Ngardmau, Palau The war in Afghanistan hit too close to home for the tiny village of Ngardmau in this remote, close-knit Pacific nation.
Hundreds throughout Palau, from children to the president, gathered Tuesday in sweltering heat to mourn Jasper Obakrairur, a 26-year-old U.S. Army sergeant and the first Palauan killed in Afghanistan. They wept as if he were one of their own.
And in a way, he is. For this archipelago of some 20,000 where families and acquaintances are deeply intertwined, just one casualty represents a collective tragedy. The young soldier’s death has shocked Palau’s core and left many questioning whether it was sacrificing too much for the U.S.-led effort.
“I’m always telling our leadership, us Palauans, we are very few,” said Queen Bilung Salii, the country’s highest-ranking female traditional leader. “And here we are sending our kids to war.”
As they bid farewell to their native son, Palauans at the funeral expressed anxiety over the expected arrival of 13 men detained as possible terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Their country leapt into headlines recently after agreeing to President Barack Obama’s request to take the group of Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, after other countries turned Washington down.
The Uighurs (pronounced WEE’-gurs), a Turkic people from China’s far western region of Xinjiang, were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001. The Pentagon determined last year that they were not “enemy combatants.”
Palau’s president, Johnson Toribiong, has described the agreement as a humanitarian gesture, in line with his people’s tradition of welcoming those in need.
Still, the decision does not sit well with Florencia Ebelau, who watched Obakrairur’s state funeral on a TV monitor outside the Capitol rotunda. Flags flew at half-staff, and Toribiong declared Tuesday a national day of mourning.
The proceedings were followed by a Palauan service in Obakrairur’s village in Ngardmau, on the western coast of the biggest island.
Ebelau, 64, worries that the Uighurs will threaten the tranquility and safety of Palau.
“It’s good to be nice to other people, but only as much as you can afford to,” said Ebelau, whose women’s group includes one of the fallen soldier’s relatives. “I don’t mean to be a nasty person, but we cannot afford that kind of thing.”
When asked about the president’s possible motives, she, along with many others, said, “Because the U.S. asked us to.”
Fermin Meriang, editor of the local Island Times newspaper, has been a vocal critic of the Uighur issue in his publication. The public should have been consulted before a final decision, he said.
“Otherwise, you get what’s happening right now — a backlash,” he said.
Palau is one of the world’s smallest countries, totaling 190 square miles of lush tropical landscapes. Its economy depends heavily on tourism and foreign aid, mainly from Washington.
Toribiong has repeatedly denied that his country stands to benefit financially in exchange for accepting the Uighurs. But the arrangement coincides with the start of talks to review the agreement that governs Palau’s relationship with the U.S.
Under the Compact of Free Association, U.S. aid to Palau from 1995 to 2009 is expected to exceed $852 million, according to a report last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It includes direct funding as well as access to U.S. postal, aviation and weather services.
The compact also allows Palauans to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
The military does not release specific numbers on how many Palauans are currently serving, but it has been a prominent option for young men seeking career, educational and travel opportunities unavailable at home.
Toribiong estimates that about 30 to 40 Palauans join the U.S. armed forces every year. Locals regularly claim that per capita, Palau sends more people to the military than the U.S.
Obakrairur was killed by a roadside bomb June 1 in Nerkh, Afghanistan.