Palauans were understandably unsure about accepting men from Guantanamo, which had a reputation for holding "the worst of the worst." Toribiong calls it the post-9/11 "beard fear factor" -- which wasn't exactly allayed when the six men arrived with a small army of U.S. military escorts. But the former president said he was less worried about the risk the men would pose than reprisals from China. "Are the Chinese going to show up and kill them? Are they going to retaliate against Palau?" They were the same questions the Uighur detainees asked when the Palauan delegation met them earlier that year in Guantanamo's "Camp Iguana," the detention facility where they were being held. As the government officials talked about Palau, the men looked at a world map and were alarmed to see its proximity to China. The officials assured them that Palau had the full backing of the U.S. military.
The Kafkaesque last decade for Guantanamo's 22 Uighurs began when they fled China's persecution, to Afghanistan, one of the few Central Asian countries that will not deport Uighur refugees. They were captured by Pakistani forces when they tried to flee the U.S. bombing campaign after 9/11, and were turned over to U.S. authorities for a bounty of $5,000 each.
Ahmad Abdulahad, one of the men now in Palau, faced an especially brutal fate in the custody of Uzbek commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum before he was transferred to the Americans. He says he was separated from his pregnant wife and two-year-old son in Kabul, seeking shelter for his family, when he was captured. Held first in a coffin-like cell in a prison near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, Abdulahad barely survived a prison revolt by Taliban inmates. He said he did not take part, but instead hid underground until he smelled gasoline and realized the prison was being set ablaze. U.S. forces quelled the riot, but during the chaos his leg was severely injured. Dozens died. By the time Abdulahad was moved to Guantanamo in 2002, his leg was beyond saving. It was amputated in the U.S. Navy hospital. It's not all he lost. His family would not know of his whereabouts until four years later, in 2006, and not be reunited again until 2009, when he arrived in Palau to meet his 8-year-old daughter for the first time.
"Shortly after we were brought over to Gitmo, we were told that we were innocent, we were ‘at the wrong place at the wrong time,'" Abdulahad told me when we met earlier this year. But then came the Iraq war and the Bush administration needed China's support at the U.N. In December 2001, when the men were captured, the United States did not list a little-known Uighur group, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), as a terrorist organization. But on Sept. 3, 2002, one week after Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage traveled to Beijing, and nine months after the men were captured, Washington designated ETIM as such. "The U.S. listed ETIM and accused all the Uighurs in Guantanamo of being members solely as a political accommodation to secure China's support for the war in Iraq," claims Abdulahad's lawyer, Seema Saifee. An Aug. 2, 2004 Federal Bureau of Investigation document obtained by lawyers for the men appears to support the theory. "US officers were considering whether to return the Uighurs to the Chinese, possibly to gain support for anticipated US action in the Middle East. The Uighur detainees at GTMO were convinced that they would immediately be executed if they were returned to China," the memo states. By 2011, the ETIM was off the U.S. terrorist entity list.
Abdulahad remembers when Fried came to Guantanamo to talk about the Palau deal. "One day the MPs came and told us that some high-level official from Washington will come and meet with us and it is very important," he told me. The meeting took place in Camp Iguana on Aug. 3, 2009. Fried explained the deal to the men in the sweltering Cuban heat, sitting on the opposite side of the detention center's chain link fence. "He said, 'President Obama appointed me for shutting down Gitmo. I found one country in Pacific Ocean and I need at least four of you to go there for a temporarily settlement.' He promised that it is just for a short period of time until he finds a better country to take us," said Abdulahad.
He recalls being reluctant to go, worried about his prosthetic leg and Palau's health care system. "But, I thought, I have been apart from my wife and children so long. A woman alone raising two children by herself -- I should come out with the first opportunity and try to re-unite with my family as soon as possible." In the end, Abdulahad and five of his compatriots agreed to go to Palau. (Of the original 22 Uighurs, five had been resettled in Albania under the Bush administration. Four others went to Bermuda in 2009. Two were later resettled in El Salvador and two in Switzerland. Three remain in Gitmo, having turned down the Palau deal.)
Fried's main obstacle in finding Guantanamo's Uighurs refuge was China's economic and political reprisals, which is why creative diplomacy was required. After the Uighurs arrived in Palau, Toribiong says he received only verbal reprimands from China. The first came in 2010, during a canoe festival in nearby Yap, an island in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). FSM's ambassador to China had sent him a message to meet him on a boat parked beside the hotel where they were staying. "We sat down and ordered water to drink and he gave me a bunch of books about Uighurs as terrorists and he read from a written statement: ‘These are terrorists, you're interfering with internal affairs in China,'" Toribiong recalled. "I said, ‘Well, don't focus on Palau. Focus on the United States. They're our guests from the United States. All we did was to come with a humanitarian gesture. We have no qualms with [China].'" Toribiong said he agreed to the deal in part because of Palau's tradition of taking in "drift relatives" -- a custom of welcoming refugees that wash upon the islands' shores.
Toribiong lost re-election to Tommy Remengesau last year. Guantanamo had become a hot election topic and some believe it was Toribiong's deal for the Uighurs that lost him the presidency. There were allegations against him because he had housed the Uighurs in an apartment owned by his sister-in-law, which he renovated with state funds to accommodate all six of them. Toribiong defends his actions, saying he needed to move quickly and quietly to find a secure and U.S. approved location, and that there was no time for competitive bids. He dismisses the criticism as political opportunism. A conflict-of-interest case is now before the courts.
I met the new president on a warm February afternoon, on the sandy patio of his waterfront home, which is shielded from the road by a barrier of mangroves. His grandchildren were playing inside; a rusty treadmill sat outside in the corner near a row of shiny conch shells. "Ah, you're the one everyone says is a spy," Remengesau tells me when I say I'm here about the Uighurs. Laughing, I assure him I talk too much to be a secret agent. This, is a gossipy island where news travels fast, if not always accurately.
Remengesau tells me he never would have signed the deal in 2009, that the humanitarian gesture was tainted by the financial gain of the agreement. The United States paid almost $600,000 to help Palau house the six men -- funds that have since run out. But that was pocket change compared to the renegotiation of the financial aid pact with Palau, which was set to expire. Washington agreed to give $250 million over the next 15 years -- but the payments are stalled before Congress. "The Palauan culture is to accept people who by some act of nature were unfortunate so they came, so they don't have a choice unless we help them. It does not involve some sort of waving a carrot or financial gain. That's already different from our culture. If there was no money involved I can truly say it was for culture. But when there was money involved, there is a choice. If you had said no to the money the Uighurs would have been somewhere else," says Remengesau.
"If you ask me, the majority of the Palauan people are not in support of this settlement, when things were not explained well. Certainly, since they may support temporary relocation there really was no timetable, no plan on how these people would be sustained or supported.... The temporary period is becoming like a permanent stay."
Today, the men have jobs, have married, or been reunited with their families. From the outside, this may look like a pretty good life. But the men say living in Palau feels like an extension of their prison. They feel like outsiders, always known as "the guys from Guantanamo."
Only one of the men has managed to escape. Adel Noori secured a fake passport, and posing as a businessman boarded a flight last November to join his wife and children in Turkey. The other five remain trapped -- their tragedy compounded this March when the 22 month-old son of one of the men, Abdulghappar Abdulrahman, fell from a balcony and died.
"The people may think that we brought them to this beautiful island. Thousands of tourists love to come here. It is true that the place is absolutely beautiful here," Abdulahad said. "But if we are not satisfied here, then even the beautiful things look not that attractive anymore. People may think it is a paradise here but for us it is a prison. We are stateless."