From Gitmo cell to 'freedom' in Albania

Abu Muhammad, an Algerian doctor, is one of eight former Guantánamo detainees who were granted asylum in Albania.

Abu Muhammad arrived in Albania tied to his seat and guarded by armed American soldiers. The choice when he arrived, he says, was stark: accept asylum in Albania – one of the Europe's poorest nations – or return to Guantánamo Bay, where he spent more than four years as a detainee.

"There's nothing here. You cannot find a job. You cannot find something for your family," he says, speaking at a Tirana restaurant.

Mr. Muhammad's strange, five-year odyssey has taken him from Pakistan, where he had been granted refugee status by the United Nations refugee agency, to Guantánamo, and finally here to a refugee center on the outskirts of Tirana.

One of eight former Guantánamo detainees cleared by the US military and granted asylum by the Albanian government at the request of the US, Muhammad – who uses a pseudonym because he fears retribution against his family in Algeria – is now trapped in a country where he doesn't speak the language and there is little infrastructure for helping refugees resettle.

But while Albania may hardly be the ideal destination for the eight people released, 30 to 40 other detainees remain cleared to leave but stuck in Guantánamo.

"There are several dozen other people like the men in Albania – refugees who fled persecution in their own countries yet ended up in Guantánamo because they were picked up in the chaos of war," says Emi MacLean, a legal fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing Muhammad in a lawsuit against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other military personnel. "Now, they're trapped in Guantánamo because they can't go home and no other country will accept them."

An Algerian national, Muhammad was living in Pakistan – where he says he was working as a teacher for a nongovernmental organization – when police came to his door in the middle of the night. They were looking for another man, he says, but took him away anyway "for verification."

That was the last time he saw his five children and then-pregnant wife. He has a daughter, now 5, whom he has never seen.

A doctor by training, Muhammad speaks English, Arabic, and French – all softly – and shows no rage at the US. He says he is happy to be free but he sees little future for himself in Albania. He gets food, accommodation, and a small stipend from the government, but jobs are scarce and he despairs of ever bringing his family.

"Bring my family? Where?" he says. "They say they will give you one house with two rooms for two persons. How can I take my family in one room? I have six children."

Officially, the US says Muhammad is "no longer" an enemy combatant, but lawyers representing him say there is no evidence that he ever posed a threat to the US. He was held for an additional 18 months in Guantánamo after being cleared by an internal panel before being transferred to Albania against his will in November 2006.

Now he spends his time trolling the Internet, to catch up on five years of missed news, and looking for jobs. He hopes eventually to move to a French or Arabic-speaking country and be reunited with his family.

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