Background Briefing

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III. Living conditions

The first incarnation of the detention facility at Guantanamo was the makeshift Camp X-Ray, consisting of small cages with chain-link sides, concrete floors and metal roofs, offering scant shelter from the elements, and with very basic sanitary facilities.  Not only the living conditions, but some of the practices applied to prisoners appear to have been harsher than in the facility that later replaced it, Camp Delta. Two of the detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how initially they were not allowed to pray.  One, Mohammad Sangir, claimed that he witnessed Arab detainees being beaten for having prayed (for more on allegations of beatings, see below).20

Shah Mohammed Alikhil, a Pakistani who was interviewed by Human Rights Watch, described his introduction to life in Camp X-Ray:

A person came to my cell and explained the rules and regulations to me.  I was told not to talk with any other persons or shout or make noise or get close to the iron bars of my cell or the door of my cell…  My cell was one of ten cells that were located on both sides of a narrow corridor with five rooms on each side.  We could see each other, but we were prohibited to talk.21

Asif Iqbal, a British detainee, described Camp X-Ray:

In my cage there were two towels, one blanket, one small toothbrush, shampoo, soap, flip flops, and an insulation mat to sleep on as well as two buckets, one of water and one to use as a toilet (urinal). [The restrictions on the detainees initially] were probably the worst things we had to endure… in the first few weeks, we were not allowed any exercise at all; this meant that all day every day we were stuck in a cage of two meters by two meters. We were allowed out for two minutes a week to have a shower and then returned to the cage.  … During the day we were forced to sit in the cell (we couldn’t lie down) in total silence.  We couldn’t lean on the wire fence or stand up and walk around the cage. 22

After some time, the restrictions on conversations were slightly relaxed and the detainees were even permitted to speak briefly to some of the military police. Asif Iqbal, a British detainee, says that the military police told them that they had been told by their superiors that “we would kill them with our toothbrushes at the first opportunity, that we were all members of Al-Qaeda and that we had killed women and children indiscriminately.”23

Detainees were shackled when outside their cells.  Pakistani detainee Shah Mohammed Alikhil described one aspect of the camp living conditions:

I was told to call on guards if I wanted to go to the latrine or wash.  There was no problem with going to the latrines as many times as I wanted … Four guards were regularly keeping guard on our block and we were signaling at them to go to the latrine… [O]ne of them would keep guard and the other would enter the cell and shackle my hands, and then they would take me to the latrines.  On entering the latrine our hands were let loose, and on getting out of the latrine our hands were re-shackled.  And on entering my cell my hands were let loose.  It was a boring routine.24 

Another Pakistani detainee, Abdul Razak, recounted the following:

We were allowed to bathe twice a week.  But we could only use the toilet at the discretion of the guards and often they would not allow us to use the toilet when we needed to…. Some guards treated us OK.  Others were bad.  The bad ones did not help us or give us the bare necessities such as toilet paper, etc.  Also detainees were not allowed to talk to each other.  If people talked they were transferred to another block or the water would be turned off if they were in the shower.25 

Alif Khan, from Afghanistan, told the BBC about life in Camp Delta (the facility which replaced Camp X-Ray):

Everyone was in a cage individually.  Every cage had a tap, a toilet and water for washing.  There was room to sit but not enough to pray.  We were praying with difficulty.  My joints were damaged.  The light was very bright there as well.  They were switched on all the time.  Because of that our eyes were damaged and from constantly having to look through the netting [i.e. the tight mesh from which the door and walls of each cell are made].26

Detainees also complained about the interference with their ability to pray and the lack of respect given to their religion.  For example, the British detainees state that they were never given prayer mats and initially were not provided Korans.  They also complained that when the Korans were provided, the guards “would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet and generally disrespect it.”27

Apart from interrogations, and limited recreational and shower time out of cell, the detainees’ time was passed in boredom—which heightened the fear and anxiety. According to the three British detainees:

After a year, one day they came with boxes of books all in English.  They were given out to people including those who couldn’t speak English. We each got something to read. … There were a limited number of books. You soon had read all.  In 2003, the books that we were given started to have a large amount of the contents torn out…for instance novels would have large chunks ripped out but we would still read them because we were so desperate for something to distract ourselves. The Red Cross told us that they had brought 2000 books but they had mysteriously disappeared and never got to the detainees.28


Camp Four, a less restrictive facility in which the detainees have more privileges, was initiated in April 2003 within Camp Delta.  In Camp Four, the detainees live communally, wear white rather than orange overalls, and have more exercise time and other benefits.  According to the U.S. military, this facility is for those detainees who are considered less of a security risk to guards and other detainees, and who have been cooperative in the interrogation process.  It is also the place where some detainees were held preparatory to their release.  The fact that there is significant variation in released detainees’ accounts of their living conditions at Guantanamo might be explained by the fact that some are describing only their recent experiences of Camp Four. For example, one of a group of twenty-three Afghans released in March 2004, Haji Osman, told a New York Times journalist that he was well-treated, allowed to spend up to six hours a day outside his cell, allowed to play sports, and had eaten well enough to put on weight, albeit he had observed that not all prisoners were detained in the same level of comfort.29  Afghan detainee N.H., who spent his last five months at Guantanamo in Camp Four, described some serious problems with his previous conditions, but commented of Camp Four that he had “felt at home and it was easy to live there.”30

On January 29, 2004, the U.S. released three children believed to be between thirteen and fifteen years of age, having detained them for most of their time at Guantanamo in a separate part of the camp known as “Camp Iguana,” with no contact with other detainees.  Following their release they were interviewed by foreign journalists in Afghanistan.  They spoke positively of the conditions of their detention, which had involved classes and leisure activities, and of the kindness of their guards.31 The U.S. continues to hold an unspecified number of older children un-segregated from the population of adult detainees at Guantanamo.32 

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammad Sangir, January 17, 2004.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with Shah Mohammed Alikhil, January 3, 2004.

[22] Statement of Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, “Detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay,” released publicly on August 4, 2004, para. 63,65 available online at:, accessed on August 19, 2004.

[23] Ibid., para. 76.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with Shah Mohammed Alikhil, January 3, 2004.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul Razak, June 4, 2004.

[26] BBC Panorama, “Inside Guantanamo,” broadcast October 5, 2003.  Transcript available online at:, accessed on August 19, 2004.

[27] Statement of Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, “Detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay,” released publicly on August 4, 2004, para. 72, 74, available online at:, accessed on August 19, 2004. The disrespect of the Koran by guards at Camp X-Ray was one of the factors prompting a hunger strike. Ibid., para. 111-117.

[28]Statement of Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, “Detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay,” released publicly on August 4, 2004, para. 136, available online at:, accessed on August 19, 2004.

[29] Amy Waldman, “Guantanamo and Jailers: Mixed Review by Detainees,” New York Times, March 17, 2004, available online at:, accessed on August 19, 2004.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with N.H. (name withheld), June 2, 2004.

[31] James Anstill, “Cuba? It Was Great, Say Boys Freed from US Prison Camp,” The Guardian, London, March 6, 2004, available online at:,3604,1163312,00.html, accessed on July 1, 2004.

[32] For a more detailed discussion of the special risks to children held at Guantanamo, see Human Rights Watch, “Despite Releases, Children Still Held at Guantánamo,” January 29, 2004,  online at:, and Human Rights Watch, “Letter to Secretary Rumsfeld on Child Detainees at Guantanamo,” April 24, 2003, available online at:, accessed on August 19, 2004.

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