Guantanamo Diary: Food for the Soul


Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part report by Ellen Sweets, who traveled to Guantanamo recently to observe hearings for detainees associated with the 9/11 attacks.

GUANTANAMO NAVY BASE, CUBA — If one thinks of Guantanamo at all, shrimp gumbo, empanadas, fried green tomatoes, jerk chicken and collard greens don’t surface in the freest of free associations. The image of a dreary detention center might be the nicest one conjured up; penal colony might be another; “controversial” is up there, too. Good food isn’t.

Over a delicious lunch of Yankee pot roast, potatoes and perfectly blanched green beans, I’m transported back nearly 14 years to an autumn day in Dallas when I had a resignation letter prepared to submit to my boss at a Fortune 500 company. Instead of announcing my departure, I watched in horror as first one airplane and then another flew headlong into New York’s World Trade Center. As some colleagues expressed rage at “ragheads” and “filthy Arabs,” ire was directed in my mind to an incompetent American intelligence system.

Now I was on arguably the United States’ most controversial military base, seeing in person the men who allegedly orchestrated 9/11. Having made the commitment to cover the hearings of the alleged co-conspirators, my second thought—after recovering from news about our barracks-like living quarters —was: “Oh my God, if we’re sleeping in tents; showering in a facility where we’re advised to wear shoes; cautioned not to brush our teeth with the same water used for showers; maybe that tetanus shot wasn’t such a bad idea.”

Not only is GTMO (pronounced ‘gitmo’) home to a joint task force comprised of Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine units, it is a multicultural community of Filipinos, Jamaicans, Cubans and a scattering of civilian mainlanders who fill a variety of positions. One of them is Desmond Gordon, who has been on the base for 17 years and is proprietor of the popular Jamaican Jerk House.

It was here that I chatted with Anne Fitzgerald, director of research and crisis response for Amnesty International. She has traveled from London for the hearings that someday will culminate in a trial. “I’ll keep coming to remind [the military] that we’re still watching,” she says. “I think [the detainee] treatment has improved since we became involved.”

While there are those who would argue the five “high-value detainees” don’t deserve justice, Dru Brenner-Beck is here on behalf of the National Institute for Military Justice, an independent group that provides legal counsel to military detainees. There’s also Nathaniel Freeman of Judicial Watch, a conservative foundation that monitors judicial proceedings.  The big question to answer here is how would we have our prisoners of war treated? Or just ask John McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam era who has opposed torture of military prisoners.

There are only a few options for eating out, so civilians and military personnel occasionally mingle at a private home, such as the gathering for a Thai cooking class presented by another contract worker, Vichit Rattanakis, who cranked out a four-course meal of Panang chicken curry; Chinese-style pad thai with ground pork; chicken-fried rice and black pepper shrimp stir-fried with garlic.

As one of this evening’s diners, I joined members of the Joint Medical Group, who work in the medical facilities on the base. Federal law prohibits discussions of medical care and treatment of detainees.  The only topics open for discussion were who had been to Thailand, our hostess’ orchids, and one guest’s perfectly hand-crafted mahogany and walnut cheese boards. Nothing from the scathing so-called torture report released late last year detailing graphic descriptions of highly questionable rectal feeding.

If there was one disappointment it was the disappearance of the Cuban Club, whose extensive menu of traditional Cuban cuisine – shrimp, lobster, adobo pork plantains, black beans – was enough to make the heart sing. No one seems to know when or why it closed. Gone. No opportunity to talk with Cubans. In Cuba.

The mainstay for most diners are the base galleys where 6,500 meals are prepared daily under the watchful eye of Navy Lt. John Harrison, whose shrimp gumbo, baked chicken, confetti rice and collard greens were a welcome sight on a cafeteria lunch line. Harrison and his staff of 133 military and contract cooks preside over three classy cafeterias. He also oversees the preparation of halal meals for detainees from the Middle East, taking care, he adds, that pans used for special dietary restrictions are kept separate from those used for pork.

The most moving conversations among those of us there to observe the proceedings were with relatives of those who perished on 9/11. There was Adele Welty of New York City, whose son, a New York firefighter, died at the WTC, and Joel Shapiro also of New York City, whose wife died when the twin towers fell. Welty opposes the death penalty. “Being against the death penalty is a hard thing for me to do,” she says. I just hope the world learns a lesson about the importance of the fact that we are different from those who would destroy us. Killing them makes them martyrs. I don’t want that.”

Shapiro now volunteers at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum because he wants the world to remember the people who were murdered by the defendants. “This is not about the defendants,” he says. “It’s about remembering. It’s about deciding whether we allow barbarians to define our behavior.”