Guantanamo Story A Chinese Uighur, Making Pizza in Albania

A former Guantanamo inmate has built a new life for himself, working in an Italian-style snack bar in Albania, along with four of his fellow Uighur Muslims. He's become a spokesman of sorts, and he hopes to go into business for himself.

The most famous pizza chef in Tirana is just coming out of his Friday prayers. It is almost one p.m., and about 1,000 worshippers stream through the gates of the old mosque on Kavaya Street in the center of the Albanian capital. In the midst of the crowd, a thin man with a trimmed beard and almond-shaped eyes peers out from behind his glasses. His name is Abu Bakker Qassim, and he comes from Yining in China's northwestern Xinjiang region.

An ethnic Uighur closer to home, in Xinjiang, China.

An ethnic Uighur closer to home, in Xinjiang, China.

Foto: AFP

Abu Bakker, along with hundreds of other terrorism suspects from around the world, was incarcerated for four years at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay. For the past three years, he's been living in Albania, the only nation that would accept him after his release in 2006. Here this pious upholsterer has found a new task in life. Three times a week, the Uighur Muslim kneads pizza dough for Tirana's Islamic community at McGusto Halall, a snack bar on Hoxha Tahsim Street.

It goes without saying that the salami and cold cuts on a family-size pizza -- which goes for 550 Albanian lek, about €4.30 ($5.70) -- are made with beef. But the key ingredient in the dough, Abu Bakker says proudly, is just the right pinch of yeast. The yeast is what turns flour, olive oil and salt into perfect pizza dough. And for Abu Bakker, who worked in food stall in China starting at age seven, learning the secrets of Italian cuisine was easy.

Abu Bakker tells the story of his life, which could easily have come from a film: He remembers the Chinese Communist government's harassment of devout Uighurs, an Islamic minority in western China; he remembers fleeing his home and spending several years in US custody; and he remembers his new life in, of all places, the "first atheist nation" on earth, Albania.

Why did a man like Abu Bakker cross over to Kyrgyzstan for money in 2000, when his wife was pregnant with twins? Why did he later find himself stranded in Afghanistan's mountainous Tora Bora region, where the leaders of al-Qaida had their remote hideouts, although he intended to travel a circuitous route up to Turkey where he had been told there was work for Uighurs? And why did he, together with other Uighurs, receive weapons training on Afghan soil?

Abu Bakker smiles softly when he hears these questions. He isn't telling his story for the first time, and he can stomach skepticism. He knows his market value.

'I am Proud of You'

Abu Bakker is the oldest of the five Uighurs released to date and, he has a mission to fulfill. There are still 17 Uighurs imprisoned at Guantanamo, innocent, as he says, but without a place to go. They can't return to China's Xinjiang region, where they are branded as "separatists" and persecuted, and yet no country has volunteered to accept them. And so Abu Bakker, the pizza maker from Tirana, has taken it upon himself to be the voice of his powerless Uighur brothers.

He sent an open letter to "Dear Mr. President" Barack Obama more than two weeks ago. In the letter, he, Abu Bakker from Xinjian, the "Land where the Sun Rises," boldly addressed the most powerful man on earth. He was not writing to settle a score with the country that had kept him prisoner for many years, as a self-described innocent man. Instead, Abu Bakker politely petitioned for the release of his countrymen and expressed admiration for Barack Obama, because, as he wrote, "you, like I, without considering the end of your long journey, have managed to become a hero. I am on your side. I am proud of you."

It sounds as if a simple upholsterer from Xinjian had sprouted enormous wings, a man who arrived in Guantanamo seven years ago, his feet shackled and his mouth taped shut, a pawn sacrifice on the chess board of the global fight against terrorism. And now Abu Bakker, supported by his eloquent American attorney, is no longer content to look on as he and his fellow Uighurs are pushed around.

Abu Bakker now speaks Albanian well enough to be able to read the Tirana newspapers. He has read that Prime Minister Sali Berisha justified Albania's acceptance of the Uighurs with the argument that his country was now repaying a debt to America -- for Washington's support of the ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo's secession from Serbia. And, "possibly," Abu Bakker adds, for Albania's speedy acceptance into NATO.

Could this mean that the Uighurs who have landed in Tirana are the price Berisha's government paid for acceptance into the world's most powerful military alliance? "There is no connection between the two," the Albanian prime minister says heatedly in his office, with the flags of all NATO member states flapping outside in the wind. "We acted out of purely humanitarian reasons."

The Albanian government still pays for Abu Bakker's apartment, as well as a telephone card, so that he can hear the voice of his wife in Yining and those of their twins, who are now nine years old and whom he has never seen. But the government assistance will be discontinued at the end of the year, and then Abu Bakker will be on his own.

However, surviving in Albania is only a small challenge to a man who has been imprisoned by both Chinese Communists and American soldiers, harassed by Kyrgyz police and betrayed by Pakistani tribal leaders. He intends -- "inshallah," says Abu Bakker -- to open his own pizzeria in Tirana soon.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan