August 19, 2022

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Freed From Guantánamo, however Still in Limbo 15 Years Later


TIRANA, Albania — Accused by the United States navy of being a terrorist in league with the Taliban, a religious Muslim man from western China spent 4 years imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay earlier than being cleared after which dumped in Albania 15 years ago.

Still stranded in a rustic he didn’t know existed till he was despatched there, the person, Abu Bakker Qassim, 51, has a phrase of warning for the a whole lot of Afghans who’ve fled their nation over the previous month and followed his path to one of Europe’s poorest but most welcoming nations as they watch for admission to the United States.

“The Americans,” he stated, recalling how he and 4 different wrongly imprisoned Uyghurs had been flown to Albania from Guantánamo, Cuba, and warranted they might not be staying lengthy, “quickly lose interest — they just threw us away.”

Mr. Qassim has been granted “humanitarian protection” in Albania, the one nation that was prepared to take him in out of scores requested by the State Department, regardless of protests from China. He will get a month-to-month stipend of practically $400, however he has not managed to get a visa or a passport, which makes journey wherever troublesome. The solely nation that actually desires him is China, which considers him a terrorist due to his advocacy of independence for his residence area of Xinjiang, which he calls Turkestan.

China would definitely arrest him if he ever returned.

I first met Mr. Qassim days after his arrival in 2006 in Tirana, the Albanian capital. At the time, he was despondent. China was demanding that Albania hand him over, describing him and his fellow Uyghurs from Guantánamo as a part of a “terrorist force” with “close relations to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

He was additionally very confused, probably not positive the place the Americans had despatched him. He and his fellow Uyghurs have been confined to a transformed military barracks that had rusty barbed wire on the home windows and felt like one other jail. Speaking solely Uyghur and Chinese, he couldn’t talk with anybody in his host nation and didn’t know what the Albanians supposed to do with him.

His spirits have now lifted significantly. Albania, a former Communist dictatorship and shut buddy of China’s within the period of Mao Zedong however now a member of NATO and a steadfast American ally, declined Beijing’s requests that he be despatched to China. Instead, it gave him cash to hire an house, in addition to a month-to-month allowance for meals. He discovered work in a pizza parlor, made associates at a Tirana mosque and began a brand new household.

He now speaks fluent Albanian and has forgotten a lot of the Chinese that he was obliged to study rising up in Xinjiang.

The tiny Balkan nation that took him in, which lately dedicated to admitting as much as 4,000 Afghans in want of shelter, “has a tradition of hosting people in need,” the nation’s international minister, Olta Xhacka, stated in an interview.

“We take pride in being hospitable,” she added.

Nearly 700 Afghans have already arrived and have been put up in seashore resorts alongside the Adriatic coast.

Mr. Qassim, nonetheless, is dismayed that so many Afghans are fleeing, an exodus pushed by worry of the Taliban and hope of attending to the United States.

Unlike the Uyghurs, dominated by an more and more oppressive Chinese authorities and incarcerated in massive numbers in a vast network of Xinjiang internment camps, the Afghans, stated Mr. Qassim, have their very own nation and, irrespective of how oppressive the Taliban could also be, can be higher off staying at residence.

“I don’t understand why they left. It would be better to stay in their own country,” he stated. “I know what it is to be jailed, but even if they go to jail, they will be near their families.”

Mr. Qassim has not seen his household in Xinjiang for greater than 20 years, since he set off with a buddy from western China on an ill-fated effort to journey overland to Turkey, the place the language is much like the Turkic tongue spoken by Uyghurs and the place he had hoped to search out work. He traveled on a Chinese passport legitimate for less than two years.

Stranded in Afghanistan with out cash or papers on the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults, he was grabbed by bounty-hunting tribesman on the Pakistan-Afghan border and handed over to the Americans, who have been providing money for suspected terrorists. They thought-about him an “enemy combatant” and despatched him to the jail at Guantánamo Bay to hitch different Muslims swept up in President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror.”

After being exonerated in 2006 by a navy tribunal, Mr. Qassim was led in shackles to a navy transport airplane and flown in a single day to Tirana from Cuba. Repeated efforts since then to get visas for the United States and Canada have failed, and all however one of many Guantánamo 5 are nonetheless in Albania. The one who received out moved to Sweden, the place he works as a taxi driver.

Mr. Qassim stated he laughed when he heard final month that United States officers have been negotiating with the Taliban over entry to Kabul’s worldwide airport after the American-backed government collapsed on Aug. 15 and ceded management of the Afghan capital to the insurgents.

During his detention in Guantánamo, he stated, “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.”

The world, he famous, “has certainly changed a lot in 20 years.”

One change that brings him consolation, he stated, is the evolution of attitudes towards China. When he was first despatched to Guantánamo, the Bush administration had embraced China’s view that Uyghurs demanding independence and even merely higher autonomy have been harmful extremists. In 2002, Washington named a largely phantom Uyghur group referred to as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as an affiliate of Al Qaeda, a transfer that gave cowl to Chinese claims that Uyghurs who protested their therapy have been terrorists.

Last 12 months, the Trump administration removed the Uyghur group from the United States’ terrorism listing, saying there was no proof it existed.

“We spoke about the China risk more than 20 years ago and constantly told everyone: ‘Be careful of China,’” Mr. Qassim stated. “But only now are they starting to understand what kind of country the Chinese Communist Party has created.”

He final communicated along with his spouse and three youngsters in China in 2016, when the Communist Party appointed a brand new hard-line boss in Xinjiang and commenced a program of mass detentions that has since put as many as one million or extra Uyghurs and different Muslims in “re-education” camps. He worries that his kin, tainted by his standing in China as a harmful extremist, have turn into victims of what the State Department this 12 months described as “genocide” in Xinjiang.

The final he heard about his 21-year-old daughter in Xinjiang, he stated, was that she had not been arrested and was working in a store, however she was being pressured to marry a Han Chinese in order to show her loyalty to Beijing and keep away from detention.

Cut off from his household in Xinjiang, Mr. Qassim took a second spouse in Albania, a Uyghur girl with whom he has had three youngsters. He stated he advised his first spouse by phone that he had remarried, and “she was a bit angry,” however she understood that due to Chinese insurance policies in Xinjiang, their possibilities of ever getting again collectively have been slim.

He stated that he was deeply grateful to Albania for not sending him again to China and for giving him cash, however that he was pissed off that it had stalled on granting him formal asylum or Albanian journey paperwork regardless of greater than 15 years of residency.

The Albanian Interior Ministry stated Mr. Qassim had not utilized for a passport. Mr. Qassim stated his lawyer had requested the ministry and been advised that the Uyghur’s “humanitarian protection” standing precluded the opportunity of a passport.

While offended on the United States over his years at Guantánamo and his 15 years since in limbo in Albania, he nonetheless views America because the Uyghurs’ solely actual hope.

“If Turkestan ever gets independence, it will be because of America,” Mr. Qassim stated. “Every country makes mistakes, but I can’t stop believing in the United States just because they did injustice to five Uyghurs sent to Albania.”

Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting.



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