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Guantanamo Detainees Face Difficult Living Conditions - 2002-04-26

Some Taleban and al-Qaida detainees at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are approaching their fourth month of captivity at Camp X-Ray. The prisoners have not been told what will become of them or when they may be allowed to return home.

First Lieutenant James Mikkelson's unit has many duties at Camp X-Ray, from dispensing food and water to the detainees, to emptying their waste buckets, to escorting them to interrogation sessions. Lt. Mikkelson says he has noticed a gradual change among the captives during the past two months.

"I would say they are getting used to their environment, that they have felt their way around a little bit, seeing what they can get away with and what we will not let them get away with. I think they are starting to get used to things and getting as comfortable as you can get in there."

Whether or not the detainees are adjusting to life at Guantanamo, the man in charge of Camp X-Ray, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Cline, stresses that the captives are dangerous men.

"We have had threats against us, that if they get out they are going to kill us. They throw things at us through a little hole in the doors," he said.

One guard says violent outbursts are rare, but adds that many detainees appear to derive satisfaction from playing what he terms "mind games". Always probing what rules may be bent to their advantage.

Others have taken a passive approach to resistance, as several hunger strikes have been mounted during the past two months. The commander of the field hospital set up to care for the captives, Captain Samuel Alford, says one hunger strike has gone on for more than a month and requires medical intervention.

"We have two detainees on a prolonged hunger strike. They continue not to eat. They did not eat for 30 days, at which time we admitted them to the fleet hospital to begin medically-assisted re-feeding."

Several detainees have been treated for a variety of wounds and infections suffered in Afghanistan. Medical personnel at Guantanamo say a significant number of detainees are in markedly better physical condition than when they arrived.

But not all ailments are physical. Some detainees are being treated for depression, according Navy psychiatrist Pam Herbig.

"They few patients that I have who are depressed have difficulty sleeping; they are anxious. They have a lot of ruminations; sadness," he noted. "The ones that I have seen were pretty much a long-standing issue. If they have had any new issues with incarceration, it is not anything that I have noticed."

Lt. Herbig says the percentage of detainees experiencing depression is roughly what one would expect in a random sampling of people. Thus, she concludes, while detention may make cases of depression worse, it is not the cause.

A primary goal of the mission at Guantanamo Bay is to extract information from the detainees that might lead to the apprehension of other terrorists and prevent future attacks against the United States and other nations. But recent reports have emerged from Camp X-Ray suggesting that the interrogation process has been far from smooth.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that the United States has too few translators fluent in Arabic and other languages spoken by the detainees. One translator recently dismissed from Guantanamo told The Washington Post newspaper that linguists and interrogators at Camp X-Ray lack the experience and technique to deal with cagey detainees who have no desire to share their secrets.

But officials at Guantanamo insist the information-gleaning process is yielding results. Lt. Colonel Dennis Fink is a spokesman for the task force handing the interrogations:

"The interrogation process is going fine. If there is a shortage of interrogators throughout DOD has no bearing on us. In this mission, we do not have a problem. I have no knowledge of any kind of impact that the Secretary is referring to."

But Colonel Fink admits the interrogation process is a work in progress.

"It is a very slow process. It is an ongoing mission. There is no timeline we are going to continue to extract information, and we are going to do that as long as it takes."

Within the next two weeks, the detainees are expected to be moved from the hastily-constructed, open-air confines of Camp X-Ray into a more-hospitable facility called Camp Delta. The new detention camp will afford each detainee a toilet, water basin, and a bed in their cells.

The guards at Camp Delta will be looking to see whether the change will improve the outlook and behavior of the detainees or make them more cooperative with U.S. interrogators.