It is 2001 and a group of men escaping persecution from the Chinese authorities journey to Afghanistan and Pakistan seeking refuge. They are all Uyghurs, a persecuted minority of Turkic-speaking Muslims who live predominantly in the autonomous Chinese region of Xinjiang. They do not know that terrorists have just attacked the twin towers in New York – an event which will change the course of their lives.
In reaction to the attack, the US invades Afghanistan on a mission to dismantle Al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power, offering large monetary awards for information on terrorists operating in the region. Strangers in the land, they find themselves easy targets for those hungry for the reward money – the Uyghur are sold as “terrorists” to the United States. Twenty-two Uyghur men are captured this way and taken to Guantanamo Bay, the notorious US military prison.
From northern China to Guantanamo, Cuba, this new documentary by Patricio Henríquez, which will be showcased during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London on the 22 and 24 March, maps the incredible odyssey of three of these “prisoners of the absurd” as they navigate their way to freedom through a complex maze of international politico-economic interests that have nothing to do with them. The men; Abu Bakker Qassum, Khalil Mamut and Ahmat Abdulahad, are quickly understood to be innocent by their US interrogators but they are to languish behind bars for many more years.
The documentary charts the defining of Guantanamo defendants as “unlawful combatants” (meaning they are deprived of rights outlined in the Geneva Convention) and US President Barack Obama’s failed pledge to close the facility. In doing so it successfully highlights the very lawlessness at the core of Guantanamo’s existence.
Pieced together from interviews with the men and those who fought to free them, you see an intimate account of their journey and the emotional struggle that comes with it- although some viewers may find the use of interviews throughout the whole documentary a little dry.
The men detail the abuse they suffer at the hands of US interrogators – their accounts of life in Guantanamo are harrowing. They end up in Camp 6, described as a “dungeon beneath the ground” or “the tomb” to prisoners, where sunlight is an utter luxury. For viewers of this documentary, it will however most likely be their continued imprisonment despite their established innocence that will shock.
Henríquez should be praised for carefully constructing this tale, which unravels like a kafka-esque nightmare. The men wake up in part from this nightmare and find unlikely homes across the globe, albeit, in the words of one former detainee, with the best years of their life having passed them by. As viewers, we are left shocked at the utter injustice the Uyghurs faced and questioning the US’s response to the 9/11 attacks.