- Tue, 03/27/2012 - 20:25
Published On Sat Mar 24 2012
By Michelle Shephard National Security Reporter
TIRANA, ALBANIA—The secret is in the crust, Abu Bakker Qassim explains, his hands rolling two perfect mounds of dough with ambidextrous ease.
It is Saturday night, early, so the rush hasn’t started and Qassim is prepping in the pizzeria’s immaculate side kitchen, which doubles as a closet. His eyes, obscured behind thick glasses, never leave the dough; his rounded belly brushing against the floured marble countertop.
Qassim is wearing a white T-shirt with short green sleeves, which he says his Boston lawyer gave him nearly six years ago to replace his prison clothes.
It is a rare reminder of the 34-year-old’s past. He doesn’t dwell on those four years detained by the U.S. in Guantanamo, or the first difficult year here in the bustling capital of Albania. Figuring out how to survive outside the wire, how to put Gitmo behind him, means enjoying the present. Pizza is part of that.
“It took me a month to learn,” he says proudly about the crust, as he brushes oil on the dough balls at Piceri MeGusto, which like most of the pizzerias in Albania makes halal pizzas for their Muslim clientele.
Every day since Qassim tasted his first slice in 2007 and had his epiphany, he has eaten pizza. It sounds almost comical, too contrived a narrative, but there is nothing disingenuous about Qassim’s pride, or dream of one day opening his own restaurant.
“I learned this from my heart. I can never get bored,” he says.
Qassim is Uighur, a Muslim minority from China’s restive and oil-rich Xinjiang province, which Uighurs call East Turkestan. There are roughly 8 million Uighurs living in the northwestern region that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan — many struggling for independence from their communist Chinese rulers.
Since his 2006 release, Qassim has lived in Albania with three other Uighurs, like him, former prisoners of Guantanamo. A fifth, who came with them six years ago, was recently given refuge in Sweden.
Guantanamo is a story often told in histrionics, so emotionally and politically loaded that Gitmo debates are akin to teenage arguments, ending with the loudest voice or when someone stomps from the room.
But Qassim’s story — and that of the 22 Uighurs the U.S. has held captive in Guantanamo — is easy to tell.
Qassim was persecuted in China and, like other Uighurs targeted by the government, decided to flee. He said he had hoped to get to Turkey and send for his family. He was in Afghanistan waiting for a visa, in an area called the “Uighur village,” when the post-9/11 bombing began and the men scattered. Pakistani forces captured 22 Uighurs as they tried to escape across the border, and they were sold to the U.S. for a $5,000 bounty each. They told their Pakistani captors they were from Uzbekistan — terrified they would be handed over to China if they admitted to being Uighurs.
When they were given instead to the Americans they were relieved and revealed their nationality.
“The moment we saw the American flag and American soldiers, we thought, ‘They know us! We’re Uighur. We are from China, China’s an enemy of America,” Qassim said. “If you go to America, America’s a great country. . . We were so happy.”
But they were taken instead to the American Kandahar base in Afghanistan, where they were labelled Taliban terrorists, stripped naked, beaten and then sent to Gitmo as enemy combatants.
Most of their interrogators knew their capture was a mistake and told them privately they would be released. The Bush administration even agreed in late 2003 that they clearly weren’t “enemy combatants.” The deputy assistant secretary of state under Bush, the most senior official on dealings with China, called the Uighurs’ detention in Guantanamo “nothing short of tragic.”
But it took four years, until 2006, to correct that mistake, their release complicated by America’s wooing of China to support the Iraq war. Another 12 Uighur captives would languish in Guantanamo until 2009 and 2010 and were released to the only other countries willing to offer refuge — Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland. (Negotiations had been ongoing with Canada, but Ottawa backed out.)
Five Uighurs remain in Guantanamo, a decade after their capture. They are no longer the only ones the Pentagon says should not be held there.
Eighty-nine of the 171 remaining detainees have been “approved for transfer” by the U.S. defence department. When Barack Obama first took office, releasing such detainees was a top priority. Dozens were settled in Ireland, Portugal, France and other countries happy to curry favour with the new president.
But Congress soon imposed restrictions and all transfers ceased. Negotiations may start again thanks to the National Defense Authorization Act, which last year eased those conditions slightly. “In the first year of the Obama administration, we were able to accomplish a fair amount — in the end, this administration moved 67 people out of Guantanamo,” said the State Department’s Daniel Fried, Obama’s Gitmo czar.
“Then Congress made it impossible. Now it is just possible, but it will be very difficult.”
What Fried won’t say, but what has also complicated his job, is that today Obama now barely mentions the place.
And that’s what makes Qassim’s group a remarkable story in a post-9/11 era, when fear still often trumps facts. Quite simply, they were able to do what the Obama administration couldn’t.
They have convinced the public they are not terrorists.
Albania , a former communist nation of 3.2 million on the Adriatic Sea, just north of Greece, was the first to step up in 2006 when the Bush administration asked countries to accept Guantanamo’s Uighur detainees — and with them China’s anger.
Albania also agreed to settle detainees from Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, who also feared persecution if returned to their homelands.
The initial reaction was largely a question: Albania? There were jokes that the men were exchanging one gulag for the other.
Albania was long known as an impoverished hermit state under the communist grip of Enver Hoxha, a mysterious country largely cut off from foreigners. But Albania is shedding its dark past, enjoying a tourist boom after topping Lonely Planet’s list of travel destinations last year.
The capital, Tirana, is a mix of coffee shops and casinos, hijabs and hot pants, wide boulevards, parks and potholes; a clothing boutique featuring a Spanish designer is just a short walk from side streets that are crowded with second-hand bazaars and desperate vendors. And pizzerias, there are lots of pizzerias.
“The first time I walked around the city everybody was looking at me,” says Ahtar Qasim Bassit, perhaps the most gentle and shy of the group, and the only one still single. “They were scared and I was scared, too.”
That first year was rough. They were lonely, confused and lived with the “Guantanamo” stigma in a guarded refugee camp.
Albanians were not as outraged by Guantanamo as others in predominantly Muslim countries. Albania is a staunch U.S. ally and one of its downtown streets has been renamed “George W. Bush.” Bush received a stars-and-stripes-flag-waving, rock-star welcome in 2007 as the first U.S leader to visit. The Uighurs were treated with suspicion.
One day after Bush’s visit, Qassim was lost — literally and metaphorically — and he wandered into Ahmet Dursun’s restaurant.
“He came asking me for directions. . . I asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” Dursun said, as he sipped Turkish coffee on a recent afternoon.
Dursun came from Turkey in 1991 to study at Tirana’s famed opera school. He looks like he would be comfortable on stage. Six-foot-two, mop of messy hair, with a broad frame that fills his cable knit turtleneck. But his passion for opera turned to food, writing and philanthropy, once he realized his ambition was greater than his voice.
“I am singing, but in the kitchen,” he smirks. “I was not a great talent like Pavarotti, so I understood.”
Dursun listened to Qassim’s story and wanted to help. “It is not only their story, it is our story. You are from Canada, I am from Turkey but we could have been from East Turkistan. You cannot say it was destiny.”
Dursun convinced Qassim to appear live on the country’s top news station and educate Albanians about the Uighurs. He also asked him to cook traditional Uighur food for an environmental fundraiser, raising enough to plant 5,000 trees in elementary schools.
The public relations offensive worked. The Uighur men tried hard — integrating themselves not just at the mosque but throughout the city, learning Albanian and the art of pizza, taking classes at the city university. They sought Uighur wives the way so many people meet these days — online. The women (who asked that they not be quoted or photographed for fear of their relatives would be targeted by Chinese authorities), were given residency in Albania so they could marry. Three couples have had babies, including Qassim, whose wife recently gave birth to a little girl they named Zeynap.
None of this is to suggest theirs is a fairy-tale ending. In Albania, their options are limited and most of the work they do is volunteer (Qassim does not get a salary but tips, if there are tips, for his pizza skills). They do not have citizenship so remain status-less, in limbo, and unable to travel.
Albania remains mired in poverty. The door of the apartment building where Qassim lives was stolen one night. The light bulb in the hallway unscrewed and pocketed.
And Qassim’s recent marriage was at first bittersweet. He was married and a father of three when he was captured and sent to Guantanamo a decade ago. He lost four years to Guantanamo but as soon as he arrived here he tried to get his wife a passport — through proper diplomatic connections and with bribes. But she was watched by Chinese authorities and trapped. Eventually, she encouraged him to move on.
“She told me it has been 11 years of not seeing each other. ‘You are there, I am here. We tried everything’. . . she said, ‘Look for a wife, get married.’
“Eleven years to wait, and after time we gave up. It’s not easy but we did not have another choice,” he said.
Qassim met his second wife through friends and the first time they talked he was honest, almost blunt: “I got her phone number and I told her directly, ‘I have a wife and children at home. I tried to get them here.’”
But she already knew his story and through an Albanian connection, a friend of Qassim’s, they managed to get her a visa. She came to Tirana. They married soon after. Their baby was born Jan. 30.
Qassim keeps in regular contact with his first wife and kids, Skyping so they can see their new half-sister.
The last detainee freed from Guantanamo was sent to Algeria in January 2011.
But transfers may again resume due to the easing of Congress’ restrictions, the Arab world’s shifting geopolitical landscape and a potential deal to send five Taliban detainees to Qatar as part of reconciliation efforts between Afghanistan and the U.S.
Fried says the majority of upcoming transfers will be “repatriations, rather than resettlements.”
“We resettle people when they cannot be sent home because of humane treatment concerns. Because of what has happened in countries like Libya and Tunisia, those treatment issues may not be germane any longer with respect to those countries — and who knows what’s going to happen in Syria?”
The men in Albania follow the Guantanamo news closely. They still feel trapped in many ways — especially when thinking of the five Uighurs remaining.
“Of course, we can never forget them . . . . We were more than brothers,” said Bassit. “I can say, for me, Guantanamo Bay has not ended.”
Qassim confesses to having survivor’s guilt, too.
“We were all together. We’re innocent, they’re not?”