Six Uighur men, former Guantanamo Bay detainees, have arrived in the remote Pacific nation of Palau. While relieved to be there, they are struggling to come to terms with their new found freedom.
Airdate: 
Sunday, November 15, 2009 - 20:50
Channel: 
SBS One

After eight years locked up in the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, six Uighur men have arrived in the remote Pacific nation of Palau.

The men escaped the Chinese ruled Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region only to be snared in the post 9/11 round up of foreigners in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Despite being officially cleared of terrorism charges by the US, they have been stuck in legal limbo as numerous countries including Australia refused US requests to resettle  them, a move many believe may be related to fears of jeopardising relations with China.

After much diplomatic wrangling, President of Palau Johnson Toribiong agreed to temporarily resettle the former detainees and has warmly welcomed them to his Pacific paradise - despite China's strong disapproval. 

The lawyer for two of the men, George Clarke, says of Australia's refusal to resettle the Uighurs, despite previous requests from the US, that "... I hope it is not to appease the Chinese that the decision was made..."

David O'Shea finds the Uighurs are very relieved to be in Palau, but after years of incarceration are struggling to come to terms with their new found freedom.

Transcript

Try and get your mind around this little paradox - the nasty legacy of George Bush and Guantanamo Bay being played out in, of all places, an island paradise like Palau. But that is precisely where six dissidents from the remote autonomous Uighur zone in north-west China who'd been held in Guantanamo were transferred to, something that Barack Obama - committed as he is to closing Guantanamo - is understandably pleased about. David O'Shea was in Palau for the Uighurs' first, very confusing, days. And David reports that they actually have their sights set on reaching another island, a much bigger one - called Australia.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

Apart from the odd jet ski, nothing much disturbs Palau's sparkling waters and relaxed way of life, until this - the arrival of a C-17 military plane, which lands, with no lights, in the dead of night. Even the airport lights are switched off. Inside the plane, six men are untied while Palau's President waits on the tarmac to greet them. They emerge one by one. Their 8-year Guantanamo nightmare is finally over. The next morning, the President announces his new guests.

REPORTER: Good morning, sir!

JOHNSON TORIBIONG, PRESIDENT OF PALAU: Good morning, David. How's everything? The Uighurs finally arrived at the 'promised land'. It concluded a long saga for these people, who became homeless as a result of the war against terrorism.

On their second day of freedom, the Uighurs invite me into their new home. Later in the week it will have air conditioning, a phone line and an internet connection. It's spacious, has water views, even a piano.

ADEL NOORI: This is our mosque for prayer. Maybe tomorrow or today they'll fix this.

Each has his own bedroom, where they can arrange their few possessions. It looks very comfortable, but the men are still tired, disoriented and confused and they have to re-learn how to be free.

AHMAD TOURSON (Translation): We were in small cages where we couldn't move. We didn't know what was happening to guys 5-10m away from us. The last year in Guantanamo, life was a bit more relaxed and comfortable for us. But overall the life in Guantanamo was one of the darkest chapters in our lives.

Their main concern right now is preparing the first Uighur meal they've eaten in years.

MAN: Uighur food difficult. It take time, really take time. Your food easy - like chips, like juice, sandwich. Uighur food very, very difficult.

ADEL NOORI: Maybe there in Guantanamo, American food, not Turkistan food - no good.

REPORTER: In Guantanamo, you're also cooking, yourself?

MAN: No, cannot. Can't. Eight years, we first time cook.

Radio Free Asia calls from Washington and asks for an interview.

MAMTIMIN ALA, INTERPRETER (Translation): You have to take this call.

MAN (Translation): I'm cooking now. OK. I will just say hi. Hey! When did we get here?

Yesterday;.. We arrived yesterday. ;. Sunday. We left on Friday;.. We flew for about 20 hours. Our feet were bound and we had US guards with us. We only felt free after they'd handed us over to the Palauans.

AHMAD TOURSON (Translation): We will see what happens. But we would still like to settle in a third country.

Australian Mamtimin Ala has been contracted by the US to act as interpreter for the men. He'll spend the next six months here. In the short time he's been with them, he's already seen the legacy of the Guantanamo years.

MAMTIMIN ALA: On the one hand they need more communication and on the other hand they want to recoil from this public space into themselves, to take refuge in themselves, being cut off from the outside world. I think this kind of behavioural response to the outside world was created in Guantanamo Bay.

Ever since their capture in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the men have been labelled 'terrorists', despite never being charged or even implicated in any terrorist acts. Ahmad Tourson and the other men's so-called 'crime' is to want independence from China for their Uighur homeland.

AHMAD TOURSON (Translation): The reason why we fled China is the discrimination that our people are facing. I need to find a place of safety to settle in. When I was travelling to find a safe place for my family some civilians captured me there and in the end I was handed over to the Americans.

Those civilians were bounty hunters, responding to American posters, like these, promising big money for captured Taliban. Ahmad Tourson found out later that he was sold for $5,000.

AHMAD TOURSON (Translation): I have no idea what happened to my family after that.

ADEL NOORI: I am not dangerous people.

REPORTER: Not dangerous?

ADEL NOORI: No, I'm simple people one. No more English. Finished. Thank you very much.

The US has three times asked Australia to take some of the Uighurs held at Guantanamo, but the plea has come to nothing. China wants them returned to face charges of separatism, where they'd be imprisoned - or worse. And in this part of the world, China's shadow looms large - something Adel Noori is acutely aware of.

ADEL NOORI (Translation): At first we were afraid to be resettled here in Palau, because it's close to China and under China's influence in the Asia Pacific region. But we had no choice. There were many strong countries, like Australia, that refused to take us due to China's pressure and their relationships with China. Palau is a tiny island, with a population of 20,000, but they didn't cave in to the Chinese and they allowed us to live here temporarily. We really appreciate it.

AHMAD TOURSON (Translation): Our agreements with both the US and Palauan governments also say that Palau will be a temporary settlement for us and that they will find another place for us to settle permanently. We hope that there is a country where the Chinese threat can't reach us and where we can live our lives in peace, and that such a country would accept us.

GEORGE CLARKE, LAWYER: It's shocking. The truth is they were caught between two superpowers - and that's a place that I would wish on no-one. That's the truth. They were caught between the US and China and that's not a place you want to be.

George Clarke is the lawyer for two of the men. I ask him about their connection to the Uighur struggle for independence.

GEORGE CLARKE: I'll say as a general matter that all have concerns about their Uighur homeland. But as a more general matter, you can't generalise. Some more than others. Some, I think, particularly at this stage of their lives are not overly Obviously they're concerned about the oppression of their brothers but it's not something, I think, they want to spend a lot of time on. Others, I think they might still be quite interested in the movement.

The Uighurs' apartment is on the first floor of this building, owned by the President's brother, Joe. He also owns the liquor store next door and Joe's Bar, over the road. They're perhaps not the best neighbours for devout Muslims, but another neighbour turns out to be very useful - a physiotherapist, right in front of their home. Ahmad Tourson arrived at Guantanamo Bay with two legs, but one was amputated shortly afterwards.

MAMTIMIN ALA (Translation): The doctor is asking what happened to it.

AHMAD TOURSON (Translation): I was hit by something here, quite badly. It was here, here and here. And it got infected. Then my feet were in the water for several days so that infection was trapped inside.

His lawyer says the initial injury and immersion in water occurred in a notorious fort in Afghanistan. In Guantanamo it got worse.

AHMAD TOURSON: A very serious infection.

He still suffers pain in his stump as well as phantom pain where the foot once was.

AHMAD TOURSON: I feel dizzy.

PHYSIOTHERAPIST: Dizzy? OK, lay down. It's not nice to annoy old wounds.

REPORTER: Were these men tortured when they arrived at Guantanamo?

GEORGE CLARKE: I think 'torture' is probably not an accurate statement. Were they mistreated in the sense that prisoners of war sometimes are? Yeah, I think that's fair. But 'torture'? I wouldn't say that.

Palau certainly seems like the ideal place to rest and recuperate. Social worker Ted Glenn has been appointed by the President to make sure that happens.

TED GLENN, SOCIAL WORKER: If I were to name this house, I would call it Self-reliance House. We're teaching self-reliance here so that we can get them into the community in the most efficient way possible.

He calls a meeting to discuss arrangements.

TED GLENN: We will organise this community into a community. We will have a community manager, a mayor. Somebody to keep the books. Somebody may be assigned to cooking

Ted Glenn appears to be a stickler for process and lawyer Michael Sternhell, who represents three of the men, thinks there are too many rules.

MICHAEL STERNHELL, LAWYER: Look, they're grown men. They're living in this house. It's their house. I think they can decide how they want to organise themselves.

TED GLENN: That's what I'm telling them.

So there doesn't have to be;. There's no rules about who cooks or who cleans or who does this. You do...you live. I mean, this is your life - you decide how you want to do it.

TED GLENN: No, there isn't.

The men are concerned that they've not yet been able to make telephone calls to friends and family.

TED GLENN: Right now, I cannot authorise that.

MICHAEL STERNHELL: Everyone who wants to make a phone call, can make a phone call. That's not a problem.

TED GLENN: I cannot approve that right now. He's going to handle it. I can't say anything but 'no', OK?

MICHAEL STERNHELL: There is no law forbidding them from making a phone call. They have the rights of any other person in this country who's visiting. No-one in this country is prevented from making a phone call.

They're in the same situation as everybody else.

TED GLENN: I don't want to argue with you.

It's becoming clear to interpreter Mamtimin that this fear of phone calls has something to do with China.

MAMTIMIN ALA: Is there any Chinese pressures on the Palauan Government?

MICHAEL STERNHELL: Yes, there is.

TED GLENN: Yeah. They're mad. They're not happy with it.

MICHAEL STERNHELL: They make threats. We just want to get through that period and make sure everything's OK and everyone knows that it will be OK, but it's just for a couple of days. Ahmad, you're exactly right - you can walk wherever you want, you can go wherever you want. You can spend your money doing whatever you want to do - it's your money, you're free to do with it whatever you want to do. And you can go anywhere in the country you want to go.

While things are slowly getting worked out at home, their first outing shows how tricky their integration will be - lunch at a American-style diner.

WAITRESS: We have Sprite, Coke, Pepsi, beer.

REPORTER: Can you read in English? Can you read English?

ADEL NOORI: No more.

REPORTER: A little?

ADEL NOORI: I read. I read. No more.

The President of Palau has arranged a crash course in English for the men, but that's just the beginning of their adjustment.

REPORTER: How do you think a group of Chinese Muslims, or Turkic Muslims, are going to adapt to life on a Christian tropical island?

PRESIDENT JOHNSON TORIBIONG: That's a concern for me so I will try to make sure their landing will be soft and smooth.

When the devout Muslims realise how much pork is on the menu, they decide instead just to drink iced tea. And they're amused to see photos of their arrival in one of the newspapers.

MAN: "Guantanamo detainees resettle in Palau".

It's only when they read the article later that they realise it isn't so funny. This is the first, florid paragraph. "As if lifted from a spy movie thriller, a plane arrived in wee hours at an airport in darkness without the knowledge of the sleeping country and emerged six bearded Muslim terrorists in shackles and guarded by many fully armed commandos." The men are understandably upset that they are once again being painted as terrorists - and on the first day in their new island home. Their interpreter, Mamtimin, is livid and wants to sue the author.

MAMTIMIN ALA: It's intolerable. It's intolerable.

MICHAEL STERNHELL: So I think that the highest authority has to maybe write a letter. It would be good if the President or one of his senior advisers wrote a letter to the paper, saying that this is irresponsible reporting.

TED GLENN: Please let them know they have my support. And if they need somebody to sign the letter, too, I'll sign it.

The article has undone all the President's efforts to make them feel secure and comfortable.

GEORGE CLARKE: The United States military cleared these men in 2003. The Department of Justice cleared them after that. The courts have looked at their cases. Everyone agrees that they are not only not a danger, but as far as the terrorism aspect, these men have never committed any terrorist acts, they have never engaged in any sort of terrorist training. These men are not suicide bombers. They have not done that sort of activity.

REPORTER: That WAS reported in various sources - that they had attended training.

GEORGE CLARKE: I think you have to be careful of what's reported. What is reported is that they had military training. As I have said before, boy scouts shooting cans at the county dump have had more military training than these guys have.

Not only has America cleared the Uighurs of any wrongdoing, President Obama - struggling to keep to his timetable for closing down Guantanamo - has personally thanked his Palauan counterpart.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON TORIBIONG: When I approached him he extended his hand to me and says, "I want to thank you for the Uighurs."

Beautiful Palau relies on Washington for hundreds of millions of aid dollars, part of what's called the Compact of Free Association, the details of which are currently under review. Part of that is the security meeting, where the US pledges to defend the tiny nation.

REPORTER: Hello. How are you? How's it going? Good?

REAR ADMIRAL DOUGLASS BEISEL, US NAVY: We just finished the JCM meeting and it was very productive.

Rear Admiral Doug Beisel is from the rapidly expanding US Pacific Command in neighbouring Guam.

REAR ADMIRAL DOUGLASS BEISEL: It's always good to have friends back in Washington DC.

SANDRA PIERANTOZZI, MINISTER OF STATE: Yeah, that's something I've learned over the years.

Palau's Minister of State, Sandra Pierantozzi, knows very well the stick that Palau can wield in world affairs.

REPORTER: So the Americans are not going to abandon Palau?

SANDRA PIERANTOZZI: I think it's to their best interest and our best interest, mutually, that they don't abandon Palau - unless they want us to go to China or some other place Just kidding about that, but

Maybe, but there's no doubt that all of this is being followed very closely in Beijing. She says there have already been threats issued at Palau's New York mission.

SANDRA PIERANTOZZI: Yes, China has made threats, but I think China is a big country and will not do something injurious to a small republic of Palau. I don't think they would like to do something like the situation of David and Goliath. No need to repeat that kind of story but, you know, anything can happen.

But locals say already there's a sign of China's displeasure, with work stopping on this Chinese Government-funded hotel. At the US embassy I meet the Rear Admiral again, this time with Mark Bezner, America's top diplomat here.

MARK BEZNER, DIPLOMAT: There are certainly a number of issues that the Chinese feels obligated to bring up on a regular basis. This issue of the Uighurs is going to be one of them.

REPORTER: Does the rise of the might of the Chinese military and navy keep you awake at night?

REAR ADMIRAL DOUGLASS BEISEL: The issues associated with China are for a larger context, because it's not just military. As you know, there's relationships on all fronts - there's diplomatic relationships, military relationships, economic relationships, as well as information.

MAN: Everybody, I would like to request a farewell toast to our good friend Mark.

Mark Bezner's term here is over and he is heading back to Washington.

MARK BEZNER: I hope to never see any of you guys ever again.

He's returning to the State Department's office of Australia, New Zealand and Pacific island affairs.

REPORTER: Is one of the things you'll be working on convincing the Australians to quietly take the Uighurs once they're done with their time here?

MARK BEZNER: And I'm the man for the job.

REPORTER: So it is a possibility?

MARK BEZNER: It could well be. It could well be.

AHMAD TOURSON (Translation): The reason we came here is that in Australia there is a large Uighur community. While we're here, if we apply again to settle in Australia, we are hoping that will be possible.

Palau is close to Australia, which is one of the reasons we wanted to come here.

REPORTER: What do you think of Australia's rejection of these people?

PRESIDENT JOHNSON TORIBIONG: It's strange. It's a big country. I assume they were pressured by China to take a position that they did, but in my opinion the problem or the dispute over these people between the United States and China is just between them.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra declined to respond to the President's comments, but did say it would consider the latest request for resettlement on a case-by-case basis.

GEORGE CLARKE: Well, I think it is extremely disappointing because there is a large Uighur community in Australia. There is obviously no Uighur community here in Palau. Australia would be a natural choice for the men to go to. The person that we have interpreting for us now is from Australia. So I think the Australia connection just makes perfect sense. I hope it's not to appease the Chinese that that decision was made. I hope that there was at least some decision that this was inappropriate for some other reason, but I don't know what other reason it could possibly be except for Chinese appeasement, which is very unfortunate.

On day 3, the President organises a picnic on a private island. For most of the men it's the first time they've been in a boat or seen the sea. And it's the first time I see them smile so freely. The men continue their quest for Uighur comfort food. When the meat is cooked, they offer the President the first plate.

REPORTER: Your first Uighur meal?

JOHNSON TORIBIONG: It's a serious thing. It's not a symbolic thing, it's from their heart. So I have to eat this.

AHMAD TOURSON (Translation): We hope that the Australian Government and the Australian President will change their minds about rejecting us. We also hope they will accept us and allow us to settle in Australia.



GEORGE NEGUS: "Case by case". Over to you, Kev. David O'Shea in Palau. And naturally we sought a response from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra to those claims that China had pressured Australia not to take the Uighurs. The reply - "Those people are members of a terrorist group "and should be sent to China to be handled according to law." Meanwhile, it was reported this week that China had executed nine Uighurs in relation to riots that took place in north-western China back in July.

Reporter/Camera

DAVID O'SHEA

Producer

GEOFF PARISH

Producer/Researcher

MELANIE MORRISON

Researcher

VICTORIA STROBL

Editors

DAVID POTTS

WAYNE LOVE

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN