Island Paradise May Offer Peculiar Torments for Uighurs

Former Guantanamo detainees to settle in truly foreign land

You know what made Luke Skywalker's life so hard, the whole "my dad is an evil robot" problem aside? It was growing up in a remote, wind-swept desert like Tatooine and ending up in the lush jungles of Endor. If you're not used to it, all that vegetation can feel terribly claustrophobic.

Thus the predicament of the 17 Uighur prisoners who were held in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay for seven years while their captors figured out what to do with them. These Chinese desert Muslims come from the arid, windswept climes of Central Asia -- and now, after years of waiting, they're about to settle down on the lush northern Pacific island of Palau (and a few, if the British can get over their snit, will stay in Bermuda). Can you imagine anything more terrifying than coming from a landlocked sandpit and being forced to resettle on a tiny square of plant-covered rock in the middle of millions of miles of ocean?

The Uighurs have had to put up with a lot these past several years. It became apparent after their capture in Afghanistan following the US invasion that these Uighur gents were not plotting against America -- these separatists had their hands full plotting against the Chinese, with whom they've had a long-running disagreement over who should govern their region.

So these guys weren't enemy combatants; a US appeals court even affirmed that. But the court's ruling created a conundrum. The Uighurs couldn't stay in Guantanamo if they didn't pose a threat to the United States. They couldn't go home to China because they would almost certainly be executed,. And they couldn't go anywhere else because most nations were more concerned about keeping up good diplomatic relations with China than about the welfare of a dozen-ish separatist kooks.

This week it appears the Obama administration has found a work-around: they're promising to give folks like the government of Palau oodles of money in "development aid" just as these nonthreatening nonterrorists arrive. And because Palau doesn't maintain diplomatic relations with China, they don't have to listen to any whining about how the prisoners should be sent directly home.

Sure, these guys may never get to leave Palau or Bermuda, and they must suffer the peculiar torments of resettling on tiny vacation islands that are the exact opposite of the homeland they're so fond of.

On the plus side, they get to live, which is nice. On the minus side, they'll learn, as Luke Skywalker did so many years ago, that you can't go home again. 

Award-winning geographer and social anthropologist Sara K. Smith writes for NBC and Wonkette.

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