There were once 22 Uighur prisoners in Guantánamo. Muslims from China's oppressed Xinjiang province, they had all been swept up as human debris during "Operation Enduring Freedom," the US-led invasion of Afghanistan that began in October 2001. The majority of these men were seized after fleeing to Pakistan from a run-down settlement in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains, which had been hit in a US bombing raid. Initially welcomed by Pakistani villagers, they were then betrayed and sold to US forces, who were offering $5000 a head for "al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects."
None of the men had been in Afghanistan to support al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and none had raised arms against US forces. They all maintained that they had only one enemy – the Chinese government – and explained that they had ended up at the settlement either in the hope of finding a way of rising up against their oppressors, which was unlikely, as the settlement was dirt-poor and had only one gun, or because they had hoped to travel to other countries in search of work – primarily Turkey, which has historic connections to the people of East Turkestan (as the Uighurs call their homeland) – but had been thwarted in their aims.
In May 2006, five of the 22 were freed from Guantánamo, after being cleared in a military review, and sent to live in a refugee camp in Albania, the only country that could be persuaded to accept them after the US authorities acknowledged that they would not return them to China, where they faced the risk of torture. For the other 17, justice was to prove more elusive, and it was not until June 2008, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling confirming that the Guantánamo prisoners had habeas corpus rights (the right to challenge the basis of their detention in court), that an appeals court in Washington ruled that the government had failed to establish a case that one of the men – Huzaifa Parhat – was an "enemy combatant."
In the wake of the ruling, the government gave up attempting to prove that the other 16 Uighurs were "enemy combatants," and when their case came up before District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina last October, he ruled that their continued detention was unconstitutional, and that, because no other country had been found that would accept them, they were to be admitted to the United States, to the care of communities in Washington and Tallahassee, Florida, who had prepared detailed plans for their resettlement.
This proved intolerable to the Bush administration, which appealed the decision, The Justice Department spouted unprincipled claims that the men were a threat (even though they had been cleared of being "enemy combatants"), and refused to acknowledge that a judge had the right to order the men's release into the United States, thereby robbing the Supreme Court of a key element of the powers it intended to grant to the lower courts when it confirmed, in June, that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights.
This is the situation that prevails to this day, although last week it was reported that the Obama administration was "set to reverse a key Bush administration policy by allowing some of the 240 remaining Guantánamo Bay inmates to be resettled on American soil." As the Guardian described it, "Washington has told European officials that once a review of the Guantánamo cases is completed, the US will almost certainly allow some inmates to resettle on the mainland."
If confirmed, it is possible that these men will include some, or all of the Uighurs, but in the meantime Abu Bakker Qassim, one of the five Uighurs freed in Albania in 2006, who left his pregnant wife and young son in a thwarted attempt to find work in Turkey, has just written a letter to President Obama, telling his story and appealing to the President to act on behalf of the remaining Uighurs in Guantánamo.
The letter was made available by Sabin Willett, one of the Uighurs' attorneys, and is reproduced below:
Abu Bakker Qassim's letter to Barack Obama
Dear Mr. President,
I express my gratitude and my best respect for the contribution of the United States of America to our Uighur community. At the same time, I express my gratitude for your right and prompt decision to close the jail of Guantánamo Bay. I hope you will forgive my English, which I have tried to learn.
I hope my letter will find you in a good health. Please allow me to express my wish and prayer to read my letter.
My name is Abu Bakker and I'm writing on behalf of Ahmet, Aktar, Ejup, with whom I have lived since May 2006 in Albania, the only country that offered us political asylum from Guantánamo when US courts concluded that we were not enemy combatants.
I would like to write something about myself. The Uighur people have a proverb: "Who thinks about the end will never be a hero." Obviously it is human to think about the end, as it is human for me to remember things long ago.
30.12.2000. My last night in my little home. No one was sleeping … not even my eight-month twins in my wife's womb. No one was speaking … even my two-year old son … I had decided that I would confess that night to my wife the end I had thought of in my heart, but I hesitated because of a question my son had asked me, that I could not answer. It was at the beginning of winter. We were standing near the oven, and I was cuddling his hands. He took with his little hands my forefinger.
Dad! Is a fingernail a bone?
No, I said. The fingernail is not a bone.
It is flesh?
No. Neither is it flesh.
So, the fingernail: what is it, Dad?
I didn't know.
I don't know, I said.
So small was my boy, and I couldn't answer his questions. And when he grows up and the questions are not about the fingernail? How shall I answer then?
31.12.2000. Without telling the end, without turning back my head, without fear I started my long and already known way. "Ah, if only …! Ah, if only I reach Istanbul, am hired in the factory, to work day and night, to save my self and money. God is great! Ah, if only I could bring my wife there, my son and – the most important – to see my twins for the first time in Istanbul. To hold them on my breast, to pick up as I could … to show my son and to tell to them: We are from the place where the sun rises. I would embrace them, I would answer all of their questions, I would teach to them everything my mother taught me, as her mother taught her, to my grandmother her grandmother … as though in a movie with a happy ending: me film director, me scenarist, me at the lead role. The hero of my dearest people … Me."
After three years and a half, questions after questions, the military tribunal in Guantánamo asked me:
If you will die here, what will you think at your last minutes?
I'm a husband and a father that is dying in the heroism's ways, I answered and I asked the permission to put a question of my own:
If Guantánamo Bay were closed today, would you be a hero for your children?
I was proclaimed innocent. The lawyer proposed – meantime we were waiting for a state which will accept us – to live in a hotel in the Military Base of Guantánamo Bay. No way! We were put in a camp near to the jail, which was called "Iguana Camp." We were nine. Sometimes, one of my friends asked the soldiers about the time. Even today, I hadn't understood why he needed to know the time. I asked the time … I had reasons …
In Camp Iguana, there were iguanas. We fed them with bread, so they began to enter in our dormitory. All of us needed their company. Sometimes, when they were late, everyone missed them …
One morning, I had an unforgettable surprise from my friends. They gave to me cake from their meal, since that day was my twins' birthday. The same day, in our dormitory entered two iguanas and I give to them the cake … thinking about my kids … thinking about my end … My dream finished from Istanbul to Guantánamo, from my kids to iguanas …
Finally in 2006 I arrived in Albania, my second homeland. The ring of the telephone! What anxiety! Are they alive? For the first time, I spoke with my wife and my kids. They were alive!
Every morning, I go out of my home before the sun rises and wait for him with the hands up and empty. Since I'm still from the country where the sun rises. I think about the family which perhaps I will never see again and I resolve not to forget my vow, seven years ago, to be their hero.
Yet, Mr. President, seventeen of my brothers remain in that prison today. It is three years since I left the prison, and still they are there. Please end their suffering soon. Your January 22 words were so welcome to us, and I congratulate you for that and for your historic election. But many months have passed.
For the four of us who remain in Albania (one of us is in Sweden today, trying for asylum), life is very hard, and our future still seems far away. I hope that one day soon your government and countrymen will meet our seventeen brothers. Maybe when that day comes there would be hope that we might come to America too.
In life not everyone will reach his desired end. Perhaps you don't know, but we are similar … Except as to the end. Since you, like me, without thinking abut the end of your long way, managed to be a hero … I'm at Your side … I'm proud of you …
Please allow me to share with You a thought. Gift a pair of shoes to every child, to every woman, or every barefoot man since the barefoot people doesn't think too much before walking on the dirty mud. Begin with everything from above.
Very truly yours,
Abu Bakker Qassim
March 24, 2009