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Chinese Muslims face culture shock in Palau

Some residents of the tiny Pacific nation of Palau are worried the 13 Chinese Muslims being resettled there from the prison at Guantanamo will experience culture shock.
Guantanamo Palau
Palau lies among coral reefs in the western Pacific.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They came from a land of scorching deserts, snowcapped mountains, camels and mosques. Now after several miserable years imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, 13 Muslims from China will try to resettle on the tiny Pacific nation of Palau — a land of lush beach resorts.

Some residents said Friday they are afraid of the former prisoners, while others worried they won't adjust to life here.

"It's good to be humanitarian and all, but still these people to me are scary," said Natalia Baulis, 30, a mother of two, in Palau's laid-back capital, Koror.

The detainees were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001, but the Pentagon determined last year that they were not "enemy combatants."

They have been treated like global untouchables since the U.S. decided to free them, saying they weren't a danger to the country. No nation agreed to take the 13 men until Palau — a former U.S. trust territory — welcomed them to the tropical tourist getaway, about 500 miles east of the Philippines.

Sending them back to China wasn't an option for Washington because of concerns that Chinese authorities would immediately arrest the men who belong to the minority ethnic Uighur group. The restive Turkic people live in China's far western region of Xinjiang — a territory three times the size of Texas that shares borders with Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Central Asian nations.

Most Uighurs are Muslim and many want Xinjiang to become independent. In recent years, they've staged bombings and other attacks, mostly against Chinese police, government and military targets. The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) detained in Guantanamo were accused of being militants seeking training in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Few Muslims on island
Dru Gladney, an expert on Uighurs, applauded Washington's decision not to send the detainees back to China, where he said they would be treated worse than at Guantanamo. Resettling them in the U.S. — especially in the Washington area where there's a substantial Uighur population — would have been ideal, but Congress opposed that idea, he said.

Palau will be tough for them because there aren't many Muslims in the predominantly Christian nation of 20,000 people, he said.

"They are going to have a very difficult time of it for sure," said Gladney, a professor at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California.

When the Uighurs arrive, this balmy island nation will likely seem like an alien planet, with bikini-clad women on white sand beaches, meals of fresh saltwater fish and people snorkeling with dolphins in clear blue water.

Back in the Uighurs' desert home, camels haul cargo across dusty deserts, cold winds blow off snowy mountains, and women usually cover up with head scarves. Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, a pro-independence group, was also worried about the detainees' ability to adapt.

"I'm concerned about their mental health," Raxit said by phone from Sweden. "They have been detained for a long time and they will need the help of psychologists. I hope the Palau government can provide the counseling and other help they need."

Living in isolation
Raxit added that China probably won't allow the Uighurs' families to visit or join them, so the men will experience intense isolation and loneliness. But he added that Palau would be better than Xinjiang, where about 9 million Uighurs live.

"I'm extremely thankful that the U.S. government decided not to hand them over to China," he said.

China still insists the Uighurs are terrorism suspects who should be repatriated. But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang declined to say Thursday whether China would pressure Palau to return the men.

Sending them back to China sounded like a great idea to some in Palau. Some worried they would scare away tourists, leading to problems with the multimillion-dollar hotel industry.

Fermin Nariang, editor of the Palau newspaper Island Times, said people were stopping him in the streets in the capital of Koror and venting their anger.

"This is a very small country," Nariang said, "and some are saying if the whole world doesn't want these folks, why are we taking them?"

'International vagabonds'
Palau President Johnson Toribiong said the country has a strong tradition of hospitality and the Uighurs were "international vagabonds" who deserved a new home. He denied the move was influenced by any massive aid package from Washington, but he said, "Palau's people are always on the side of the U.S. government."

It was unclear when the detainees would arrive in Palau. Toribiong said a delegation would be sent to Guantanamo to assess the Uighurs.

Four other Uighurs left Guantanamo Bay on Thursday for a new home in Bermuda — a move that displeased some residents of the North Atlantic island. Even Britain, which handles Bermuda's defense, security and foreign affairs, expressed unhappiness at the deal, saying Bermuda's leaders failed to properly consult with them.

A British Foreign Office spokesman, who declined to be named in keeping with department policy, said British authorities will be working with Bermudan officials to determine how much of a security threat the Uighurs are and that any next steps would be based on that.

Bermuda Premier Ewart Brown said the men will be allowed to live in Bermuda initially as refugees but they would be permitted to pursue citizenship and would have the right to work, travel and "potentially settle elsewhere."

The Albanian experience
Three years ago, the U.S. freed five Uighurs who were detained at Guantanamo and resettled them in Albania. Less than two weeks after they arrived in their new home country, lawyers for two of them filed a motion demanding they be moved to a more suitable place, like Washington.

The lawyers said the men were afraid to venture out of the U.N. refugee compound in Albania where they lived because the local media had branded them "terrorists." They also couldn't find jobs in one of Europe's poorest countries, the attorneys said.

But one of the former detainees, Abu Bakker Qassim, 40, told The Associated Press on Friday that he has learned the local language and likes living in Albania. The government pays his rent, and he even gets $330 a month for food and clothes.

However, he's jobless and hasn't been able to reunite with his wife and three children in Xinjiang.

"It is hard to find a job at this difficult time. I took a training course for making pizza and Albanian cooking. The two other (Uighurs) are also learning how to make pizza," said Qassim, who hopes to open a restaurant.

Another Uighur is studying computer science, while one was granted political asylum in Sweden, where he had family.

Qassim said he spent two hours Thursday chatting on the Internet with the four Uighurs in Bermuda. "They told me they were very pleased with the living conditions there," he said.