Exiled Uighurs in Turkey mourn loved ones missing in China

An Uighur man talks on the phone in front of a Uighur restaurant. Kerem Uzel for The National

Andrew Wilks
Feb 19, 2019

At first glance Istanbul’s 58th Boulevard has all the characteristics of a typically Turkish area. Located on the southern flank of the Zeytinburnu neighbourhood, it’s lined by the same banks, cafes and pharmacies as any other shopping street in Turkey’s largest city.

It’s the passers-by, wrapped up warm against the February wind, that identify it as the heart of Turkey’s Uighur diaspora, a Muslim Turkic minority from China’s northwest Xinjiang region.

Elderly men with long, wispy beards chat on benches, their traditional felt hats pulled down against the cold, as boys wearing doppas – square-shaped, embroidered skull caps – run past.

It is in this working-class district near Ataturk airport that the suffering of friends and relatives back in China is felt acutely.

Last week their spirits were raised when Ankara issued a strongly-worded statement on the plight of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, known as East Turkestan to its Turkic population. In recent years Beijing has clamped down on expressions of Muslim piety and stepped up surveillance of the Uighur population. Hundreds of thousands have been jailed, often on the pretext of national security.

China's President Xi Jinping ordered security forces to "strike first" against Islamic extremism in 2014 after a deadly bomb blast in Urumqi and other attacks across China. The rise in violence followed reports of thousands of Uighurs fighting in Syria for Al Qaeda-linked groups as well as ISIS, raising Chinese concerns about returning fighters.

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In his statement, foreign affairs spokesman Hami Aksoy called for an end to the “human tragedy” in the autonomous northwestern region and raised the problem of “torture and brainwashing” of at least a million Uighurs, Kazaks and other mostly Muslim minorities in prisons and internment camps. Uighur dissidents claim a much higher figure for those interned, while China denies allegations of torture in camps, which they say are “re-education centres”.

Mr Aksoy’s statement was widely welcomed by Turkey’s 20,000-strong Uighur community after a period of public silence regarding the fate of their Turkic cousins. All the while, Chinese investment poured into Turkish industry. In particular, a reference to “our kinsmen and citizens of Uighur origin” who “cannot get news from their relatives in the region” gave a glimmer of hope to the Uighurs of Zeytinburnu.

Many of those The National spoke to described the agony of not knowing what had happened to family members in Xinjiang following a crackdown by authorities that turned contact with anyone in 26 countries – including Turkey – into grounds for arrest.

“My family has been missing for more than four years,” said Ekber Kazak as he gestured towards a makeshift arrangement of photos of missing relatives set up in the street.

“I got word two years ago that one of my brothers was in a camp but I don’t know about the others.” The "others" are his 70-year-old father Sabir Omer, his mother Tacigul Abdulkadir, 68, as well as a second brother and his wife and son.

“I don’t know if they are alive or dead,” Mr Kazak, 45, said. “I don’t know where they are. The last contact I had with them was by telephone four years ago. I heard my brother was taken away after speaking to me on the phone. Their only crime is to be Muslims and Turks.”

Turks claim kinship to Xinjiang’s 11 million Uighurs, as well as other Turkic nationalities across central Asia, through their shared cultural, ethnic and linguistic heritage. Following the communist seizure of Xinjiang in 1949, waves of Uighurs were warmly welcomed by Turkey, as the second of two short-lived East Turkestan republics came to an end.

“The region where the Uighurs live, Turkestan, is the motherland of [ethnic] Turks,” said Ismail Cengiz, a prominent Uighur nationalist activist. “On the seal of the Turkish president are 16 stars, one of which represents the Uighurs, and the Turks’ ancestors came from this region,” he said. The presidential seal, a red circle with a central sun, is also embellished with 16 stars, representative of the historical Turkic empires.

Turkish politicians have been keen to stress pan-Turkic sentiments, especially after countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2009, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called rioting in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi “genocide” and during a visit to China three years later, his first stop was to the province.

Despite that Turkey’s relations with China have gone from strength to strength with bilateral trade reaching $26 billion a year and huge Chinese investment in Turkey as Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative seeks to recreate the Silk Road trade route that once spanned Asia. With such large sums dependent on smooth relations with China, there had been concerns that Turkey, which is currently facing economic turmoil, was putting Uighur rights aside.

“Maybe the Chinese authorities believed that if they paid off the Turks then Turkey wouldn’t be vocal about the Uighur issue,” Mr Cengiz said. “But with this recent statement Turkey showed them that, yes, they might need the money but they cannot buy their silence.”

However, there are worrying signs for the diaspora. According to Mr Cengiz, around 200 people have been ordered to report regularly to the Turkish police after China identified them as anti-Chinese agitators. Another 80 Uighurs are currently being held in detention in Turkey awaiting deportation as illegal immigrants, he added.

The Turkish statement on human rights abuses in Xinjiang followed reports this month of the death of a popular Uighur musician. China later released a video purported showing the musician, Abdurehim Heyit, alive and well.

Kutluk Kagan Sumer, president of the Turkic Human Rights Association in Istanbul, said the statement and the supposedly contradictory video could undermine Turkish support for Uighurs.

“When people saw the government speak out about Uighur rights and Abdurehim Heyit they were happy but the incident has damaged Turkestan’s cause,” he said. “In the future, people will have doubts about the situation and wonder if they are being manipulated.” The incident, however, sparked a reaction among overseas Uighurs who are now calling on China to provide video evidence of their own relatives’ well-being.

The #MeTooUyghur social media campaign has emerged as a tool to seek news of loved ones as well as potentially document the identities of detainees, in a bid to put pressure on Beijing.

In Zeytinburnu, 27-year-old Iskiyar Abdurrahim longs for news of his jailed grandfather, mother, father and two sisters. Of his extended family, he estimates nearly 100 are behind bars.

He said he fled to Turkey via Egypt in 2014 after having seen all the male members of his family thrown in jail, where one uncle endured beatings and electrocution that left him paralysed and suffering memory loss.

Mr Abdurrahim called on the international community to “protect our people because if they don’t save them now, it’s obvious that in the future there will be no-one to save.

“They should stop this ongoing genocide.”

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