Victoria Derbyshire: my time inside Guantanamo Bay

Houmous, football and 80-foot fences: the 5 Live presenter reflects on an extraordinary assignment

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Victoria Derbyshire: my time inside Guantanamo Bay
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“This is the kind of place you thought you'd never come to as a reporter,” says BBC Radio 5 Live's morning presenter Victoria Derbyshire. She's on the phone from inside one of the world's most infamous prisons: Guantánamo Bay, the facility run by the US military on territory leased from Cuba, used to detain and interrogate those suspected of terrorism. Since it opened in January 2002 it's been surrounded by secrecy and controversy because so many of the inmates have been held without charge.

The place has become a symbol of America's “war on terror”, conducted in the aftermath of 9/11: ten years since the twin towers were brought down, Derbyshire's two two-hour shows this week were the centrepiece of the station's special programmes to mark the anniversary. They were the first of their kind to be broadcast live from within Guantanamo, and were the end of a months-long effort that has audibly left Derbyshire both fatigued and exhilarated.

“Back in April we submitted a 30-page document detailing our proposal for what we would do on air,” Derbyshire recalls. “The whole time we've been here we've been escorted, and every interview we've recorded, they've recorded it too.

“It's intimidating,” says Derbyshire of the compound itself. “You have to get a small boat to approach, and it's a Caribbean island: palm trees, crickets, villas with manicured lawns. Then you're at the checkpoint which takes you to the camps and there's a totally different atmosphere. There are a number of 80-foot-high wire-mesh gates with rolled barbed wire on top before you even get to the building where the detainees are housed, and several more thick steel doors after that. I'm not allowed to tell you the number of gates and doors, but there were several gates and many doors.

“There are watch towers, fencing, spotlights. It looks like a concentration camp. But the atmosphere is very orderly - peaceful, bizarre as it may sound. There are no American military shouting at anybody. It's very calm. You never feel frightened or under threat.”

The regime at Guantánamo has, say the American authorities, been relaxed considerably in recent years. Allowing live broadcasts from within the camp is part of an attempt to change our perceptions. But it didn't extend as far as letting Derbyshire talk to the prisoners: “Out of the question - even though two solicitors who represent detainees said their clients would be very happy to talk to us. The military said it would break the Geneva Convention!”

Derbyshire did observe some detainees up close, via a sequence of events that illustrated how life at Guantánamo can be both sinister and mundane. “We were led into Camp 6, the medium-security facility. The guards suddenly requested that we spoke quietly. Then they opened these venetian blinds. I held my breath because I wasn't quite sure what was behind them. There was one-way soundproofed glass through which you could see detainees in white, loose tunics, which indicates that they are 'compliant'. They're not breaking rules or abusing the guards.

“Some wore prayer caps, and they were all eating and chatting. Despite the security paraphernalia it was a very ordinary scene, like a group of friends socialising. They didn't know we could observe them – I asked if that was in breach of the Geneva Convention, which says you shouldn't expose prisoners to public curiosity. They said no, it's about us being transparent. It was like watching a silent movie.

“As we left that facility, a guard with a long stick was poking a football which had become trapped in the rolled barbed wire at the top of this 18-foot fence. The detainees on the other side had kicked it up from their recreational area. You could hear them shouting and cheering when he got it out.”

Sampling the hospitality
The idea of gossiping, footballing men in white tunics is at odds with the image that's been visual shorthand for Guantánamo for nearly a decade: men being led around the camp in bright orange jumpsuits and leg shackles.

“The detainees who wear orange are the ones described as 'non-compliant',” Derbyshire explains. “They are in the maximum-security facility. We saw their showers and TV rooms but we weren't allowed to see them. We were shown the items detainees are issued with when they come here. It's not a jumpsuit now, it's a loose tunic top with elasticated trousers - folded up along with underwear, the Koran, some other books, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a bottle of water, mints, towels... yes, mints.”

“We saw a number of shackles in the classroom where they learn languages, computer skills or art, sitting at their thin, grey, metal desks. Their ankles are shackled.”

Even in such a regimented, deadly serious place, the temptation to try on a shackle or an orange tunic must have been almost overwhelming.

“We were taken into the TV room in the maximum-security facility, a small room about eight feet square. There's a TV on a plastic chest of drawers at one end. There was a very comfortable beige armchair but at the bottom were two ankle shackles attached to a floor bolt. I sat in the chair and asked them to attach the shackles. Suddenly the chair didn't feel very comfortable.”

Are the inmates required to watch wholesome, correctional American TV? “No, they've got 22 satellite channels. When we switched it on it was showing a sports station, analysing American football in Arabic. One of the main channels is al-Jazeera.”

What about the dreaded interrogation rooms? “I have no idea what goes on in the interrogation rooms. There's a certain artificiality to the whole thing because you're only being shown what they want you to see. I said that on the programme. We didn't go in the interrogation rooms. I don't know where they are.”

Back in the “compliant”, medium-security section, a library offers 17,000 books and 3,000 DVDs, as well as a PlayStation3 and Nintendo DS. “The most popular books are about the Islamic faith but the Harry Potter books are all there, translated into 18 different languages, and they're popular – as are Agatha Christie and John Grisham. They're not very keen on romantic fiction but there is a section for it.”

While stressing for a second time that what she was permitted to see was tightly controlled, Derbyshire says she was taken aback by some of these facilities on offer to inmates. “I was surprised by the PlayStations, the sort of medical facilities that civilians in rural America don't have access to, and the breakfasts - I saw the detainees' breakfast menu, and the choice reminded me of what you get in a four- or five-star hotel. Fruit, houmous, pitta bread, cream cheese, cereal, milk, yoghurt, eggs, honey, jam, tea, coffee, tomato and cucumber salad, organic olive oil.

“There are calls to prayer broadcast five times a day, and during prayer time the guards are asked to be quiet and respectful. We saw that guards had put traffic cones out to alert other guards that prayers were under way.

“But a lot of that is strategy. The Americans say they are trying to show this has evolved and isn't the Guantanamo Bay it was in 2002. And the detainees are here for many years: watching TV and having access to the library and all that calms them down. In 2009 there were 600 assaults by detainees on guards; in 2010 it was down to 40 because of the changes they've made.”

Extreme interviewing
Describing all this to 5 Live listeners formed a large part of Derbyshire's two Guantánamo bulletins. But the meat of radio journalism is interviews and, with the prisoners out of reach, that meant talking to soldiers, from ordinary guards up to senior officers.

“You and I may think that working there is extraordinary,” says Derbyshire, “but for some of the guards I spoke to it's challenging because it's boring. For 12 hours a day they are standing there watching detainees. On the other hand, one guard said he'd had a 'cocktail' thrown at him. When I asked what that was, he said imagine all the worst bodily fluids mixed together in a polystyrene cup and thrown in your face: that's a cocktail.”

A great number of people around the world would be on the side of the cocktail-thrower: the apparent lack of legal process means the very existence of Guantánamo is often seen as an outrage, with everyone who works there partly culpable.

Are any of the staff fighting with their conscience? “Absolutely not. I asked the senior medical officer whether it ever comes into his mind what these men may or may not have done, and how dangerous they are. And he said no, I'm a trained professional, I treat these men like I would my patients back in the US.

"The guard who had the cocktail thrown in his face: I said, you must hate that detainee. You must be disgusted by them. He said: 'Not at all ma'am, I'm trained to do a job.' But you're a human being, I said, you have emotions. There was silence. So I said, you're telling me that incident has not affected your attitude towards that detainee? He said: 'Roger, ma'am.' That's how they are. The guards kept their guard up.”

This caution on the part of the authorities at Guantánamo almost led to the derailment of Friday's programme. “At the last minute they decided they didn't want their people to engage in conversation with three guests we had fixed: former detainee Moazzam Begg, a relative of two 9/11 victims, and a solicitor for the detainees. We wanted the officer in charge to talk to Begg.”

Hastily, the star guests were moved to the last 30 minutes of the show, giving Derbyshire's team the first 90 minutes to negotiate with the military authorities, while she was on air. “In the end we agreed not to have them in conversation, otherwise we wouldn't have had a programme.”

Was it difficult to question people as rigorously as Derbyshire would back in the studio in London? Extreme as the circumstances often were, she says that in the end, reporting from Guantánamo Bay didn't require her to do the core of her job any differently. “I thought I was robust. You're surrounded by their PR people but it's not the first time PR people have been around when I've been interviewing somebody! When it comes to the interview, we're facing each other, we have eye contact. In my head everyone else fades into the background.”