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 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.
Despite its manifest weaknesses, the government’s appeal — in a court that had a history of backing up cases relating to the “War on Terror” that were later overruled by the Supreme Court — was successful. This is the situation that prevails to this day, although on Monday the Uighurs’ lawyers announced that they planned “to petition the US Supreme Court to intervene on their clients’ behalf,” and, perhaps even more significantly, 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
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.
It has been far too long a night of the iguana for these fellow travelers in space and time. We can make the sun rise for these men. Until then, I am barefoot walking in the mud too.
A powerful piece.
The ongoing saga of the Uighurs is sad beyond belief. At least by keeping the story alive there is hope one day they will find a measure of justice in this world.
“In life not everyone will reach his desired end.” But one must keep that distant hope alive. For these men hope remains small, but so long as people work to their benefit hope remains alive.
I know this sounds very starry-eyed and doesn’t address the larger political issues and is no doubt impractical. But wouldn’t it be possible, or at least worth thinking about, for a group of people, perhaps in conjunction with some human rights organisations, to try to get the Chinese to relaease Mr Quassim’s family so they can at least rejoin him in Albania? Why should a man be have to be condemned not to see his family again?
This, appropriately enough, is from the Talking Dog:
Here is the URL to my interview with George Clarke, who represents two Uighurs and two Yemenis:
Three of his four clients have been “cleared for release” and the last was once determined “not an enemy combatant” (or as I like to say, “not FRED”) but got a do-over CSRT… just to make sure. And yet, just because there is no reason to hold them… doesn’t mean we won’t hold them… possibly forever. [I rather like George’s “My Cousin Vinnie” analogy re the Executive Order to “Close GTMO”…]
Note: The Talking Dog’s “FRED” joke comes from his response to the announcement, a few weeks ago, that the Obama administration was dropping the term “enemy combatant,” but had not come up with a replacement term. I decided that, instead of being “enemy combatants” in the “War on Terror,” they were “Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants” in what the Obama administration was referring to as the “Current, Novel Type of Armed Conflict.” TD called them “Foreign (or better, “Forcibly”) Renditioned Enemy-like Detainees,” or “FRED.”
[…] A Letter To Barack Obama From A Guantánamo Uighur 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. […]
And this from Nury Turkel:
Thanks Andy! As always, I really appreciate your efforts to educate the public about the Uyghurs’ plight. I know Abu Bekri [Abu Bakker] quite well and his letter is very moving.
After I replied to Nury, he sent another message, pointing out an article in the Miami Herald, by Carol Rosenberg, who wrote, “In a prison camps first, the Obama administration Tuesday dispatched members of a detainee review team here to speak directly” to the Uighurs. Rosenberg added, “The six-member delegation included lawyers from the Justice, State and Homeland Security departments, according to US military sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because only the Justice Department was allowed to officially disclose the mission.” She added that the lawyers “were to spend a minimum of one hour interviewing each of the Uighur captives.”
This sounds like promising news, finally!
The following message came from Susan Swann, who left a brief message above:
Dear Andy Worthington,
I am a great admirer of your articles although I find them deeply depressing and they make me feel very helpless. In response to the letter from Mr Quassim, I suggested trying to ask the Chinese government to release the families of those in Albania or at least the family of Mr Quassim. I know this sounds like insanity and a very personal and unpolitical response, one moment of meaningless individual empathy. But my thinking wasn’t just based on naivety and ignorance of the broader issues. I was thinking in the following terms. One can actually do very little to help people who have gotten into the clutches of a superpower’s inexorable machinery. Particularly if one has absolutely no standing in the power structure whatsoever which is my situation.
However, occasionally the most brutal power structures can be surprisingly generous, if at that particular moment it suits their purposes. Sometimes remarkable things can happen if one reaches the right person, if doesn’t cost the power structure anything and if being momentarily generous can be used to advantage, or happens to fit the mood. Sometimes it is simply a fluke. I remember seeing a film called Mother’s Courage about the wife of George Tabor, who escaped a massacre of Hungarian Jews during the World War II by simply asking to leave. The officer in charge let her go and one other that she requested be released — and that was it. It didn’t change anything concerning the outcome of the war, except for her and the one other person who escaped with her. It didn’t actually significantly lessen the war crimes that the officer in charge perpetrated. It was simply an exceptional moment.
The question is, what would it really cost the Chinese authorities if they chose to be momentarily generous — particularly when the powers that be in the US are not choosing to be particularly generous. It wouldn’t change their general stance on human rights or their general treatment of the Uighurs. But sometimes contributing to a heart-warming and politically meaningless headline has its advantages. Perhaps if one put it to them carefully, they could agree they had nothing lose by being generous. It might be worth a try. And if it worked, it might at least mean something for the four men stuck in Albania.
This was my reply:
Your idea is intriguing — and would possibly work — but I can’t help feeling that it would need to be part of a high-level diplomatic arrangement, and that, sadly, nobody cares enough about these men to do anything about it. May I post this correspondence on my site in addition to your earlier comments? Perhaps somebody else will pick up on your idea …
Oh, and thanks for the words of support. Always appreciated.
And this was Susan’s reply, just received:
Thank you for your mail. By all means post whatever bits of the correspondence you find useful. It occurs to me that the other stumbling block besides the necessary paperwork is that the families probably do not have the financial means to leave China. I am sure, however, that if an agency were to take up this project and were also to set up a fund for contributions, that this problem could be solved. I think that there are people all over the world who, like myself, would welcome the chance to do something however small to redress the government atrocities committed in Guantánamo.
I personally think it is worth investing the effort for individual lives as well as for large causes. Guantánamo is not only the story of the prisoners but what this entire system has done to our way of thinking and to our psyches, where dispossession and throwaway lives, not to mention throwaway rights and laws, are becoming ever more acceptable.
What I think is so radical about Mr. Quassim’s letter is how differently he thinks about things. First of all he is very much aware of what his own life is worth. He defines himself as a hero or at least as someone whose continual quest is to be a hero — for his family. His definition of a hero is something remarkable: a hero is someone who sets off on a very dangerous and uncertain journey. He doesn’t have the answers or know how things will come out. He has a picture of a future and he takes this journey to make his picture a reality. And he does this for the people he loves. He doesn’t know if he will ever be able to realize this picture and in fact it looks quite bleak. His Istanbul becomes Guantánamo. His twins become iguanas. But he always knows who he is. He sees himself as similar to President Obama and is even willing to give President Obama a little bit of advice on how to do his job — and it is advice worth listening to: give simple people the things they need in order to increase their humanity so they are not dragged down into the mud. (If Obama were giving shoes to the barefoot instead of billions to the banks I do think his presidency would be on a better footing.) And Mr Quassim is willing to act as an ambassador for his fellow Uighurs.
I think all this says something very powerful, namely that America is losing the war on more than one front. Guantánamo was built to completely destroy people’s psyches and sense of identity. The torture regimes were set up with that objective. And here is someone who always knew who he was — and Guantánamo was unable to destroy that. In this sense I think Mr Quassim is truly a hero: his ability to be who he is, after all that he has suffered, is a sign of real inner strength. Mr Quassim’s facit seems to be that individual life and individual dreams of the future are worth something.
I am very happy that you have made it your task to record all of these lives and stories as they unfold because in that way we have been able to see the individuals for who they are. They have a history, they have a personality, they have different emotional reactions to what has happened to them. They have in a sense been released from being an abstract concept — “the prisoners of Guantánamo” — and they have become real enough that they are no longer simply a putty that can be molded into any identity that is convenient: “enemy combatants”. In fact, your articles have allowed them to be seen as people to care about. It is much harder to care about a nebulous number.
Not everyone managed to pass through Guantánamo with sanity intact. That many of these men managed to hold on to their identity in the face of so much violence, humiliation, and demonization is astounding. Mr. Quassim never saw himself through the eyes of Guantánamo, which is an amazing victory over an annihilating machine. If we manage to help him and his comrades realize their picture of the future in some small way, we will not only be doing something good
for them but something good for us.
[…] But why is the idea so preposterous? The Uyghurs are not a threat to US communities. Just look at the five Uyghur companions who were released from Guantánamo in 2006 and have lived peaceably and productively in Europe for […]
[…] or, in many cases, because they had found themselves unable to make their way to Turkey or Europe, to look for work, as they had originally […]
[…] refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), A Letter To Barack Obama From A Guantánamo Uighur (March 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Pain At […]
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: