Uighurs In Paradise, the Sequel

Three years ago, we followed the story of four Uighurs, Muslims from China who were captured in a terrorist training camp in Pakistan not long after 9/11, and sent to Guantanamo Bay, where they spent seven years before finally being released to a new home in the island paradise of Bermuda. The bizarre contrast between the Uighurs’ past in East Turkestan and Guantanamo Bay and their future in one of the world’s most desirable locales drew international attention to their story.

So how have the Uighurs fared in the years that have gone by since their release? If you have ever wondered, Maureen Callahan of the New York Post has at least some of the answers. The Uighurs are, the Post headlines, “prisoners in paradise,” in part because they are stateless and have no passports. There is good news, too, but first let’s correct this error:

Four Chinese Uighurs (pronounced “wee-gurs”) [are] Muslims who’d spent more than seven years wrongly detained at Guantanamo.

They were not “wrongly detained.” These four and other Uighurs were picked up at a terrorist training camp. Given that their intended target proved to be China rather than the United States, our government was willing to release them. But, as the Post article later acknowledges, the option of repatriating them to China was not available because the Chinese government would have killed them. So over a period of years, the U.S. government persuaded other countries (Albania was one) to take them in. The Uighurs are alive today only because of the efforts of the U.S. government.

And four of them are not only alive, but are living in Bermuda. How are they doing there? They all have jobs and families; all found Muslim wives, apparently in part because of their celebrity status:

When asked how he met his wife, Abdulqadir leans in and raises his eyebrows: “Facebook!” His wife, too, is from East Turkestan, and when she saw that he’d listed his country as Bermuda, recognized him as the famous Uighur. They were married in October 2010. The other men all met their wives through online matchmaking — they wanted to marry Muslim women from the East, women who shared the same culture, and this was priority No. 1 upon their release. (All of the men but Abdulahad have at least one child). The Uighurs say that the US and Bermudian governments helped get their wives into the country, but won’t say how; all were married at the local mosque, which collected money for the men and their new families.

That sounds like a happy ending. But there are two problems: first, the Uighurs lack valuable skills and are manual laborers in a country where the cost of living is astronomical:

Still, they struggle. Three of the four have jobs in manual labor — no more does the government intervene on their behalf — and they often work 12 hour days, seven days a week. They usually come up short. They all live in studio apartments, which cost about $1,100 a month. “I can’t pay my rent,” Abdulqadir says. “Now my wife and my baby don’t have health insurance. I can’t cover it; I’d need to pay half of what I make.” He takes his 1-year-old son — who is not a Bermudian citizen, stateless like his father — to the government hospital.

One assumes that government medicine in Bermuda is at least as good as the socialized medicine in China. It does seem that the Uighers’ material complaints indicate that they have come to expect a higher standard of living:

Here, a large smoothie runs about $15; one pint of blueberries, $7. Gas runs more than three times the price in the US, and it’s about the same with electricity. The men have government-issued cellphones: Mamut pulls out his aging BlackBerry, Abdulqadir, his ancient Motorola. “You can’t take videos, camera, get e-mail — nothing!” he says, laughing. “It may be older than me!”

That’s hardship in the modern age–getting stuck with a Blackberry!

The Uighurs’ second problem is that they can’t get a Bermudian passport, and therefore can’t leave Bermuda. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise; I believe that becoming a citizen of Bermuda is all but impossible. So the Uighurs are trapped, for the time being, in one of the most pleasant places on Earth. One could say that they are living in the first circle of what, for them, is the Hell of the Western world.

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