View Full Version : 'No longer enemy combatants,' but still stuck

29-06-08, 09:50

Posted on Sat, Jun. 28, 2008 10:15 PM

'No longer enemy combatants,' but still stuck


The Kansas City Star

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Photos by MATT SCHOFIELD | The Kansas City Star
Mohammed Ayub (right) walked with another Uighur in Tirana, Albania. The Uighurs complain that they have little else to do other than walk around town.

The first time, we talked over strong coffee and sweet sodas in a small cafe on the outskirts of Tirana, Albania, ignoring the strong smell of decay that permeates the fringes of a desperately poor city.
There were eight of us: the American journalist, the Albanian who understood Arabic, the Albanian who spoke English, and five Chinese Muslims, Uighurs, whose stories were related in a mix of languages during weeks of talks.
Across the street from us that first day, a butcher had tethered two steers and three sheep to a metal rail. As the talk progressed, slowly, from English to Albanian, Albanian to Arabic, Arabic to Uighur, the animals, one at a time, vanished inside the shop.
Not unlike the hopes of these men during the years since 2001.
The Uighurs admitted having been in Afghanistan, though they all insisted they were only there because they were poor, traveling the vast distance from their homes — where everyone agrees they are an oppressed minority — to better lives.
They were arrested in Pakistan, and the U.S. never offered any evidence connecting them to terrorism. Still, they were taken to Guantanamo and later dumped into a cramped dorm-like setup in a United Nations refugee camp here, in a country they’d barely heard of before they arrived.
Still, when they complained in that cafe, it wasn’t what had happened as much as the reaction of their captors after they were classified as “no longer enemy combatants” and shipped to Albania, the only nation that would take them.
As Akhdar Qasem Basit — tall, gaunt, in a pressed dress shirt — explained: “Even in Guantanamo, I was strong. Look up the records: I did not need doctors. But now, everything has changed. I am sick every day; I am in pain every day. It is no secret why. I have lost hope. I have not seen my daughter since she was 4 months old. When I arrived, I had hope, but it is clear I will never see her again. I will never again see my wife. I have no dreams for the future.”
There was no apology. No admission of a mistake, no help starting a new life in this land where they speak a different language. They are free to walk the streets of Tirana, free to find work, to seek education, to build better lives, but without any help in possibly attaining such things.
Albania, staunchly pro-American, with an almost uniquely still pro-Bush administration, is a poor country, with a largely black- or gray-market economy. There is little work for natives, much less for those who aren’t Albanian. It is a place economic refugees flee.
So they are stuck, poor jetsam of a powerful nation, without even hope of being remembered, much less vindicated.
Until now.
U.S. courts last week threw out the “enemy combatant” status on another Uighur, one still in Guantanamo. That means he is now considered never to have been an enemy combatant, under the law. Huzaifa Parhat is his name. His fellow Uighurs, those now outside the prison, all of whom are in Tirana, would love to share that status, as would the other 500 former detainees, many released without even the “no longer” stamp of approval.
The ruling is being called bad news for the Bush administration, but I can’t say I agree. Every American presidency should at its heart be about justice. If this one comes to find that — through a door it had mistakenly tried to bolt shut — that’s a good thing, for the administration, for all of us.
No one disagrees with the idea of winning a war on terror. But if we don’t actually have any evidence that people are terrorists, how exactly can we justify calling them “enemy combatants” or even “no longer enemy combatants”?
Maybe this court decision is a beginning of a return to sanity.
At the least, in Tirana, maybe it can stem the Uighurs’ despair.
Hope hasn’t died yet. Mohammed Ayub first left China dreaming of a college education in the U.S. He now studies English, “just in case an opportunity to study in the United States comes again. I want to be ready.”
So, praise to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for finally seeing this.
It’s about time.

Matthew Schofield is the deputy national editor of The Kansas City Star. He was McClatchy’s European bureau chief for four years, during which time he worked on a series of stories on former Guantanamo detainees that ran in The Star in June.