Hong Kong CNN  — 

The men crouched inside the cave, their faces streaked with dust, occasionally flinching involuntarily at the explosions overhead, which seemed to shake the entire mountain.

Outside was a vision of hell.

Vast plumes of smoke and debris were thrown up into the air as US B-52 bombers and fighter jets let loose a seemingly endless barrage of missiles. The noise from the bombardment could be heard from miles away, a deep, hollow booming sound as each bomb struck.

It was December 2001, and the target of the strikes was Osama bin Laden, orchestrator of the attacks on New York and Washington three months earlier. He was believed to be hiding out, along with a core of al Qaeda fighters, in Tora Bora, a cave complex south of the city of Jalalabad, in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Whether Bin Laden was there at all remains disputed, but if he was, he managed to slip away, along with several other top al Qaeda leaders, avoiding both the aerial bombardment and US and Afghan troops on the ground. He would dodge US forces for another decade, before being tracked to a suburb of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, where he was killed in 2011.

Explosions rock al Qaeda positions in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan after an attack by US warplanes on December 14, 2001.

After two months of moving from cave to cave, steadily running out of food, their nerves fried by the constant bombings and fear of running into Northern Alliance troops combing the area for any suspected Taliban fighters, the men in the cave also made it to Pakistan.

They were Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang, a region in far-western China, also referred to by some as “East Turkestan.” While today the group is well known, due to international condemnation of China’s crackdown in Xinjiang – which politicians in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands have described as a “genocide” – in the early 2000s, few Americans had ever heard, or even knew how to pronounce the word Uyghur.

This began to change when it was revealed that almost two dozen Uyghurs were being held without trial in an offshore detention center in Guantanamo Bay, accused of being “enemy combatants” in Washington’s war on terror.  Around the same time, the US also controversially added an alleged Uyghur militant organization, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to a State Department list of terrorist groups.

After years of court battles and campaigns by their families and human rights groups, the 22 Uyghurs held at Guantanamo were all eventually declared “non-combatants”  and gradually released, with the last three men finally leaving the detention camp in 2013.

None of them were permitted to settle in the US however, nor could they safely return to Xinjiang. Instead they ended up in a kind of legal limbo in the countries that agreed to accept them, mostly small European and Central American nations that are close to Washington.

From there, the former detainees have watched as the situation in their homeland, one that many of them intentionally fled decades ago, has only gotten worse. Many have lost contact with their families, some of whom are believed to have ended up in the sprawling detention camp system set up in Xinjiang, which Beijing claims is vital for “deradicalization” and “vocational training.”

The Guantanamo Uyghurs have also had to watch as China’s propaganda organs have deployed their own existence, and claims made by Washington about ETIM during the “war on terror,” as the justification for Beijing’s own ongoing crackdown.

After the last detainees were released in late 2013, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman denounced the move, saying “they are terrorists without any doubt.”

“These suspects are members of the ‘East Turkistan Islamic Movement,’ a terrorist organization designated by the UN Security Council,” spokesman Qin Gang said. “They will not only pose severe threat to China’s national security, but also to that of the recipient country.”

Since then, China’s propaganda around ETIM has only ramped up, with state media denouncing the group as the “black hand” behind almost all acts of violence in Xinjiang in “for decades”

“Even though America declared we were innocent, that we hadn’t done anything, China continues to say we worked with the Taliban and al Qaeda,” said Abu Bakeer Qassim, a former Guantanamo detainee now living in Albania. “They say Uyghurs are terrorists with links to al Qaeda, Taliban and ISIS. This propaganda has been really successful.”

In recent weeks, US President Joe Biden has renewed his commitment to end America’s longest war, promising to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 this year. But for the Uyghurs, the war on terror will continue, with its rhetoric having been adopted by Beijing to justify a new round of repression under Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

A fighter stands guard over a cave in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, during a clearance operation by US forces and allies in December 2001.

Caught by war

As he fled US bombs across the mountains into Pakistan, Ahmet Adil was retracing his steps.

He says he had never intended to go to Afghanistan, but like many of the other Guantanamo Uyghurs – as they would recount in interviews with CNN and during tribunal testimony at the detention camp – ended up there from a lack of safe alternatives.

“The reason I left home first was that our family was going through economic hardship,” Adil said in an interview, speaking via an interpreter. “I decided to go to Central Asia and make money to provide for my family.”

One of the poorer regions of China, Xinjiang was largely controlled by what’s known as Bingtuan, a state-run paramilitary corps, and Uyghurs often found life there stifling, with opportunities few and far between and growing restrictions on religious and cultural practices.

Initially Adil crossed into Kazakhstan, which neighbors Xinjiang to the north and has long been home to a large Uyghur population, both Kazakh citizens and economic migrants. Adil stayed there for about a year, finding some work and sending money home, but while there were less restrictions than in China, it wasn’t easy, and Adil said he “gradually came to a decision to attempt to leave for Europe for even freer life.”

He began looking for a way to reach Turkey, home to the world’s largest Uyghur diaspora. But with funds short, making the over 3,800 kilometer (2,400 mile) journey from Almaty to Istanbul was going to be difficult.

From Kazakhstan he traveled to Pakistan, again staying for almost a year as he searched for work and ways to continue westward. There was only one country between him and Turkey, Iran, but Adil says he could not get a visa, nor could he afford to fly. Returning to Xinjiang was no longer an option, he had heard of people being jailed or integrated after they had been abroad for some time, particularly in Muslim countries. China viewed Uyghurs who left the country with deep suspicion, especially if there was any suggestion they might have been radicalized.

For Adil, the situation was growing untenable: the authorities in Pakistan were known to be rounding Uyghurs up and sending them back to China.

Then he met a man who suggested he go to Afghanistan, where he knew of a Uyghur community living near Jalalabad, who could provide him shelter and paid work while he continued to save to go west.

Many other Uyghurs who would end up in Guantanamo provide similar accounts. Like Adil, Abu Bakeer Qassim said he left China to work in Central Asia until it got too dangerous, traveling first to Pakistan, from where he hoped to go to Turkey.

“We had Pakistani friends. They said go to Afghanistan there is a Uyghur village there. You can learn your religion a bit more and then go to Turkey,” he said in an interview with CNN from Albania. “We went to Jalalabad and then up a mountain road, I later found out this was near Tora Bora.”

Another future detainee, Mohammed Ayoub said he had been in Pakistan hoping to travel to the US, but was “aware at the time that the Pakistan government was increasingly rounding up Uyghurs to turn them over to the Chinese.”

Ayoub and another man traveled across the border to Jalalabad, where they were until the US invasion started, when they fled into the nearby mountains and eventually met up with “a group of five to six Uyghurs who also wanted to escape.”

Camp in the mountains

While it may seem in retrospect the worst possible place to be, Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s did present something of a refuge for those exiles in Central and East Asia with few other places to go.

The country was ruled by the Taliban, a hardline Islamist movement which had seized control in 1996 at the culmination of a multi-year civil war which followed the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989.

Only officially recognized by three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – the Taliban never controlled all of the country, and much of the border area with Pakistan in particular remained mostly lawless.

This was where mujahideen fighters, funded by the US and a host of Muslim countries to fight the USSR, had gathered in the 1980s to train and launch attacks against the Communist Afghan government and its invading Soviet allies.

In the late 1990s, one group who allegedly took advantage of this lawless environment was a small community of Uyghur nationalists, who set up a training camp in the mountains south of Jalalabad, with a view to initiating an insurgency inside China, “a goal (they) never came close to attaining,” according to Sean Roberts, author of “The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority.”

This settlement would later be compared – by both US and Chinese officials – to those run by al Qaeda, with files kept on the detainees at Guantanamo describing it as “a training camp in the Tora Bora Mountains that had been given to the (Uyghurs) by the Taliban.”

Roberts, who has researched the topic extensively and interviewed many of the men who passed through the camp, said this is a vast exaggeration.

While a handful of the Uyghurs there were militant, and might have dreamed of some future revolution in China, most were like Adil, he said, economic migrants cut loose by a lack of visas or safe paths to travel, hoping to find a way to go west.

“In the 1990s, there was a lot of pressure on Uyghurs from the Chinese government, focused on concern around ‘separatism’,” Roberts said in an interview. “A lot of people wanted to find ways to live outside China, and initially there was a pretty stable route into Central Asia, as well as a slightly less stable one into Pakistan.”

In the past, Uyghurs who pursued these routes could often stay indefinitely, sending money back home and living largely under the radar, but this started to change as China put pressure on its neighbors to kick them out in the late 1990s, worried about potential separatist movements growing next to its borders, Roberts said.

The small community which evolved in the mountains of Afghanistan was “not really an organization as a vision that had not been realized,” Roberts said.

Adil said that when he arrived, he found what was essentially a shanty town. He helped fix the place up, repairing houses, pumping water and clearing rocks. One day, he took a turn with an AK-47, one of a handful of guns in the camp, owned by the more militant residents, who spoke of needing to learn how to shoot in the event of a future revolution in the Uyghur homeland.

While this would later be used by Guantanamo interrogators as evidence to claim Adil was part of a terror group, multiple detainees said there was no real organization to speak of, just a few bored men with a gun and wild dreams they had little chance of realizing.

Qassim said that he too was trained with an AK-47, but this was at least in part for security, given ongoing fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

“Afghanistan was at war, and every day we would have to stand guard,” he said. “You can’t stand guard without a weapon.”

In interviews and in records of interrogations at Guantanamo, all the Uyghur detainees said there was little if any connection between the camp and the Taliban or other Afghans – those locals they did meet they largely struggled to communicate with, due to a lack of a shared language.

What religious practice did occur was limited to daily prayers and studying the Quran, which many of the Uyghurs enjoyed because they had been denied the opportunity growing up in China where restrictions on Muslim worship ramped up considerably in the 1990s. The form of Islam being practiced in the Uyghur camp was mostly the Sufism popular in Xinjiang, rather than the far more austere, strict version of the religion advanced by the Taliban.

Camp X-Ray, the first detention facility to hold "enemy combatants" at the US Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, stands vacant and overgrown October 3, 2007, after detainees were moved to newer facilities on the base.

Captured and shipped off

Cut off from the rest of Afghanistan, let alone the wider world, few of the men in the Uyghur camp had any idea what happened in September 2001 until the bombing campaigns started weeks later.

Taliban and al Qaeda forces had fled into the mountains, where they were staging a rearguard action against Northern Alliance and American special forces, harried all the time by US air power.

The Uyghurs ran too, into the caves that crisscross the mountains and make them such a defensive location. There they sheltered, unsure of what to do, terrified of being killed by the bombs or shot by the invaders. Even if they were detained and survived, they feared they would be handed over to China.

“We got stuck in the mountains. The planes were all over the place,” Qassim said. “An old man told us to go to Pakistan, you’ll freeze here – the man said we don’t have any food either we couldn’t get food for one week.”

After days of walking, the group of around 18 Uyghurs made it into Pakistan and found a village, where locals sheltered and fed them. But the hospitality was a charade: Pakistani soldiers surrounded the village and detained the Uyghurs, who later found out they had been sold for $5,000 bounties a-piece, according to US government documents.

“They sold us,” Qassim said. “They said ‘we caught them,’ we didn’t know anything. They blindfolded us and took us to (a) base. We stayed there for a month.”

They didn’t tell the Pakistanis that they were Uyghurs, for fear of being sent back to China, Qassim said. They gave false names – ones which sounded Arabic rather than Uyghur and would stick to them at Guantanamo – and claimed to be Afghan Uzbeks.

“We thought it would be bad to go back to China, for our relatives, or friends, it would be bad for everyone,” he added. “They said they would give us to America. We said that’s better. China is worse.”

After about six months, Qassim said the men were put on a plane and flown to Camp X-Ray, the newly established military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Set up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as a place for interrogating and detaining terrorism suspects, Guantanamo Bay soon became an international symbol of US rights abuses during the so-called “war on terror.”

Detainees were held without charge and subjected to widespread abuse, including torture, with Washington claiming that the prison, located on a US Naval Base in southern Cuba, was not covered by the constitution, an argument the Supreme Court rejected in 2004. Following that ruling, multiple prisoners, including many of the Uyghurs, filed habeas corpus cases, forcing the US government to present the evidence it had against them, a move that often resulted in their eventual release.

Former US President Barack Obama promised and failed to close the Guantanamo prison, where about 40 detainees are still housed – although that’s down from the high hundreds it housed at the height of the Global War on Terror. Earlier this year, the Biden administration made the same pledge to shut down the facility.

“Considering the violence that has happened at Guantanamo, we are sure that after more than nineteen years, you agree that imprisoning people indefinitely without trial while subjecting them to torture, cruelty and degrading treatment, with no meaningful access to families or proper legal systems, is the height of injustice,” seven former detainees wrote in a letter to Biden in January. “That is why imprisonment at Guantanamo must end.”