For two days in December 2008, I visited Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
I was making a documentary about the base. At one point I found myself in an exercise yard inside one of the notorious detention facilities. The small space was like a cage. I was filming everything around me when a banging sound started up. It seemed to be coming from a nearby boarded-up window. Somebody began yelling in English: "Fuck you, Charlie!" I assumed it was one of the camp's prisoners, and asked one of the military personnel accompanying me why the detainee was calling me that. It was explained that prisoners had access to the camp's huge DVD library. They had watched plenty of military films, and learned that "Charlie" was a call sign the Americans used to identify themselves. Later that evening, I was forced to delete that footage – one of the conditions of my visit was that I didn't film the prisoners – but the irony wasn't lost on me.
My two-day visit came long after the reports of prisoner abuse – in 2003, Human Rights Watch had accused the US government of "ignoring human rights standards in its treatment of terrorism suspects," specifically with regard to Gitmo. The trip came between Barack Obama's election in November 2008 and his inauguration the following January 2009, and was the result of long months of negotiation. In early 2007 I had begun corresponding with the military office in Washington which looked after media requests. They vetted my intentions and background. I was given a date to visit, but this was cancelled and rearranged several times.
Eventually, I was put on a chartered flight from Florida to Cuba. As we flew over the Caribbean, I realised I had no idea what to expect. I thought Gitmo would just be black hole in the ground. But after I'd taken a short ferry from the camp's landing strip across Guantánamo Bay itself I realised how wrong that was. The facilities for the soldiers who guard the base wouldn't look out of place on a luxury cruise liner. There was a yachting club, tennis courts, a golf course, a huge recreation centre and fast-food restaurants like Subway and McDonald's. On arrival, I was met by two soldiers who would accompany me during the entire trip. They showed me to a two-storey townhouse, which turned out to be easily some of the most comfortable accommodation I have ever stayed in. I got some shut-eye in preparation.
Next day, I was woken early by my two chaperons. I was told I could not disclose their identities. This would turn out to be typical of Gitmo's paranoid atmosphere. The three of us drove for 10 minutes around a mountain range dividing the base's residential areas from the detention facilities. Soon, I spotted what seemed like a mile of barbed-wire fences. This was Camps Delta and Iguana, the two large complexes which between them hold about 200 prisoners. I was ushered into an entrance building and thoroughly searched. The rules regarding what I could film were outlined. I couldn't film the face of any personnel without their permission. Staff would review my footage. Then, the tour began. In truth, I didn't mind. It was all part of the game.
There were lots of things that I wasn't permitted to see, but what I did see gave me a good enough impression.
The cells I saw seemed adequately furnished. There were basic toilet facilities, toiletries, and prayer rugs. I was told that the quality and amount of items in each cell depended on the prisoners' compliance. Those who co-operated with the military were made to wear white jumpsuits; those who didn't wore the notorious orange boilersuits. I saw the camps' classrooms, where detainees – or "enemy combatants" as they became known during George W Bush's presidency – could take classes in English literature, art and history.
There was a movie room where prisoners could watch DVDs (I was told their favourite show was the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch, following life on board crab-fishing boats in the Bering Sea). There was also a library containing both books and heavily censored English-language and Arabic newspapers. Their infirmary was as well-equipped as any US hospital.
With some scepticism, I interviewed the camp's commander, Rear Admiral David Thomas. "There's nothing that we do here that I wouldn't be proud to show my Mum or my kids," he told me. "We treat the detainees safely and humanely."
He went on to tell me he had tried out for himself the camp's method for force-feeding non-compliant prisoners, submitting himself to have a tube passed through his nose, down his oesophagus and into his stomach. He maintained that human rights organisations' complaints about this technique were overblown. I later interviewed some guards who said they were regularly covered in faeces by some of the detainees. If anything, they said, it was the prison staff, and not those imprisoned, who deserved the public's sympathy.
Near the end of my tour I spotted a prisoner in an orange boilersuit being transported on a golf cart outside one of the main holding facilities. His arms and legs were shackled. He was five metres behind me and, briefly, we made eye contact. Who knows why he was there? It struck me that his eyes looked dead. But there was something else. I've travelled across the Middle East and if you lock eyes with someone it is always accompanied by a gesture. He did nothing. He just looked at me. I was deeply shocked, and for a moment I couldn't do anything.
But the main impression I walked away with was a sense of how robot-like the military personnel were. I asked them what they thought of Obama's election: they said they couldn't comment. They did tell me that the prisoners knew about it – that somehow they'd heard the news – and that they'd been excited. I wasn't sure whether to believe that. Obama has pledged to close Guantánamo, but who knows what the future holds? From what I witnessed, one of Guantánamo's biggest problems is that it attempts to bury the truth – and its history. Until it confronts its spectres, it will be impossible for it to move forward.
Interview by Rob Sharp
'One Night in Guantánamo' is aired on Current TV (Sky Channel 183/Virgin Channel 155) on 25 January at 10pm.Reuse content