Lapping it up: ‘It was my first time swimming in the sea’ said Khalil Manut after a dip off the north shore this weekend. ‘I have never tasted salt water before’. *Photo by Earl Robinson
Lapping it up: ‘It was my first time swimming in the sea’ said Khalil Manut after a dip off the north shore this weekend. ‘I have never tasted salt water before’. *Photo by Earl Robinson
When Khalil Manut, a merchant and sweet maker, boarded a bus from his home town in north west China, he never imagined he was beginning a decade-long journey that would lead him to Bermuda.

But it is a script he believes was written in stone before he was born.

While walking along a windswept Front Street with his three "brothers" from Guantanamo, he struggled in softly spoken, broken English, to find the words to express how it feels to be here. "Wonderful" doesn't do it justice.

After growing up in Communist China, living as a refugee in Afghanistan and spending almost eight years at Guantanamo, his faith is not shaken.

He hopes and believes that Bermuda - a stark contrast from the mountainous "land of four seasons" of East Turkestan - will be the final destination in a pre-ordained journey.

When he left his home, Mr Manut was fed up "living like a slave" under Communist Chinese rule.

Unable to obtain a visa to live in Europe or the U.S., he followed a path trodden by many of his countrymen and fled to Afghanistan. He insists he was not looking for trouble - just somewhere to practice his Muslim faith in freedom.

Mr. Manut was living in a village of abandoned buildings when the Americans invaded in 2001.

He was among a group of Uighurs who fled to Pakistan, where villagers tricked them and sold them to U.S. services, claiming they were terrorists with links to Al Qaeda. The credibility of this claim was dismissed after several months of interrogation at Guantanamo - but the men's struggle for freedom continued until the Bermudian Government offered them a new home.

"After China and Guantanamo, this is the first time I have really been free," said Mr. Manut.

"As you can imagine, someone in prison has hard times but I have forgotten everything. Today is a new day, a new life."

Among the scores of questions the Uighurs have fielded, one has rung out - what does freedom taste like? The answer is simple - salty.

After years of watching the out-of-reach Caribbean Sea lap the shores of Guantanamo, the men loved diving into the blue waters of the north shore.

"It was my first time swimming in the sea. I have never tasted salt water before," Mr. Manut revealed.

"In Guantanamo we were right by the sea but never able to touch it and I came here and I swam and I caught a fish. I can't describe my feeling, it's wonderful."

Despite the hostility expressed towards the men on the Internet, their interaction with Bermudians has been positive.

The angler who loaned Mr. Manut his line to reel in a fish on Saturday evening is typical of the welcoming people the group has met.

Abdulla Abdulqadir said: "The most joyful moments that I have experienced is when the local people shake my hand and tell me 'Welcome to Bermuda' and ask to take a picture with me. It is very touching.

"This is the first time I'm tasting the feel of freedom, the feel of democracy. I can't find the right words to describe it."

Mr Manut added: "We walk around and people come say, 'Hello, welcome to Bermuda.'

"They are very kind to us. They know we came from Guantanamo but have been announced innocent-the people know about that."

The four men - Mr Abdulqadir, Mr Manut, Salahidin Abdulahat and Ablikim Turahu - met at a refugee camp in Afghanistan.

Over the years they have become a surrogate family. None of them know if or when they will see their real families again.

Mr. Memut spoke briefly with his brother in China on the phone last week.

He said: "I told them I am in Bermuda and they said, 'Where Bermuda?' I told them Bermuda is small, very beautiful country.

"They were happy for me - they said respect people, be nice and they will be nice to you."

All four hope to spend the rest of their lives on the island.

Initially the government will find them unskilled work though they dream of one day opening their own restaurant.

Whatever the future may hold for them, Mr. Manut's Muslim faith leads him to believe that the ending to this story has also already been written. He doesn't presume to know how the rest of his life will turn out. But he is full of hope.

He said: "I wish to stay here forever, maybe to raise a family and to live a peaceful life."

As the political turmoil prompted by the arrival of the 'Gitmo four' escalated into full scale protest

yesterday, the men at the centre of the storm

appealed to Bermudians to give them a chance.

In a message to the Bermudian people Salahidin Abdulahad said: "I understand your concern, but get to know us and your worry will disappear."

He insisted he was not a terrorist - a fact accepted by the U.S. who cleared the quartet for release years ago - and just wanted to live in peace.

"I know there is conflict in the government and different ideas about us. I understand this perfectly because they don't know us.

"All they know is that we are from Guantanamo and people's perception of Guantanamo is negative. I hope they have the opportunity to get to know us and their worry will disappear."

He said he was a peaceful man - a farmer who had left his home due to suppression from the Chinese

Communist Government. He added that he was sorry that the Uighurs' arrival had created a controversy but was grateful to Bermuda for accepting them.

"I really want to give everybody big thanks from the bottom of my heart. I'm looking forward to making new friends and meeting a lot of people."