LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Don't tell retired U.S. Navy Lt. Stephen Harris about the difficulties of being an Afghan war detainee in Cuba. He was tortured, beaten and starved in North Korea — a far cry, he says, from what's happening in Camp X-Ray.
The 158 Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base are being interrogated by American authorities seeking information to help the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Some U.S. allies, as well as human rights groups, have criticized the conditions under which the prisoners are being held and have pushed the United States to designate the detainees as prisoners of war, which would guarantee them greater protections under the Geneva Convention.
U.S. officials have said the detainees are being treated humanely and that they do not qualify as prisoners of war. The International Red Cross has been allowed to visit the captives.
Many former POWs say that, regardless of the prisoners' status, conditions at Camp X-Ray are far different from those they were forced to endure.
They remember forced marches in freezing temperatures with little clothing, minuscule food rations, regular beatings, torture, executions, cramped cells with little or no light, no books or writing utensils, nothing to keep their minds off the grueling conditions.
"In the entire 61/2 years I was a prisoner of war, I never saw the Red Cross," said retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Orson Swindle, now a federal trade commissioner in Washington, D.C.
Swindle, a former fighter pilot was shot down over Vietnam in November 1966 and remained in captivity until March 1973.
"I was taken into a cave, tied up, put in a pit and they'd bring people in to see me ... they'd all have rocks and sticks ... and my main goal was to keep my head down so I didn't get my eyes put out," Swindle remembered.
In contrast, Swindle said, the detainees at Camp X-Ray are being held in open-air cells with walls of chain-link fence in tropical temperatures that hover in the low-80s. The detainees have been issued prayer (skull) caps and are allowed to pray five times a day.
Upon arrival in Cuba, they were allowed to mail a letter home to let relatives know of their situation. Officials have said the prisoners will be allowed to grow back their beards and long hair that many Muslim men wear. They're also getting pita bread with their meals now, and officials are considering requests to give them access to tea and books.
The former POWs point out that designation as a prisoner of war does not guarantee humane treatment.
Harris was an intelligence officer aboard the USS Pueblo when the boat was attacked and captured off the coast of North Korea in 1968. He was held by the North Koreans for 11 months without prisoner of war status.
"They were calling us detainees just as we're calling those folks in Cuba detainees, although they weren't treating us very nicely," Harris said in telephone interview from his home in Melrose, Mass.
Harris said a North Korean commander laughed at him when he displayed the Geneva Convention rules that govern how international prisoners should be treated.
"To North Korea, the Geneva Convention didn't mean anything," he said.
"We were treated miserably, we were tortured, beaten, starved. I lost 53 pounds in the course of a year," Harris said. "But we assumed ourselves to be prisoners of war. What else would we be? We were captured in a combat situation between two countries that are not friendly to each other."
But Harris said the situation is different with the detainees in Cuba, who are from 25 countries.
To be prisoners of war, "you're assumed to be combatants on behalf of a state," Harris said. "But these guys are stateless because Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, which for all practical purposes doesn't exist anymore. So if a day of repatriation were to come, where would they be repatriated to?"
John Klumpp, of Marble Falls, Texas, is the national commander of the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization. He was a prisoner in Germany during World War II.
"I don't think these people should be considered POWs. We're dealing with a bunch of killers, not military people," he said.