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Albania: Getting out of Gitmo

Abu Bakker Qassim

Abu Bakker Qassim
Abu Bakker Qassim is one of the five Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority group in western China, who were picked up in Pakistan after 9/11 and detained at Guantanamo Bay for seven years, after which they were sent by the U.S. government to live in Albania.

In this interview with reporter Alex Poolos, Abu Bakker Qassim talks about the reasons he was in Afghanistan in the first place, his detention at Guantanamo Bay and the difficulty of assimilating into Albanian culture.

Alexandra Poolos: Why did you leave China? How did you end up in Tora Bora, Afghanistan?

Abu Bakker Qassim: The reason we left the country was twofold: first, to do business, because it was getting more difficult to do business with rising taxes in China.

Secondly, political pressure on Uighurs had increased. So I left for abroad in 2000 in the hope of doing some business to better the situation of me and my family in a more free environment.

What happened when the bombings started? Did you know about the attacks on 9/11 in the United States?

The general situation there was that listening to the radio was banned. Only one guy had a radio; he would tell us positive news in order not to dismay people, so we had literally no idea what was going on.

One day, we heard bombings in a far away place and then, on the second day, the place we stayed was bombed. We were sleeping. It was so loud and sudden that we had no idea what was going on.

We got up and hurried toward the cave behind the house. Around 17 or 18 people made it to the cave. One man's hand was ripped off. The rest couldn't make it to the cave, because it happened around midnight when people were sleeping.

We could hear bombs hitting the top of the cave as if they had penetrated the roof.  It was so loud that we covered our ears. It lasted the whole night. The next day we checked the roof; there were craters 5 to 10 meters wide caused by explosions. The houses, the mosque and the cooking area were gone.

You were captured with hundreds of other people fleeing into Pakistan. How did that happen?

We had nothing to live on in the mountains, and we could not enter the city [Jalalabad] either, because we heard that allied forces were there. We didn't know the way to [Pakistan]. Later, some people showed us the way. We walked in the mountains for two days. There was thick snow and the weather was cold. We didn't have anything to eat except water and a few dates.

After walking for two days, we entered Pakistan. Local people welcomed us. We entered a Shiite region. It was the third day of Eid, and we were offered meat and told that they would show us the way to the city. We stayed there for two days.

They told us that they would take us to the mosque and see us off there. When we went to the mosque, there were hundreds of people -- Arabs and people from other nations.

We realized we had got into a trap, the same way those people in the mosque did. All the people were loaded into a truck in groups of 10. We were told we would be taken to the governor's mansion, but the truck drove us directly to a prison.

How did you end up in the hands of U.S. forces?

After several days in the [Pakistani] prison, we Uighurs were confined together in the same prison. At that point, we learned that it was America doing the bombing, due to an explosion that happened in America.

We talked and agreed not to reveal our identity as Uighurs, for fear that that we would be extradited to China. Instead, we figured we'd be better off falling into the hands of the United States, since they were aware of the Uighurs’ plight and might let us live, whereas in China we and our families would be in jeopardy. So we decided to cover our identity and agreed, if asked, to say that we were Uzbeks from Afghanistan, since our language is the same.

We were arraigned by Pakistani officials. We told them the Uzbek names that we assumed in order not to give away our identity. We all changed our names to have a more Afghan flavor. They said they were going to release us.

Later, they came and told us that we would be handed over to the Americans as terrorists. We didn't say anything and determined to tell the truth when we met the Americans. After confirming from the Red Cross that we were in the hands of Americans in Kandahar [Afghanistan], we told them the truth at our first arraignment. After the first two of us told them the truth, it was my turn. I filled them in about how I went [to Afghanistan] and about Uighur issues in detail. They said they were after Arab terrorists, not after us. It was unexpected and beyond their [intention] to capture us.

Basically, we stayed there for six months, thinking we would get out soon. Soldiers would come and ask who we were. We would tell them we were Uighurs, which would surprise them. They would tell us we would be freed. The Red Cross would come and say the same thing. So for six months, we lived thinking we would be freed soon. From time to time, an officer would come and ask about Uighurs and say we'd be freed. Then, for no reason, we were taken to Guantanamo after six months.

Why do you think you were sent to Guantanamo after being told you weren’t a threat?

We didn't understand that. Later, we learned some facts after talking with lawyers. Basically, we were regarded the same way as other detainees there. For three years at Guantanamo, we kept being told that we were innocent, would be released soon and would not be extradited to China, according to the policy of the United States.

After three years, all the detainees were declared enemy combatants, at which point we understood we were dragged deeply into the case. We thought we would never get out of there and realized that we had become trump cards in the hands of America.

What happened after you were taken to Guantanamo?

After coming to Guantanamo, I was put in a two-meter-long iron cell. I was totally desperate and lost hope of this world. I figured it would be impossible to get out of there and took my mind off of the notion of getting out. When I was told we'd be freed, I would just simply say “yes” but not really believe it, because I understood that was nonsense.

I figured we were being treated like someone who had committed a felony, as it was not normal to be taken to somewhere in the middle of the sea and put in solitary iron cells. I thought we must have been charged with a severe crime. I told the other fellows to take their mind off of the notion of getting out for at least two to three years.

Since it is well known that America is a democratic country that has been extending democracy to other countries, we had not thought that America would treat us like that.  At that time, we had high regard for the American nation, because America is a democratic, developed country, economically and politically. Even our people [in China] had high hopes that America, as our ally, would help us to be independent.

How did you find out you were going to Albania?

[At Guantanamo] they told us we would go to Albania. So that same day, they transfered us by military airplane. At first, they asked us if we had any questions. We asked them how we would get there. They said we would be flown by military airplane. The airplane didn’t stop anywhere. They added gas while we were in the air. We flew 12 hours to get there.

We didn’t know anything about this country. We didn’t know how our life would be. They told us that Albania [became] a democratic country 15 years ago. When you get there, they will issue you a passport and arrange an apartment and jobs. They will arrange everything about your life. Then we felt comfortable. We didn’t worry about it. So we felt happy and boarded the airplane. 

When we got into the airplane, we saw that it was very big. There were 20 to 30 soldiers inside the airplane. Among them were two soldiers with weapons. When we got into the airplane, our hands and feet were tied by chains, and we had a chain around the waist. So that’s how we started the journey.

It was cold inside the airplane, so they gave us blankets. And they gave us white tennis shoes, jeans and a white shirt to wear. Midway on the journey, they gave us more blankets. During the 12-hour journey, I was wondering if we were actually going to China.

What happened when you arrived?

We thought that when we landed at the airport, there would be a lot of reporters and government officials to meet us. Unfortunately, when the rear of the airplane opened, the first thing we saw was that it was dark outside. At that time, we thought they had lied to us. “We’re not in Albania,” we thought. “We’re in China.” And our faces had the look of fear.

We were looking out the back of the airplane, into the dark. There was no light. Then we saw that a car had come, and we saw several people come out who looked like Europeans, wearing suits.

Then we felt relieved a bit and started to believe we were actually in Albania. The soldiers took the chains off of our hands and feet, and tied us with plastic handcuffs instead. Then they handed us one by one to the Albanians. They put five of us in three cars.

Since there were no Uighur interpreters, they brought someone who spoke Chinese. They told us, “Don’t be afraid. We’re from the Albanian government; that’s why we’re here to meet you.” They took us to the airport’s police station and released our hands from the plastic handcuffs. Then we started to fill out documents. They asked us if we wanted to apply for political asylum, and if so, we should sign these forms.

Before I came to Albania, I had no knowledge of Albania. But when I was young, I watched an Albanian movie called Red Light, so I knew that Albania was a communist country. But I didn’t know any details.

And so at Guantanamo, when they told us we were going to Albania, we asked them why we were going to a communist country since we came from a communist country. They told us it’s now a democracy. Other than that, I didn’t know what kinds of people were living in this country. Were they Muslims or other types of people? I didn’t even know if this country was in Europe.

What is your life in Albania like now?

We don’t know whether to be happy or sad. Now our life is fine with living expenses and a place to stay being taken care of. We are thankful to Albania and her people; however, the idea of what we will do after two years [when the aid will stop] overwhelms us. Although now it is fine, life after two years remains a big question.

I have never seen two of my children because they were born when I was away. I was not able to speak to my wife for six years. The first time I called my wife after six years, she cried. She broke the news that my father had died. I comforted her over the phone. My wife cried, saying the children have grown up without seeing their father. The twins have grown up, too. We just couldn't talk. She just kept crying. I held myself back and didn't cry when my mother cried. But I shed tears when my wife cried, saying the twins have grown up, and meanwhile I could overhear my children’s voices calling "Father!"

I don't go to parks often, because I see people playing with their kids, and I will feel bad. When I see other children playing around the house or when I am alone at home, I feel bad, so I try not to stay alone. There are only five of us [Uighurs] here. Our families cannot come to visit us, and it is impossible for us to visit them.

We are in the dark about our future. Our language and culture are different from the Albanians’, so it is hard for us to communicate with each other. Even if we have friends among them, our language ability is not at a level that we can confide to them.

We'll live here for the future, since we can't go other places. In order to take up something, I have taken an English language class after finishing an Albanian language course, from which I achieved a good result. Besides, we need to learn some skills. I went to [volunteer] in a pizza shop for four months, where I could practice Albanian and also learn some skills. If I have enough money, I will open my pizza shop in the future.

Do you often think about the Uighurs that are still in Guantanamo? 

As for those Uighurs that are still in Guantanamo, we very much share the same experiences. The places we came from and went to are the same. We all ended up in Guantanamo. Five of us are cleared and released, but the rest are there and still being considered enemies. It is a great blow to them, since we share the same past.

We too have been living in pain for [these past] two years, with thoughts about why they are left behind. We imagine that the same idea might strike them, too. It is a pain to us, but a greater pain to the Uighurs who are still in Guantanamo, because they are heading toward the seventh year there under harsh conditions.

If the American people understood the real situation in Guantanamo, they wouldn't allow such a prison. I understood, after I came out, that there is a difference between the American people in general and the military.