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Escape to Hell: Fleeing China, Landing in Guantanamo

Former Uighur prisoners, from left: Abu Bakker Qassim, Akhdar Qasem Basit,
Adel Abdulhehim, Ayub Haji Mohammed and Ahmed Adil.

By Hauke Goos (Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan)
Spiegel Online (English Site)
July 14, 2006

In 2000, five men left their homes in northern China to escape the prospect of torture and imprisonment. They dreamed of a future in the United States. Caught up in America’s war on terror along the way, they instead ended up in Guantanamo. It’s been six years since they last saw their families.

They sit on their beds in a barracks on the outskirts of the city, waiting. The door is ajar, revealing a cloudless late spring day in Tirana, Albania, where it promises to be a hot day. None of the five men says a word. They’ve been waiting -- not just the entire morning, not just the entire day before, but the past five years -- for some country, any country, to agree to grant them political asylum.

They want to move on with their lives.

Through the window they see a white United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Toyota pull into the courtyard. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting China today, where she’ll meet with President Hu Jintao. They’ll be discussing human rights, or so they say. Every politician who visits China these days is supposedly there to talk about human rights. But true or not, the news represents a shred of hope for the five men.

They’re wearing short-sleeved shirts and brand-new sneakers. Abu Bakker Qassim, the oldest, has taken on the role of the group’s leader. Adel Abdulhehim has three children back home in China. Akhdar Qasem Basit rarely speaks. Ahmed Adil was so frustrated with the endless wait that he finally wrote a letter to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Ayub Haji Mohammed, the youngest, left his parents’ home at 18 to study in the United States.

They look as if this weren’t the first time they had dressed up in anticipation of finally beginning their new lives.

The men are Uighurs, members of a Turkic minority in China’s far northwest Xinjiang Uygur region bordering Mongolia. The Uighurs dream of having their own country one day, East Turkestan. In the eyes of the Chinese government, that makes them potential terrorists.

A road to nowhere

The five men left their home six years ago, hoping to escape repression at the hands of Chinese authorities, hoping to find a better, freer life abroad. But then came September 11, and the men became entangled in the machinery of world politics. They were bombed and beaten, betrayed, accused and humiliated. They finally ended up in Guantanamo.

The driver of the white Toyota walks toward the office. The five men watch. They share three sleeping rooms and one toilet. The walls are painted a swimming pool green, the windows are barred and bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling. Albania’s national refugee camp was once a military barracks. A uniformed guard stands at the door.

Human rights activists were still interested in the five Uighurs when they were prisoners of the Americans. But now that they have been released, they are more a practical problem than a moral one. The United States doesn’t want them, they can’t go back to China, and many other countries -- Germany included -- have refused to grant them asylum. Everyone, it seems, is worried about offending China, a powerful trading partner.

Ayub, the youngest, walks to the window, which frames a view of shimmering mountains in the distance. He is thin, wears his black shirt over his belt and sports the beginnings of a traditional Uighur man’s black moustache. He points outside.

The camp is surrounded by a high wall, topped by rolls of barbed wire glinting in the sun. The men are free, but they remain prisoners -- five young men unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, five men who went to war without knowing it.

Abu Bakker Qassim, the eldest, used to think it was all a big misunderstanding. Back in Xinjiang, which he and the others call East Turkestan, he was trained as an upholsterer. After working in a state-owned leather factory, he started his own business. He is a quiet, affable man with large glasses. The inscription on his T-shirt reads “Athletic 76 - Boys of Europe.”

Abu Bakker says his parents were nationalists, but their nationalism was impotent and silent. They were at odds with Chinese policies and dreamed of independence, but they never dared do anything about it.

Until February 1997, that is. That was when the Uighurs took to the streets in Yining, Abu Bakker’s home town, demanding social and religious freedom. Abu Bakker, 28 at the time, didn’t participate. He had married three years earlier and his new wife had given birth to a son a short time later. At the time, he preferred caution over nationalism.

Instead of marching, he witnessed how the police broke up the protests. “They were shooting at children and they used water cannons at temperatures of twenty below zero,” he says. “They arrested tens of thousands.” At least 10 people were killed and more than 190 injured.

For Abu Bakker, husband, father, small businessman, this demonstration was an eye-opening experience. He decided to express his views in the future, even publicly. Like others in Yining, he knew that the Uighurs had their own country once, between 1944 and 1949, and that they only wanted what they believed was rightfully theirs.

“Suddenly we began openly criticizing China. We didn’t think it was a crime to be an Uighur, to earn money and to work for a better life.”

Tortured in China

Abu Bakker was arrested in 1998, one year after the protests. He was tortured with electroshocks until he was finally willing to confess to practically any accusations. After seven months he was released, but his fears stayed with him. He was afraid for his family and his own life, constantly anticipating an ominous, nighttime knock at the door.

He decided to leave China. In January 2000, Abu Bakker went to Kyrgyzstan, where he sold Russian watches, ropes and bags in a local market. His plan was to earn enough money to bring his wife and child to Kyrgyzstan, so that they could continue on to Turkey, where many Uighurs live. And perhaps, he thought, they would move to America one day.

See Map: The six year journey of the Uighurs of Xinjiang Uygur

The United States is a promised land of sorts for most Uighurs. It has a few Uighur communities, Radio Free Asia is based there and there is even an Uighur-American Association, founded in Washington in 1998. The US is seen as tolerant, and many Uighurs believe that those who make it there can fight for the Uighur cause without having to risk their lives in China.

Abu Bakker met Adel Abdulhehim -- the man with three children back home -- in Kyrgyzstan. Six years younger than Abu Bakker, Adel had already been imprisoned a number of times. His brother-in-law was one of the organizers of the February 1997 demonstration and was later executed. The two men decided to go to Turkey, where they had an Uighur acquaintance who owned a leather goods factory.

In mid-2001 they traveled through Tajikistan, then crossed the border into Pakistan. To save money, they decided to travel by bus, which meant they would need a visa for Iran. Because Pakistan often sends Uighur refugees back to China, the two men decided to wait for the visa in neighboring Afghanistan. They had heard about a group of Uighurs who lived in a camp not far from the Afghan city of Jalalabad, just across the border, where they hoped to stay until their visas arrived.

There are two opinions about this camp. Abu Bakker and the other men describe it as little more than a collection of run-down huts. But for the US government, it’s an al-Qaida camp where Muslim terrorists are trained to do battle against America.

The two men met two other Uighurs in the camp, Akhdar Qasem Basit and Ahmed Adil. Ahmed, 26 at the time, had come to Afghanistan via Kazakhstan and Pakistan. He had hoped to earn money for his visa in Pakistan, but life there was more expensive than he had anticipated, and his funds ran out after a year. He wanted to go to Germany or Canada. Like Abu Bakker, Akhdar, 27, comes from Yining. He left when he ran into trouble with Chinese intelligence.

A man in the camp had a radio. But to avoid further dampening an already gloomy mood, he only reported good news, which meant that the men didn’t find out what had happened in the United States on September 11, 2001. But the man with the radio did tell Adel that al-Qaida had attacked America, and that the US wanted the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, who was allegedly hiding in Afghanistan. The two men were convinced that this conflict had nothing to do with them. They were merely guests in Afghanistan, and America was their ally.

But their certainty ended abruptly when American troops bombed the camp in October, forcing them to flee into the mountains. They had almost no food and sought shelter from the cold in caves. Ayub Haji Mohammed, the youngest in the group, had joined them shortly before they left the camp. His father had become modestly affluent with his clothing and textile business. The family planned to send Ayub to school in the United States, where they had distant relatives. But first they sent him to friends in Pakistan, from where he was to travel to the promised land.

What the men didn’t know was that they were hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora, where the Americans believed bin Laden was also hiding. After persevering for two months, they decided to return to Pakistan, in a grueling, three-day trek across a landscape of snow-capped peaks.

The set-up

They received a warm welcome -- unusually warm, as they later realized -- in a village on Pakistani soil. But when they arrived they were exhausted, hungry and naïve, and gratified that the villagers had even slaughtered a lamb in their honor. After the meal they were taken to the local mosque. They were told that the police were searching the village and that they would be taken -- on Toyota pickup trucks -- to a safe place. “It was a trap, but how were we to know?” says Abu Bakker today, standing with the other men in the courtyard of the Albanian refugee camp. They may be safe now, but they have trouble understanding why every step along the way was a step in the wrong direction.

That night they were first taken to a Pakistani police station and then to a Pakistani prison. The Americans had offered a ransom for Muslims suspected of supporting al-Qaida.

“We were surprised,” says Abu Bakker, “but we were also hopeful. We thought that if we identified ourselves as Chinese Uighurs, the Pakistanis would send us back to China. So we told them we were Uzbeki Afghans, hoping that they would turn us over to the Americans.” China, they believed, was their enemy, and America their friend and ally.

“We were blindfolded and our hands were tied,” says Ahmed. The captured Uighurs were then loaded into buses and taken to Kandahar. “Kandahar was worse than the Chinese prison,” says Abu Bakker. “Soldiers in Kandahar beat up Ayub, the youngest in our group. They forced his arms behind his back and beat him on the knees.”

The men were interrogated, yelled at, beaten and then interrogated again.

“Do you speak English?”


“Why don’t you motherfuckers speak English?”

If they answered “yes,” the soldiers would shout: “Where did you motherfuckers learn to speak English?”

After a week, one of the Uighurs noticed the US flag on a soldier’s uniform. “We’re in the hands of the Americans!” he told the others, clearly relieved. “We are safe!” They told the American soldiers about the Uighurs’ struggle for freedom. “You have the wrong men,” they kept telling their captors. “We don’t have a problem with you. In fact, we have a common enemy: China.”

After six months in Kandahar, the five Uighurs -- gagged, bound, blindfolded and hooded -- were taken to the airport, where they were given earplugs and loaded onto a plane.

Lost in Cuba

When they landed in Guantanamo in mid-2002, the men were given prisoner numbers 260, 276, 279, 283 and 293. By then they were considered terrorism suspects, but they had no idea why. The men had landed at a US naval base, but it was essentially a no-man’s land where foreign citizens were ineligible to file legal complaints in US courts. The closer the men came to the promised land, the more they perceived it slipping beyond their reach.

They were neither prisoners-of-war nor criminals, but “enemy combatants.” There were no charges, no hearings, no defense attorneys. According to US President George W. Bush, they could be held indefinitely, or for the duration of his “War on Terror.” They were repeatedly interrogated. Are you associated with the “Islamic Movement of East Turkestan?” they asked. The Chinese government claims the Uighurs have connections to bin Laden, who it claims supports and directs the Uighurs’ struggle for independence. The “Islamic Movement of East Turkestan,” say Chinese authorities, is essentially an arm of al-Qaida.

To this day, Abu Bakker and the others deny having been members of the group. They are upholsterers, students, small businessmen, but not terrorists, they say. In fact, they believe that the “Islamic Movement of East Turkestan” is a phantom organization, invented and kept alive by the Chinese secret police.

Ayub, the youngest, suffered the most at the hands of the Americans. He has a food allergy and had been told to avoid eggs, bread and fish. After a doctor at Guantanamo confirmed the allergy, guards adhered to Ayub’s dietary requirements by simply withholding the foods to which he is allergic. On some days they would place an empty plate into his cell. When Ayub asked why they had brought him an empty plate, they told him that it was his special diet -- doctor’s orders. Why couldn’t they bring him something else, he asked? No idea, the guards replied, suggesting he take up the matter with their superiors.

Ayub became very thin, at times weighing as little as 52 kilograms (115 lbs.). “When I sat down I was sitting on bones,” he says. “I had no fat left and hardly any muscles.” He began a hunger strike at least six times, “but it really didn’t make any difference.”

Once a few soldiers took pity on Ayub and brought him an apple. Ayub took it into his cell. Guards found the apple a short time later, but the stem was missing.

“Where’s the stem?” they asked. “Where did you hide it?”

He said he didn’t know. He asked them if they thought he had wanted to make a skeleton key with the stem. Ayub spent the next 28 days in solitary confinement.

In late 2004, a few months after the US Supreme Court ruled that prisoners at Guantanamo are entitled to have their cases heard in a US court, the prisoners had their first opportunity to appear before a military tribunal and respond to the charges that had been brought against them. At issue was their status as “enemy combatants” -- and their future.

Ayub, emaciated and worn down from months in solitary confinement, was suspicious. He was taken to a small room and told to sit on a white plastic chair. The chairman of the tribunal entered the room and sat down on a slightly raised, black leather chair in front of Ayub, whose feet were chained to a bolt set into the floor.

The tribunal accused him of traveling to Afghanistan to learn how to use weapons, and then fleeing to Pakistan with a group of armed Arabs. The minutes of the hearing show that, throughout the interrogation, Ayub believed that the Guantanamo tribunal was operating in the same way as a normal court.

“You said that you went to Afghanistan, but not for weapons training,” says the clerk. “In that case, what was the reason?”

“I already said all that two and a half years ago,” Ayub replies. “It’s all in the records. I’ve already told you everything.”

Ayub, Abu Bakker, Adel, Ahmed and Akhdar were given the status “no longer enemy combatant,” which meant they were no longer considered dangerous. It was good news, but no one told the prisoners, who by then had been in Guantanamo for two and a half years.

They were also unaware that there was growing criticism in the United States of interrogation methods, the treatment of detainees and of Guantanamo in general. By then, human rights organizations had begun acting as intermediaries for lawyers eager to represent the prisoners.

Boston attorney Sabin Willett signed up because, as he says, he refused to allow the Bush administration to undermine the basic tenets of the US constitution. In March 2005, Willet filed a petition on behalf of Abu Bakker Qassim and Adel Abdulhehim, hoping to force the government to finally allow his clients to stand trial.

The plight of the Uighurs

With his prominent jaw and forelock, Willett, a Harvard graduate and partner in a respected Boston law firm, bears a passing resemblance to the young John F. Kennedy. A crime novelist in his spare time, Willett has a refined sense of timing and dramatics. “There is probably no group of Muslims anywhere in the world more pro-American than the Uighurs,” he told a court. “The Uighurs have always suffered under religious and political persecution by the Chinese communists. I can remember the days when, in this country, we had a great deal of sympathy for someone with that kind of history.” Willett wanted to protect his country’s constitution against his government. And he was the first person who truly wanted to help the five Uighurs since they had left China.

Four months later, Willett was allowed to visit his clients in Guantanamo for the first time. When he discovered that they had long since been cleared of charges, he filed an emergency petition with the US Supreme Court. But no country was willing to accept the Uighurs. US officials say they spent two years searching for a suitable country to grant the men asylum, but that every one of the more than a hundred governments they contacted turned down their request.

On January 19, 2006, Ahmed wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “I find it difficult to imagine how a country like the United States, which claims that it promotes and protects the democratic rights of oppressed peoples, can treat someone the way I have been treated. I wonder whether the American government will keep me imprisoned here forever if it is unable to find a country that will accept me. Is this justice?”

A hearing was scheduled in Washington for May 8. It was a potentially precarious trial for the US government. Faced with the prospect of the court ordering the Uighurs to appear in person, which, by bringing them onto US soil, would have given the men the right to apply for political asylum, the government was suddenly in a hurry to take action.

An officer visited the five Uighurs in early May. “The US government has finally found a country that will accept you,” he announced.

“Which country?” they asked, hoping it would be Germany. Munich has Europe’s largest Uighur community, and the prospect of being sent there appealed to the men.

The officer said he had no information about that.

The Albanian abyss

Throughout the twelve-hour flight, the Uighurs were terrified that they were being returned to China. At approximately 9 p.m. local time, they landed at Mother Theresa Airport in Tirana, the capital of Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries. It was three days before the scheduled hearing in Washington.

The men had never been to Albania. They had no idea the country even existed, and they are now probably the only Uighurs in the entire country.

Sabin Willett, their attorney, received an email informing him of their release, but by then the Uighurs had already landed in Tirana.

In the country’s national refugee camp, the five men were housed in a building next to the toilets. The camp has a volleyball net, a laundry and a small library. An Arab-English dictionary lies on Ayub’s night table. “I am an experienced diver,” Ayub reads, and smiles.

A bus is available to take them to downtown Tirana whenever they wish. But they have no money and no contacts here, so they walk aimlessly around the city -- five aliens in Albanian rush-hour traffic. They try to get a sense of what it feels like to be free, but it isn’t easy.

A few days after arriving in Albania, Ahmed calls his mother in China. He hasn’t seen her in seven years.

His aunt answers the telephone. “Salam alaikum,” Ahmed says. She passes the phone to his mother.

“Is that you, mother?” Ahmed asks.

Then the two weep.

Ahmed asks about the family. They both know that Chinese intelligence is probably listening in on the conversation.

Abu Bakker saw his wife again two days earlier -- on a DVD. His family had managed to get the disc sent to Guantanamo, where he wasn’t permitted to watch it because camp officials were unable to find a translator who could confirm that the contents were harmless. In the end, the DVD was sent to Tirana with the five Uighurs.

Abu Bakker stared at the screen. The recording shows his family and some friends sitting around a table, praying to God to protect Abu Bakker. He saw his father, who is since dead, and he saw his wife and his brother playing soccer in the snow with Abu Bakker’s children. The children are twins, and his wife was pregnant with them when he left China. The two are now six years old. Abu Bakker has never seen them.

Ahmed, Ayub, Abu Bakker and the other former Guantanamo prisoners are calm and patient and without hatred. They still hope to see their wives and children again.

But their greatest wish, they say, is to live in the United States.

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