Outside was a vision of hell.
Vast plumes of smoke and debris were thrown up into the air as US B-52 bombers and fighter jets let loose a seemingly endless barrage of missiles. The noise from the bombardment could be heard from miles away, a deep, hollow booming sound as each bomb struck.
It was December 2001, and the target of the strikes was Osama bin Laden, orchestrator of the attacks on New York and Washington three months earlier. He was believed to be hiding out, along with a core of al Qaeda fighters, in Tora Bora, a cave complex south of the city of Jalalabad, in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Whether Bin Laden was there at all remains disputed, but if he was, he managed to slip away, along with several other top al Qaeda leaders, avoiding both the aerial bombardment and US and Afghan troops on the ground. He would dodge US forces for another decade, before being tracked to a suburb of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, where he was killed in 2011.
After two months of moving from cave to cave, steadily running out of food, their nerves fried by the constant bombings and fear of running into Northern Alliance troops combing the area for any suspected Taliban fighters, the men in the cave also made it to Pakistan.
They were Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang, a region in far-western China, also referred to by some as “East Turkestan.” While today the group is well known, due to international condemnation of China’s crackdown in Xinjiang — which politicians in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands have described as a “genocide” — in the early 2000s, few Americans had ever heard, or even knew how to pronounce the word Uyghur.
This began to change when it was revealed that almost two dozen Uyghurs were being held without trial in an offshore detention center in Guantanamo Bay, accused of being “enemy combatants” in Washington’s war on terror. Around the same time, the US also controversially added an alleged Uyghur militant organization, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to a State Department list of terrorist groups.
After years of court battles and campaigns by their families and human rights groups, the 22 Uyghurs held at Guantanamo were all eventually declared “non-combatants” and gradually released, with the last three men finally leaving the detention camp in 2013.
None of them were permitted to settle in the US however, nor could they safely return to Xinjiang. Instead they ended up in a kind of legal limbo in the countries that agreed to accept them, mostly small European and Central American nations that are close to Washington.
From there, the former detainees have watched as the situation in their homeland, one that many of them intentionally fled decades ago, has only gotten worse. Many have lost contact with their families, some of whom are believed to have ended up in the sprawling detention camp system set up in Xinjiang, which Beijing claims is vital for “deradicalization” and “vocational training.”
The Guantanamo Uyghurs have also had to watch as China’s propaganda organs have deployed their own existence, and claims made by Washington about ETIM during the “war on terror,” as the justification for Beijing’s own ongoing crackdown.
After the last detainees were released in late 2013, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman denounced the move, saying “they are terrorists without any doubt.”
“These suspects are members of the ‘East Turkistan Islamic Movement,’ a terrorist organization designated by the UN Security Council,” spokesman Qin Gang said. “They will not only pose severe threat to China’s national security, but also to that of the recipient country.”
Since then, China’s propaganda around ETIM has only ramped up, with state media denouncing the group as the “black hand” behind almost all acts of violence in Xinjiang in “for decades”
“Even though America declared we were innocent, that we hadn’t done anything, China continues to say we worked with the Taliban and al Qaeda,” said Abu Bakeer Qassim, a former Guantanamo detainee now living in Albania. “They say Uyghurs are terrorists with links to al Qaeda, Taliban and ISIS. This propaganda has been really successful.”
In recent weeks, US President Joe Biden has renewed his commitment to end America’s longest war, promising to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 this year. But for the Uyghurs, the war on terror will continue, with its rhetoric having been adopted by Beijing to justify a new round of repression under Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
As he fled US bombs across the mountains into Pakistan, Ahmet Adil was retracing his steps.
He says he had never intended to go to Afghanistan, but like many of the other Guantanamo Uyghurs — as they would recount in interviews with CNN and during tribunal testimony at the detention camp — ended up there from a lack of safe alternatives.
“The reason I left home first was that our family was going through economic hardship,” Adil said in an interview, speaking via an interpreter. “I decided to go to Central Asia and make money to provide for my family.”
One of the poorer regions of China, Xinjiang was largely controlled by what’s known as Bingtuan, a state-run paramilitary corps, and Uyghurs often found life there stifling, with opportunities few and far between and growing restrictions on religious and cultural practices.
Initially Adil crossed into Kazakhstan, which neighbors Xinjiang to the north and has long been home to a large Uyghur population, both Kazakh citizens and economic migrants. Adil stayed there for about a year, finding some work and sending money home, but while there were less restrictions than in China, it wasn’t easy, and Adil said he “gradually came to a decision to attempt to leave for Europe for even freer life.”
He began looking for a way to reach Turkey, home to the world’s largest Uyghur diaspora. But with funds short, making the over 3,800 kilometer (2,400 mile) journey from Almaty to Istanbul was going to be difficult.
From Kazakhstan he traveled to Pakistan, again staying for almost a year as he searched for work and ways to continue westward. There was only one country between him and Turkey, Iran, but Adil says he could not get a visa, nor could he afford to fly. Returning to Xinjiang was no longer an option, he had heard of people being jailed or integrated after they had been abroad for some time, particularly in Muslim countries. China viewed Uyghurs who left the country with deep suspicion, especially if there was any suggestion they might have been radicalized.
For Adil, the situation was growing untenable: the authorities in Pakistan were known to be rounding Uyghurs up and sending them back to China.
Then he met a man who suggested he go to Afghanistan, where he knew of a Uyghur community living near Jalalabad, who could provide him shelter and paid work while he continued to save to go west.
Many other Uyghurs who would end up in Guantanamo provide similar accounts. Like Adil, Abu Bakeer Qassim said he left China to work in Central Asia until it got too dangerous, traveling first to Pakistan, from where he hoped to go to Turkey.
“We had Pakistani friends. They said go to Afghanistan there is a Uyghur village there. You can learn your religion a bit more and then go to Turkey,” he said in an interview with CNN from Albania. “We went to Jalalabad and then up a mountain road, I later found out this was near Tora Bora.”
Another future detainee, Mohammed Ayoub said he had been in Pakistan hoping to travel to the US, but was “aware at the time that the Pakistan government was increasingly rounding up Uyghurs to turn them over to the Chinese.”
Ayoub and another man traveled across the border to Jalalabad, where they were until the US invasion started, when they fled into the nearby mountains and eventually met up with “a group of five to six Uyghurs who also wanted to escape.”