NOAH ADAMS, host:
Guantanamo is a place that few of us will ever see. Now, though, we can get a better picture of what the prisoners face through a new photo exhibit in Houston.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Two years ago, when the Gitmo detainees were first allowed to see lawyers, many thought it was some kind of a trick. The lawyers worked to win the trust of the detainees by traveling to the Middle East.
ADAMS: And there, they found the families of detainees, explained their sons' fate and took photographs. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, these are the images in the new exhibit.
WADE GOODWYN: It is the day after opening night, and a large, expectant group is gathered at the special "FotoFest - Guantanamo" exhibition. They could not have more knowledgeable docents. Sarah Havens and Doug Cox are the lawyers for 10 detainees from Yemen. They've been going to Guantanamo every six weeks for the last two years.
Mr. DOUGLAS COX (Lawyer): We're very happy to be here and be a part of this project, and we wanted to give you a little bit of background about, actually, some basic facts about Guantanamo and also…
GOODWYN: As Cox and Havens tell their story, they are interrupted by question after question. Where do they stay on the island? What are they allowed to stay? What can't they say? What's it like on Guantanamo?
Ms. SARAH HAVENS (Lawyer): There is a strip mall, a McDonalds, a grocery store that you would find anywhere in the United States. It really couldn't be more American than it is.
Unidentified Man: I'm really curious - over the past years, I continually hear the whitewash word detainees. Is there a legal definition from Black's Dictionary or something that differentiates a detainee from a prisoner?
Mr. COX: There have been some lawyers that have made a big point of this, and in everything that they ever file, they refer to their client as a prisoner.
Ms. HAVENS: Actually, the government often will avoid using the term detainee and will use the word enemy combatant instead. An enemy combatant…
GOODWYN: There is so little generally known about Guantanamo. The group has many questions. What about the guards? Are they cruel to the detainees? Cox and Havens say there are nice guards and mean guards, and their clients benefit and suffer accordingly. Finally, Doug Cox moves everyone over to the first photograph. It is a photo of a large portrait hanging crookedly on a living room wall. In the photograph, it's not the portrait of Riyadh that you notice so much. It's the sticks of furniture, the dirt floor, the thick chaos of poverty.
Mr. COX: This is one of the - one of our clients we wanted to tell people about. This is Riyadh. This is a picture taken from his father's living room. Riyadh is one of our special clients. When we first went to visit Guantanamo, Riyadh was one of the most shy and withdrawn of our clients. And to me he was, like, oh, I don't really know I need a lawyer. He was also a little uncertain of who I was. He asked to see my passport.
GOODWYN: Riyadh al-Haj(ph) was arrested for being a nurse in a Taliban-run hospital. At first, the Americans mistook him for the Taliban's foremost accountant, a man called Riyadh the Facilitator. The Americans finally found and arrested the real Riyadh the Facilitator, but the government continues to hold this Riyadh, Riyadh the Taliban nurse, as an enemy combatant anyway. This outrages Cox and Havens.
Mr. COX: The other part of that Taliban issue, which is just - is a little bit shocking to me, is that you have in Afghanistan former Taliban government officials that are now part of the new government. The former Taliban spokesman is now going to Yale and, you know, he's not considered an enemy combatant and he's not in prison.
GOODWYN: While he was painfully shy, the one person Riyadh would ask about was his elderly ill father back in Yemen. So the two lawyers flew to Yemen to find him. Cox says it was days before they did. Riyadh's father had heard and believed terrible rumors about his son's condition at Guantanamo - that he was now deaf, that his legs had been cut off and that electricity had been jolted through his ears into his brain.
Upon hearing that his son was not legless, not deaf and, in fact, sent his dearest love, Riyadh's father burst into tears of joy. And the photographs that Sarah Havens took of Riyadh's father laughing happily with Doug Cox convinced Riyadh back in Guantanamo that Cox and Havens truly were his lawyers, even if they were Americans.
Mr. COX: And then to be able to have finally found him and then go back to Riyadh and, you know, it was the one thing that he was so worried about and then to give him the pictures of, you know, standing next to his father is this - really what has meant a lot to him.
GOODWYN: The effect of the exhibit is exactly what curator Wendy Wattris intends. Donald Rumsfeld called these men, the worst of the worst. The government calls them enemy combatants and their lawyers call them detainees or prisoners. But here, they lose their group status and differentiate out into individuals.
Instead of seeing a photo of a detainee's back and handcuffs flanked by two military guards, there are pictures of the detainees' faces in photographs held by the detainees' cousins or nephews, brothers and fathers. Photographer Margot Herster created the exhibition. Her husband is one of the detainee lawyers.
Herster says she became obsessed looking at the hundreds of photographs brought back by the legal teams from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen.
Ms. MARGOT HERSTER (Photographer): The more interesting thing to me was the warmth of the images and the relationship I could feel between the U.S. attorneys who'd gone on this trip and the families of suspected terrorists.
GOODWYN: The exhibit also includes a display called "The Audio Room." It is large and dark, with a single, small spotlight on the floor. In the middle is a three-walled cell, and from each corner, a loud speaker booms out descriptions of abuse the detainees have confessed to their lawyers.
(Soundbite of exhibit recording)
Unidentified Man: He talked about being shackled to the floor for hours in interrogation rooms. He talked about being wrapped in Israeli flags. He talked about having a female interrogator smear him what he thought was menstrual blood on his body and his face.
GOODWYN: The darkness of the three-walled cell and the surround sound is claustrophobic. Most visitors stay two minutes or less, and some stand at the entrance, peer around the corner into the darkness and then walk away. Three hundred and eighty-five men are still being held in Guantanamo. For lack of evidence, most will never have charges brought against them. The photo-fest exhibition in Houston runs through May 19th.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CHADWICK: And to see some of these pictures, go to the Web site, npr.org.