Uyghur battles to escape painful past while rebuilding life in Albania

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker

South China Morning Post

For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in politics,” says Abu Bakker Qassim, wryly. “Not unless I knew what I was doing.”

Meeting in the leafy, low-lying Albanian capital, this one of Tirana’s more politically controversial residents is now far from the Americans who held him incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for more than four years. He is far too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Uyghur ethnic minority to the Americans for 5,000 dollars a head. And he is perhaps farthest from his family in Xinjiang province, western China, who he feels certain that he will not see again.

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With seven years in Albania now behind him, Qassim’s days are defined by the slow burn of the unemployed. There’s morning coffee, Koran reading and a walk in the park with his small daughter; then searching for work, and training at a halal pizza parlour owned by a friend. He feels both frustrated, and lucky. He has certainly seen worse.

After participating in the well known ‘Ghulja incident’ – Uyghur demonstrations in 1997 which were violently dispersed by the Chinese military – Qassim was among those rounded up and detained by the Chinese police.  He was beaten, tortured psychologically and interrogated with electricity, he says. Released after seven months without charge but facing threats and harassment, he decided to try and reach Turkey, find work in a leather factory, and send for his family.

But the slow route through Central Asia and Pakistan put him in contact he says, with a ‘Uighur village,’ just across the border in Afghanistan.  Here he says he agreed to train to fight in return for food and accommodation while he waited for his Iranian visa to process. Post 9/11 bombings in 2001 sent Qassim and many of his companions into Pakistan’s then-freezing mountains, and it was almost a relief he says, to be handed to the Americans.

Except it then took four-and-a-half years before US officials decided that Qassim posed no threat to America, and could be released. By then he had spent six months on a US base in Kandahar, a full year in a 2x2Sqm isolation cell, three more years detained in communal accommodations with some 20 other Uyghur men;  and his family thought he was dead.  “We just had to be passionate,” he says. “And remind ourselves that the situation in China was bad too, so all we could do was wait and hope to be declared as innocent.”

Qassim has found some peace in Albania: a country with food, religion and customs similar to those that he knows, and where he gets by on free accommodation and a USD$300 government stipend. Yet ‘politics’ still weigh heavily on the Uyghur.  A seven-year promise for ID cards and passports by Albania’s Ministry of Interior has yet to materialise for he and the handful of other resettled dissidents, and they can’t find out 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 a family behind 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 says. Although he can call them, with both they and he barred from travelling, he doubts he’ll ever see them again. Qassim’s appeal to have his wife and children join him in Albania failed when China allegedly refused to comply. He has since convinced his former wife to divorce him so that they could both marry again.

Abu Bakker Qasim ARTC Tirana (5)Yet he harbours little anger about his time in Guantanamo. “They know that they were wrong, and they acquitted us,” he says. And he explains that they ‘protected’ the Uyghurs from those they feared the most: the Chinese authorities – who visited the men in Cuba, and requested their extradition as terrorist suspects, (as they have done since without success from the Albanian government). “I can’t forgive,” said an Uzbek friend and fellow ex-Guantanamo survivor in Tirana, Zakir Hasan, who alleges worse treatment by the Americans. “But you’ve got to take into account where [Qassim] came from, what he experienced before.  Ill treatment is relative when you’re not aware of your rights.”

One former US deputy assistant secretary of state has called the situation of Guantanamo’s 22 Uyghur detainees as ‘nothing short of ‘tragic’. Three remain in Guantanamo, despite a US court order to release them.

Qassim now reads the news from home every day.  He laments the way that Uyghurs must “think like Chinese, act like Chinese, everywhere except inside the home.”  He thinks constantly of his parents, and he mentally urges the separatist movement to better organize themselves. But that’s the end of it, for him. These days, he just wants to find work.

“There’s a saying that’s almost the same, at home and Albania,” he says. “’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.