2021-09-26 20:09:36 Freed From Guantánamo, but Still in Limbo 15 Years Later
Freed From Guantánamo, but Still in Limbo 15 Years Later
TIRANA, Albania (AP) — A devout Muslim man from western China was imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay for four years before being cleared and dumped in Albania 15 years ago, accused by the US military of being a terrorist in league with the Taliban.
Still stranded in a country he had no idea existed until he was sent there, Abu Bakker Qassim, 51, has a word of caution for the hundreds of Afghans who have fled their country in the last month and followed his path to one of Europe’s poorest but most welcoming nations as they await admission to the United States.
“The Americans,” he said, recalling how he and four other wrongfully imprisoned Uyghurs were flown to Albania from Guantánamo, Cuba, and told they wouldn’t be staying long, “quickly lose interest — they just threw us away.”
Despite China’s protests, Mr. Qassim has been granted “humanitarian protection” in Albania, the only country willing to take him in out of the scores requested by the State Department. He receives a monthly stipend of nearly $400, but he has not been able to obtain a visa or a passport, making travel difficult. The only country that truly desires him is China, which regards him as a terrorist because of his support for independence for his home region of Xinjiang, which he refers to as Turkestan.
If he ever returned, China would undoubtedly arrest him.
Mr. Qassim and I first met in Tirana, Albania’s capital, shortly after his arrival in 2006. He was depressed at the time. China demanded that Albania hand him over, describing him and his fellow Guantánamo detainees as members of a “terrorist force” with “close ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
He was also perplexed, not knowing where the Americans had sent him. He and his fellow Uyghurs were imprisoned in a converted army barracks with rusted barbed wire on the windows, which felt like another prison. He couldn’t communicate with anyone in his host country because he only spoke Uyghur and Chinese, and he had no idea what the Albanians planned to do with him.
His spirits have now significantly improved. Albania, a former Communist dictatorship and close friend of China during Mao Zedong’s reign, but now a NATO member and staunch American ally, declined Beijing’s request that he be sent to China. Instead, it provided him with funds to rent an apartment as well as a monthly food allowance. He got a job in a pizza parlor, made friends at a mosque in Tirana, and started a new family.
He now speaks Albanian fluently and has forgotten much of the Chinese he was forced to learn as a child in Xinjiang.
The tiny Balkan country that took him in, which recently committed to admitting up to 4,000 Afghans in need of shelter, “has a tradition of hosting people in need,” according to Olta Xhacka, the country’s foreign minister.
“We take pride in being welcoming,” she added.
Almost 700 Afghans have already arrived and are being housed in beach resorts along the Adriatic coast.
Mr. Qassim, on the other hand, is dismayed that so many Afghans are fleeing, driven by fear of the Taliban and the desire to reach the United States.
Unlike the Uyghurs, who are subject to an increasingly oppressive Chinese government and are incarcerated in large numbers in a vast network of Xinjiang internment camps, the Afghans, according to Mr. Qassim, have their own country and would be better off staying at home regardless of how oppressive the Taliban is.
“I’m not sure why they left. “It would be preferable if they stayed in their own country,” he said. “I understand what it is like to be imprisoned, but even if they are imprisoned, they will be close to their families.”
Mr. Qassim hasn’t seen his family in Xinjiang in over 20 years, since he set out with a friend from western China on an ill-fated attempt to travel overland to Turkey, where the language is similar to the Turkic tongue spoken by Uyghurs and where he hoped to find work. He was traveling on a Chinese passport that was only valid for two years.
When he was stranded in Afghanistan without money or papers during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he was apprehended by bounty-hunting tribesmen on the Pakistan-Afghan border and handed over to Americans, who were offering cash for suspected terrorists. They labeled him a “enemy combatant” and detained him at Guantánamo Bay, where he joined other Muslims caught up in President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror.”
Mr. Qassim was led in shackles to a military transport plane and flown overnight from Cuba to Tirana after being exonerated by a military tribunal in 2006. Attempts to obtain visas for the United States and Canada have been futile since then, and all but one of the Guantánamo five remain in Albania. The one who escaped moved to Sweden and now works as a taxi driver.
Mr. Qassim said he laughed when he heard last month that US officials were negotiating with the Taliban for access to Kabul’s international airport after the American-backed government collapsed and ceded control of the Afghan capital to the insurgents on Aug. 15.
During his detention at Guantánamo, he claimed that “they kept telling me that the Taliban were terrorists and accused me of collaborating with the Taliban, but now they are collaborating with the Taliban.”
He observed that the world has “certainly changed a lot in 20 years.”
The evolution of attitudes toward China, he says, is one change that gives him comfort. When he was first detained at Guantánamo, the Bush administration agreed with China that Uyghurs seeking independence or even greater autonomy were dangerous extremists. In 2002, Washington designated the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a largely fictitious Uyghur group, as an Al Qaeda affiliate, providing cover for Chinese claims that Uyghurs who protested their treatment were terrorists.
The Trump administration removed the Uyghur group from the United States’ terrorist list last year, claiming there was no evidence of its existence.
“We discussed the China risk more than 20 years ago and told everyone, ‘Be careful of China,’” Mr. Qassim said. “However, they are only now beginning to realize what kind of country the Chinese Communist Party has created.”
He last communicated with his wife and three children in China in 2016, when the Communist Party appointed a new hardline boss in Xinjiang and launched a mass detention program that has since imprisoned a million or more Uyghurs and other Muslims in “re-education” camps. He is concerned that his relatives, tainted by his status in China as a dangerous extremist, have become victims of what the State Department called “genocide” in Xinjiang earlier this year.
He said the last he heard from his 21-year-old daughter in Xinjiang was that she had not been arrested and was working in a shop, but that she was being pressured to marry a Han Chinese in order to demonstrate her loyalty to Beijing and avoid detention.
Mr. Qassim took a second wife in Albania, a Uyghur woman with whom he has three children, after being estranged from his family in Xinjiang. He said he told his first wife he had remarried over the phone, and she was “a little angry,” but she understood that due to Chinese policies in Xinjiang, their chances of ever getting back together were slim.
He expressed his gratitude to Albania for not deporting him to China and for providing him with money, but he was frustrated that it had yet to grant him formal asylum or Albanian travel documents despite his more than 15 years of residency.
Mr. Qassim had not applied for a passport, according to the Albanian Interior Ministry. Mr. Qassim stated that his lawyer had contacted the ministry and was informed that the Uyghurs’ “humanitarian protection” status precluded the possibility of obtaining a passport.
While he is angry at the US for his time at Guantánamo and the 15 years he has spent in limbo in Albania, he still sees America as the Uyghurs’ only real hope.
“If Turkestan ever achieves independence, it will be thanks to America,” Mr. Qassim stated. “Every country makes mistakes, but I can’t give up on the United States just because they treated five Uyghurs unfairly in Albania.”
Fatjona Mejdini helped with reporting.