Muslim Wire

Uighurs swap Gitmo fatigues for Bermuda shorts

Posted in Non Muslims, Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 21, 2009

AFP – Every morning Khalil Mamut rides to work through winding palm-lined lanes on his rental scooter.

He spends the day raking the bunkers and tending the greens of a majestic ocean side golf course. Some evenings he trains with his soccer team. Other nights he studies his English homework or simply relaxes watching a DVD, preferably something with Jackie Chan.

It is a simple existence. But it is a life he says he will never take for granted.

It has been four months since Mamut and three other Chinese Uighur Muslims were brought blinking into the Bermudian sunlight after a secret pre-dawn flight from Guantanamo Bay, where they had been imprisoned for seven years.

The unique resettlement project — which will be mirrored soon when eight of their fellow Uighur detainees are given new homes in the Pacific island of Palau — has worked out well for the Bermuda four.

The men say they are adapting to their new lives on this tiny paradise island, home to roughly 65,000 people, and spend much of their spare time swimming or fishing in the ocean.

“I would like to stay here forever — to work, make money, hopefully get married, have kids and take them to the beach,” Mamut said.

The men were among a larger group of Uighurs captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan and sold for bounty to US forces after fleeing the mountains in the wake of the US-led raids that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks.

They say they were living as refugees in Afghanistan, having faced religious persecution in China. Relations have long been tense between Uighurs and China’s majority Han, with some 200 people dying in July in ethnic fighting.

But their captors claimed they had attended terror-training camps and they were flown to the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in June 2002.

After a series of military tribunals and court-room battles they were cleared of any links to global terrorism.

Unable to return to China where they would almost certainly be prosecuted, and with no country prepared to offer them asylum, they were trapped in legal limbo and spent seven years marooned at Guantanamo until the Bermuda government offered them a home.

President Barack Obama’s administration has been asking nations to take in clear Guantanamo inmates as it struggles to shut down the camp, which for many around the world became a symbol of US “war on terror” excesses.

US lawmakers, alleging that the men still posed a risk, refused to let them come to the United States. And many nations dared not risk the wrath of China, which was infuriated when Albania accepted four of the Uighurs in 2006.

The resettlement in Bermuda has not been without hitches. Protesters marched on parliament and Premier Ewart Brown faced a vote of no-confidence for his pact with the Obama administration.

Britain also voiced frustration that it was not further consulted by the decision in Bermuda, a self-governing British overseas territory.

But on the streets the Uighurs have been warmly welcomed and are treated almost as minor celebrities.

They may have shaved their thick beards and swapped their prison fatigues for board shorts and sunglasses, but they are still instantly recognizable.

And it is not unusual for passers-by to stop, shake their hands and ask for a photograph.

“People are very peaceful, very friendly. Everywhere we go people recognize us and say, ‘You are welcome, don’t worry you can stay here’,” Mamut said.

The reception in Bermuda has been a pleasant surprise for US-based advocates of the former inmates, who had voiced fear that they would have trouble adjusting to a nation with no Uighur community.

Until they arrived in Bermuda the four men — Mamut, Abdulla Abdulqadir, Salahidin Abdulahat and Ablikim Turahu — had never set foot on a golf course.

Their only experience of the sport was playing on a Wii games console at the low-security Iguana Camp in Guantanamo Bay, where they were transferred after being cleared of any wrongdoing.

Now they spend their days tending the manicured fairways of Bermuda’s famous Port Royal course, which was hosting the PGA Grand Slam in October and draws a slew of famous visitors, recently including former US president Bill Clinton.

“It’s beautiful,” Mamut said. “It feels like we are working in a garden.

“Everywhere is so green, everywhere there are trees. We even have some ducks.”

Outside of work Mamut and Abdulqadir spend much of their time playing soccer.

They train twice-a-week and play matches on Sundays for X-Roads, an amateur team managed by the imam of a local mosque.

They insist they are not bitter about the seven years they spent in Guantanamo and try not to think of the past.

“We have started a new life. What is done can’t be undone,” Mamut said.

“When we left Gitmo we left everything behind. I don’t want to mention those suffering days,” he aid.

“Praise be to Allah, we are in Bermuda now.”

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