China responds to protests as relations worsen over Beijing’s policies towards the Muslim Uighur minority.
It took a lot of convincing before he spoke to us. In the end, the young Uighur told us his family’s story on the condition that we protected their identities – he didn’t even want the face of his two-year-old daughter to be shown.
“If the Chinese government realises I’m in touch with my relatives, they’ll harass or even arrest them,” he told us, as we sat in the modest studio apartment in the Turkish city of Kayseri, that was now home to the family of four.
The room had been furnished through donations. Even the children’s toys were a gift from a local charity. The four of them had arrived in Turkey a few months ago with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
He told us the Chinese government wouldn’t give them official travel documents, and so, like many others, they crossed borders illegally by paying smugglers. In their desperation to reach Turkey, they spent every penny they had.
Their second child, now several months old, was born in a cramped apartment shared with dozens of other Uighur refugees in Malaysia, where they were stuck due to lack of funds, waiting for a passage to Turkey.
When they finally arrived in Kayseri, they joined a thousand-strong community of Uighars. Whoever we spoke to there, gave the same reasons for leaving.
“They ask us ‘don’t follow your religion, just follow us. Don’t fast, don’t go to mosque, don’t pray, wear short clothes, don’t wear beard,'” said Najwa, not her real name.
She had also come to Turkey with her family from Xinjiang – China’s western province with a sizable Uighur population. Her journey was easier – she was one of the few that managed to secure an official passport. But she too wanted to see an independent “East Turkestan”, free of Beijing rule.
A battle for resources
Xinjiang, which literally means “new frontier”, is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and uranium. It has seen mass Han Chinese immigration over the years, along with attempts to assimilate the local Uighur population, who were previously the majority.
Amnesty International says Uighurs have faced systematic and extensive human rights violations since the 1980s, including forced disappearances, torture and even executions.
The Uighur refugees in Turkey, particularly new arrivals, say restrictions on their religious and cultural practises have become harsher in recent years.
Chinese authorities say they’re fighting “terrorism” and religious extremism. The region has been experiencing serious unrest – the 2009 Urumqi riots left 200 people dead, and were just part of a series of incidents.
The government has previously linked Uighur separatists with al-Qaeda, and last week accused a group who had fled China of attempting to join armed groups in the Middle East.
Before leaving Kayseri we met Seyit Tumturk, Vice President of the World Uyghar Congress. His organisation’s cultural centre is at the heart of the Uighur community in the city. On the walls are black and white pictures of historic Uighur figures, along with a giant map of Asia, with ‘East Turkestan’ clearly marked.
He said radicalisation was taking place, but he blamed Chinese policies in the region.
“By banning praying, fasting, hajj, religious education, wearing the scarf, beards, China is actually pushing Uighurs out of mainstream Islam. China is radicalising Uighurs with its own hands,” he told us.
With press given limited access to Xinjiang, communications restricted and monitored, it’s hard to verify what’s really going on.