Air Sunshine – my first trip to GTMO

Image of the JTF Guantanamo sign

By former Reprieve Paralegal Cortney Busch

At Fort Lauderdale airport, Florida, we check-in for Air Sunshine – that’s actually the name of the airline to takes attorneys to Guantánamo. We board the tiny, no-frills plane from the tarmac and fly for five hours over some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen.

Welcome to Guantánamo!” the guard says waving us through the checkpoint. As a paralegal with Reprieve’s Guantánamo team, this is my first trip to see to our clients held in the world’s most notorious prison.

Day 2 – client meetings

The alarm goes off at 5.30am. We board the ferry to the windward side. Lawyers and their translators are not allowed to be left alone at any time on the windward side. At all times we are in the company of a habeas escort.

Guantánamo is covered with iguanas. Our escort told us how fearless they were because they had been fed so much by humans over the years – which also meant they were massive beasts. It is illegal to kill or maim an iguana in Guantánamo Bay.

We drove through a security checkpoint where I hold my security badge up to my face to prove it’s really me. They wave us through and in front of us looms the ludicrous sign with ‘HONOR BOUND’ painted on the fence surrounding the prison.


Reprieve’s Clive Stafford Smith at Guantanamo

We go though a metal detector and then are scanned one by one to guarantee we had no contraband, while another soldier flips through our notes and notebooks to make sure we really aren’t smuggling anything in.

We submit some books we brought for our clients, and photos of various flowers I had cut from ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ for one of our clients, who is quite the artist and likes to draw pictures of flowers. Bringing books straight to the base for approval was a new rule. I was quickly learning that GTMO changes and morphs almost every week.


Ahmed Belbacha

I have been working at Reprieve for over two years and had read thousands of documents relating the conditions at Guantánamo. But I still stop short when I entered the room. On the right was a window-less room with a “bed” (or a padded bench is more correct) and a toilet situated behind a chain-link fence. It was a cage.

In front of us sat our client, Ahmed Belbacha, behind a table, with his foot shackled to the floor. I knew that our clients had been shackled more often than not for many years now, but to see a human being chained to the floor is quite a different thing altogether. I strained to make sure my face didn’t portray the horror I was feeling.

Habeas lawyers must submit all notes taken with clients to the Privilege Review Team in Washington, DC. They decide what is classified, what is For Official Use Only, and what is unclassified.


The next 3 days

The next three days go just like the first. Waking up at the same time, eating the same thing, going through the same actions.

The great variance is meeting our clients.  Meeting them is fantastic. I got to put a personality to each guy and realise just how different they are. Some like to joke, others are more serious, some are loud and boisterous while some were so soft-spoken I can barely hear them over the hum of the entirely-too-loud air conditioner.

The next morning, we decide to get our client some McDonalds as we hear that our he is not fasting. The men in Guantánamo pass messages to each other to tell whomever is meeting with a lawyer next to get in touch with so-and-so, to bring such-and-such, etc.

As we passed through security this time, the captain took out his tiny little notebook from his breast pocket and wrote down, in minute detail, each item of food we brought in:

One tea. 3 packets of sugar. 2 pots of cream, 2 hashbrowns, 1 egg McMuffin – no meat

And so on. It was one of the most time-consuming processes I’d seen at Guantánamo, which is saying something. He also took extensive notes of the food we had when we exited.

Last day

It’s our last day visiting our clients, and we are exhausted. Guantánamo’s heat is exhausting, but, moreover, the sheer emotional exhaustion is absolutely shattering.

I realized then that as glad as I am to leave this place behind me, the men I have met have been there for seven, eight or even nine years.

I made a trip to the gift shop. Guantánamo’s gift shop has an array of tacky things to send to your loved ones: mugs, snow globes, shot glasses, sweatshirts, Christmas ornaments… If you’re really keen, you can even get these items engraved in the back of the shop. GTMO is a very strange place.