Abu Baqr Qassim
By Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Newspapers
TIRANA, Albania — Abu Bakker Qassim's gray suit was pressed, his shirt was bright white and his shoulders were square as he picked a path along the broken sidewalks, among the plastic bags and bottles, on his way to afternoon prayers at a small mosque on the outskirts of Albania's poor capital.
On many days, the 38-year-old makes the walk five times. Although Albanians arriving for prayers avoid him, avert their eyes and leave space around him, it's a chance for him to see faces other than the four fast friends with whom he shares a college dorm-like apartment in an Albanian refugee center. It's a chance to chat with the cleric, to hear words that make some sense, half a world away from home.
A Uighur from far northern China, he left a Chinese backwater to find a better life, he said, and he planned to get there by selling cloth bags across central Asia. He ended up in the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"I remember back, before all this, someone suggested I should learn Arabic," he recalled over a cup of strong coffee. "I told them they were crazy; I was too old and it was far too difficult to learn. How little I knew of what was to come."
Early in 2001, he left a wife pregnant with twins and a young son, promising to call for them when he'd found a better life. He made it as far as Pakistan, looking for passage to Turkey, where rumor had it that a Uighur had a successful leather-goods factory.
Traveling by bus from Pakistan to Turkey, however, meant traveling through Iran, and it could take months to obtain the necessary papers.
Aside from being almost broke, Qassim said, he was nervous about waiting in Pakistan, where it was rumored that Uighurs often were turned over to Chinese officials.
On the advice of a Uighur friend, Qassim said, he learned of a village, described merely as a Uighur village, at the foot of some mountains in eastern Afghanistan, where he could find food and shelter.
This, Qassim said, is how he came to be in Afghanistan in July 2001. When the bombs started falling in October, Qassim said, he learned that the nearby mountains, where the villagers fled, were the Tora Bora mountains, the same mountains where, many thought, Osama bin Laden and his followers had taken refuge.
According to U.S. military records, American officials identified the village as a terrorist training base funded by the Taliban, according to military tribunal records.
Qassim and other Uighurs in the village underwent rudimentary training on AK-47 submachine guns from fellow Uighurs. He said they trained for a potential fight to liberate their part of China.
Lacking newspapers, television, radio and even Arabic-language skills, 18 Uighurs — who Qassim claimed all knew nothing about the 9-11 terrorist attacks — fled to mountain caves, then picked their way through snowy mountains back to Pakistan.
Late that year, they were captured and turned over to U.S. forces, still insisting that they'd never heard of al Qaida.
"America has always helped the Uighurs," Qassim said. "The American translators told us not to worry, we were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. We weren't enemies. We were Uighurs."
So, Qassim said, he kept hope, even as guards at Kandahar Airfield kneed him in the chest, taking his breath away, and barked orders in a language he didn't understand. He said he was stretched out naked on the ground on a cold night, and lifted from the ground by his shackled arms.
His allegations couldn't be corroborated.
Sabin Willett, a Boston lawyer who represented Uighurs who were imprisoned at Guantanamo, said that in the months after 9-11, China argued to the United Nations that Uighurs should be branded a terrorist organization, in part because they'd been using "art and literature" to "distort historical facts."
That, Willett said, was the extent of the Uighurs' ties to international terrorism.
Qassim arrived at Guantanamo in June 2002. The Uighurs were separated from one another. Qassim said he was alone in a tiny cell, surrounded by men speaking words he couldn't understand, attended to by guards speaking words he couldn't understand. Four silent months passed.
That autumn, Chinese interrogators arrived at the base and interviewed the Uighurs. Mohammed Ayub described the interrogation as "nothing more than threats. They told me they knew my family, where I'd lived, when I'd left China, where I'd traveled. I would be imprisoned if I ever tried to return to China. It was frightening, they got to us inside that place."
Still, Qassim said, he retained hope. He realized that he had to learn either English or Arabic, or else go insane in his isolation. U.S. troops seized everything but his Quran, but that was in Uighur and Arabic, so in the oppressive silence he read back and forth from Uighur to Arabic — except for eight characters, the alphabets are the same — trying to guess at the Arabic pronunciations.
He was transferred to a cellblock with lighter security. He was in a cell with nine others, including other Uighurs, who agreed that they needed to learn Arabic.
"In a cell with Arab speakers, this is when class began," Qassim said.
Every day, he said, the Uighurs learned new Arabic words. At first, they were simple: I, you, he, food, eat, drink, good.
In a few weeks, they could make simple sentences. I want food. Are you well? I am good.
He said they asked guards for paper, so that they could make their study more systematic. They were told no, he said: Guantanamo wasn't set up as a study hall. Qassim said he found napkins to write on and sneaked them into his cell, but he was caught.
"They sent me to the cage, for a week, 10 days, I am not sure," he said, referring to solitary confinement. "Time does not pass in there."
Time was never easy to judge in Guantanamo, he said. Months and years drifted by, and without markers, they did little more than merge into a single painful memory.
Still, he said, the cage was worse, a cell perhaps 2 yards long, 1 wide, metal latticework on the outside, but covered inside by a thick cloth that blocked out all light. Once inside, he was alone; there were no exercise walks. The toilet was in one corner; his meals were brought to him to be eaten in another corner.
He said the cage was the worst part of Guantanamo, but that others spent more time there than the total of a few months that he thinks he did.
When he was released from the cage, he returned to studying.
During exercise periods, the inmates played soccer, Qassim said, and he learned phrases such as "stop him," "I'm open" and "well done." In their cells, he said, they cobbled together conversations in Arabic: Do you come from mountains? Does your family have sheep? What food do you eat at home?
Now, with a child's understanding of Arabic, he said, he returned to his Quran. Comparing passages now began to make more and more sense. He let his pinkie nail grow so that when he was confronted by a word he couldn't figure out or pronounce, he said, he could use it to etch the word into the only writing material available, plastic foam coffee cups.
"I learned words, thousands of words," he said. "I still do not understand the proper grammar, some I cannot use properly, but usually it is OK, if the listener is patient."
As his Arabic improved, so did his life at Guantanamo. An attorney arrived to argue on his behalf, perhaps in 2004, he thinks. The attorney even brought books to help the Uighurs learn English. Guards quickly took away the books, Qassim said.
In 2004, he was taken before a U.S. military tribunal for a combat status review. After the tribunal heard his story, it determined that he was no longer an enemy combatant.
He said the guards told him and four other Uighurs who'd received similar decisions that the United States was looking for a country that was willing to accept them. It was difficult, because China opposed their return to anywhere but China.
Willett said that during their time in prison, the U.S. was gearing up to invade Iraq, and the Uighurs had "became a diplomatic chip in this high-stakes game, a quid pro quo for Chinese acquiescence in the administration's Iraq policy."
Willett applied for U.S. asylum for the Uighurs, but days before their scheduled hearing, he said, American authorities bundled Qassim and the four others onto a military transport and flew them to Albania.
"When they told me Albania, I asked why they were sending us to a communist country," he said. "They said Albania was no longer communist. I knew nothing about the place."
What he learned was that he'd been dumped in Europe's poorest nation. The capital, Tirana, his new home, is a mismatch of the modern styles that more powerful nations left there in the past century.
Benito Mussolini, Italy's fascist dictator, left behind some broad avenues and a soccer stadium. The Soviet Union left behind block after block of nondescript apartment buildings. China left its impact. But Tirana is a disorganized, untidy place where the roads and riverbeds are lined with plastic bags, bottles and other trash.
The average salary is about $100 a month; half of Albania's citizens are farmers, and most have a hand in the "gray" market, where goods are traded illegally.
After more than a year in Albania, the Uighurs still didn't have jobs, work permits or friends outside the refugee center. Language again was the major hurdle; Arabic was of little use in Albania.
In addition to the five Uighurs, there are an Egyptian, an Algerian and an Uzbek at the refugee center, and they use Arabic as a common language. The center provides a Chinese translator, a man who's worked with the Chinese Embassy, but the Uighurs don't like to speak Chinese.
Among themselves, when the gates are shut and their door is locked, they speak Uighur, a Turkic language that they know isolates them even more. They study Albanian, but Qassim said that he did so without enthusiasm.
He's been able to talk to his wife and oldest child by telephone. It's nice to hear their voices, but the separation burns. They have no passports, so they won't be coming to join him. The younger children wonder who he is. He knows that he can't go back to China.
He said he thought that learning Arabic in prison was a symbol of a man who kept believing that life would get better. He's not sure that that man exists anymore.
"To learn Albanian, to try to start a new life here, to bring my family to me and find a home and work, that would be a dream," he said. "But that will not happen. I will never see my wife and children again. I can't dream anymore."