By Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Newspapers
TIRANA, Albania — When Mohammed Ayub dreams about his future, he sees himself studying to prepare for a better life.
Ayub doesn't dream about a specific subject. He doesn't dream about a specific university. But there's one constant: He's always in the United States.
That might seem odd. After he set out to realize this dream as a 19-year-old in August 2001, he ended up at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He spent four years, he said, being insulted, stripped and belittled by the first Americans he'd ever met, the prison guards.
Every day, he said, he wondered why the guards — the same ones who told him that they knew he was innocent — treated him so badly. After a hearing in 2004 in which he was found to be no longer an enemy combatant, he couldn't figure out why they continued to hold him behind a locked gate.
He claimed that they once stuffed him in a near-freezing, dark room for 10 days when he demanded to see a doctor. Detainees' lawyers have widely reported that detainees were interrogated in rooms in which the air-conditioning was kept so cold as to make them uncomfortable.
Ayub said he dropped from 164 pounds to 105 in prison and was so hungry that he devoured pieces of orange rind and banana peel. Sleeping on hard metal slats ruined his back, he said, and he was denied food, clothing and light when he was found with an extra napkin, a piece of soap or toilet paper.
Former detainees commonly complained of weight loss and what they described as an obsession by guards to make sure there was no communication between detainees and that they didn't have any non-approved items in their cells.
But despite every cruel, heartless little thing that Ayub says the Americans did to him, America remained an ideal in his mind. It embodied freedom, and hope.
"Sometimes, the soldiers, they would come into my cell at night and spray a burning chemical into my eyes," he recalled, walking near the Albanian refugee camp where he was deposited. Guards reportedly used pepper spray in dealing with detainees in confrontational situations. "I do not understand how they could do this, coming from America, from a land that should show the world the value of justice. Yet, from day to day, it got worse."
He wondered whether it would have been the same in 2001 if he'd simply gotten on an airplane in Karachi, Pakistan. He had a visa for the United States, he said. He had money. He had relatives he planned to call on. He had dreams.
He also had a Uighur friend who didn't have a visa yet, and they decided they'd wait together.
Ayub is also a Uighur, a Muslim from Xinjiang province in northern China. Uighurs are a thorn in Chinese rule, believers in God and trade, not socialism. And Ayub had heard rumors that Pakistan on occasion would round up Uighurs and turn them over to the Chinese government. That meant jail, or worse.
So the two friends went north to Afghanistan and found a small hotel to wait for the visa to be issued. To travel into Afghanistan, a country in the midst of a civil war, while awaiting issuance of a visa in neighboring Pakistan may seem like an improbable course of action, but Uighur former detainees all tell the same story.
Uighurs in fact fought at the front lines for the Taliban against their opponents in northern Afghanistan, the United Front or northern alliance, and a number of Uighurs were captured and held by the forces of the late commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Then came the 9-11 attacks, organized in Afghanistan by Saudi Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden, and the bombing of the country began. Ayub's friend panicked and fled. After a few days alone, Ayub decided to return to Pakistan to go to the United States. But when he left his hotel, he said, he was mugged and lost his money, his passport, his spare clothes, everything.
He said that was why he accepted a ride to a village where other Uighurs had sought refuge in the Tora Bora mountains, a village that the U.S. government later called a terrorist training camp. After the U.S. bombing began, he said, he and 17 other Uighurs fled through the mountains to Pakistan, where villagers turned them over to Pakistani authorities.
Today, he tries to pass the time by studying English.
"Just in case an opportunity to study in the United States comes again," he said. "I want to be ready."