New ‘serial’ podcast explores life at Guantánamo Bay

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It was a sunny day in May 2015 when Sarah Koenig and Dana Chivvis stepped off a plane chartered by the U.S. Army and onto the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

They were there to learn the unofficial history of Guantánamo, where, after 9/11, the U.S. government had opened a prison to detain people suspected of being members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Thus began a story that lasted almost 10 years and hundreds of hours of interviews.

This story is told in the new season of “Serial,” a podcast from Serial Productions and The New York Times. Over the course of nine episodes (the first two drop Thursday), Ms. Koenig and Ms. Chivvis, the season’s co-hosts, present a mosaic of life at Guantánamo using the experiences of those who survived and served there, as Ms. Koenig said. in the season trailer. This includes former prisoners, guards, interrogators and more.

“There has been a tremendous amount of extraordinary and important reporting on the ground in the realm of geopolitics and policymaking,” Ms. Chivvis said. “But what we were trying to do was recreate the world of Guantánamo through the personal stories of people who existed, lived, worked and were imprisoned there.”

Between Ms. Koenig and Ms. Chivvis’s first visit to Guantánamo in 2015 and Thursday’s season premiere, there were a few false starts and interviews with more than 100 people. When Ms. Koenig and Ms. Chivvis first visited, they found that many sources were reluctant to speak publicly. Some staff members did not want to risk their careers. The ex-prisoners they approached were nervous about talking about their experiences or simply wanted to move on.

“People were telling us really interesting and crazy things off the record,” Ms. Chivvis said. “But as soon as we turned on the microphones and stuck them in their faces, they closed completely.”

Their editor, Julie Snyder, had the idea to put together a pilot for a TV show about a fictionalized version of Guantánamo. She thought people might be more truthful if they contributed based on background, not as named sources.

“That’s when crazy, debauched stories started to emerge,” Ms. Koenig said.

By 2020, they had completed a pilot script that had attracted the interest of a production company. But by then, Ms. Koenig thought enough people might return to civilian life and would agree to share those stories in the record.

“I thought it was worth a try,” he said.

His hunch proved correct: a few more years after their deployment or detention, the former guards and prisoners were willing to speak out. Then Ms. Chivvis and Ms. Koenig interviewed the registered people again. The couple also returned to Guantánamo in 2022. This time they were able to observe and report on the court proceedings. They also conducted multiple interviews.

In the course of their reporting, Ms. Chivvis and Ms. Koenig collected hundreds of hours of interviews spanning nearly a decade, which they needed to turn into a story.

“We have this incredible, wide range of stories and people that will speak to us at the end of the day,” Ms. Koenig said. “So it was just a matter of deciding which ones to focus on and why.”

Over the past year, the team examined the recordings and decided to dedicate the season to the stories of individuals, introducing listeners to a rich range of perspectives and personalities.

“The nice thing about the podcast is that you hear both sides,” Ms. Chivvis said. “You hear from inmates what it’s like to survive day to day as a prisoner and then you hear from a group of American servicemen who worked there about what life was like on the other side of the wall.” (The city, he said, was surprisingly lively and had a busy party scene, with guards blowing off steam after their shifts at area bars. In the season trailer, some even called it “la la land.”)

The series also examines the question of why, 15 years after President Obama signed an executive order to close the prison, it remains open with 30 inmates. President Biden has renewed his push to close the prison in 2021, but progress has been slow.

“I think most people don’t think about Guantánamo,” Ms. Chivvis said. “It’s one of those things that in your mind you relegate to a page in the history book.” But because Guantánamo is still open, she added, “it’s not history yet.”

The hope, Koenig said, is that people leave the podcast with renewed interest in Guantánamo, a place they may not have thought about in years.

“We want to engage them in a very complicated topic in an intimate and compelling way,” he said. “I think – I hope – that people will understand Guantánamo in a way that they haven’t yet understood.”