The persecuted community who are living in Turkey say Chinese authorities have recruited Uyghurs to watch over whether their behaviour is ‘suspicious’ or opposed to the ruling Communist Party.
ISTANBUL – The district of Zeytinburnu in Istanbul has become home to people from the Uyghur community fleeing China. The Uyghurs in China are under constant subjugation and oppression, and many of them have migrated to Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, a new home away from prejudice and exclusion.
In the neighbourhood of compact streets, streams of passersby from Central Asia are often spotted. Flags freely float in the middle of buildings — one being Turkey’s national flag, while the sky-blue one, with a white crescent moon and star, is the flag of East Turkestan located in the northwestern China.
The constant oppression against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has also affected many women. Thousands of Uyghur women had to flee their country and leave their families behind due to the forced abortions and detentions – a result of China’s one child policy and the government’s tendency to control the Uyghur minority.
There are no official statistics that put forth the number of Uyghurs currently living in Turkey. By local estimates, however, the numbers are in the tens of thousands.
Nuraniye, a 35-year-old mother of four, left the city of Kashgar, Xinjiang region in spring 2016. Nuraniye, whose name has been changed at her request, timidly and fearfully strolls around the Zeytinburnu neighbourhood as she weaves together her escapade from China. Walking on a sweltering summer afternoon with her, I felt the same hesitancy in her tone and the mistrust I felt when I first met a group of Uyghurs six years ago in Istanbul.
The issues regarding Uyghur oppression has a two-fold element. A lot of Uyghurs don’t trust others from the same background. The regime from the People’s Republic of China has incorporated a Uyghur spy network — who keep an eye on and report the activities of the group to the government.
Hesitancy or attempts to suppress it seems like a norm within the community. Sharing similar features as them, I was also asked to prove my own identity on various counts.
“We thought that you are a secret Uyghur agent [spy] who works for the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” one Uyghur told me. Constant Chinese control, detention, torture and fear of obliteration of their culture, language and religious freedom created an atmosphere of mistrust and unreliability among Uyghurs.
Initially, their suspicious behavior would create a tense atmosphere, unless I reveal that ‘I am a Kyrgyz, not Uyghur’. A feeling of relief and ease would wash over, and afterwards they would tell me: Uyghurs are being forced by Chinese authorities to spy on their neighbours and those who fled Xinjiang, watching constantly for behavior deemed “suspicious” or opposed to the ruling Communist Party.
This is the policy of “mutual surveillance”- established in August 2014 and confirmed by the Radio Free Asia, the official Uyghur Service. One of the goals of China’s global dragnet is to intimidate the exile Uyghur community abroad. They use family ties to prevent you from doing whatever you are planning to do against the Beijing regime. Consequently, any wrong ‘act’ could affect your family, relatives and loved ones. By holding the fate of families in its hands, China controls Uyghurs abroad.
Nuraniye would look around to make sure that no one is following her.
“It is not safe for me to walk here with you, let us be faster and sit somewhere,” she said walking hurriedly.
“Under the guise of counterterrorism and ‘anti-separatism’ efforts, the government maintains a pervasive system of ethnic discrimination against Uyghurs … and sharply curbs religious and cultural expression,” notes a 2013 Human Rights Watch report on China. “Pervasive atmosphere of fear among the Uighur population” was created due to “omnipresence of the secret police” and “the recent history of disappearances.”
Uyghurs are always under scrutiny and control.
“They are heavily scrutinising our telephone calls, especially calls from abroad,” Nuraniye* says, sitting on a chair in a Turkish restaurant, nervously looking around to make sure that nobody except me hears her words. Fearing retribution from the Chinese authorities, she insisted on using a nickname.
According to Uyghurs, culture survives through the women, because family flourishes around her. Chinese authorities directly target women to diminish the culture of the nation. According to the HRW report, women’s reproductive rights and access to reproductive health remain severely diminished under China’s family planning control. The government continues to impose administrative fines and coercive measures, including forced abortion.
“Being a mother in Kashgar is not easy. We are afraid of sending our children to schools where the Communist Party’s values and norms are being instilled in our children,” said Nuraniye with a weary voice. Chinese authorities are very restrictive when it comes to the education system and language implementations.
“My daughter was beaten by her teacher because she refused to repeat a poem written in Mandarin Chinese. When they discovered that she could also read Arabic script, they detained me for teaching her our language. Uyghur language is our mother tongue! Afterwards, I told my children to lie and hide this from the school administration. Can you imagine, I had to teach my children to lie? This is the most difficult thing for a mother. China has been oppressing us for the last 100 years, and we come here for our freedom,” added Nuraniye shedding tears with a tone of fury.
Strike Hard: a campaign of suppression
China launched its “Strike Hard” campaign, suppressing more fiercely than ever Uyghurs’ freedom of speech, religion and movement. Already expecting a baby, Nuraniye secretly fled her hometown in 2016 to save her life and her baby from the pressure she would face back home. However, she had to leave her two kids behind, due to the restrictions in her passport application for her two children. She doesn’t see or talk to them them over the phone, fearing it would get them into trouble.
China put pressure on her relatives to ask her to return, but she recalls, “the first thing they will do is to put me in a re-education camp, where I will go insane or die.” China’s central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the region; however, secret arrests and torture in custody remain widespread.
“This isn’t our homeland,” Nuraniye says, leaning on a chair and desperately looking at the window of a coffee shop, “but Turkey is our home, and I feel comfortable here. Istanbul is a great place for my children’s future. I want my husband and my kids back because I don’t even know whether they are dead or alive.”
Many Uyghurs see themselves as having a cultural and spiritual bond with Istanbul. Turkey played a historical role with its open-door policy toward the Turkic ethnic minority, especially from the late 1940s, when several Uyghur exiled politicians and leaders began arriving in waves. Many of the migrants say they are en route to Turkey, a country whose similar language and religious traditions make it easy for them to assimilate and share cultural similarities.
For Muslim Uyghurs, Turkey is an escape from Chinese assimilation and persecution of practicing their religion and culture. In Xinjiang, fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is illegal for students and public workers, praying in mosques is forbidden, whereas in some places authorities even force Uyghurs to drink alcohol and eat pork meat.
For Uyghur refugees like Gulgine, a mother of five, freedom of expression comes in a different form. The 35-year-old woman is from Karamay, four hours northwest of Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi. Karamay, aka ‘Black oil’, is considered China’s wealthiest city. This makes it the focal point of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative to connect China to Central Asia and beyond via a series of roads, tunnels, bridges and high-speed rail networks.
“The problem of Chinese Communist Party with the Uyghurs is nothing to do with the ethnicity or religion; it is all about the richest land that we own, East Turkestan. Even if we submit ourselves to their ideology, they will not refrain from torturing us,” Gulgine says. She quoted a famous description of Uyghur people, “Altin tavakta kutorgon kilemchi,” which literally translates as “Beggars with a golden tray in their hands.”
Feeling helpless in the face of what she had seen, Gulgine is not afraid to openly declare her identity and criticise Chinese authority for the new outbreaks of violence.
She stares at a date on the plate, waiting for the adhan – call to prayer, signalling the end of the daily fast in this holy month of Ramadan. Covered in a sky-blue headscarf, with a white crescent moon and star and with writing on it ‘East Turkestan’ in three different languages – Arabic, English, Turkish – she stitches together the memory of her son in the restaurant who was imprisoned and sentenced to 13 years by the Chinese police in 2016.
She pauses, then speaks with visible difficulty, “Pakzat. His name is Pakzat – which means innocent, pure person.” Silence completely descended on the table. Gulgine smiled slowly [as she remembered him]. For a brief moment, she took out a picture of him when he was 16 years old, pointing to it, she said his only dream was to study in Turkey and get a proper education in computer engineering.“May God give him patience,”she then prayed silently.
Chinese law forced women back then to endure late-term abortions and comply with China’s one-child policy. When she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, she was threatened by the local authorities that they would abort her. Terrified and panicked, Gulgine sought refuge in her friend’s house and gave birth to a baby girl. In 2015, Gulgine and her family decided to move to Turkey, aware that the baby’s life was in danger.
Arriving in Turkey with the family, Gulgine’s son Pakzat directly registered to free Turkish and computer training courses offered by the Metropolitan Municipality of Istanbul, aka Ismek. After six months, Pakzat decided to go back to his hometown at the insistence of his old and sick grandfather. He did not know what awaited him at the airport.
Flying through Kyrgyzstan local airport, Pakzat arrived in Urumqi on a cold February winter morning. His friend was waiting outside the gates for him to take the luggage and pass the passport control. “Two police detained Pakzat in the airport, accusing him of travelling to Turkey and for being involved in “terrorist activities.” Since the start of the global “war on terrorism,” Chinese authorities have been quick to label Uyghurs over acts of “terrorism.”
“We receive reports from Xinjiang that he is constantly tortured and beaten by the police. We cannot commence an investigation. My son is not a terrorist, nor is he a criminal. His only aim was to get an education in Turkey,” cried Gulgine looking at the 16-year-old (now 18) Pakzat’s photo.
She would repeat again and again throughout the conversation, “He is Pak; he is innocent.”
“Mothers are the ones who suffer the most in East Turkestan. We cry every day. And my story is just one of thousands that are painful and unheard, here in Istanbul.”