Saturday, August 15, 2009

The "Uighur question" gets an answer in Africa

I keep thinking about a recent post on Chad blog, the project of a journalist named Celeste Hicks. The article present the statement of Mohammed El-Gharani, the youngest Guantanamo detainee, who was recently released in N'djamena. The story seemed so bizarre I wasn't sure whether to believe it, but a quick internet search provided a range of articles to confirm the skeleton of his story, which apparently first appeared on BBC. What would it be like to be held uncharged for seven years only to be plunked down in the Chadian capital and forgotten, passportless and confused?

His testimony, also available here:

I was so scared in Guantanamo. Sometimes I thought they would kill me or throw me into the ocean. I was there from 14 to 21 years of age, but sometimes I feel like I’m 40, because I’ve been through so much.

When I was in prison I called Al-Jazeera to tell them what was happening. Lots of people thought that when Obama came in things would change but it wasn’t true. In January I won my case because the judge said there wasn’t enough evidence against me. But even then I was still getting people pushing me around and not treating me well.

I don’t know why they sent me to Chad, I thought they would send me to Saudi because I was born there and my parents are still there. I’d never even be to Chad before. But when they asked me if I wanted to go to Chad I said of course I do! I could get to see my family and my country. There was no choice.

They gave me no help for the future. The day I arrived, the Americans brought me to the airport and handed me over to the Chadian authorities who welcomed me, and that was it. No more contact with them. The Chadians kept me at the police station for eight days. I don’t know why. They had to buy me a mosquito net and a mattress. I kept asking them every day why I was being kept there, they said don’t worry we’ll give you your papers you’ll get to see your family.

Finally they let me go, but I still don’t have a passport which means I can’t go to visit my parents. I don’t understand what’s going on. I’ve asked every day. Sometimes they say they don’t know if I’m really Chadian. I say if I’m not Chadian then how on earth did you guys take me from the Americans? They have no answer. I always say if I’m not Chadian, then just tell me, and if I am just give me my passport and let me live like everyone else.

Guantanamo is like a dream to me. I’m still living it, even now I’m free. Sometimes I wake up on a morning and I think I’m still there! I feel like there are guards around me, but after maybe half an hour I finally realise that I’m free. I never believed I would be there for so long, I never even believed I would go to jail. But I always knew I would get out. I read the Koran every day and I never gave up.

So I’m here in Chad now with no papers and no money, and my family are having to support me. I don’t speak Chadian Arabic and I’m still trying to learn my way around the city. But I’m free. Chad is really hot and not very developed, but I would rather spend the rest of my life here than another hour in Guantanamo.
I’m not angry with the Americans. I just want to get on with my life. I want to study, I want to work. I think I’ll try to go to school and find a job. I hope I can get back to Saudi Arabia to see my parents as soon as I can. I’m so close to them but I can’t get there. I call them every day. I tell them not to worry because I’m free now. Seven years away for no reason is inhuman.

How jealous he must be of the Uighurs, who, after a long period of uncertainty as they awaited hosts, now lounge on Bermudan beaches! (OK, that's an exaggeration, but four did end up there. Seventeen more are on their way to Palau.)

The dilemma posed by people like Mohammed El-Gharani has become known as the "Uighur question," and it's one of the biggest challenges slowing the closing of Guantanamo. What to do with people who can't return to their home countries, whether because that country won't take them, or because they risk torture there? According to Jonathan Mahler, there are sixty people at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release but have nowhere to go. Ireland recently announced it will take two. At this rate, these people might languish for months, years.

I haven't found any details about the quid pro quo the US offers to countries that accept ex-Guantanamo prisoners. It probably consists of money, or military aid, or some such tempting perk. With a system like that, it seems likely many detainees will end up in Africa. Perhaps I'll come across one in CAR. Stranger things have happened.

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