It's been a long journey for Abu Bakker Qassim.
An ethnic Uyghur who fled to Afghanistan to escape Chinese repression in his native Xinjiang Province, he wound up arrested as a suspected terrorist and shipped to Guantanamo, where he spent more than four years in detention. In 2006, he was declared innocent and freed. But mindful of the intimidation he would surely face if sent home, U.S. authorities arranged for Qassim to be sent to Albania instead.
The move may have spared him the vengeance of Chinese authorities, who accuse him of having links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant group fighting for Uyghur independence. But it also forced him to begin a new life from scratch.
Today, 43-year-old Qassim works in a halal pizzeria in the Albanian capital, Tirana. He's adopted a comfortable routine, living in an apartment paid for by the Albanian government and making daily visits to his local mosque. He's mastered Albanian, albeit with a strong accent. He meets regularly with his friends, including the four fellow Chinese Uyghurs resettled in Albania after being released from Guantanamo. And he is soon to become a new father, as his second wife -- herself an ethnic Uyghur -- is due to give birth to a baby girl later this month.
His home in Xinjiang seems distant, but it's never far from his mind. Qassim's first wife remains there, together with their three children. It's been 12 years since he's seen them, but they stay in contact through the Internet. (Several of the Albanian Uyghurs have taken second wives after failing to persuade authorities to grant asylum to their families at home.) For now, he says, his life is in Albania.
"I live here now. Of course, I miss my country and my people, but I've managed here, and now I'm used to it," he says. "We might go back one day, when there is independence. But without it, I don't intend to go back. And it's not only that. We're afraid to leave this state; we're afraid to leave Albania. The Albanian state pays our rent. We get to learn something. We don’t have any other place to go to. We're determined to live in Albania, simply to get on with our lives."
Qassim still has nightmares from his time in Guantanamo, a place where he has said "the law did not exist."
Still, it's the United States whom he looks to for help in ensuring that someday he will return home, to a free Uyghur state.
"Without the U.S. or Europe, there's no possibility of independence," he says. "We expect the establishment of a democratic state in Turkestan."
Written by Menada Zaimi and Daisy Sindelar