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Detainees from Afghanistan Get Medical Treatment at US Base - 2002-02-04

For the first time, journalists have been allowed inside a makeshift hospital ward for Taleban and al-Qaida detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Seven of the 158 detainees are receiving treatment for battle wounds sustained in Afghanistan, malaria and other ailments.

Outside, it looks like a cluster of brown canvas tents on a dusty, desolate, cactus- and brush-covered section of Guantanamo. But the inside gleams with medical equipment, from surgical tools to an X-ray machine to a defibrillator.

In one tent, seven detainees transported last month from Afghanistan lie on stretcher-like cots. Most have blank, expressionless faces. All are wearing handcuffs and have a blanket covering at least a portion of their bodies. Military doctors and nurses are in constant attendance, while guards keep a close eye on everything that transpires.

Stung by criticism from some European officials and human rights groups about the United States' treatment of the detainees, officials at Guantanamo have been eager to show off their efforts to secure the captives' well-being. Sunday, reporters were allowed within a few meters of the seven detainees receiving treatment but were barred from using any recording or photographic equipment while in their presence.

The facility's commanding officer, Captain Pat Alford, says the detainees are viewed as patients and treated as such, within the limits of strict security measures. He describes the detainees as calm, saying none have threatened the medical staff in any way.

"They are quiet. Obviously the individuals we have in the hospital now have been hurt and are requiring surgical intervention and antibiotic therapy on an around-the-clock basis," said Capt. Alford. "They are not people who are in tip-top health conditions, so they are quiet, recovering, very compliant with the therapies."

So far, 18 surgical procedures have been performed on six detainees. Two others are being treated for malaria and one is receiving psychiatric care. All 158 detainees at Guantanamo have tested negative for tuberculosis.

Captain Alford says translators are used to communicate with the detainees, who speak a variety of languages. He says captives brought to the facility are informed of their conditions and no medical procedures are performed without their consent.

The captain admits that, in this case, the doctor-patient relationship is different than most. He says he sees little sign of any true rapport developing between the detainees and the medical staff.

"There have been a couple of instances where [detainees] have said, 'thank you.' Whether there has been any change of attitude, I really can not speak to that with any accuracy. We are dealing with sick people. They acknowledge the fact that we are giving them help. And at this point in time I would hope that they are happy to get it," said Capt. Alford.

Navy Chief Bill Austin says the makeshift hospital was built from the ground up, in a matter of days. He says he thinks the project reflects well on the United States.

"All these men and women [have been] working together from the moment they rolled their sleeves up - officers and enlisted alike - there is a lot of compassion and lots of caring going on here," said Chief Austin. "I does make me proud to see this. Because that is what we are all about. ... They are getting the quality care, the same kind of care I would be getting if I were in this hospital."

One medical officer assigned to the facility says he feels satisfaction at the end of the day, knowing he has done "a good job for my country." In this case, that means caring for the United States' enemies, transported from the battlefields of Afghanistan.