Sunday, June 14, 2009
Guantánamo four stir up tropical storm in Bermuda
Grinning broadly and protesting their desire only for the "peaceful life", four Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo Bay enjoyed the delights of their new home over the weekend.
By Tom Leonard in Hamilton, Bermuda
Published: 7:00AM BST 14 Jun 2009
Guantanamo Uighurs enjoy sun, sea and sand in new home of Bermuda
That meant fried Bermudan rock fish with banana and almonds, and a monumental row about their arrival in Britain's oldest colony.
Their celebratory meal, joined by The Sunday Telegraph after this newspaper tracked them down to their hideaway in a guesthouse in a remote corner of Bermuda, was washed down with water and a heavy dose of relief and gratitude toward their hosts.
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Clearly relishing each mouthful after years of bland and solitary prison meals, Abdulla Abdulqadir, 30, said: "Eating together like this, gathered around a table together – that's what freedom is all about for me."
"In Guantanamo Bay, there's no friendliness," added Salahidin Abulahad, 32. "The people here have been so friendly, they come and hug us. Bermuda had the courage to step and do this – it's a small place but it has a big heart. This is where we want to stay."
But by no means everyone is delighted by their presence. Ewart Brown, Bermuda's premier, swiftly provoked a row with his colonial masters on Thursday when he abruptly announced that the small but wealthy British overseas territory had taken in four of the 17 Uighurs still held in the controversial US detention facility.
An angry Britain, which is responsible for Bermuda's security and foreign policy, complained that it should have been consulted and put the foursome's future on hold until it has conducted its own security checks.
Dr Brown's supposed humanitarian gesture prompted an even more furious reaction on Bermuda where radio talkshows have been flooded with angry callers fretting about the arrival of "blood-crazed jihadists" on a cosy island better known for talcum powder beaches and international offshore finance houses.
On Friday, opposition MPs tabled a motion of no confidence as the embattled leader admitted that the offer to help out with Barack Obama's Guantanamo Bay clean-out was linked to discussions on the US clampdown on tax havens.
David Miliband telephoned Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, to express Britain's disappointment as a state department official admitted the UK was angry.
Given China's insistence they are terrorists, the four Uighurs conceded that they may never see their families again, including Mr Turahun who has an 11-year-old son.
Mr Mamut said he had spoken to his parents. "They told me: 'My boy, my son, congratulations on your freedom," he said.
But even this sobering thought has not yet got in the way of the four men's obvious joy at swapping seven years in a cramped cell for a new life on one of the world's more beautiful and affluent islands.
They have been to the beach, although not yet for a swim, and went on a longer walk through the Bermudan countryside. "A horse appeared – they hadn't seen a horse in seven years," said Sabin Willett, their American lawyer. "It was a beautiful moment, you could tell they were moved just to see this horse."
They also found time for a brief kick of a football after noticing a group of teenagers playing in a nearby field.
The US government long ago decided that the Uighur detainees did not pose a terrorist threat. The four – who also include Helil Mamut, 31, and Ablikin Turahun, 38 – insisted they were innocent victims of the US war on terror and the "brutal dictatorship" of China.
They were captured by bounty hunters in Pakistan where they went after fleeing US bombing in Afghanistan. They had fled to Afghanistan to escape Chinese "oppression", they had been held at the controversial detention centre in Cuba since 2002.
They insisted they had never even heard of al-Qaeda until they arrived at the prison and denied allegations that they received military training in a terrorist camp at Tora Bora.
The four, whom China say are separatists fighting for independence for the remote western region of Xinjiang, said they fled to Pakistan and Afghanistan simply because they were easy to get into without papers.
"Because we had no visas, we were living in an abandoned house in a little Afghan village, it wasn't a training camp," said Mr Abdulahad. They learn how to use AK47 assault rifles because everyone carried them and they were "curious", not because they had formal military instruction, he said.
They were aware of what was being said about them by some of their new hosts. "What did you think when you saw us? Do we look like that kind of people? Are you nervous around us?" said Mr Abdulqadir.
Although they have no love for the Chinese – Mr Abdulahad said his worst ordeal at Guantanamo was when Chinese interrogators were once allowed to question him almost continually for a day and a half – the men said they had "nothing against the Americans".
"What's past is past. The administration made a mistake as we were innocent. It's really sad that seven years of my life were lost but we don't hold any grudges. We just want to concentrate on the future," he said.
The men have been renewing their acquaintance with the basic comforts of life outside prison, noting that since arriving they had glimpsed their first horse, first game of football and first fish – during a beach walk – that they had seen for seven years.
They are currently staying in a $200 a night guesthouse while the authorities arrange for them to have travel and work papers. Their expenses are being paid by the Bermudan authorities who are being recompensed by the US government.
Two of them speak some English and local people say they will have no trouble finding work on an island with neglible unemployment.
They were vague about what skills they had to offer and said they had not yet got around to considering their options.
If they were clearly reluctant to discuss too much their time in Guantanamo, they were keen to bring up the plight of those they left behind.
"Our 13 brothers still in Guantanamo are just the same as us," said Mr Abdulqadir. "People need to understand that."