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Albania: Getting out of Gitmo

Reporter's Diary, Alex Poolos

Poolos
Reporter Alexandra Poolos is a graduate of the journalism school at Columbia University. She has worked for Radio Free Europe, National Public Radio, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The American Prospect magazine and Newsday. She has covered international stories in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Russia and Central Asia. She is currently based in New York.

Uighurs in Albania?
Retracing the odyssey of a group of Uighur men from western China through detention in Guantanamo Bay and eventual resettlement in Albania, Alex Poolos shares her own reporter’s journey. Mindful of her own Albanian heritage, Poolos travels to the former Communist enclave on the edge of Europe with many questions about the mysterious men consigned to live there.

I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Two years ago, I ran into an old classmate at my 10-year college reunion. As we ate dinner on the campus green and talked about our career paths over the past decade, he told me that, in addition to his work as a corporate attorney, he had become involved with representing Guantanamo detainees. His main clients were a group of Uighurs, an Muslim ethnic minority in western China whose cultural and religious rights have often been repressed by the Chinese government. He told me that five of the Uighur men had been found to be wrongfully detained in Guantanamo for four years and were then suddenly transferred in the middle of the night to Albania.

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Approximately one in every six Albanians lives in the capitol of Tirana.

A Poor But Willing Country
The fact that it was Albania was particularly interesting to me. Part Albanian on my mother’s side, I grew up hearing stories of the country’s repressive Communist government. My grandmother left the country after marrying my grandfather in the 1920s. They begged her family to leave with them for Jamestown, New York, where my grandfather was building up a wholesale fruit business. But, as an elite family with considerable wealth, they didn’t believe his warnings of what was to come. Everyone got trapped during the years leading up to World War II, and the family eventually lost everything when the Communists took power.

Even after the Communist government fell in the early 1990s, no one from my family considered visiting the relatives still there. Traumatized by the stories of repression they had read for decades in letters from Albania, my mother and her siblings didn’t believe that anything had changed. Worse, the impoverished country had become crime ridden and they believed it was a place where a wealthy Westerner could be easily kidnapped and held for ransom. My mother accepted my traveling to war-torn countries around the world, but the minute I mentioned looking up relatives in Albania, she begged me not to go.

So when my classmate told me that Albania had been the only country in the world to accept Uighur detainees cleared of wrongdoing, I became determined to see what kind of life these men had found in what was once the most closed-off country in Europe. For these five Uighurs, Albania presented a very mixed sort of blessing. After they had languished in Guantanamo for years, Albania offered their only refuge. They couldn’t return to China, where they would most certainly be persecuted for opposing the Chinese government. The Bush administration had refused to even consider paroling former Guantanamo inmates to the United States. And no other country wanted them, despite extensive negotiations with the U.S. State Department; most argued that they wouldn’t take inmates the United States wouldn’t accept.

But why Albania? Even the Uighurs’ lawyers couldn’t believe it. Sabin Willet, another corporate attorney who represents other Uighurs in Guantanamo, said he thought the Justice Department was joking when they informed him of the Uighurs’ new home.

Willet had filed a petition with the federal court in the District of Columbia for the release of the Uighurs who were declared not to be enemy combatants. A few days before the case was scheduled to be heard in 2006, he got a phone call. “It was my opposite number at the Justice Department. And he said, ‘We’re moving to dismiss your appeal,’” Willet told me during an interview in his Boston office. “When I asked why, he said they weren’t there anymore. I said, ‘Where did they go? They swim somewhere?’ When he said they were in Albania, I said, ‘Bob, where are they, really?’”

Barely any Asians, and Certainly No Uighurs
My co-producer, Serene Fang, and I arrived in Albania in the fall of 2008, keen to meet with the Uighurs and to find out why Albania had accepted them when no other country in the world would. Albania was an unlikely destination for so many reasons. Desperately poor and struggling to shake off half a century of Communist rule, Albania barely had the resources to care for its own population. Although the country is predominantly Muslim, which would seem to provide some sense of connection for the Muslim Uighurs, Islam in Albania is practiced in a far more casual way. The bigger problem, however, is that Albania is a largely homogeneous population. There are barely any Asians, and certainly no other Uighurs. Look different, and you stand out immediately. Serene, who is of Chinese descent, quickly learned this. Wherever she went, Albanians pointed and stared, some asking her if she was “Kineze,” or Chinese.

We wouldn’t be meeting with the Uighurs for several days, because we were waiting for our Uighur translator to arrive in the capital, Tirana. So we spent our time shooting scenes of everyday life in the capital and trying to secure an interview with an Albanian official.

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Albania's friendship with the U.S. stretches back to WWI, after President Wilson defied other European nations and supported Albania's territorial integrity at the Paris Peace Accords. Today, Albanians still name their sons Wilson, in his honor.

Tirana is a vibrant place but also very polluted. The city achieved some fame after its eccentric mayor decided to paint the buildings in bright colors, as a way to signify the city’s rebirth. But years after this facelift, many of the colors have faded under the grime. While there is a great deal of commerce, it is evident that Tirana and much of Albania lags far behind other Eastern European capitals in catching up with Western Europe. And once you leave Tirana, the country appears even more neglected. The roads are dotted with potholes or, worse, not even paved. Children hawk fruit to passing cars, and old women lead mules with firewood or water up the hills.

Who Are these Mysterious Foreigners? Terrorists?
We had sent many emails to Albanian officials before and after we arrived, hoping to secure an interview. But every time we mentioned the Uighurs, we were turned down. Apparently, the Albanian public had not reacted so favorably to accepting these mysterious men into their country. While support for the United States runs very high in Albania -- the country has sent troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan -- many people thought of the Uighurs as terrorists, despite their having been labeled non-enemy combatants by the United States 

Finally, becoming exasperated, I asked for an interview with Albania’s foreign minister and didn’t mention the Uighurs in my request. His office agreed, so not long after our arrival, I sat down with Lulzim Basha. I asked him whether there was any political advantage in accepting the Uighurs. “I wouldn’t say this was a trade-off,” he said. “This is just like our presence in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan; this is a sign of our will and our capacity to share the responsibility in the coalition against terror.”

But, of course, there was one immediate benefit. Two days after Albania accepted the Uighurs, Vice President Cheney publicly endorsed the country’s application to join NATO.  

Toward the end of our first week in Albania, Rushan Abbas, our Uighur translator, arrived. This dynamic woman dressed in stylish clothes and high heels knew the Uighurs well. Rushan had been their interpreter during their first interrogations at Guantanamo. Initially hired by the Department of Defense, she went on to provide her language skills to the Uighurs’ defense attorneys. Now, she was helping us interview the Uighurs in Albania.

I had initially been leery of hiring someone who had worked for both the legal team and the DOD, but from the moment we met the Uighurs, I was relieved that Rushan was on board. When we greeted the men in the lobby of our hotel, right away, you could see how comfortable they were with Rushan. She was more than a translator. In many ways, she seemed quite maternal with them. She was also the conduit of information about their friends still imprisoned back in Guantanamo. Rushan asked for time alone to catch up with the men, so we agreed to begin taping with Abu Bakker Qassim Qassim, the Uighur we had decided to profile, the next morning.

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Abu Bakker Qassim

Adjusting to a New Life
We met Abu Bakker Qassim at his home, on a quiet street in central Tirana. After a year at a refugee center on the outskirts of town, the Uighurs had all been moved into private housing by the Albanian government. They would be given free housing for two years, in the hope that, during that time, they would secure jobs and begin to build their lives. By any measure, Abu Bakker Qassim's home was a nice one. Spacious, with several rooms and a small garden in the front, it also had Internet access and friendly neighbors. But the comforts did little to assuage Abu Bakker Qassim’s worries. Although appreciative of the government help, he nevertheless told us countless times that he had just a year left in the home before he had to find his own place.

The constant reminder about his temporary housing situation was our first indication of Abu Bakker Qassim’s deep anxieties. But in many ways, he was the most adjusted of his peers. A quiet, dignified man, Abu Bakker Qassim dressed in a button-down shirt and tie every day for his interviews with us. He wore glasses and had an almost studious air. When the rest of the group gathered later in the day to meet us, Serene and I were struck by their reticence. Although the youngest Uighur, Ayoub, made some effort to speak with us, the other two could barely look at us, avoiding us in conversation. One was often visibly angry and suspicious of our goals in the interviews and shoots.

How Did They Wind Up in Guantanamo Bay?
During our first interview with Abu Bakker Qassim, we asked him to recount the story of his journey from western China to Guantanamo. Almost mechanically, he told us that he left his wife in western China in hopes of finding work in a Uighur-run leather factory in Turkey. Instead of flying, he took an overland route that led him through Central Asia to Pakistan. Once in Pakistan, he applied for a visa to cross Iran and was told that he would need a temporary Pakistani residency permit before he could get his Iranian visa. But waiting in Pakistan for over a month sounded too expensive to Abu Bakker Qassim. He had heard of a Uighur village in Afghanistan and decided to wait for his visa there.

This village was actually a Uighur training camp of sorts, where Uighurs learned the basics about firearms, hoping that they could use their training in a resistance movement against the Chinese government. Abu Bakker Qassim told us that he personally did not undergo any military training, but in his official Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantanamo, he told officials that he went to the training camp “to learn to fight the Chinese.”

Still, Abu Bakker Qassim and the other Uighurs were clearly not getting weapons training to fight the United States. This was determined early on in their stay in Guantanamo, and they were classified as not a threat. Nevertheless, they were held for years.

The toll of this detention struck me in a number of ways. Abu Bakker Qassim seldom looked me in the eye, and out of the hundreds of interviews I have done in my career, I felt the most disconnected during his. Although I’ve traveled to war torn countries and interviewed deeply traumatized people, I have never interviewed someone who has endured the type of incarceration Abu Bakker Qassim has. I was told by one Albanian, who worked with the Uighurs when they first arrived, that they were so institutionalized that they often walked the streets in single file, just as they were required to move in Guantanamo.

Another Life Back in China
One afternoon, Abu Bakker Qassim talked with me of his wife and children back in China. They had tried unsuccessfully to get visas to come and visit him but were denied by the Chinese government. Several other Uighurs still at Guantanamo have given their wives permission to divorce them, but Abu Bakker Qassim is hanging on in the hope of being reunited one day. He calls them regularly.

He told me later: “It’s been eight years that we are living apart. And for the past two years, we just exchange simple words over the phone … I don’t speak words of love because it gives us both pain. We are just getting along like acquaintances.”

Outside Abu Bakker Qassim’s gate, children often play on the street. When I asked Abu Bakker Qassim how he is adjusting to life in Tirana and whether he is making connections with Albanians, he said that he doesn’t really like to be out in public because he doesn’t want to see children playing. It reminds him too much of his own.

Still, he is trying to make the best of life in Albania, knowing that this is likely to be his permanent home. He is taking English lessons and driving classes in the hope of becoming a taxi driver. He is also learning how to make pizza from a local restaurant owner. His grand dream is to one day open a Uighur food shop. And Abu Bakker Qassim recognizes that his life in Albania is a major improvement over the past years in Guantanamo. These days, he says, his own relative freedom is tainted by the guilt and worry he feels for his friends who are still imprisoned. He thinks of them every day, he told me, wishing he could speak with them and one day see them go free.