GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – As darkness falls on this remote prison camp, detainees begin chanting angrily and throwing objects against their cell walls.
The protests die down only briefly with the Muslim call to prayer, a melancholy serenade that crackles over the loudspeakers. Snakes slither in the shadows and the waves of the Caribbean lap against the cliffs.
Night and day have become blurred under the artificial glow of floodlights. Equally unclear is the future of the 598 men from 43 countries being held at Camp Delta a year after the United States began its war on terrorism.
The carefully chosen location of the prison, a U.S. base on the eastern tip of communist Cuba reached by Continental and other chartered airlines, lends to the surrealism.
Guantanamo has become a dead end of sorts as the war on terrorism moves into the shadows of Afghanistan, and the United States looks to extend the battle lines to Iraq.
Since the first detainees were captured a year ago and brought here in January, none have been charged. U.S. courts have refused to consider their cases because they say the geography puts them out of their jurisdiction. Washington seems no closer to trying them.
The limbo has taken its toll on the prisoners and those guarding them.
Some detainees have acted out by breaking the rules, and more than 50 are in solitary confinement. Some have tried to commit suicide but the military refuses to give details. About 26 are taking antidepressants or anti-psychotic drugs.
“As time goes on, anxiety levels go up, restlessness goes up,” said Col. John Perrone, in charge of Camp Delta.
Officials have no explanation for the disappearance of one of the more than 1,000 guards who watch the detainees in nine-hour shifts.
Ryan Foraker of Logan, Ohio, disappeared last month on his day off. His shorts, T-shirt and wallet were found near the ocean, but officials say the weather was calm the day he vanished.
With no end in sight to the detention mission, base commander Capt. Robert Buehn said he’s preparing for the long haul and asked for enough money to support Guantanamo’s current population until at least 2005.
The prison could eventually hold 2,000 detainees and the naval base population could swell well over the current 5,000 residents, which could require even more money, Buehn said.
Legal experts and human rights activists continue to debate the legality of detaining the men without giving them access to lawyers, and whether the men should have prisoner-of-war status.
“Senior government officials, including President Bush, have been less than respectful of the fundamental rule of the presumption of innocence, collectively labeling the group as hard-core ’terrorists,”’ said Vienna Colucci, of London-based Amnesty International.
The U.S. government calls the detainees “unlawful combatants,” accusing them of ties to an illegitimate government and unrecognized militia — Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime or the al-Qaida network.