They were captured by bounty hunters, shipped across the world by American soldiers and held for years in Guantánamo Bay.
Salahidin Abdulahad, Khalil Mamut and Ayoub Mohammed were eventually cleared by US courts and released. Their time in the notorious prison, however, continues to haunt them.
More than a decade after the three Uighur men were released to Bermuda and Albania, they are unable to join their families, who have since moved to Canada.
Although a string of US court rulings found that the men had no links to terrorism, the government of Justin Trudeau argues that they were once militant separatists – and still pose a threat to national security.
“I want to do everything for my family. My kids know they have a daddy, but they can’t live with him or see him,” said Abdulahad. “Knowing that makes me feel so guilty.”
The men, now in the 40s, have suffered more than most can imagine, said Toronto-based lawyer Prasanna Balasundaram, who has taken on their cases. “Living away from their families is having a profound mental toll on them. I meet with their spouses, I meet with their children, and it’s clear the weight everyone bears.”
Growing up as Muslims in China, the men say they experienced constant surveillance. Their families were punished by the state for minor infractions. (Mohamed and Abdulahad both have relatives who are currently being held held in China’s infamous “re-education” camps.)
Fearing that there was little future for them in China, the three men fled the country in 2001, traveling first to Pakistan and then Afghanistan, where they settled in a small community of Uighurs in a village outside of Jalalabad.
Just a few months later, the US invaded Afghanistan. The village was bombed by coalition forces, and its inhabitants fled into the mountains.
After crossing back into Pakistan, they were betrayed by villagers, who sold the men to the US military for a bounty payout – $5,000 per head.
They were taken to an American military base in Kandahar, and eventually transferred to the US base in Guantánamo Bay, where Mohamed was held for four years and Abdulahad and Mamut for seven.
They spent days under intense interrogation by both US and Chinese officials.
Like many captives swept up in the American dragnet, the men were eventually exonerated, guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In 2005, a military tribunal determined Mohammed was not an enemy combatant. Three years later, a Washington circuit court came to a similar conclusion with Abdulahad and Mamut.
The men’s lawyers argued that they would be at risk if they were returned to China.
The Obama administration – determined to close Guantánamo, but unwilling to take its former inmates – eventually shipped the men to Bermuda and Albania, as part of a complicated set of diplomatic deals to offload detainees from the war on terror.
In Bermuda, Abdulahad and Mamut learned English, and found construction work; Mohammed earned a business degree in Albania.
Eventually, through mutual friends and online Uighur communities, the men met their future wives, who travelled Bermuda and Albania to start families.
But all three women found the move disorientating. By 2013, Abdulahad’s wife Zulpiye Yaqub had depression. Hoping to be closer to other Uighurs, she applied for asylum in Canada and was granted refugee status.
Khalil’s wife Aminiguli Mamut left Bermuda after their first child became ill and was sent to Toronto for treatment. They were granted refugee protection in 2015 and permanent residence in 2017.
Melike Aierken, who is married to Ayoub, was already a Canadian citizen when the two met online. After an unsuccessful attempt at building a life in Albania, she moved with the couple’s two children back to Canada, sponsoring Ayoub to join her in 2014.
Unable to travel, the men have watched their families grow up from a distance. Their wives and children make occasional trips to see them in Bermuda and Albania, but the visits are costly and never feel long enough.
“It’s very hard for my kids to leave because they’re crying and they want to stay with me. It breaks my heart when they finally leave,” Abdulahad said through a translator.
The Canadian government maintains there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that while in Afghanistan the three men trained the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group that China has designated as a terrorist organization — and pressured other countries to do as well, including the United States.
Balasundaram said the allegations of militant training were “completely unfounded”, adding that the Canadian government’s evidence for refusal rests on interviews of the men by American officials that were “ultimately discredited”.
Human rights groups have criticized Canada for turning the men away at a time when Trudeau has expressed support for persecuted Uighurs.
“The anguish and the anguish and injustice that has befallen [these] individuals and families is frankly unconscionable,” Alex Neve, secretary general at Amnesty International Canada, told a recent parliamentary committee. “Canada could solve th[is] situation in a few days or weeks.
On 21 August, Mohammed received another finding of inadmissibility — a result that his legal team said left he and wife Melike in “despair and frustration” and leaves him with few options.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada refused to comment specifically on the cases, only saying that “the applications of Mr Abdulahad, Mr Mamut and Mr Mohammed are still in process and no final decision has been made”.
But as the process drags on, the three men have grown more pragmatic, pleading just for the chance to visit their families. Abdulahad’s wife, Zulipiye Yahefu, is pregnant with the couple’s fourth child.
“I’ve asked the Canadian government just to give me one month, so I can be with my wife when she delivers our baby,” he said. “Then I can go back.”
Mamut, who works long hours in construction and uses each break to check in with his wife, says he feels a profound guilt because of his situation.
“I can’t be with her and the kids. She’s become a single mother: she has to do everything alone. I feel so guilty,” he said. “But I don’t believe these dark days will continue forever.”