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20 Apr, 2009 05:58

No way out: former Gitmo prisoner victim of diplomacy

Although President Barack Obama’s decision to shut down the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison has been roundly welcomed, it is other countries which are picking up the pieces of the inmates’ shattered lives.

One former captive, who was released without charge after almost five years, is now stuck in Albania, separated from his wife and family back in China.

Abu Bakr Qassim is praying the next chapter of his life will be better than the one he’s trying to close. For four-and-a-half years this Uighur, a member of a Muslim ethnic community in western China, was a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.

Even though today he’s finally free of the bars that kept him captive, he’s trapped in a different kind of hell. He says he hasn’t seen his wife in eight years.

“When I left home she was pregnant with our twins. I pray that one day I can hold them. I only have to be patient – there is no other choice.”

An unlucky journey

Abu Bakr says nine years ago he decided to leave his hometown and travel to Turkey to work. He said it was on this journey that he stopped in an Afghan village. It left him in a bad spot at a bad time: 9/11 had just happened and the United States had begun bombing the Al-Qaeda stronghold in Tora Bora where Abu Bakr was staying.

“The Pakistanis arrested me and accused me of being a terrorist,” Abu Bakr said.

“Normally, whenever the Pakistanis would arrest Uighur, they’d hand us over to China who’d execute us. So I told them I was an Uzbek. Later I told the Americans the truth. They never tortured us because they were aware of our story.”

‘Never thought I’d leave Gitmo alive’

It took nearly five years for Abu Bakr to be found innocent. During that time he and the 22 other Uighur who’d been arrested with him lived in a place he says was not fit for animals.

“I never thought I’d leave Guantanamo alive. I lived there in a cage – it was two by two square meters. I had ten minutes a day to go outside and five minutes to take a shower. I used to pray, read the Koran, and talk to the cage next door – that was life in Guantanamo.”

New trap

The fate of one man’s journey that started nearly a decade ago is now again back in the hands of politicians.

Declaring the men free was one thing. Finding them a place to be sent to is another. Some of the most critical European voices about Guantanamo are lukewarm about taking in its detainees. Albania finally stepped forward.

“This is a demonstration of a level of cooperation between the two countries, between Albania and the United States first,” said political analyst Mentor Nazarko. “Second is something which is not going against our legal system.”

In April, Albania joined NATO after 17 years of applying. It was one of the first eastern bloc countries to apply for membership, and one of the last to be granted it. The main stumbling blocks were democracy, economic reform and the rule of law.

As Albania presents a new face to the world, Abu Bakr is hoping his story will be a part of it. However, Albania is nervous about upsetting the Chinese government and is unlikely to push for Abu Bakr’s family to be reunited with him.

He can’t go to them, and they’re not allowed to leave their home in China. Regardless, it is better than where he’s been. For now, Abu Bakr consoles himself by hearing the voices of his children and trying once again to learn about the wife he left behind.