Inside Guantanamo (available now as a special podcast)

The following was written by Kathryn Wallace, coordinating producer of Inside Guantanamo.


You don’t get to Guantanamo by calling a travel agent. You’re ordered there by your commanding military officer or you’re an enemy combatant, detained by the U.S. military in the war on terror. Or you were – like us – a guest of the military. I got a sense, after a few days in sunny Guantanamo (best described as “Tucson on the Caribbean”) that of the thousands of people inhabiting the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, only our film crew of six was happy to be there.

It was a year-long negotiation to bring National Geographic cameras “inside the wire” – military slang for the detention center, separated by armed gates and concertina wire from the rest of the business of “Gitmo.” The Bush Administration was torn about allowing cameras into the intimate spaces of the base – all the way to the last second. On the very day we were to fly to Gitmo, after background checks, online terrorism training, two scouts and permissions granted all around, still we sat on a gassed and ready private plane on a tarmac in Fort Lauderdale as one last dissenter unexpectedly pulled access. And just as unexpectedly permission was re-granted. It was definitely a dramatic entrance to the island we’d studied for months.

The journey to Guantanamo – both philosophically and geographically – is complicated. Cuba is just 90 miles from Florida, but since American planes may not fly in Cuban airspace, it’s a three-hour flight. Given the coldness between Castro and America, the first natural question is exactly how the US military came to house suspected terrorists from the Middle East so close but decidedly not on US soil. It’s a good question. The only easy answer is about the territory itself; we’ve had a very generous lease for over a century for 50 square miles. We pay just $4,000 – checks Castro has refused to cash – and the treaty cannot be resolved unless both parties are in agreement. Castro is stuck with us.

The answers to all the other questions about Guantanamo are hotly contested ground. The controversy swirling around the base made my three weeks there surreal. The headlines didn’t match my daily experience with young, earnest guards and with dedicated, impressive military brass – bright guys who spend their days and energy solving problems like how to prevent detainees from plugging up their toilets to flood their cells. I had the image of a new kind of Iwo Jima monument witnessing one detainee vs. guard contest in Camp 5 – with four soldiers in a complicated pose working together, reaching over one another to pull a towel off a detainee cell window.

The troopers were encouraged to talk to us – and so we met many of the kids pulling the least politically correct of military assignments. They told us how their wives back home get threatened because they have a husband at Guantanamo or how they joined up to do something noble but they were concerned it wasn’t working out that way. They drove by us in their hand-painted beater cars called “Gitmo specials,” made to look like the Scooby Do Mystery Machine or completely covered in duct tape. They reminded us that the group down on that island base are just kids from all over America. Gitmo might’ve been with us for eight years, but these kids are brand new to this fight.

And the fight at Gitmo has changed a lot in eight years. The detainees are the only ones on island that know just how different life is – they’ve been there longer than anyone, and as commanding officers remind the troopers every day: they know the rules better than anyone.

This became clear to us in our three weeks of shooting. To make this documentary, the DoD extended our access beyond the ordinary and allowed us time on cellblocks previously never permitted. The detainees took note that we were in verboten territory and assumed we must be in league with the military. We learned from the block leaders the detainees made some noise about “splashing” us – hurling a cocktail of feces and other body fluids at us – just like they do the guards. This was something new for a member of the media though.

Mostly the detainees ignored us, or showed a bit of benign curiosity. A few reached out to us in anguish to release them from their seven-year imprisonment. It would take a hard person to be unaffected by the impassioned speeches about American ideals of freedom and liberty issued through heavy cell doors in broken English. The detainees know how our legal system works, and they know astonishing amounts of detail about the US, so much in fact, the guards have named the phenomenon the DNN or Detainee News Network.

We were never splashed, thankfully, though we weathered a tropical storm, a hurricane, an island-wide power-outage (generators cover the detention facility) and pounds of greasy food at the mess hall before we embarked on our flight back to the states. It was just three hours away, but already it felt like a different world.

-Kathryn Wallace, Coordinating producer, Inside Guantanamo

National Geographic Channel


There’s more information on Inside Guantanamo, at National Geographic Channel’s website.