By Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Newspapers
TIRANA, Albania — Adel Abdulhehim laughs at the memory of his “terror training.”
It was shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, and he was in a small village in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains. The U.S. government later described it as a Taliban-sponsored terrorist training camp with ties to al Qaida. Abdulhehim said he wasn't sure what the place was called and had no idea who set it up. But, he said, he remembers the training.
“They had some guns, some AK-47s, and asked us if we wanted to learn to use them,” he said. “Really, I was curious. I'd never been allowed to handle one before. We went out once, for an hour or so. I think I shot three or four bullets, at rocks. That was it.”
Abdulhehim is sure that whatever the village was, the training had nothing to do with the United States. He's a Uighur from northern China, and the Muslim Uighurs have always considered the United States a savior, a nation that stands up for Uighur rights.
When Abdulhehim left China in early 2001, he said, he planned to cross the border and do business in Kyrgyzstan. But, he said, police there demanded so much in bribes that he was losing money.
He said that he headed into Kazakhstan, but life there was no better, and he continued to Pakistan. There, too, chances to make a living weren't much better, he said, and he heard about opportunities in Turkey. Traveling to Turkey required papers to get through Iran, however, and he said he was warned that those could take months.
A Uighur friend in Pakistan advised him to wait for the papers in the Uighur village in Afghanistan, so that's where he went in July 2001.
Uighurs who later wound up at Guantanamo have told this story consistently, however unlikely an explanation it may seem for traveling to a country engaged in a civil war. Moreover, Uighurs fought in the front lines of the Taliban, and were among those captured by their opponents — the northern alliance, or United Front — and the rudimentary training at the camp may have been intended as preparation for combat.
“After China, Krygyzstan and Pakistan, Afghanistan was very calm,” Abdulhehim said. “True, we only had rice and beans to eat, but we had no worries. Mostly, we worked at building small houses, from stone, and we studied the Quran.”
He said he was at the camp for several months with about 20 other Uighurs. The countrymen around him said they were in the village for the same reason that he was. They'd fled China looking for better lives, hoping to find new homes where they'd be allowed to do business and provide better for their families.
Abdulhehim said that after being turned in to Pakistani forces by villagers he thought would help him, he was handed over to U.S. troops in late 2001 and taken to Afghanistan's Kandahar Airfield, where he was kept for about six months.
“I thought it was routine, I'd be held a few days and released,” he said. “I had no problems, ever, with the United States.”
He was taken to Guantanamo in June 2002. He described his treatment as average for detainees, hardly kind but less than nightmarish. He was released in May 2006 and shipped to Albania because, he said he was told, it was the only country that would take him other than China, where he didn't want to go because he'd be arrested for alleged illegal activities.
Sitting in a restaurant in Tirana with the Dajti Mountains looming behind him, Abdulhehim wondered whether all his trouble really was because he'd taken a couple of shots at rocks.
“It was nothing more than curiosity,” he said.