Restarting life in Albania after Guantanamo Bay
By Benet Koleka
Abu Bakkr Qassim, a Uighur from far western China, has seen a number of the world’s more remote corners for a middle aged fruit vendor who is now learning how to make pizzas for a living. He is one of four Uighurs living in Albania since 2006 because they could not stay in the United States nor go to China which sees them as terrorists.
Found innocent of terrorism after three and a half years in the U.S. jail in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he feels vindicated by President Barack Obama’s decision to close down the notorious prison eventually. “I was happy. First of all, President Obama understood the mistake that happened to us in Guantanamo. We want him to repair the mistake although it is not easy,” said Qassim, 39.
Last month, Obama ordered that the Guantanamo military prison close within a year. It has become a symbol of the harsh U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects in a murky system of international prisons under ex-President George W. Bush. Qassim has not talked to 17 fellow Uighurs still at Guantanamo but said they tell their families they are living under much better conditions now. “They have a big garden and can open the doors themselves,” he told Reuters.
These other men are in limbo at Guantanamo although they have been cleared for release as no country, including Albania, is willing to take them. Although he said he was not tortured — in contrast to some who have been released from Guantanamo — Qassim described very difficult conditions during his time at Guantanamo.
“Even for an animal it is bad to be shut in a cage of two square metres. What I had thought about America, with all my admiration, was not the cage at Guantanamo,” he added. “I told the U.S. soldier: ‘You are not America’. The commander told him other things, but he threw the Koran in the toilet. No one can do that. It means going to extremes.”
A native of Ghulja, a city of one million in China’s Xinjiang province, Qassim spent seven months in jail in 1998 for what the Chinese termed religious propaganda. He said he was later found innocent, but was kept under watch. Many Muslim Uighurs, who are from far western China, seek greater autonomy for the region. Beijing has waged a campaign against what it calls their violent separatist activities.
On December 31, 2000, Qassim left his wife and toddler son seeking opportunity abroad. He ended up with other Uighurs in an Afghan village where they were eventually captured and handed over to American forces. Qassim said they rejoiced to hear they were being handed over to the Americans because the U.S. had backed the Uighurs. “They told us not to worry because they had come for the Arabs and they would not hand us over to the Chinese,” he said. “After six months, were were flown to Guantanamo. For three and a half years there, they kept repeating they had made a mistake with us but we had to stay there.”
After his release, Albania agreed to take in five Uighurs, agreeing to pay their their rent and food through 2009. Qassin is learning how to make pizzas. One of his fellow former inmates is studying electronics, the others are learning Albanian; the fifth left for Sweden to join his sister.
When Bush visited Tirana in 2007 and was warmly welcomed, Albanian officials made it clear that the Uighur ex-inmates should attend a lunch in a city five hours away by car. “I have spent my life in jails. We stepped into a mistake. Even President Bush made a mistake. Now I want all this to pass,” Qassin said.