The view from the ground.

Stranded in Paradise

For the six Uighurs released from Gitmo to Palau, the prospect of an eternity in a small island country, with no passport and no Uighur community other than themselves, is its own kind of confinement.

Photo by Mary Kay Magistad
Photo by Mary Kay Magistad
Photo by Mary Kay Magistad

Life on a tropical island with sandy white beaches and swaying palm trees might not seem like the worst option, if you’ve just spent eight years as a prisoner in Guantánamo. But for the six ethnic Uighur Muslims from China’s western region of Xinjiang who were released last November from Guantánamo to the Pacific island state of Palau, the prospect of an eternity in a small island country, with no passport and no Uighur community other than themselves, is its own kind of confinement.

The amenities aren’t bad. The Uighurs live together in a spacious apartment with water views, on the second floor of a white villa, owned by President Johnson Toribiong’s brother Joe. Downstairs is a bank. Next door and across the street are Joe’s liquor store, bar and restaurant — perhaps not the best neighbors for devout Muslims. From the street, you can see that a blanket covers one window of the Uighurs’ apartment; they told journalists shortly after arriving that they would turn one room into a prayer room. They have also joined the one humble mosque on the island, frequented by Bangladeshi migrant workers, with whom they’re said to get along fine. Palau Community College even built a special washroom for them, so they can wash and pray between their English classes. But they’d still rather be someplace else. 

"We came here to Palau, because it’s close to Australia," Ahmad Tourson, one of the six Uighurs, said to Australia’s SBS Dateline program, upon arriving in Palau. They’ve since grown weary of talking to journalists, and now refuse almost all requests for interviews. "While we’re here, if we apply again to settle in Australia, we are hoping it’ll be accepted."

The Uighurs liked the idea of Australia because it has a sizable Uighur community and, they thought, was beyond China’s reach. But Australia has still not agreed to accept any Uighurs, despite repeated requests from the United States. The Chinese government has applied considerable pressure, saying it sees the 22 Uighurs who’d been in Guantánamo as terrorist suspects, who must be returned to face justice. Several of the Uighurs admitted under interrogation that they did receive limited arms training in Afghanistan — but said they were only ever interested in using it against China, not against the United States. No evidence has surfaced linking any of them to combat or to a terrorist attack.

And yet, when the Uighurs arrived at Palau’s airport in the early hours of Nov. 1, a local newspaper, Tia Belau, went sensationalist: "As if lifted from a spy movie thriller, a plane arrived in wee hours at an airport in darkness without knowledge of the sleeping country, and emerged six bearded Muslim terrorists, in shackles and guarded by many armed commandos." Leave aside the fact that the Uighurs aren’t terrorists. Footage of their arrival shows they weren’t guarded on the ground by armed commandos, and their ankles were only tied while they were on the plane. Once they stepped onto Palauan soil, they were free. 

Palau’s President Toribiong told me during my visit to Palau in late February that he tried from the beginning to make the Uighurs feel at home. He threw an island picnic for them shortly after their arrival. They requested and sacrificed a goat, in thanks for their freedom, and offered Toribiong the first plate. He says the men have tried to fit in, and people have grown to accept their presence, including some of their fellow students at Palau Community College.

"They don’t cause any trouble. They just do what they do, and we do what we do, and we welcome anybody and everybody," said Susan Rideb, an electronics student, taking a break from listening to her friends play the ukelele around a shaded picnic table. "They were accused of something they did not do, and now our government is giving them another chance."

Not everyone sees it that way. Student Elizabeth Cruz said she has chatted with the Uighurs, and she’s impressed with how fast their English has improved. But she says they still make her uncomfortable. "It’s just, sometimes when you hear about terrorists in Palau, this is a really small island; you get afraid," she told me. "Six people could ruin the whole island of Palau."

The Uighurs might argue that it’s their lives that have been ruined. They say they fled Xinjiang almost a decade ago to escape the Han Chinese-dominated government’s harassment and persecution of Uighurs, and went to Afghanistan because it was the only neighboring country at the time that wasn’t returning Uighurs to China. When the bombing started, the Uighurs say they first took shelter in caves, then fled to Pakistan where, they’ve told journalists, bounty hunters who had seen U.S. posters offering $5,000 a head for terrorist suspects, turned them in.

In the first stretch of their incarceration in Afghanistan, Ahmad Tourson told SBS, his leg was beaten and cut, and then he was made to stand in water for days. By the time he got to Guantánamo, his leg was so infected it had to be amputated. He said he and the other Uighurs were then kept in small cages with almost no natural light. 

At one point early on, U.S. guards at Guantánamo allowed Chinese officials to come and interrogate and threaten the Uighurs, and take their pictures. The Uighurs  worried how this would affect their families back home. 

Finally, when a U.S. court in 2008 ordered their release for lack of evidence, a public outcry at the prospect of allowing the 22 Uighurs to live in the United States prompted first the George W. Bush and then the Obama administrations to seek homes for the Uighurs elsewhere. Albania took five Uighurs. Bermuda took four. Switzerland just agreed to take two, who are still in Guantánamo. Palau has offered to take the rest — including the six already there, plus another five still in Guantánamo. 

But those five have refused; they’re instead pursuing a case in U.S. courts asking to be granted residence in the United States. Others are looking to the case to set precedent not only for all the Uighurs, but also for other foreign prisoners wrongfully detained by the United States. A federal court ruled in their favor; an appeals court overturned it on a technicality, saying the judicial branch doesn’t have the authority to decide who can be released onto U.S. territory. The case was supposed to have been heard by the Supreme Court on March 23. But the Uighurs’ initial argument was that they had nowhere else to go. Now that they have an offer to be resettled elsewhere, the Supreme Court in early March sent the case back to a lower court to consider these new facts.

Meanwhile, Palau’s offer to take all the remaining Uighurs stands. Toribiong says the decision was made as a humanitarian gesture and as a favor to the United States, which has given Palau more than $800 million in aid over the past 15 years for its 20,000 people, along with a pledge to defend it if attacked, in exchange for U.S. military access to Palauan territory and waters. Palau is also one of the 23 countries that recognize the government of Taiwan rather than that of the People’s Republic of China, putting it more or less out of reach of Chinese pressure — although, Toribiong says, China has made its displeasure known to Palau’s representative at the United Nations.

"When we accepted the United States’ request, I conveyed to them that they should be here temporarily, until they find a permanent place for them to resettle," Toribiong said. "The United States agreed to that.  But of course, there’s no limit to what’s temporary. So they’ll be here as long as it’s temporary. I think it’s a matter of mindset, rather than intent."

Toribiong says though the Uighurs have made an effort to fit in, he does worry about what will happen once they finish their English studies and start looking for work.

"They’re Muslim, so it’s hard to find them jobs in hotels where ladies are sunning on the beach or something," Toribiong said. "They cannot be working in restaurants where they serve liquor, or where waitresses are walking around. So these are conditions I didn’t understand [when agreeing to grant them asylum], that these are people with a unique culture."

There’s also the fact that the Uighurs are still mentally adjusting after years of incarceration, says Ted Glenn, a former U.S. corrections officer who’d been assigned by Toribiong as a coordinator for the Uighurs to help them settle in. Glenn says he tried to organize them, to structure their time and give them a sense of purpose. The Uighurs resented the control. After a couple of months, Toribiong told me, they asked that Glenn be relieved of his duties; they said he reminded them too much of their guards at Guantánamo. 

When I chatted with Glenn in late February in Palau, he was sympathetic to the Uighurs’ perspective. "You’re dealing with the psychology of a captive," he said. "If you’re a captive, you’re a captive. It doesn’t matter how good the amenities are. You’re not free. They don’t have passports, they can’t go anywhere. In their minds, they are not free." 

Still, the Uighurs feel restless and out of place. They’d rather live somewhere bigger, with a Uighur community, out of China’s reach. But with the U.S. court case moving slowly and no expressed interest yet from Australia or other countries is giving the Uighurs a permanent home, Toribiong says he’s starting to think of the long-term happiness of his country’s Uighur guests, because they might be there a good long while. They’ve been told that while they won’t be offered citizenship or passports, they could get travel documents — although none have been issued yet. And Toribiong says he’s thinking of another way to help the Uighurs feel free.

"It is my personal belief that people may be freed from imprisonment, may experience physical freedom, but unless they are in an environment where they are culturally acclimated, and where they have the opportunity to find wives, spouses, their freedom is incomplete," Toribiong told me. "So I’m trying to find ways for them to realize the fullness of their freedom. The pursuit of happiness means marital happiness, a family, a community where they belong."

Two of the Palau Uighurs have wives and families back in Xinjiang — but have had a hard time communicating with them, because the Chinese government cut off most telephone and Internet communications into Xinjiang after last July’s riots. The other four Uighurs, all in their 30s, are single. Toribiong joked that he may end up becoming a matchmaker for them.  That assumes that they’re willing to settle down and make a life in a place that, however alluring, still feels far from home.

Mary Kay Magistad is the Beijing-based East Asia correspondent for the Public Radio International/BBC program The World. Her radio report on the Uighurs in Palau can be heard online.

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