A piece of plywood seals the hand-dug tomb on a hill in Palau. Buried inside is a toddler, a young boy of perhaps four placed with his face toward Mecca.
His grave is the only remaining trace of the six men who came to the tiny Pacific island state in 2009. The men were Muslim Uyghurs, leaving U.S. detention in Guantanamo Bay, and the Republic of Palau was one of the few places on earth to let them in. In exchange for money from the U.S. – including $93,333 (U.S.) for each man – Palau allowed the Uyghurs to trade life behind barbed-wire fences for life in one of earth’s most isolated places, an island chain with a local population of just 20,000.
They are gone now. The last man, a gregarious dreamer named Davut Abdurahim, left earlier this year. Where the six men and their families went is a secret kept even from some of the country’s most senior leaders.
What remain, instead, are memories of men who, from the day they touched down, fit uncomfortably amid a heavily Christian population that viewed their arrival – after a deal struck in secret with the U.S. by Palau’s then-president – with skepticism. A local newspaper greeted their arrival with a story declaring them “six bearded Moslem terrorists in shackles.” It was, in parts, a factual account: the U.S. transported the men to Palau on a military aircraft, shackled to their seats and accompanied by more than 30 Marines. They were bearded. They initially scared people in Palau.
Soon after they arrived, they walked and prayed on the beach to taste new freedom – and invited then-president Johnson Toribiong to a celebration. “They wanted to offer a sacrifice to Allah so we found them a goat and they killed it according to the Islamic ritual,” Mr. Toribiong said in an interview. “After they made a sacrifice, they cooked it for the first time in their own way. I joined them for dinner.”
The men were given individual rooms in a house owned by Mr. Toribiong’s sister-in-law – a potential conflict that prompted a lawsuit which remains unresolved. Palau set up a private tutor at the local Palau Community College for English instruction, and built the men a private bathroom to allow them to participate in ablution rituals.
Within a year, some of the men’s wives and family had arrived in Palau, and some began work. They found a local department store that had already started importing halal products for a small local Bangladeshi population. They tried a variety of jobs, working in construction, lawn maintenance and rock quarrying. But the men chafed at the hours, and conflicts arose over their prayer schedule. Eventually, most of them took jobs as security guards, one at the local port, others at the college.
“For them, dealing with people was the hard part,” said Ngiraibelas Tmetuchl, a local real-estate developer who was Mr. Toribiong’s special assistant and charged with caring for the Uyghur men. “Getting them security guards’ jobs was easy, because they don’t have to deal with anybody.”
But it was difficult to merge with a tropical island society so different from their own homes in the sprawling desert-and-mountains Xinjiang region of western China, and its heavily Muslim Uyghur population. The nearest imams lived in the Philippines and Indonesia, both nearly 1,000 kilometres away.
“Their traditional ways of doing things were very different from ours. They dressed differently. And I don’t think they really felt comfortable,” said Camsek Elias Chin, a former vice-president who is now president of Palau’s Senate. “Not in the sense that they were discriminated against, but the way they live is just different from Palauans.”
The Uyghur men made progress in English, and were able to communicate. But they found life hard on a small island that, for all its natural beauty, still felt constrained. They compared it to a bigger, lusher Guantanamo. (Palau initially agreed to accept 17 Uyghurs; 11 chose not to go.)
At first, they thought “we are restored, this is our vacation, everything beautiful, and the swimming, and the view, and the weather,” Ahmad Tourson, one of the men, told PBS in 2013. They pooled money to buy a used car and moved into separate apartments with family members. They took positions of religious leadership among the small local Muslim community. Some had skills as makers of jewellery and leather, and talked about securing tools to make products they could sell. But they never succeeded.
After years as security guards on an island they were unable to leave, they were left feeling “homeless, stateless, moneyless,” Mr. Tourson said.
Their lives saw joy, such as marriages with new brides who flew in from Russia and other places. But they could not shake tragedy, too, such as when the toddler fell off a balcony while his father washed a car below. A few days later, the boy died in hospital. The men struggled to find a suitable place to bury the child, rejecting offers of local plots as religiously incompatible. They chose instead a hill overlooking a small village.
The men spoke only rarely of the nightmare that had brought them here – how they were taken into American custody after the U.S. military promised money to Afghans who turned in “enemies.”
“Listening to their stories was sort of surreal – biblical, to an extent,” said Mr. Tmetuchl. “The way they told it, they were sold as terrorists. All they were were merchants, or looking for jobs in Afghanistan.”
Palau, too, offered no escape from the crush of secrecy and politics that surrounded the men’s lives. Mr. Toribiong, the former president, lost an election in part due to anger over his handling of their situation. But the men also welcomed their freedom relative to Guantanamo: they spoke regularly with Uyghur activists from around the world.
“They were very active politically from here,” said Mr. Tmetuchl.
He is among the few in Palau who know where the men are now – not even Mr. Chin, the Senate president, has been informed. But Mr. Tmetuchl won’t say where they’ve gone, save that they are not all in the same country – and that they haven’t been in touch since the U.S. pulled them out, in groups of one or two at a time, melting onto commercial flights and new lives.
“They went to a country that is favourable to their style of living,” he said. “I think they are more happy than they were here.”