Tour The Tiny Island Taking Guantanamo Detainees The Pacific island nation of Palau (population 20,000) offered to take in 13 Uighur detainees from Guantanamo at the United States' request.
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Tour The Tiny Island Taking Guantanamo Detainees

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Tour The Tiny Island Taking Guantanamo Detainees

Tour The Tiny Island Taking Guantanamo Detainees

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The tiny Pacific nation of Palau got its 15 minutes of fame last month. It agreed to take in 13 Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay, to help President Obama make good on his pledge to close the prison camp within a year. The decision surprised some people and left a few others puzzled. Palau? What's Palau?

NPR's Michael Sullivan has the answer.

(Sound bite of Indian music)

MIKE SULLIVAN: It's really, really small, just 15,000 people plus the foreigners working here. It's really pretty. It's been colonized by four different powers. It's really hard to get to. It has way too many massage parlors and places to buy beer for a country its size. You have no chance of becoming a Palauan citizen. You're either born Palauan or you're not. And you can get really good Indian here. And the Taj Restaurant in Koror, says the owner's brother, Saji Joseph(ph), has the finest in the country.

Mr. SAJI JOSEPH: Best, the best taste.

SULLIVAN: Are you the only Indian restaurant in Palau?

Mr. JOSEPH: Only one, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SULLIVAN: Finding the proper ingredients isn't something to joke about though. Take the paneer tikka.

Mr. JOSEPH: Because there's no cows, we don't get any fresh milk. So only get the packet milk and the milk products.

SULLIVAN: A country without cows and one without a bowling alley or a movie theater, either, but in almost every other way, very American in feel. The roads, all 60 miles or so, are built with American money. There are Costco brand foods in the supermarkets, Fox News on TV, and even the smallest convenience stores have five different kinds of Spam; a legacy of the American presence here during and after World War II.

President JOHNSON TORIBIONG (Palau): It's a small island-nation. But its status as a sovereign nation depends upon its relationship with the United States, which I describe as symbiotic. It works both ways.

SULLIVAN: That's Palau's president, Johnson Toribiong. He's a friendly sort who's quick to invite a reporter over to his home when called on a Sunday morning on short notice.

The special relationship he describes is called the Compact of Free Association. It makes the U.S. responsible for Palau's defense; Palau has no military. And it gives the U.S. the right to station American military personnel here, to base them here, no questions asked. In return, Palauans are allowed to travel to and work in the U.S. without visas, to send their children to U.S. schools, and to serve in the U.S. military.

(Sound bite of singing)

SULLIVAN: In the rotunda of Palau's new capitol building, a reminder of just how close the relationship is: a funeral for Sergeant Jasper Obakrairur, a Palauan citizen who served in the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division. Sergeant Obie, as he was known to his comrades, was killed by an improvised explosive device last month in Afghanistan.

U.S. Army Major General Donald Goldhorn was one of those who spoke at the state funeral.

Major General DONALD GOLDHORN (United States Army): His battle buddies or his fellow soldiers called him Sergeant Obie. His friends here at home called him Jas. I call him a hero.

SULLIVAN: Sergeant Obie was Palau's fourth combat death since 2003. That's a lot for a country about twice the size of Washington, D.C., whose entire population wouldn't fill a third of the Redskin Stadium, a country where good jobs are scarce. Tourism is the only real industry and one where in some years as many as half the graduating high school seniors enlist.

(Soundbite of birds)

SULLIVAN: Sixty years ago, it was American kids who were fighting and dying here in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

Unidentified Man: Now we're standing on White Beach I on Palau. This is the place where the first Marines and First Regiment Division landed on September 15, 1944.

SULLIVAN: Tanji Jesus gives tours for U.S. and Japanese visitors and for some of the families of those who died on Palau. Sixty years on, tank treads rust in the shallow water near the beach and Japanese gun positions are clearly visible on shore. The Japanese started building their fortifications on the island in 1922, Jesus says, 19 years before Pearl Harbor, planning for a war they knew was coming.

And when the first Marines arrived here on the morning of September 15, the Japanese were ready. The Marines suffered some of the highest casualty rates of the war.

Mr. JESUS: There were 2,200 American killed in action and the 58 who were MIA, and over 6,000 were injured.

SULLIVAN: Two thousand two hundred American dead; 6,000 American wounded. How many Japanese dead?

Mr. JESUS: There were over 11,000 Japanese died on this island.

SULLIVAN: Eight Congressional medals of honor were awarded for valor here, five of them posthumously in a battle many historians concluded later wasn't necessary. These days, though, most of the Japanese and American tourists come not for the battlefield tour but for world-class diving. And a trip to a truly bizarre attraction.

Ms. MALAHI MISTA(ph) (Tour Guide): (Unintelligible). Welcome to Jellyfish Lakes.

SULLIVAN: Jellyfish Lakes sits among Palau's postcard-perfect rock islands.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

SULLIVAN: It's a brisk and steep 15-minute walk from the docks to the saltwater lake in the cone of the limestone island, but a walk well worth the effort.

Ms. MISTA: The name of the lake is (unintelligible). That's the real Palau name for it but everybody calls it Jellyfish Lake.


Ms. MISTA: It contains these jellyfish, (unintelligible) jellyfish, and these jellyfish have been stuck in here for millions of years. So, while they've been stuck here they lost the ability to sting 'cause they have no predators.

SULLIVAN: They can still sting a little - but not so much you'd notice - and there a lot of them. At last count, some 20 million or so floating, drifting through the lake as if in space. And you can float with them - no touching please - without worry.

Ms. MISTA: The algae inside them is a plant that needs sunlight. So, they are sun worshippers. So, all day they go around following the sun. Yeah, they get their energy from the sun, their food from the sunlight. And jellyfish have eight primitive eyes but no brain. They're brainless.

SULLIVAN: But they're smart enough to follow the sun.

Ms. MISTA: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: So, they're not totally brainless.

Ms. MISTA: No.

SULLIVAN: Our guide is Malahi Mista. She works for one of Palau's biggest dive operators, Sam's Tours. Sam came here in 1982, a 20-year-old from Olympia, Washington.

Mr. SAM SCOTT (Owner, Sam's Tours): I came here green. I wasn't even a snorkeler. But, you know, as soon as I put on a mask and jumped in the water, you know, that was it. That's where I wanted to be.

SULLIVAN: Sam Scott's wife and children are Palauan, and his stepfather, the man who brought him here, is a former Marine who is also one of Palau's two most senior chiefs. Like many here, Sam Scott says he wasn't real keen on the idea of resettling some Guantanamo Uighars in Palau, but as a businessman he says he's now come around.

Mr. SCOTT: The publicity that Palau has received has been priceless. Palau's on the front page everywhere. It's great. That's a good thing.

SULLIVAN: Scott says he doubts the Uighars will do anything that will threaten Palau's image. He says the country really is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as the tourist authority claims. He says the only thing he really misses living here is the same thing the Indian managers at the Taj Restaurant do.

Mr. SCOTT: Non-boxed milk, fresh milk, I miss that. Even today, I still, you know, I go back and the first thing I do is go to the store and buy me a gallon of milk.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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