Still Life With Enemy Combatant

An exclusive look at the artwork of Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

I broke a rule at Guantanamo, and it was worth it: I chose to wear shorts for my tour of the detention facilities at Camp Delta.

Who can blame me? The sun was high and the mercury was inching toward 100, and Gitmo’s rules for reporters change on an hourly basis. The public affairs officers at the media center told me and the other journalists that shorts were acceptable attire for our visit. As soon as we arrived at Camp Delta, we spotted a weathered sign at the front gate that tallied the don’ts: no shorts, no open-toed shoes, and no orange clothing (lest you be confused with the prisoners).

But despite the sign, and perhaps to keep us from rioting, our military handlers told us our shorts would not have been a problem—except for that particular day. Ramadan had just started, and our handlers had decided to honor the rules; our bare calves would not be allowed. Feeling dumb, I watched sadly as our group split in half. The clad-calved walked toward the jail cells, while we rule-breakers were escorted into Camp Delta’s library, where prisoners can choose from a collection of 18,000 books, films, and newspapers. It’s also where journalists are brought to see the lighter side of indefinite detention. As we ambled around and viewed shelves of tattered Arabic religious texts, copies of Harry Potterin many languages, and a book named Azaleas, Rhododendrons & Camellias, a soldier from upstate New York cheerfully directed our attention toward a wall of drawings.

These drawings were from prisoners’ art classes, the soldier explained. Prisoners were allowed to take art classes as a reward for good behavior. Some of the drawings and paintings were quite impressive. The prisoners had a lot of time to practice, he admitted.

Until recently, taking photos of these drawings was forbidden. But in the weeks before a planeload of journalists arrived in Gitmo to cover the trial of Omar Khadr, the 23-year-old prisoner whose case is being heard by a tribunal court after nearly eight years in detention, that rule changed. The drawings were deemed safe for public consumption.

Navy Cmdr. Bradley Fagan, the chief of Guantanamo’s Public Affairs Office, declined later to explain exactly how the art was screened. But the guards at the library suggested that it was checked for identifying information, references to violence, or any sort of coded message.

The identity of these artists is not disclosed, so we have no way of knowing whether any of the still lifes or studies in vanishing points are the work of celebrity detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or the lesser-known among the 176 remaining prisoners at Gitmo. It’s still against the rules to photograph and speak to the prisoners, so we may never know if the beaches, lanterns, and Middle Eastern lanes of the drawings convey the inner life of the average prisoner. But for now, this handful of drawings is one of the few views of what life is like behind the barbed wire of Guantanamo Bay’s detention center.

Click here  to view a slide show of Guantanamo Bay prisoner art.