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The presidential candidates may not be talking much about Guantanamo Bay, but the U.S. detention center there has been at the forefront of Michelle Shephard's mind for the last decade. The national security correspondent for the Toronto Star has traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, more than two dozen times; she even got enough stamps on her Guantanamo Starbucks card for a free latte.
Shephard has followed the stories of several prisoners after they were released, including Salim Hamdan, who was Osama bin Laden's personal driver, and Canadian Omar Khadr, the youngest Guantanamo prisoner. Recently, she traveled to Albania to meet with Abu Bakr Qassim, one of several Muslims belonging to China's Uighur minority who were captured in Pakistan and mistakenly detained at Guantanamo.
"As soon as [Qassim] was handed to the Americans, he thought, 'Great, we're safe now,' " Shephard tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Early on, Americans realized they weren't part of al-Qaida and should be released, but it was problematic, and it took years to have them resettled."
Albania agreed to take Qassim upon his release. But he had trouble finding a place there, until he told his story on television and received a supportive response.
"Part of the support he got was this offer to learn how to make pizza at a halal restaurant, and he really takes it quite seriously — he has worked for years at this," Shephard says. "And he's a good pizza maker — it's excellent pizza, I have to say — so he's probably done better than most."
In addition to her Guantanamo reporting, Shephard has also covered Somalia, where she met Ismail Khalif Abdulle, a teenager who had been mutilated by the radical group al-Shabab for refusing to join their ranks.
"I remember as I was tearing up trying to take pictures of him as he was posing for me, my escorts were saying, 'We have to go! We have to go!' " Shephard says. "And Ismail looked down at my bag and saw this Canadian pin and he said through the translator, 'Please take me to Canada.' "
Shephard wasn't able to take Abdulle to Canada, but an article she wrote about his story helped lead to his eventual rescue and an odyssey that took him to Norway where he now lives.
On the Uighur detainees of Guantanamo
"There are some that still remain in Guantanamo, but many of them have been settled elsewhere in countries that are willing to accept them. And that's difficult to find because many countries don't want to anger China by accepting them. But the Uighurs were swept up with others sold by Pakistani forces to the U.S. I find their cases some of the saddest because many of them — they've told me when they were handed over from Pakistan to the Americans, they were overjoyed. They thought, 'Oh great, now we're with the Americans. Everything will be fine. We love Americans! We oppose China and the U.S. stands up to China so isn't this great.'
"And it took a lot of them a long time to realize that they were in custody for a while. And their case was complicated by other events that happened. They were told when they got to Guantanamo that essentially their arrests had been a mistake — that they had been swept up with others — but they would be sent, released at some point. But then we had the Iraq War, and the U.S. needed China's help in this so that complicated their case. And for many of them, it took years until they were released and they were only released when another country agreed to take them because they couldn't be sent to China for fear of torture."
On how her article helped lead to Ismail Khalif Abdulle's rescue
"Through the reporting, you meet a lot of very sad victims, but there was something about Ismail that really stuck with me. And I was really depressed coming back home thinking, 'I'll never see this kid again. What a remarkable kid.' And luckily, what ended up happening was the story ended up getting a lot of attention. It moved others in Canada. We have a large Somali-Canadian diaspora — they decided to try and help Ismail.
"They started Project Ismail and one Canadian in particular, Sahal Abdulle — who lived in Nairobi and he's a former Reuters photojournalist — he told me, 'Listen I can't save Somalia, but I think I can save Ismail.' So he set out to save him and 10 months after I wrote that story, he called me and said, 'We're gonna get him to Nairobi. Come back.' So I was in Nairobi where they had managed this great escape for him and Ismail came across the border and I did a story about that.
"He applied for refugee status and refugee protection and I thought it would take a long time, but just a month later, I got a call from Sahal [who] said, 'You're never gonna guess what, but he's got a country that'll take him on an emergency basis.' And I said, 'Canada!' — I was hoping it would be Canada. 'No,' said Sahal. 'It's Norway.' And I thought, 'OK, Norway, that's fine.' And then he said, 'No, it's Harstad, Norway.' So we were both Googling where Harstad, Norway, was and that's how I found myself a year after I met Ismail on a plane with Ismail and Sahal flying 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle to this beautiful little town of 23,000 called Harstad. And that is where Ismail lives now." [Click here to read Shephard's coverage of Ismail Khalif Abdulle's story.]
On how brave it was for Ismail to refuse to join al-Shabab
"So often here, when we're talking about al-Qaida proxy groups in various countries, we think about this entire population who has radicalized and believes in the holy global jihad movement that al-Qaida and bin Laden espouses. And really a lot of the time, that's not it at all and especially in Somalia, it was a matter of survival.
"For a long time the Shabab was the group that provided security. Somalia's government was notoriously corrupt and so to survive — especially as a teenager who probably doesn't have a whole lot going on, has been raised with nothing but violence because Somalia has been without a functioning government for two decades — when the Shabab comes and knocks on your door and offers you a phone and offers to look after your family, you say yes. Whether you believe in what they're fighting for or not, it's the smart thing to do. So the fact that he actually stood up to them and said no to them knowing the risk that that would pose really was remarkable. It was remarkably brave, and he was severely punished for that."