRC in detention places is always about listening and understanding needs and concerns in order to find a balance between the need for security and operational objectives, such as interrogation, and the prisoner’s right to basic humane treatment.

The ICRC’s  information about its observations and findings remain confidential, to be shared only with the detaining authorities.This is crucial to preserving the strictly humanitarian nature of our work, to ensure continued access - and to avoid the information being used for political gain. This prevents me from revealing my own personal observations on what is possibly one of the most sought after questions being posed around the world today.

Still, one can imagine that it is a rather claustrophobic place. Myself and the team are always conscious that we never stop representing the ICRC. I have had to be disciplined in seeking time and space to reflect and explore my emotions. It is a constant tightrope walk between building the trust and confidence of the prisoners and of the detaining authorities towards the ICRC. One has to remember that we are not anyone’s side in detention work, only defending the basic right, enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, that every person captured in conflict is entitled to be treated with bas ic humanity.

I am coming to the end of my mission here in Guantanamo, in what I can readily say has been the most profound and important experience in my ICRC career, and my life. I and my colleagues have had to invest a lot of energy, patience, discipline into listening, understanding needs, concerns and trying to ease the inevitable mistrust. One always wonders afterwards how to deal with the emotional bond one makes with individuals.

Even if there will be colleagues who will undoubtedly do better than me, and it is good to see new faces, I will still feel that gnawing sense of abandonment which always plagues me after I leave a detention mission. There are many moments etched on my memory - the cooperation and frankness of the dialogue we have with the US authorities and many individually moving moments, especially when being able to give a prisoner a Red Cross message from his family - we have been able to deliver thousands already.

I will never forget one in particular. The message contained a picture of a family gathering - the type made in a shopping mall. I could imagine how all the family, including the children had got themselves especially dressed for the occasion; it showed on the picture itself, so they could look their best for Dad. I handed it over to the prisoner and he simply looked at it silently for a few seconds then slowly looked up and straight into my eyes. There was no need for any words...