HAMILTON, Bermuda – The four men in short-sleeve shirts looked like ordinary tourists, enjoying a Sunday lunch and butter pecan ice cream afterward as they observed the sparkling waters surrounding this Atlantic resort island.
But they are Uighurs, Muslims from the vast stretches of western China, an arid and rugged land that is a far cry from Bermuda’s sandy beaches and quaint narrow streets lined with pastel Victorian-era buildings.
They once were terrorism suspects, but even after U.S. authorities determined the men weren’t a threat to the United States, they were kept at the Guantanamo prison for years because no nation would take them – until a few days ago, when Bermuda agreed to let them in as refugees.
“When we didn’t have any country to accept us, when everybody was afraid of us … Bermuda had the courage and was brave enough to accept us,” said Abdulla Abdulgadir, who at 30 is the youngest of the four men who relished their first weekend of freedom in seven years.
Abdulgadir eagerly embraced his new island home. “We are not moving anywhere,” he said.
He and his companions have traded drab prison jumpsuits for comfortable cotton pants and knit shirts, and razor wire-encircled jail compounds for beach cottages. They hope to quickly find jobs in Bermuda – one of the world’s wealthiest places because of its financial and insurance sector – and eventually start families.
The four Uighurs (pronounced WEE’-gurs) also have immediate priorities, such as learning to drive, scuba dive and bowl, said Glenn Brangman, a former military official who is helping reintroduce them to the world outside prison.
“I told them one step at a time,” Brangman said. “They’re beginning to live all over again.”
For these four, the arrival in Bermuda appears to be the end of a difficult journey. Thirteen other Uighurs at Guantanamo are hoping to move to the Pacific island nation of Palau.
All of them were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan as suspected allies of the Taliban and al-Qaida, but the men claimed they had only fled oppression by China and were never enemies of the U.S.
“We only have one enemy, and that’s the Chinese,” one of the men, Ablikim Turahun, told a military tribunal in 2004. “They have been torturing us and killing us all: old, young, men, women, little children and unborn children.”
U.S. officials eventually declared the Uighurs innocent of any wrongdoing and authorized their release, but they couldn’t be sent back to China because U.S. law forbids deporting someone to a country where they are likely to face torture or persecution.
Albania took in five Uighurs in 2006 but refused to take any more, and other countries balked at resettling any of the others, until Bermuda stepped forward last week.
The surprise move, made without consulting Bermuda’s colonial rulers in Britain, angered some of island’s 68,000 people and prompted a call by the opposition for the local Parliament to hold a no-confidence vote on the government.
Brangman said he wants some of the attention to dissipate before he lets the Uighurs live on their own.
“I want to give them more exposure, but certainly a controlled exposure,” Brangman said. “Not everybody is keen about what the government did.”
For now, the men are savoring the most basic of experiences, interpreter Rushan Abbas said.
They encountered a fisherman while walking along the beach and became curious about the art of fishing, she said.
The man offered to teach them, and one of the former prisoners, Khelil Mamut, tossed a line into the ocean. He caught a 25-centimetre (10-inch) fish to the cheers of the other men, she said.
Brangman later took them swimming and watched as they climbed the rocks and jumped into the ocean like he did as a boy.
“Normally Bermudians test the temperature of the water,” he said. “But they just went to the edge and jumped straight in.”
Brennan Linsley reported from Hamilton, and Danica Coto from San Juan, Puerto Rico.