No country to call their own

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP Consider the plight of Ahktar Qassim Basit, as told in a moving story in yesterday’s New York Times. China, the country of his birth, considers him a terrorist suspect. Basit is Muslim and Uighur, a member of an ethnic minority from Xinjiang Province, which the Uighurs call East Turkestan. Human rights groups ...

601342_070611_uighur_05.jpg
601342_070611_uighur_05.jpg

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP

Consider the plight of Ahktar Qassim Basit, as told in a moving story in yesterday's New York Times. China, the country of his birth, considers him a terrorist suspect. Basit is Muslim and Uighur, a member of an ethnic minority from Xinjiang Province, which the Uighurs call East Turkestan. Human rights groups have long condemned Beijing for what they consider its oppression of its nine million Uighurs in western China, where there are occasional outbreaks of separatist violence. 

Several years ago, Basit left Xinjiang and headed west, looking for ways to earn money to send back to his family, and also to escape harassment by Chinese authorities. After traveling through a few Central Asian countries, he found himself in a Uighur hamlet not far from Tora Bora, where he heard he could get free food and shelter while he figured out where to go next. In October 2001, the American military bombed the hamlet, scattering its residents over the border into Pakistan. There villagers reported them to local security, which turned them over to the U.S. military, which promptly imprisoned them in detention centers back in Afghanistan. A few months later, the U.S. military sent them to Cuba.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP

Consider the plight of Ahktar Qassim Basit, as told in a moving story in yesterday’s New York Times. China, the country of his birth, considers him a terrorist suspect. Basit is Muslim and Uighur, a member of an ethnic minority from Xinjiang Province, which the Uighurs call East Turkestan. Human rights groups have long condemned Beijing for what they consider its oppression of its nine million Uighurs in western China, where there are occasional outbreaks of separatist violence. 

Several years ago, Basit left Xinjiang and headed west, looking for ways to earn money to send back to his family, and also to escape harassment by Chinese authorities. After traveling through a few Central Asian countries, he found himself in a Uighur hamlet not far from Tora Bora, where he heard he could get free food and shelter while he figured out where to go next. In October 2001, the American military bombed the hamlet, scattering its residents over the border into Pakistan. There villagers reported them to local security, which turned them over to the U.S. military, which promptly imprisoned them in detention centers back in Afghanistan. A few months later, the U.S. military sent them to Cuba.

For the next couple years, Basit and 21 of his fellow Uighurs were detained in Guantánamo Bay. By late 2003, U.S. officials determined that most of them were not a terrorist threat and could be released. But to where? Some Pentagon officials proposed sending them back to China. But others argued that, despite a promise from China that it would treat the Uighurs humanely, Beijing’s track record proved otherwise. So the U.S. administration approached other countries where there are small Uighur communities, such as Sweden and Germany. A year passed, and in late 2004 the U.S. government decided that even though 14 of the Uighurs had been cleared of wrongdoing, it would review all of their cases again. This time, only five, including Basit, could be freed. (Since then, others’ cases have been reviewed, and all, except for two, have been cleared). The U.S. attempted to reach out to yet more countries to take in the Uighurs: Angola, Australia, Switzerland, Gabon. Some countries wanted foreign aid in exchange for taking in the refugees. Others felt pressure from China not to accept the Uighurs into their borders. Finally, the United States pressured Albania into accepting a few. 

For over a year now, Basit and four of his fellow Uighurs who were also detained at Gitmo have been living in a squalid refugee center outside Tirana. They have been told that they must work in order to move out. But in order to get a work permit, they must learn Albanian. (That’s some catch, that Catch 22 …) They’ve petitioned to be sent to another country, but because the United Nations considers Albania “safe,” the organization will make no move to help. No one else seems to notice or care about their fate, either.

We’ve never talked to them,” said an American official who insisted on anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the matter. “We don’t monitor them. They’re not our citizens, and there is no reason for us to.”

Meanwhile, they study the Koran, study Albanian, and spend their precious small stipends on phone calls to their families back home. And they wait.

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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