Escape to Hell: Fleeing China, Landing in Guantanamo

By Hauke Goos

In 2000, five men left their homes in northern China to escape the prospect of torture and imprisonment. They dreamed of a future in the United States. Caught up in America's war on terror along the way, they instead ended up in Guantanamo. It's been six years since they last saw their families.

They sit on their beds in a barracks on the outskirts of the city, waiting. The door is ajar, revealing a cloudless late spring day in Tirana, Albania, where it promises to be a hot day. None of the five men says a word. They've been waiting -- not just the entire morning, not just the entire day before, but the past five years -- for some country, any country, to agree to grant them political asylum.

They want to move on with their lives.

Through the window they see a white United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Toyota pull into the courtyard. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting China today, where she'll meet with President Hu Jintao. They'll be discussing human rights, or so they say. Every politician who visits China these days is supposedly there to talk about human rights. But true or not, the news represents a shred of hope for the five men.

They're wearing short-sleeved shirts and brand-new sneakers. Abu Bakker Qassim, the oldest, has taken on the role of the group's leader. Adel Abdulhehim has three children back home in China. Akhdar Qasem Basit rarely speaks. Ahmed Adil was so frustrated with the endless wait that he finally wrote a letter to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Ayub Haji Mohammed, the youngest, left his parents' home at 18 to study in the United States.

They look as if this weren't the first time they had dressed up in anticipation of finally beginning their new lives.

The men are Uighurs, members of a Turkic minority in China's far northwest Xinjiang Uygur region bordering Mongolia. The Uighurs dream of having their own country one day, East Turkestan. In the eyes of the Chinese government, that makes them potential terrorists.

A road to nowhere

The five men left their home six years ago, hoping to escape repression at the hands of Chinese authorities, hoping to find a better, freer life abroad. But then came September 11, and the men became entangled in the machinery of world politics. They were bombed and beaten, betrayed, accused and humiliated. They finally ended up in Guantanamo.

The driver of the white Toyota walks toward the office. The five men watch. They share three sleeping rooms and one toilet. The walls are painted a swimming pool green, the windows are barred and bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling. Albania's national refugee camp was once a military barracks. A uniformed guard stands at the door.

Human rights activists were still interested in the five Uighurs when they were prisoners of the Americans. But now that they have been released, they are more a practical problem than a moral one. The United States doesn't want them, they can't go back to China, and many other countries -- Germany included -- have refused to grant them asylum. Everyone, it seems, is worried about offending China, a powerful trading partner.

Ayub, the youngest, walks to the window, which frames a view of shimmering mountains in the distance. He is thin, wears his black shirt over his belt and sports the beginnings of a traditional Uighur man's black moustache. He points outside.

The camp is surrounded by a high wall, topped by rolls of barbed wire glinting in the sun. The men are free, but they remain prisoners -- five young men unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, five men who went to war without knowing it.

Abu Bakker Qassim, the eldest, used to think it was all a big misunderstanding. Back in Xinjiang, which he and the others call East Turkestan, he was trained as an upholsterer. After working in a state-owned leather factory, he started his own business. He is a quiet, affable man with large glasses. The inscription on his T-shirt reads "Athletic 76 - Boys of Europe."

Abu Bakker says his parents were nationalists, but their nationalism was impotent and silent. They were at odds with Chinese policies and dreamed of independence, but they never dared do anything about it.

Until February 1997, that is. That was when the Uighurs took to the streets in Yining, Abu Bakker's home town, demanding social and religious freedom. Abu Bakker, 28 at the time, didn't participate. He had married three years earlier and his new wife had given birth to a son a short time later. At the time, he preferred caution over nationalism.

Instead of marching, he witnessed how the police broke up the protests. "They were shooting at children and they used water cannons at temperatures of twenty below zero," he says. "They arrested tens of thousands." At least 10 people were killed and more than 190 injured.

For Abu Bakker, husband, father, small businessman, this demonstration was an eye-opening experience. He decided to express his views in the future, even publicly. Like others in Yining, he knew that the Uighurs had their own country once, between 1944 and 1949, and that they only wanted what they believed was rightfully theirs.

"Suddenly we began openly criticizing China. We didn't think it was a crime to be an Uighur, to earn money and to work for a better life."

Tortured in China

Abu Bakker was arrested in 1998, one year after the protests. He was tortured with electroshocks until he was finally willing to confess to practically any accusations. After seven months he was released, but his fears stayed with him. He was afraid for his family and his own life, constantly anticipating an ominous, nighttime knock at the door.

He decided to leave China. In January 2000, Abu Bakker went to Kyrgyzstan, where he sold Russian watches, ropes and bags in a local market. His plan was to earn enough money to bring his wife and child to Kyrgyzstan, so that they could continue on to Turkey, where many Uighurs live. And perhaps, he thought, they would move to America one day.

Map: The six year journey of the Uighurs of Xinjiang Uygur
DER SPIEGEL

Map: The six year journey of the Uighurs of Xinjiang Uygur

The United States is a promised land of sorts for most Uighurs. It has a few Uighur communities, Radio Free Asia is based there and there is even an Uighur-American Association, founded in Washington in 1998. The US is seen as tolerant, and many Uighurs believe that those who make it there can fight for the Uighur cause without having to risk their lives in China.

Abu Bakker met Adel Abdulhehim -- the man with three children back home -- in Kyrgyzstan. Six years younger than Abu Bakker, Adel had already been imprisoned a number of times. His brother-in-law was one of the organizers of the February 1997 demonstration and was later executed. The two men decided to go to Turkey, where they had an Uighur acquaintance who owned a leather goods factory.

In mid-2001 they traveled through Tajikistan, then crossed the border into Pakistan. To save money, they decided to travel by bus, which meant they would need a visa for Iran. Because Pakistan often sends Uighur refugees back to China, the two men decided to wait for the visa in neighboring Afghanistan. They had heard about a group of Uighurs who lived in a camp not far from the Afghan city of Jalalabad, just across the border, where they hoped to stay until their visas arrived.

There are two opinions about this camp. Abu Bakker and the other men describe it as little more than a collection of run-down huts. But for the US government, it's an al-Qaida camp where Muslim terrorists are trained to do battle against America.

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