Zak: Guantanamo's controversial cultural advisor
This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military, shows the razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned "Camp X-Ray" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, April 9, 2014 - by Mladen Antonov
Zak is the cultural advisor at the US military prison in Cuba -- a delicate task, as he is a sort of mediator between the inmates and their jailers.
While his job is one that requires diplomatic skills, Zak does not mince words when he talks about the prisoners -- some he considers to be dangerous radicals.
"The extremists -- their goal is to discredit the US through every breath we take," he told a group of AFP journalists who recently visited the prison.
Sitting at his desk, just a few meters from the office of the commandant of the military authorities in Guantanamo, Zak does not even try to disguise his contempt for the prisoners who say they are waging a religious war from within their tropical jail.
"Religion is always used as a weapon and as a shield," explains the 56-year-old who is now a US citizen.
"If they knew one percent about the religion, they would not be sitting behind bars," he added.
- Guantanamo's middle man -
The 56-year-old Zak -- a father of three young sons, the third born at Guantanamo -- has worked at the prison since 2005.
"I'm the middle man to help both sides to understand each other and how to communicate well," he explained.
He meets daily with some of the 154 inmates currently incarcerated at the prison, which was set up on the US military base in 2002 -- but avoids making judgments about their cases.
"It's not our job here in Gitmo to say they're all innocent or they're all guilty," he said calmly. "That's up to the court or somebody else to decide."
"I'm not interested in their past," he explained. "When they got arrested, they were somewhere with somebody. They know something -- that's why they are here."
He notes that the 600 or so inmates who were repatriated or sent to third countries were not necessarily innocent.
"They were given to their own country to deal with and determine where to go," he said. "Some of them went back to normal life, and some of them went back to the fight."
So what does Zak do?
The civilian employee trains the military guards and the medical personnel on how to work with the prisoners -- part of which, he says, is helping them deal with the spit, urine and feces the inmates regularly fling at them.
As a bilingual, bi-cultural emissary, he can also talk to the inmates in Arabic -- but that doesn't mean the inmates give him a warm welcome, he said.
"Some of them consider me a traitor, some of them consider me any cuss word they call me."
- 'Fear is always here' -
Zak participates in selecting books for the inmates, helps in preparing the prison for Ramadan observance and helps mitigate crises like the recent long-lasting hunger strike.
"We have some detainees who show through their behavior that their extremism is abating -- by them attending classes, by watching TV, by listening to radio.
"But there's still extremism," he said, citing behavior he has observed in Camps 5 and 6, and reported back to military authorities.
"The troublemakers continue to discredit the United States with every breath," Zak said, adding they were "working hard to convince" their fellow inmates.
They "say this is a war on their country, this is a war on their religion," he said. "But it's not -- they drive the guard forces crazy."
For example, Zak explained, the inmates demand total silence when praying.
"You've been in the Middle East -- do cars in the street stop during the prayer call?" he asks.
For Zak, the outside world is "not fair" in its negative view of Guantanamo.
"Everybody is believing every word the detainees are saying," he said.
He believes his position at the jail puts him in danger -- thus his decision to hide his last name and his face, as he does not want to "make it easy for the bad guys to come and find me" if and when the prison closes one day, as President Barack Obama has said he hopes to do.
"I protect myself but fear is always here."