TIRANA, Albania – Accused by the US military of being a terrorist allied with the Taliban, a devout Muslim from western China spent four years in prison in Guantánamo Bay before being cleared and then thrown in Albania ago 15 years old.
Still stranded in a country he didn’t know existed until he was sent there, the man, Abu Bakker Qassim, 51, has a word of warning for the hundreds of Afghans who have fled their country over the past month and have made their way to one of Europe’s poorest yet most welcoming nations while awaiting admission to the United States.
“The Americans,” he said, recalling how he and four other wrongfully imprisoned Uyghurs were flown to Albania from Guantanamo, Cuba, and assured they would not stay long, “are quickly losing interest. – they just threw us away ”.
Mr. Qassim obtained “humanitarian protection” in Albania, the only country that was ready to welcome him on scores requested by the State Department, despite protests from China. He receives a monthly allowance of almost $ 400, but has failed to secure a visa or passport, making travel difficult. The only country that really wants him is China, which considers him a terrorist because of his advocacy for independence from his home region of Xinjiang, which he calls Turkestan.
China would definitely stop him if he ever came back.
I first met Mr. Qassim a few days after his arrival in 2006 in Tirana, the Albanian capital. At the time, he was depressed. China demanded that Albania surrender him, describing him and his fellow Uyghurs at Guantanamo as part of a “terrorist force” with “close ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
He was also very confused, not sure where the Americans had sent him. He and his fellow Uyghurs were confined to a converted army barracks that had rusty barbed wire on the windows and looked like another prison. Speaking only Uyghur and Chinese, he could not communicate with anyone in his host country and did not know what the Albanians planned to do with him.
His morale has now risen considerably. Albania, a former communist dictatorship and close friend of China during Mao Zedong’s time, but now a NATO member and steadfast ally of the United States, declined Beijing’s requests to send it to China. Instead, he gave her money to rent an apartment, as well as a monthly allowance for food. He found work in a pizzeria, made friends in a mosque in Tirana and started a new family.
He is now fluent in Albanian and has forgotten much of the Chinese he was forced to learn while growing up in Xinjiang.
The small Balkan nation that took him in, which recently pledged to admit up to 4,000 Afghans in need of shelter, “has a tradition of welcoming those in need,” the minister said. Foreign Affairs Minister Olta Xhacka in an interview.
“We are proud to be hospitable,” she added.
Almost 700 Afghans have already arrived and have been accommodated in resorts along the Adriatic coast.
Mr. Qassim is dismayed, however, by the flight of so many Afghans, an exodus motivated by fear of the Taliban and the hope of reaching the United States.
Unlike the Uyghurs, ruled by an increasingly oppressive Chinese government and incarcerated in large numbers in a vast network of internment camps in Xinjiang, the Afghans, Mr. Qassim said, have their own country and, no matter what. point the Taliban can be oppressive, better stay home.
“I don’t understand why they left. It would be better to stay in their own country, ”he said. “I know what it’s like to be jailed, but even if they go to jail, they will be close to their families.”
Mr. Qassim has not seen his family in Xinjiang for more than 20 years, since he left with a friend from western China in an unfortunate effort to make it overland to Turkey, where the language is similar to the Turkish language spoken by Uyghurs. and where he had hoped to find work. He traveled on a Chinese passport valid for only two years.
Stranded in Afghanistan without money or papers at the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks, he was caught by bounty hunters on the Pakistan-Afghan border and handed over to the Americans, who were offering money to suspected terrorists. They saw him as an “enemy fighter” and sent him to Guantánamo Bay prison to join other Muslims embroiled in President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror”.
After being exonerated in 2006 by a military court, Mr. Qassim was driven chained to a military transport plane and transported overnight to Tirana from Cuba. Repeated efforts since then to secure visas for the United States and Canada have failed, and all but one of Guantanamo’s five are still in Albania. The one who got out moved to Sweden, where he works as a taxi driver.
Qassim said he laughed when he learned last month that US officials were negotiating with the Taliban for access to Kabul International Airport after the US-backed government collapsed on the 15th. August and ceded control of the Afghan capital to the insurgents.
During his detention in Guantánamo, he said, “they kept telling me that the Taliban were terrorists and accused me of collaborating with the Taliban, but now they collaborate with the Taliban.
The world, he noted, “has certainly changed a lot in 20 years.”
One change that comforts him, he said, is changing attitudes towards China. When first sent to Guantanamo, the Bush administration took China’s view that Uyghurs demanding independence or even just greater autonomy were dangerous extremists. In 2002, Washington named a largely shadowy Uyghur group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as an affiliate of Al Qaeda, a move that covered up Chinese claims that Uyghurs who protested their treatment were terrorists.
Last year, the Trump administration removed the Uyghur group from the list of U.S. terrorists, saying there was no evidence of its existence.
“We talked about the Chinese risk over 20 years ago and constantly told everyone, ‘Watch out for China,’ Qassim said. “But it’s only now that they begin to understand what kind of country the Chinese Communist Party has created. “
He last communicated with his wife and three children in China in 2016, when the Communist Party appointed a new hard-line boss in Xinjiang and launched a massive detentions program that has since taken up to one million or more Uyghurs and other Muslims. “re-education” camps. He fears that those close to him, marred by his status as a dangerous extremist in China, may have fallen victim to what the State Department has called this year “genocide” in Xinjiang.
The last time he heard of his 21-year-old daughter in Xinjiang, he said, was that she had not been arrested and worked in a store, but was under pressure. to marry a Han Chinese man in order to prove his loyalty to Beijing. and avoid detention.
Cut off from his family in Xinjiang, Mr. Qassim married a second wife in Albania, a Uyghur woman with whom he had three children. He said he told his first wife by phone that he had remarried, and “she was a little angry,” but she understood that due to China’s policy in Xinjiang, their chances of getting back together were slim.
He said he was deeply grateful to Albania for not sending him back to China and giving him money, but was frustrated that it had blocked the granting of asylum. official or Albanian travel documents despite more than 15 years of residence.
The Albanian Interior Ministry said Mr. Qassim did not apply for a passport. Mr Qassim said his lawyer asked the ministry and was told that the Uyghurs’ “humanitarian protection” status precluded the possibility of a passport.
Although angry with the United States for its years in Guantanamo and its 15 years in limbo in Albania, he still sees America as the Uyghurs’ only real hope.
“If Turkestan ever gains independence, it will be because of America,” Qassim said. “Every country makes mistakes, but I can’t help but believe in the United States just because it did an injustice to five Uyghurs sent to Albania.”
Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting.