Opinion

Commentary: Uighurs long to live free, let them

A Uighur Muslim detainee hides in a plywood hut in a compound at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2009.
A Uighur Muslim detainee hides in a plywood hut in a compound at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2009. Carol Rosenberg/Miami Herald/MCT

We sat down on the edge of Tirana, in an open-air cafe in the shadow of Albania's snow-capped Mount Dajti. A line of animals — a goat, some cows, some sheep — slept tethered to a store rail across the street.

On our side of the street, I played a slow-moving game of telephone with five men, Uighurs, Chinese Muslims from the northwest, who'd recently walked free of Guantanamo and found themselves in a country they'd never even seen mentioned in books. All five had been determined to have been mistakenly arrested and jailed in Guantanamo. Not terrorists, or enemies of the United States, just poor people looking for a better life and, as is the case with so many poor people around the world, they'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And yet the stigma of that arrest (they were never charged with anything) had stained them so badly that Albania, a bastion of poverty among the wealth of Western Europe, was the only place willing to offer them refuge.

I would ask a question in English, my primary translator would repeat it in Albanian to the man who understood Albanian and Arabic but not English, who would repeat it in Arabic to the one Uighur who also understood that, who would repeat it in Uighur for his four friends, who understood only their native language.

The story that emerged piece-by-piece made me think the fates on both sides were more similar than was comfortable. Neither group knew their fate, nor exactly why they'd come to this place at this point in their life.

We'd have a glass of tea, I'd ask a question and my mind and eyes would wander while I awaited the answer. Every so often, a person would stop, examine the animals, then disappear into the glass front of the shop. When I'd next glance up, a goat was missing, or a sheep, or a cow.

It took a while to notice the shop window, the glare of the sun shielded hanging sides of meat. There the animals lay, passively, expectantly, waiting until a passing stranger deemed them useful and placed an order. The animals, of course, never really had much of an idea what was going on, even when they were led off.

And here were these men, so lost in a distant culture they needed two translators just to communicate in the native language, enjoying a cup a tea, basking in the spring sun around a crowded table, knowing that nothing they did this day, or the next, or ever, would bring them back to their families, their wives and sons and daughters, parents and sisters and brothers.

That meeting was years ago. And yet, this month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to act on a motion by five other Uighurs who still are seeking escape from the military prison in Cuba. They want their new home to be in the United States. Like those I met in Albania, these five have been determined not to be threats to the United States. Their arrests were also mistakes, the result of a system of bounties that paid by the head, whether that head belonged to a terrorist or tourist.

From the story I pieced together during many visits to Tirana, the ultimate destination when Uighurs first fled the tyranny and abuse of China was always the United States, home of freedom and opportunity. Their hopes had been to find work, make better lives, and then bring their families to them.

It is a story not unlike the stories of millions who have come to the United States through the years. But I do wonder if ever in those years this country owed as much to huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

We made a mistake, arrested non-combatants, back in 2001 or 2002. Then five years later, or now, nine years later, we know and have acknowledged that they were never enemies of this state and must be freed. Still, they can't be freed to China. Their homeland, we believe, could certainly torture them upon return.

So, why not here? Can't we find room for a few poor souls needing to restart badly interrupted lives? Or, should we leave them tethered to the rail?

ABOUT THE WRITER

Matthew Schofield is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at mschofield@kcstar.com.

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