Ahmat Abdulahad cannot help but laugh at the irony of his predicament.
He and five other Chinese Muslims released from the US’ Guantanamo military prison in 2009 thought they would be living on this remote island for a few months, maybe a year, but more than three years later, they are still in Palau, and the patience — and funding of the poor nation — is running out.
The government has cut Abdulahad’s monthly stipend, so he cannot pay his bills, not even those from Palau Power Utility Corp, where he works as a night watchman. So he and his family, inadvertent inhabitants of one of the most beautiful islands in the Pacific, are learning to make do without electricity.
Palau has become a prolonged stopover in what is now a 12-year odyssey for half a dozen men from China’s ethnic Uighur minority. They were swept up in Afghanistan as suspected terrorists, held without trial in Guantanamo for more than eight years, then became a cause celebre for Guantanamo opponents in the US, who saw them as hapless victims of the anti-terrorism effort and the circumvention of due process in the name of national security.
Now, all but one of them — who quietly managed to make his way to Turkey to join his wife a few months ago — remain stuck on Palau because no one else will take them.
“We are like the pieces in a chess game,” Abdulahad, who is 42, said at a small, drab apartment building by the sea, where three of the men live with their wives and children.
He wears a prosthetic limb because he lost part of his left leg in an air raid when he was captured.
“They have played us like that all these years,” he said.
Both the men and Palau’s president say pressure from China, which says they are terrorists, despite their release, is making it impossible for them to find refuge anywhere else and having met a US federal court order to release them from Guantanamo, US government interest in finding them a permanent home appears to have dried up — though officials say they are doing all they can.
“It’s no secret China is very angry with Palau because of the resettlement,” Palauan President Tommy Remengesau said in a recent interview, one of his first since taking office in January. “It doesn’t take a blind man not to notice that nobody wanted to take these men. The pressure was there from the beginning and the pressure continues to be there. Nobody will be open enough to say that they welcome the Uighurs because of that pressure.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Public Security Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
The Uighurs come from Xinjiang, an isolated region of western China that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations. They are Turkic-speaking Muslims, who say they have long been repressed by the Chinese government.
Many want Xinjiang to become independent and, in recent years, some have staged bombings and other attacks, mostly against police, government and military targets.
China considers Uighurs held in Guantanamo to be terrorists and has demanded they be repatriated, but since they would almost certainly face imprisonment or even torture if sent back to China, other countries had to be found.
The US refused to grant them asylum. Nearly a dozen now live in Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador and Switzerland. Three remain in custody at the US Navy facility in Cuba.
Palau, a country of 20,000 people, agreed to take six Uighurs on a temporary basis. The former US trust territory, which became independent in 1994, did not have much to lose. It is one of the few countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, instead of Beijing, and to sweeten the deal, Washington promised US$600,000 to help pay for the men’s stay, but Palau says it has done enough.
“The funds have run out. My government is not in a financial situation to deal with them here,” Remengesau said. “Culturally, it just doesn’t fit. Their religion is different from 99 percent of the people of Palau. It hasn’t been an entirely stable situation for us. They’re not happy. If they had their choice, they would rather be somewhere else.”
Even Palau has felt Beijing’s wrath, he said, noting that construction of a beachfront resort being developed by Chinese investors abruptly stopped as soon as the Uighur deal was announced. It is a major eyesore, boarded up and vacant, along the main street of Koror, Palau’s biggest town, and just a short walk from a bustling hotel built by Taiwanese developers.
Former Palauan president Johnson Toribiong, who was voted out of office in November last year in part because of allegations that he misused the funds intended for the Uighurs, said he never intended for Palau to be a final destination.
“I assumed that I would be able to take care of them and by the end of my term find them a permanent place to go to,” Toribiong said.
Last month, the Palauan government confirmed that one of the men, Adel Noori, had left the island. According to a local newspaper, Noori made his way to Turkey via Japan. Officials in Palau and Washington say they cannot comment because of security concerns.
In Washington, US Department of State spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the US is working diligently to seek permanent homes for the remaining Uighurs and is “coordinating closely with Palau on matters related to the remaining individuals temporarily resettled there.”
However, officials on Palau say they are not even sure who to contact in Washington.
Special envoy Daniel Fried, who negotiated the Palau deal and was in charge of finding placements for cleared detainees at Guantanamo, was transferred to a new job in January. No replacement has been named, which has been widely seen as more evidence that US President Barack Obama’s zeal to close Guantanamo has waned under congressional opposition.
“We need a timetable and a plan of action. That’s where the frustration comes,” Remengesau said. “We are looking for a happy ending. These are human beings. They deserve respect.”
For now, the five Uighur men eke by, most working as security guards and making about US$500 a month, which is about the poverty level even by Palauan standards.
“When we were released, we were very happy, but now it is like being in Guantanamo again,” said Abdulghappar Abdulrahman, another of the Uighurs.