By MATT PRODGER
ONE early morning in November, the roar of a C17 US military transport plane shattered the silence at an airport in Palau, its landing lights off, invisible against the night sky.
Waiting anxiously on the tarmac was Johnson Toribiong, president of the tiny island state with a population of just 20,000 people.
Six more residents were about to be added. All of them were Muslim Uighurs from western China, who 20 hours earlier had been detainees at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Now they walked off the plane as free men, to begin a new life.
Palau is a country with an umbilical cord to the US. More than a third of its revenue comes from there, one side of a deal which allows the US to use the islands as military bases.
The US has struck another deal with Palau, getting them to provide a temporary home for up to a dozen Uighurs who were captured during the US-led war in Afghanistan, but not later classified as “enemy combatants”.
China wants them to be returned there, but the US says it cannot repatriate them due to the risk of mistreatment. Beijing has frequently cracked down on Uighur dissidents, who it accuses of seeking an independent homeland in the western province of Xinjiang.
“The Uighurs in my opinion are victims,” Toribiong said. “They were caught in Afghanistan I believe, they were taken to the US – they were presumed to be terrorists, but since they were found not to be enemy combatants or not terrorists, why keep them in jail?
“They should have gone home. Unfortunately, their home is in China which considers them terrorists.”
Abdul Ghappar Abdul Rahman is one of the Palau Uighurs. In 2001 he left China, and travelled overland to Taliban-run Afghanistan. He said he fleeing persecution.
“At that time, Afghanistan was the only country in Central Asia which had no agreements with China – because it was not sending refugees back to China and I heard that there were some Uighurs living there,” he told the BBC.
“As I got to Afghanistan US forces entered the country. US troops promised to pay a lot of money to people or authorities who brought them outsiders.
“Because of this and the bombing of Afghanistan, I left the country and went to Pakistan. People in Pakistan captured me and handed me to the authorities, who sold me to the US for US$5,000.”
Nobody disputes the Uighurs received basic training in the use of guns while in Afghanistan.
The US initially classed them as enemy combatants, and only recently did they publicly downgrade their status. But the US refused Chinese requests to send them back to China, so they remained at Guantanamo.
Four other Uighur detainees were resettled in Bermuda earlier last year, and another five went to Albania in 2006.
The Uighurs have been told their presence in Palau is temporary, even though new houses are being built for them.
Toribiong said they would be given a home for up to two years.
“Initially, they will be attending a crash course in the English language and of our culture and history for a couple of months. We’ll interview them to find out about their skills, and then try to place them where they’ll be gainfully employed,” he said.
The US recently agreed to ignore a deadline to cut funding to Palau and extended its current level of payments by another year, timing which Palau’s authorities say is entirely coincidental, and had nothing to do with the decision to take the Uighurs.
US media reports suggested the package amounted to a US$200 million payment to Palau to take the Uighurs.
“If only,” laughed Toribiong’s legal adviser, Kevin Kirk, who was involved in the negotiations, when asked about the matter.
“Personally – and I’m joking here – I’d have taken the whole of Guantanamo Bay for US$200 million. But there was no such offer.”
For the six Palau Uighurs, leaving Palau is not a problem – being allowed to enter another country is.
So they are in limbo, and are unlikely ever to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, an almost essential trip for any devout Muslim.
They are unable to communicate with their families because China blocks their phone calls.
“I haven’t been in touch with them,” said Ghappar as he sat beside the shore. “I have no idea whether they are alive.” – BBC