On May 5, 2006, a plane took off from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with five shackled men inside. They landed at an airport in southern Europe and were given a new set of clothes, but little information.
“There were 20 to 30 soldiers inside the airplane,” says former detainee Abu Bakker Qassim. “Our hands and feet were tied by chains. The first thing we saw was darkness.”
The men were members of a Muslim ethnic minority group from western China called Uighurs. But they now found themselves driven through the streets of a city that most of them had never heard of — Tirana, Albania — where FRONTLINE/World reporter Alexandra Poolos arrived in the summer of 2008 to track them down.
The first man she met, Abu Bakker Qassim, led her to the building where he and the others had been taken after they arrived.
“When I first arrived,” says Abu Bakker, “they brought me to this center behind me. It is the political asylum center of Albania. We arrived at about midnight. After I arrived, I spent a year and a half of my life here.”
When the local news heard about the arrival of Abu Bakker and his friends at the refugee center, they became a big story in Albania. People were worried that these men were Al Qaeda terrorists. Under scrutiny, Abu Bakker and the others struggled to make sense of it all.
“Getting caught up in international terrorism, being taken to Guantanamo, then becoming the focus of the world as an evil person — this was beyond my wildest thoughts,” says Abu Bakker. “It was a punishment of destiny that we went through.”
The story of the Uighurs’ unimaginable odyssey began in an even less well-known place: Xinjiang, a remote area of western China, where Abu Bakker and the others grew up.
The Uighurs consider Xinjiang their homeland, but the long-standing tension between this Muslim minority and the Chinese government dominates daily life.
In Xinjiang, Abu Bakker made a living as a leatherworker, and at age 26, he married. A few years later, in mid-2000, he made the critical decision that would leave him exiled in Albania: He headed out of Xinjiang to look for work.
Leaving was difficult, as his wife was now pregnant. He told her he’d be back in six months, but the trip didn’t go as planned.
From his home in Xinjiang, Abu Bakker headed southwest. Running low on money, he stopped in a Uighur village in Afghanistan. It was a decision that left him in one of the worst spots in the world after the 9/11 attacks.
The United States had just begun bombing the Al Qaeda stronghold in Tora Bora, where Abu Bakker and the other Uighurs were staying.In the confusion that followed, U.S. forces pursued hundreds of Al Qaeda suspects who fled the bombings, but among them were many others whose identities were less clear.
Cash bounties offered by U.S. forces encouraged local villagers to turn in as many people as they could capture. And this is what Abu Bakker and two dozen other Uighurs say happened to them.
John Kiriakou, a top CIA official in Pakistan after 9/11, describes the Americans’ dilemma. “If a Pakistani or Afghan villager comes up to you with a guy he has tied up and says, ‘This is a terrorist; I caught him in my village,’ what are you going to do?” he says. “Maybe he is a terrorist.”
Kiriakou says the only way to sort out the captives was to send them to Guantanamo.
“We viewed it as a place where you had the luxury of time. You had a staff of linguists, and you could spend quality time with each one of these prisoners, interviewing them and getting to the bottom of each one of these stories,” he says.
Abu Bakker and the others arrived at Guantanamo in the spring of 2002.
It was not normal to be taken somewhere in the middle of the sea and put in solitary iron cells,” says Abu Bakker. “I figured I must have been charged with a severe crime. I was totally desperate and hopeless.”
Rushan Abbas was a Uighur from California brought into Guantanamo to translate for the interrogations of Abu Bakker and the others.
“Before I went to meet the detainee, I thought this [must be a] radical jihadist. I was afraid he might be really disrespectful to me, or he may not even want to talk to me,” says Abbas.
“At the beginning, I felt that my mission was important,” she says. “I was doing something really important to help the government to sort through these people and make a decision.”
But as the Uighur interrogations stretched on, Abbas grew disillusioned.
“After about six, seven months, I realized that the mission is becoming useless — especially my translations. I felt that the interrogators already got what they wanted to know,” Abbas says.
Interrogators asked again and again if the men had received any type of training from Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Finally, after months of questioning, the military became convinced of the Uighurs’ story that China was their foe, not the United States.
“The Uighur people in Afghanistan, they’re trying to fight back the Chinese government, trying to get back our independence,” Uighur detainee Yusuf Abbas said during special hearings at the camp. “We [would] never fight back to U.S. forces or coalition forces.”
At the State Department, Pierre-Richard Prosper was put in charge of the Uighur cases.
“It became clear to us who these Uighurs were,” he says. “In fact, that they were not part of the Al Qaeda network. We decided that there were many of them that could actually be released or transferred from Guantanamo.”
But the men presented a unique dilemma for Prosper. The United States did not regard the Uighurs as a threat, but the Chinese saw them as terrorists.
“We looked into sending them back to China,” Prosper says. “And the more we examined it, the more complicated the question became. We spent years on this issue. Years trying to find a home for them. We probably started the process when I was there in late 2002, 2003. When I left, at the end of 2005, the Uighurs were still there.”
It was at this time that a Boston-based lawyer named Sabin Willett volunteered to take on their cases and was flown out to Guantanamo.
“We would meet our clients in a place called Camp Echo, which was an old interrogation facility,” says Willet. “And you’d be admitted into this through a series of gates. It was hot. It was the middle of the summer. It’s all gravel and then these huts. And in the back of your mind is, ‘Am I about to meet a 9/11, you know, criminal?’”
But the Uighurs’ story, Willet found, was very different.
“One of the things that we did learn was that Abu Bakker [and the other Uighurs] had been cleared by the military and weren’t enemy combatants at all,” he says. “But this clearance was held secret even from the court, and the men had been sent back to the same cells as everybody else.”
Willet decided to file a petition to free Abu Bakker and four others who had been cleared by the military. In late 2005, Willet won a minor victory in federal court; the judge believed the Uighurs were unlawfully detained. But he didn’t believe he had the power to set them free.
Willett appealed, but just a few days before the case was to be heard, he got a phone call.
“It was my opposite number at the Justice Department,” says Willet. “And he said, ‘We’re moving to dismiss your appeal.’ When I asked why, he said, ‘Because they’re not there anymore.’ I said, ‘Where did they go? They swim somewhere?’ When he said they were in Albania, I said, ‘Bob, where are they really?’”
This is when the Uighurs were put on that night flight to Tirana and then driven to their new home in exile. The next day, Willet landed in Albania himself and found Abu Bakker and the others where they’d been dropped off.
“I met them at the U.N. refugee camp,” says Willet. “Reunion was wonderful. It was thrilling [for them] to be out of Gitmo. But then reality sets in: They’re stuck in Albania. Their families are in China. As an American, you can’t look them in the eye and not feel embarrassed about what’s happened to them.”
Vijay Padmanabhan was the State Department lawyer who helped negotiate the release of Abu Bakker and the four other Uighurs to Albania. “What do you do with people that you pick up; they come into your custody, and they can’t be returned home because of treatment issues?” he says. “What are the options for them? And I think you’d find there are very few options.”
Padmanabhan says that Albania and the United States have a very positive relationship. “I think the Albanian government made a decision,” he says, “for humanitarian reasons, for political reasons, that it was in its best interests to help the United States on this issue.”
It was a marriage of convenience. After years of a controversial foreign policy, the Bush administration had few friends left in the world. They turned to Albania, one of the last countries where the United States still had leverage.
Albania agreed to take five of the 22 Guantanamo Uighurs. The following year, President Bush became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country. He was greeted by cheering crowds.
Albanian foreign minister Lulzim Basha says that Albania was trying to aid in the war on terror by taking the detainees. He denies that they took the Uighurs as part of a quid pro quo for U.S. aid.
“I wouldn’t say this was a trade-off. This — just like our presence in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan — this is a sign of our will and our capacity to share the responsibility in the coalition against terror,” Basha says.
But the Chinese weren’t happy. They began to pressure the Albanians to hand back the Uighurs, whom they labeled terror suspects.
Not long after, Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha met with a Chinese delegation. He would not hand back Abu Bakker and the others, but he also wouldn’t do anything more to provoke the Chinese.
Despite requests, the Albanians would not take any of the 17 Uighurs remaining at Guantanamo — and neither would anyone else.
“We actually have not sent Uighur detainees from Guantanamo to any country other than Albania,” says Vijay Padmanabhan. “Many other countries, almost every other country in the world has been approached with respect to taking Uighur detainees, but no one has actually agreed to take them.”
By mid-2006, the remaining Uighurs at Guantanamo had been moved to a new facility. It was modeled after a supermax prison and called Camp Six.
“The men call it the dungeon above the ground,” says Willett. “It’s total isolation in a concrete bunker. So you’re in a cell alone for 22 hours in the day. You don’t have a companion, you don’t have a book, you don’t have an iPod, you don’t have a television, you don’t have a magazine. You don’t have anybody to talk to except yourself.”
“They started to crack up,” he says. “I mean, we’d go and meet these guys, and our client Abdu Semet, one of them, used to tell me that he was starting to hear voices in his head. He was shaking when we saw him.”
“They became more withdrawn,” says translator Rushan Abbas. “Quiet. Don’t say much. Don’t ask that many questions. Negative about everything.”
Abbas had quit Guantanamo in 2003. Now she was back as part of the defense team. They urged the Uighurs to keep pressing their case through the courts. But the remaining Uighurs had lost hope.
For one detainee, the moment of choice came when conditions at the camp grew tougher, and the guards took away his bed sheet.
“A few months earlier,” says Willet, “some other prisoners had used bed sheets to commit suicide, having despaired of ever getting out. So, he had no bed sheet. And he wanted to know in our meeting, did we think his having brought a habeas case was why they took away his bed sheet. And we said no. But he was a little skeptical. And so we get outside the cell, and our interpreter, Rushan, says, ‘He said to drop the case.’ He said, ‘It’s not worth the bed sheet.’”
The election of President Barack Obama brought new hope for the remaining detainees. President Obama has signed an executive order to close the camp, but tough choices remain about the fate of the detainees still there.
“You have to figure out what to do with the residual population — the people that we can’t find a way to send home, and that we can’t prosecute,” says Vijay Padmanabhan.
“It’s fine to say ‘Close Guantananamo,’ but when a senator or congressman says, ‘Okay, well that means the person’s going to be let loose on the streets of Topeka, Kansas,’ they’ll be opposed to actually letting that happen,” Padmanabhan says. “So I think the new president will have to ask himself some hard questions.”
Meanwhile, as the fate of their friends hangs in the balance, the freed Uighurs have been trying to make new lives for themselves. They’ve found a local mosque to attend, and they look to its imam for guidance on how to fit in.
“When we first met them in the beginning, we were very skeptical,” says their Albanian imam. “But as we were able to get acquainted, we found they were not here to cause any trouble. And now we are very comfortable with them.”
“We’ve tried to help them and to stand close by them,” he says. “To be like a family to them. And to give them advice on religion and community issues.”
Their real families are back in China, but most of the men are resigned to never seeing them again. Two of the Uighurs have given their wives permission to remarry, but not Abu Bakker. Not long ago, his wife sent him the video of their wedding. He says he watches it to reminisce.
“I had love. I had family. Our life was beautiful. Now it’s devastated,” he says.
“It’s been eight years that we are living apart,” Abu Bakker says. “And for the past two years we just exchange simple words over the phone. We are just getting along like acquaintances.”
In the fall of 2008, all of the Uighurs at Guantanamo were removed from the Pentagon’s enemies list.
Last month, in a gesture of goodwill, a few European countries stepped forward to say they would help resettle some Guantanamo prisoners.
Meanwhile, for some of the Uighurs, this will be the start of their eighth year of captivity.