For Gitmo Uighurs, new life is no walk on the beach

The former detainees, including Uighurs released to Albania, say they are eager to put "terrorist" label behind them.

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    Former Guantánamo detainees, left to right, Ablakim Turahun, Abdulla Abdulqadir, Khelil Mamut, and Salahidin Abdulahat walk together in the historic district of St. George, on the island of Bermuda, Sunday, June 14. The four are Chinese ethnic Uighurs who have just been released from US military custody after years in Guantánamo, and are being resettled in Bermuda.
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Uighurs in Paradise” is the headline atop one of the many stories published today chronicling the first day of freedom for a group of four Uighurs released from Guantánamo to Bermuda.

There have also been tales of the guava juice-sipping lifestyle that awaits several Uighur prisoners who are expected to be resettled soon in the Pacific island republic of Palau.

Much of the news coverage has focused on the fears of local residents: How can someone locked in Guantánamo be declared safe? Are they Al Qaeda? What's a Uighur, anyway?

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These are the same questions asked in 2006 when a group of five Uighurs from Guantánamo were released after a US federal court found their detention to be illegal.

Although China considers the Uighurs to be domestic terrorists (many, in fact, want their own Muslim homeland) their time in Guantánamo appears owed more to bad timing and poor luck than geopolitical considerations.

Wrong time, wrong place

The men had fled their home province of Xinjiang, China, and were near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2001 when the US bombing campaign began. The Uighurs have contended their time in Guantánamo was the result of overly zealous bounty hunters.

Regardless, the men have long been declared innocent of wrong-doing, yet few countries were willing to risk angering China by accepting them.

Kicking back in Albania

The US reportedly asked about 100 other countries to take the men. Until recently, Albania was the only country willing to help.

One of the freed detainees who ended up in Albania eventually went on to gain political asylum in Sweden (read more here). The rest remain in Albania, where they have lived relatively quiet existences (for more on their stories, click here). [Editor's note: The original story incorrectly referred to the country where
a detainee was granted political asylum.]

When our correspondent caught up recently with former detainee Abu Bakker Qassim in Albania's capital, Mr. Qassim was training to become a chef. He said the early days in Albania were not easy.

"At the beginning, people looked on us as terrorists, but I think the Albanians have come to understand that we were no such thing," Qassim told the Monitor. "They were suspicious of our long beards, but now the beards have gone and so have their doubts."

Another one of the Uighurs in Albania has received a scholarship to study computer science at American University in Tirana. Others have volunteered for city tree planting projects, among other pursuits. Qassim said he thought often of his 17 fellow Uighurs who remained at Guantánamo after he was freed.

Their release will be "good news for us, but also for the American people," he said, "because it will lift the doubts that Guantánamo has created about American democracy."

No hard feelings

Salahidin Abdulahat, one of the four Uighurs recently released to Bermuda, had a similarly magnanimous reaction to his captors.

"Before we were asking, 'Why are the Americans doing this to us?'" Mr. Abdulahat told The New York Times. Now, he said, "We have ended up in such a beautiful place. We don't want to look back, and we don't have any hard feelings toward the United States."

Abdulahat told The Royal Gazette in Bermuda that "We'd never heard of al Qaeda until we came to Guantánamo and heard about them from our interrogators."

The Guantánamo Uihgurs now living in Albania, Sweden, and now Bermuda have might be ready to forgive their captors and move forward with their lives, but that doesn't mean the future is all bright and shiny. Many of the former detainees say they have no chance of ever seeing their families again in China.

"My wife was pregnant with twins when I left 10 years ago," Qassim said. "I speak to them on the phone, but hardly have any hope left of being reunited."

They're no longer surrounded by steel bars, but that doesn't mean their new lives are walks on the beach.

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