Task Force Tends to Detainees' Dietary Needs During Ramadan
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2005 Members of Joint Task Force Guantanamo are ensuring detainees get special consideration for religious requirements of observing Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, which began Oct. 4 and runs to Nov. 3 this year.
Contracted food service workers prepare rice that will be fed to detainees at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Joint Task Force Guantanamo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Most observant Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during Ramadan, and food-service officials at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are providing pre-dawn and midnight meals to help the detainees observe their customs during this holy period, the joint task force's food-service officer explained.
Breakfast, which might normally be served around 7 a.m., is now served at 4 a.m. "because obviously we want to make sure that they have plenty of time to eat before sunup," Navy Lt. Jonathan Sym said in a telephone interview from the island naval base.
He said a religious adviser also provides input as to what's appropriate to serve during Ramadan.
Detainees who choose not to fast still receive meals on the regular schedule. But, Sym said, most Guantanamo detainees are fasting during Ramadan, though many have chosen not to fast.
The extra early and late meals, generally consisting of dates, fruit and bread, mean the food service staff works nearly around the clock during Ramadan, Sym said. Contractors provide food service to detainees and servicemembers at Guantanamo Bay.
"Everyone in the JTF took some great pains to make sure their observation of Ramadan was done as best as we possibly could," he said.
Sym explained that officials at the detention facility strive to cater to the religious and social preferences of the detainees throughout the year, not just during Ramadan. Detainees are served only Halal meats, from animals that were ritually slaughtered according to Islamic practice, and are not served pork. Muslims are forbidden from eating pork or products made from any part of pigs. For instance, gelatin and lard often are derived from rendered pig bones or skin.
Officials also try to provide foods familiar to Middle Easterners, but that many Westerners don't eat regularly, such as lamb and dates.
"During Ramadan, we still obviously will cater to that level of quality," Sym said.
A menu review board meets quarterly to discuss dietary issues affecting the detainees and plan menus. The commander and logistics officer of the Joint Detention Operations Group, the Joint Task Fore Guantanamo food service officer, a nutritionist, a preventive medicine specialist, and the contract galley manager make up the menu review board. Menus generally rotate and repeat on a two-week cycle, Sym said.
Even at the detention center, special occasions deserve special meals. Sym said officials began several weeks ago to plan a suitable meal for the detainees to celebrate "Eid al-Fitr," the celebration of breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Fitr is one of Islam's most important celebrations.
Sym said he's never heard anyone question whether it's appropriate to cater to detainees' religious preferences during their holy time. It's just the right thing to do, he said.
"I think all the things that we do here is exactly the way that I know we would like our counterparts to treat Americans if we were in that situation," Sym said. "I don't even think it was a matter of choice whether we're going to do what we can; I think it just came naturally.
"I'm not a policy maker in the military; I'm just a junior officer," he added. "But ... I think we set a standard for ourselves and for the way we will treat other people, and we won't go below that."