But even prison food would come to represent something much more than a meal. “The only thing that brings color and life to your cell is the food…a red apple…a banana…” recalls Errachidi over the phone. “To someone who is in isolation, it’s a source of comfort, proof that there is life out there. It’s the only link between you and the outside world.” His review of a regular day’s fare at Guantánamo Bay is that it “wasn’t bad.” The men mostly received either a U.S. military MRE—Meal Ready-to-Eat, about 1,200 calories—or a portion of cooked food, always served cold. There was rice or pasta, sometimes with added meat or fish, plus a piece of fruit or an occasional cookie. Breakfast could be porridge or scrambled eggs with sliced bread, with cold tea or tap water to drink. Meals were served on paper plates, passed through a low, thin hatch in the cell door, and had to be eaten with plastic spoons. The spoons were issued with the food and had to be returned immediately afterwards, as the authorities were concerned they could be fashioned into weapons. The men hated the blandness of the food and the lack of variety, but it was good enough to look forward to, a highlight during the tedium of a normal day.
For Errachidi, there were very few of those normal days. In his first weeks at the base, he was convinced the interrogators would see that they’d made a mistake and let him go. As the endless rounds of identical questions continued, he realized he wasn’t getting out, and decided to thwart the authorities at every turn. That defiance—and the subsequent reputation it gave him among those incarcerated with him—meant he was in constant trouble. He estimates he spent four of his five years at Guantánamo undergoing some form of punishment.
“If you did something wrong in their eyes, they would take your food and blanket away from you,” he says. “I was always punished like this.”
The U.S. government prefers the term “single-celled detention” to “solitary confinement,” but soldiers and the incarcerated alike knew it simply as “isolation”: a tiny six-foot by eight-foot metal cell with a sliver of opaque glass for a window, furnished with a thin mattress, a toilet, and a sink. Prisoners in isolation were still allowed to talk to one another and receive regular meals. But even here, Errachidi continued to challenge the soldiers, and spent many nights in a special punishment cell, a plain metal box with a fan at head height. It had no window. No other prisoners were within earshot. It contained no furniture, mattress, or blanket. Clothing and sleep were forbidden. To add to the discomfort, food was used as a tool of intimidation. “They’d blow very cold air inside my cell,” he recalls. “I’m there in my shorts, no shoes, no trousers, no shoes, no nothing. I’m extremely hungry. I’m waiting six or seven hours for the food to come.”
That food wasn’t much to look forward to. Punishment meant regular meals were replaced by two dry bars of baked mixed beans, two slices of bread, and two pieces of raw carrot and celery. Nearly naked and kept constantly awake, he was often forced to make a stark choice: go hungry, or freeze.
“I chew my slice of bread with the baked beans, chew it, chew it, chew it, chew it. I’m dying to swallow it…but I make a mixture from the chewed food, like a cement, and block the ventilation,” recalls Errachidi.
Hunger strikes were common at the base, too. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of men would go on hunger strike, particularly when they felt their religious rights were being violated. One strike, prompted by the searching of the men’s Korans, went on for months.