Six former Guantanamo prisoners are facing a bit of culture shock as they adjust to new lives in Palau, a tropical nation very different from their homeland in northwestern China.
The temporary settlement of the Chinese Uighurs in Palau follows President Obama’s agreement to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba. The detention camp has come under fire from human rights groups opposed to the harsh interrogation methods used on terrorist suspects housed there.
CLEARED OF CHARGES
The Uighurs were sent to Guantanamo following their capture in Afghanistan, charged as foreign combatants during the U.S. military operation that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. They were cleared of those charges, but could not be released until some nation agreed to resettle them.
The U.S. refused Chinese demands to repatriate the Uighurs to their homeland, fearing they would be mistreated there. China has an ongoing dispute with its Uighur community amid allegations of government repression against the minority group.
After a difficult search for a location, Palau, a former U.S. trust territory in the Pacific Ocean with no diplomatic relations with China, agreed to temporarily settle as many as 17 of the Uighur detainees. A government statement said the action “was a humanitarian gesture based on the finest tradition of the Palauan culture.”
UIGHURS HOPE FOR A PERMANENT PLACE
“I think their primary concern is their legal status in Palau and whether they could permanently stay there,” said Alim Seytoff of the Uyghur American Association.
Palau authorities are reported to be seeking another nation to provide a permanent home for the Uighurs.
The personal adjustment for the Uighurs is likely to be difficult. They have spent seven years in prison. That alone makes readjustment to life on the outside a challenge.
In addition to that, the Uighurs will be settling in an area whose culture, climate and geography are very different from what they were used to in northwestern China.
“Uighur people live in a very land-locked area, not on an island, so I am not sure how much time it will take them to adjust to island life,” Seytoff said.
NEW LIFE IN A TROPICAL PARADISE
Palau is known for its lush vegetation and ocean beaches. Its climate is described as tropical--humid with temperatures averaging 27 degrees Celsius year round.
Rather than the remote deserts and mountains of China, the former detainees will live in a tourist location known for scuba diving.
For employment, the new residents might look to the tourist industry. About half of the work force in Palau is employed in the service sector.
The Uighurs will encounter cuisine they might find unusual, such as seafood dishes and such local specialties such as fruit bat cooked in coconut and taro leaf soup.
EXPRESSIONS OF GRATEFULNESS
Even if their stay in Palau turns out to be temporary, the Uighurs seem to be grateful to have a place to live. “We are extremely grateful to the president of Palau and the people of Palau who have graciously accepted us and given us this home,” former detainee Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman told The Associated Press.