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Page last updated at 14:15 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 15:15 UK

Leaving Guantanamo for paradise

Salahidin Abdulahat (left) Khalil Mamut (right)
Salahidin Abdulahat and Khalil Mamut were "small fish" caught in the US net

By Jo Meek
Producer, From Guantanamo to Paradise

Bermuda, with its pastel-coloured homes overlooking the turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean, is now home to four Chinese Uighurs who were released from Guantanamo Bay after seven years inside.

The men are a long way from home, but they say they had heard of Bermuda, a UK overseas territory off America's eastern seaboard, before they got there.

"Actually I did know something about Bermuda, about the Bermuda Triangle. When I first heard we were coming here I thought, that's that mysterious place," said Khalil Mamut.

When I met Khalil Mamut, 31, Abdullah Abdulqadir, 30, Salahidin Abdulahat, 32, and Ablikim Turahan, 38, in their new home, they were all smiling, laughing and joking with one another.

As they ordered Bermudan fruit punch and rock fish, it became clear that they were relishing their new-found freedom.

"I saw someone fishing and I walked down, and said 'I want to do that. Can I have a go?' He said OK, and in one minute I caught two small fish.

"The fish reminded me of Guantanamo - I had mercy on them and let them go," said Khalil Mamut.

This is exactly how these men used to see themselves, as small fish caught in a huge net as the US military rounded up terror suspects in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan after 9/11.

Mr Mamut says the four men had initially fled their homes in China because they wanted to escape oppression and lead free lives.

Recent ethnic violence in Xinjiang province has focused attention on the Muslim minority and their efforts to establish a Uighur homeland, which they call Turkestan.

(Left to right) Ablikim Turahun, Abdullah Abdulqadir, Khalil Mamut, and Salahidin Abdulahat
The men were fleeing oppression in China

The men's separate journeys from China in early 2001 led them to meet in a refugee camp in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains.

"When I was in Turkestan, I made rock candy, but the Chinese oppressed us so I left to seek freedom," Khalil Mamut says.

"If I had stayed there I could have been a slave to the Chinese and I didn't want to be slave."

When the US bombing of Afghanistan started, the four men all fled to Pakistan.

"The town we came to gave us a warm welcome and told us to rest and they would take care of us," says Salahidin Abdulahat.

"In the middle of the night they got us up and said they would move us somewhere safe. But we ended up in jail. They sold us out."

Guantanamo detainees and guard
Initially no country wanted to take the Uighurs

The men say they were handed over by bounty hunters as "terrorists" to US forces and taken to Khandahar.

They were then transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where they were held in the military detention centre for almost seven years.

It was here that they met their translator Rushan Abbas.

A petite woman with expressive eyes, she now calls these men "her children" but their relationship started very differently.

Ms Abbas, a Uighur living in the US, was hired as a translator by US interrogators at Guantanamo.

"During the first interrogation I was totally surprised. These men were so happy to be in US custody, they were saying that US is the only country defending Uighur people's rights," she says.

"After I met these men I realised right away that they were the wrong men to be in Guantanamo."

The men were accused by the US of being linked to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a group which the UN, China and the US classify as a terrorist group with links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

All four men always denied the charge, and four years ago were found not to be "enemy combatants". However, their release was complicated by their nationality.

"When US forces took custody of us they did not know us so they had to do their investigation," says Salahidin Abdulahat.

Bermudan beach
The tropical waters of Bermuda are a stark contrast to Guantanamo

"They soon said they knew we were innocent but because we didn't have our own country it was more difficult."

Last October, a senior US judge in Washington DC ordered that all the men be released into the US. That ruling was quashed in February and they remained in Guantanamo, because it was considered unsafe for them to return to China and no country was willing to take them.

The US has 50 to 60 Guantanamo detainees who it has been unable to repatriate since President Barack Obama announced the camp was to close.

Beijing has demanded the return of all Uighurs held by the US forces to China.

However on the evening on 10 June, a guard came and told them they had 45 minutes to get ready to leave.

Their sudden release to Bermuda on the 11 June caused a political storm.

Britain voiced its disapproval and told Bermuda, a UK territory, that it should have consulted the UK government before accepting the men.

Salahidin Abdulahat
Salahidin Abdulahat has already begun to learn to swim

Bermudan Premier Ewart Brown explains how the decision came about: "One of the White House people raised this issue, that they were having trouble finding places to accept these detainees, and I said, 'I wonder if Bermuda could help'."

Questions have been asked about what Bermuda gained from the deal, and whether it would help the country's position with the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, which the US Senate is debating.

"I don't want to predict that, but I believe that whatever engagements we have with the US from here on will be held in the context that we have helped the US at the time when they needed help," says Premier Brown.

Step by step

The US authorities are paying up to $100,000 (£62,000) for the men's relocation costs.

Over the next few months they will be taught English and they will go fishing and learn to swim. Nearly a dozen local companies have already offered the men jobs.

These men have been on a long journey, but they are not angry or bitter about the years spent locked up in Guantanamo.

They all say they are happy and grateful to Bermuda and its people for giving them a home.

Mr Mamut says he is looking forward to his future.

"I want to make a family. I want to have 10 children, maybe more.

"I have to get situated and everything will be OK step by step. I have to get money and buy house and furniture - I have to ready myself for everything, a family, a wife, a new life."

Despite the tropical location, for these men paradise is not warm azure waters and swaying palm trees. Paradise is the freedom they now share.



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SEE ALSO
Uighur resentment at Beijing's rule
06 Jul 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Bermuda takes Guantanamo Uighurs
11 Jun 09 |  Americas
Australia pressed to take Uighurs
30 May 09 |  Americas
Q&A: Guantanamo detentions
22 Jan 09 |  Americas

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