Guantanamo Bay detention camp

Uygur battles to escape painful past while building new life in Albania

Separatist allegedly tortured in China, then held at Guantanamo by US, builds new life in Albania while pining for family he left behind

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 2:19pm

Abu Bakker Qassim - allegedly tortured in China, then wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo - is finding a semblance of peace in the Balkan nation of Albania.

It has been a long and difficult journey for the former Xinjiang separatist, one that he admits took him to Afghanistan, where he learned to fight alongside fellow Uygurs.

"[If I could go] back in time, I would tell myself not to get involved in politics," said Qassim. "Not unless I knew what I was doing."

Now a resident of the Albanian capital, Tirana, he is far away from the Americans who held him at Guantanamo Bay for more than four years, one of them in isolation.

He is far away, too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Muslim Uygur minority to the Americans for US$5,000 a head.

He is also far from his family in Xinjiang and feels certain he will never see them again.

After seven years in Albania, Qassim's days are defined by the slow routine of the unemployed.

There's morning coffee, Koran reading and a walk in the park with his young daughter.

Then comes searching for work and training at a halal pizza parlour owned by a friend. He feels both frustrated and lucky. He has had things much worse.

After participating in the "Ghulja incident" - pro-independence Uygur demonstrations in 1997 that were violently put down by the Chinese military - Qassim said he was among those rounded up and detained by the police.

He claimed he was beaten and interrogated while being tortured with electricity.

Released after seven months without charge, but facing threats and harassment, he decided to try to reach Turkey to find work.

But his journey through Central Asia and Pakistan led him to what he called an "Uygur village" in Afghanistan.

There he was trained to fight, in return for food and accommodation, while he waited for his Iranian visa.

But after the September 11, 2001, attacks in America, Qassim and many of his companions ended up in Pakistan's mountains in freezing conditions. It was almost a relief when he was betrayed by Pakistanis who handed him to US troops in return for a bounty on terrorists.

It took four-and-a-half years before US officials concluded that Qassim posed no threat to America and could be released from Guantanamo Bay.

His family thought he was dead. He said: "We just had to be passionate and remind ourselves that the situation in China was bad too. So all we could do was wait and hope to be declared innocent."

We just had to be passionate and remind ourselves that the situation in China was bad too. So all we could do was wait and hope to be declared innocent
Abu Bakker Qassim

Unwilling to return to China, Qassim has found some peace in Albania - a country with food, religion and customs similar to those he knows. He gets free accommodation and a US$300 monthly allowance from the government, which is sympathetic to the Uygurs' plight.

But after seven years of promises, Qassim and other Uygurs in Albania have yet to receive their official ID cards and passports from the country's Ministry of the Interior. He does not know why.

Qassim speaks Albanian, but the ID card issue - along with public suspicion and generally high unemployment rates - leave him a permanent pizza trainee.

The trauma of leaving behind his family in China has yet to fade. He left a wife and three children in Ghulja and his ageing parents remain closely monitored and largely barred from using the internet, he said.

Although he can phone them, they are effectively barred from travelling. Qassim's appeal to have his wife and children join him in Albania failed when China allegedly refused to comply.

He convinced his former wife to divorce him so they could both marry again. He harbours little anger about his time in Guantanamo. "They know they were wrong and they acquitted us," he said of his American jailers.

And he said that they "protected" the Uygurs from those they feared most - the Chinese authorities, who visited the men in Cuba and requested their extradition as terrorist suspects.

They have also requested their extradition from Albania, but without success. "I can't forgive," said an Uzbek friend and fellow ex-Guantanamo survivor in Tirana, Zakir Hasam.

"But you've got to take into account where [Qassim] came from, what he experienced. Ill- treatment is relative when you're not aware of your rights."

Qassim now reads the news from home every day. He laments that Uygurs must "think like Chinese, act like Chinese, everywhere except inside the home". He thinks constantly of his parents and hopes the separatist movement will be able to better organise itself.

But these days, politics at home is not as important to him as finding work in Tirana.

"There's a saying that's almost the same, at home and in Albania," he said. "'It's better to stand at your front door looking inside.' It means, take care of yourself and your family first."

Zakir puts it slightly differently. "There's a saying in Uzbekistan that I've cleaned up for you. When the prosecutor kills your father, who do you complain to?"

For now, these political exiles are working on the battles they think they can win.


An earlier version of the story stated that Abu Bakker Qassim was held by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay in isolation for four years. It has since been corrected to "held ... at Guantanamo Bay for more than four years, one of them in isolation."