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'I Thought It Would Be Safe': Uighurs In Turkey Now Fear China's Long Arm

Nicole Tung for NPR
Nicole Tung for NPR
Uighur writer and poet Abdurehim Imin Parach stands in the Zeytinburnu neighborhood of Istanbul. He has been detained twice by Turkish authorities. NPR spoke to more than a dozen Uighurs in Istanbul who detailed how Turkish police arrested them and sent them to deportation centers, sometimes for months, without telling them why they had been detained.

Abdurehim Imin Parach often looks over his shoulder when he walks around Istanbul. He worries that he is being followed, just as he was last year when two Turkish plainclothes policemen escorted him out of a restaurant in the city and told him he was under arrest.

"They didn't say why they were arresting me," says Parach, 44, an ethnic Uighur who landed in Turkey more than five years ago after fleeing his home in China's Xinjiang region. "At the police station they tried to get me to sign a statement saying I was a terrorist. They beat me, but I wouldn't sign it. Then they sent me to a deportation center."

It was a cold, dark building hundreds of miles away from Istanbul. Parach says he met at least 20 other Uighurs there, all expecting to be deported.

Then, after three months, he was released without explanation. Turkish authorities urged him not to speak out against China.

Parach suspects China was behind his arrest. He has criticized China's treatment of his people for years and had to flee the country after repeated detentions.

"When you stand against China," he says, "you are a threat wherever you are."

China's government considers many members of the Uighur ethnic minority to be "terrorists" and "separatists." It has imprisoned them on a mass scale and has turned Xinjiang into one of the world's most tightly controlled police states.

As a result, many Uighurs have fled to Turkey, which they have traditionally viewed as a refuge and an advocate for their rights. Now, many Uighurs in Istanbul tell NPR they fear China is pressuring Turkey to threaten them.

Parach believes he was targeted after he published a book of poetry describing China's oppression of Uighurs. In a quiet corner of a spicy-noodles diner, he unzips his backpack and pulls out the book, Breathing in Exile. The book's cover includes a moody drawing of Tian Shan (or in Uighur, Tengri Tagh) the Central Asian mountain range that's known as the "mountains of heaven."

He flips to a verse describing how Uighurs feel: lost, dislocated, swallowed up by the night. The verse translates roughly as: "We await a thundering so great/that it shatters stars/that it awakens fate/to save us from a void of eternal scars."

The book came out in December 2018 as China was making international headlines for imprisoning more than a million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in reeducation camps to counter what it calls extremist ideologies.

Two months later, the Turkish plainclothes police officers arrested him. Parach was shocked and confused. His book criticized China, not Turkey.

"I'm not sure if China is putting pressure directly on the Turkish government to control Uighurs here," Parach says, "or if Chinese agents have infiltrated Turkish society to frame us as terrorists."

NPR spoke to more than a dozen Uighurs in Istanbul who detailed how Turkish police arrested them and sent them to deportation centers, sometimes for months, without telling them why. One Uighur activist in Turkey says he has counted at least 200 such detentions since January 2019, while a lawyer says he has assisted more than 400 Uighurs arrested in the past year.

All those interviewed suspect China's involvement in the detentions. Most declined to give their full names out of fear they would be targeted again.

A woman in her mid-40s says she was dragged out of her home in the middle of the night as her terrified children watched. A father of three says Turkish authorities imprisoned him along with his entire family, including his young children. Another man was hustled out of his tea shop in front of his confused customers.

The Uighur activist tracking detentions is named Anwar. He says he has been arrested himself — twice, most recently last October when Turkish police plucked him off the Istanbul metro as he was heading to work.

"They didn't ask any questions except, 'Do you want to call the Chinese Embassy?' " says Anwar, 27, a wiry, blunt-talking father of two.

He didn't call the Chinese Embassy, but he suspects that authorities in China somehow found out about the arrest right away. A couple of hours after his detention, his parents in Xinjiang called his wife in Turkey to tell her about it, he says.

Activists later promoted Anwar's case on social media and hired a lawyer who helped him get out of migrant detention after a few days. Uighurs who can't afford lawyers are not so lucky and can languish in detention centers for months, he says.

Anwar often pickets outside the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul, dressed in prison garb and declaring that East Turkestan, as the Uighurs call Xinjiang, must be free.

Since his release, Turkish authorities have warned Anwar to stop protesting so loudly against China. He says he's trying to understand how the long arm of Beijing could have reached Turkey, where at least 35,000 Uighurs live, according to local leaders.

"I thought it would be safe in Turkey," he says. "But I have nightmares every night that the next time I'm arrested, I will be deported to China."

"A second home"

Uighurs have sought refuge in Turkey for decades. They speak a Turkic language and, like Turks, they practice Islam.

In 1952, the Turkish government offered asylum to Uighurs who were fleeing Xinjiang after its takeover by Chinese Communists. Turkey has granted some form of temporary or permanent residency to Uighur exiles since then.

Ismail Cengiz's father arrived in Turkey in 1953. He had been forced out of his home in Kashgar, a city in far-western China that was on the Silk Road trade route once connecting the country to the Middle East and Europe.

"My father always talked about our home in Kashgar," says Cengiz, 60, a graying, talkative man in black-rimmed glasses. "It made me long for it."

Born and raised in Turkey, Cengiz advocates for independence for East Turkestan. Some in the community in Istanbul call him "prime minister," and he is often seen at Uighur cafes and restaurants in the city, glad-handing imams and business owners.

"Uighurs really do see Turkey as a second home," Cengiz says. "We want to believe that [the government] would never allow Uighurs to be sent back to China. But what's happening to the newcomers is making them nervous."

Many Uighurs arriving in Turkey since 2014 have struggled to get Turkish residency permits, Cengiz says. Many of them have expired Chinese passports.

"If they try to renew the passports at the Chinese Consulate, the Chinese rip them up," Cengiz says. "Then they hand out documents that allow only for a one-way return to China. After these Nazi-style camps [in Xinjiang], no one wants to go back."

He clicks open his briefcase and takes out a thick folder with photos of Uighurs missing in China, including some who have Turkish citizenship. There's also a list of Uighurs who have been detained by Turkish police.

"Everyone needs to know what's happening to us," he says.

Whenever Cengiz hears about Turkish police arresting Uighurs, he says he writes letters to the immigration service and makes calls to lawmakers and the Interior Ministry. He appeals to the sense of solidarity Turks are said to feel with Muslims around the world.

"I tell them Uighurs have fled their ancestral home out of fear," he says. "They should not have to deal with more fear here in their second home."

Many Uighurs in Turkey live in two Istanbul neighborhoods, Zeytinburnu and Sefakoy. Walk around and you will see Uighur mothers in headscarves and full-face veils pushing their children on playground swings as grandfathers with long white beards pray in nearby mosques. There are Uighur-language schools, boxing clubs, bakeries and cafes scented with saffron-and-cardamom tea. Clothing shops sell red embroidered dresses, ankle-length vests and T-shirts printed with a drawing of a ghijek, a type of fiddle. Bookstores stock Uighur works banned in China, including Parach's poems.

The baby-blue flag of East Turkestan is on every wall. It features the same white crescent and star as Turkey's red flag.

A suspicious call before an arrest

Both flags hang at a cultural center where Aminah Mamatimin meets other Uighur women whose families are missing in China.

Mamatimin, a 29-year-old mother of five, says that until now the relative safety of Turkey has allowed her to publicly mourn her husband and children, who have been missing in China since January 2017.

She was pregnant with her fifth child when she flew to Turkey with her toddler daughter in 2016. Her husband was supposed to follow with their three older children after closing down his business, but Chinese police arrested him on the charge of "investing in terrorism," Mamatimin says, after he sent her money in Turkey. Then he and the children disappeared. She flips through a poster-size scrapbook of their photos.

Mamatimin has heard that her children were hauled off to Chinese military-style schools surrounded by barbed wire. She worries that Fatima, her frail, sickly 8-year-old daughter, won't survive there.

"Fatima's the one who needs me the most," says Mamatimin, her voice breaking as she flips through her scrapbook. "She's anxious and sometimes wets the bed. She's so shy she won't even speak up when she's hungry. I keep wondering: Is she getting enough to eat? Is she cold? Is she afraid?"

Downstairs at the cultural center, Uighur women run a busy bazaar selling fresh dumplings, dried noodles and colorful skullcaps. A veiled woman steps out of the crowd, holding the hands of two little girls in matching bowl cuts and cherry-print dresses.

She gives her name as Asma and her age, 33, but she is too afraid for her safety to reveal her full name. She unlocks the door to a friend's spice shop, which is closed for the day, and sits down to recount a call she got late last year.

The screen on her cellphone showed a Chinese area code. The man on the line identified himself as a police officer in Xinjiang, where several of Asma's relatives have been forced into camps and prison. She can't confirm that the man was, in fact, a Chinese official, but leaked classified Chinese government documents show that Beijing has made a concerted effort to spy on Uighurs no matter where they are.

"He knew everything about us," she says, referring to herself and her husband. "He even sent us photos of our families in China. The man told me we had to spy on other Uighurs. He said: If you don't, you don't know what bad things might happen to you."

Asma refused to cooperate. A couple of months after that call, Turkish police detained her husband in his tea shop in Zeytinburnu and sent him to a deportation center.

Her husband, who declined to give his name, was released after a few weeks. He told NPR that he was so rattled by the arrest that he closed down his shop.

"I have to prove I am Uighur"

NPR confirmed that Turkey deported at least four Uighurs last summer to Tajikistan.

The deportees had lived in the central Turkish city of Kayseri. They included Zinnetgul Tursun and her two toddler daughters.

Her sister, Jennetgul, who spoke to NPR by phone from her home in Saudi Arabia, remembers her sister calling her last summer from a deportation center in Turkey's west-coast city of Izmir.

"She kept saying, 'You have to bring documents that I am Uighur. I have to prove I am Uighur,' " Jennetgul says.

She didn't have the documents her sister needed. A few days later, she lost touch with Zinnetgul. A month later, she heard from their mother in China.

"She had my sister's children and said that the Chinese police had arrested my sister," Jennetgul says. "And then the nightmare began."

Jennetgul has pleaded with Turkish officials to help locate her sister. She says she's heard nothing.

"It's so difficult for me to accept that Turkey did this," she says. "Turkey, the land that is like our home, where the people are like our own."

Turkey's migration office claims Zinnetgul Tursun entered Syria illegally and didn't have valid documents proving she's Uighur — charges her sister denies.

In the past, Turkey has cited security as a reason to arrest migrants, including Uighurs. In 2014, Chinese state media said about 300 Uighurs had joined the Islamic State. Three years later, when an Uzbek gunman loyal to ISIS killed 39 people at a popular Istanbul nightclub during New Year's celebrations, Turkish authorities arrested several Uighurs with suspected extremist ties as part of the investigation into the mass shooting.

"After that tragedy," says Ragip Kutay Karaca, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Aydin University, "the authorities began arresting Uighurs with even the slightest connection to Syria."

Parach, the poet, found himself swept up in this dragnet. His then-11-year-old son, Shehidulla, disappeared in 2014, the same year they both arrived in Turkey. Parach spent years calling Uighur militants in Iraq and Syria in an effort to locate and retrieve his child. In 2017, Turkish authorities arrested Parach on suspicion of terrorism for making those calls.

"I didn't blame them for arresting me then," he says. "It made sense."

Parach learned that Shehidulla likely died in a suicide bombing that the boy may have set off himself. He says he's devastated that his son died "with terrorists."

The poet's wife, Buhelchem Memet, had talked her husband and son into fleeing to Turkey while she stayed in Xinjiang with their five other children. She hoped her husband could secure a residency permit in Turkey and bring over the rest of the family. But she was soon imprisoned in China. Late last year, Parach heard from someone in the same prison that his wife had died there.

In China's good graces

Just five years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan declared that he would always keep Turkey's doors open for Uighur refugees. Last February, Turkey's Foreign Ministry called China's Xinjiang camps "a great embarrassment for humanity."

But when Erdogan visited Beijing last summer to boost ties with China, he told reporters that those who "exploited" the Uighur issue are undermining Beijing-Ankara relations. Since then, he has been silent on the issue.

"China, for Turkey, is quite an important economic partner," says Cevdet Yilmaz, the vice chairman and foreign policy chief of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP. "We have a big trade volume with China. We hope that we can also sell our goods to the rising middle class of China."

In 2018, as Turkey's lira was plummeting, in part because of U.S. sanctions, China gave Turkey a $3.6 billion loan. Chinese investors are also financing a third suspension bridge across the Bosporus in Istanbul, though concern about the new coronavirus pandemic has led to project delays.

Yilmaz, 52, who has held senior posts in Erdogan's administration, says the government is pushing to attract more Chinese tourists and investors. Turkey also wants greater involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative, China's vast global trade and infrastructure project.

"We are in the middle corridor of this project, and we want to work with China to develop it because it will be useful for Turkey," says Yilmaz, during an interview with NPR his office in the AKP's fortress-like headquarters in the Turkish capital, Ankara. "We are in between east and west. And if there is more trade between Europe and China, Turkey will benefit."

He denies Beijing is pressuring Ankara to send back Uighurs. He says he doesn't know the specifics about Uighur arrests in Turkey and referred questions to the Interior Ministry, which did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.

"We don't have any specific policy against Uighur people," Yilmaz says. "It is about the overall security of Turkey and international cooperation on security."

He says that Turkey supports China's territorial integrity and frowns upon Uighur separatism.

"We believe Uighur people should solve their problems, if they have any, with Chinese authorities," Yilmaz says. "We don't want to see these issues to be used to harm our relations with China."

He adds, "We expect [Uighurs] to be a bridge between Turkey and China, rather than a divisive issue."

Yavuz Onay, the vice chairman of the Turkish-Chinese Business Council in Turkey, says he flies regularly to Beijing to attract investors to Turkey.

Onay insists that Uighurs are not oppressed in China and he approves of the controversial Xinjiang camps where Uighurs are imprisoned. "China gives them free education and takes care of them there," he says. "They must stop complaining. It's not good for Turkey."

Pressure on exiles

Human rights groups say China has already pressured several countries to intimidate, detain and deport Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups. There are signs of this happening in Egypt, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and a number of other countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Ali Akber Mohammad, a 43-year-old Uighur cleric, says he was chased out of Egypt. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has pushed to attract billions of dollars in Chinese investment and tourism. In 2017, Egyptian police raided the homes of Uighurs living in Egypt. Mohammad managed to flee to Turkey.

"When I first arrived, Turkey felt so safe," Mohammad says. "But in the last few months, everything has started to change. The Turkish police are arresting Uighurs, are interrogating Uighurs. This is why I left Egypt. ... Now, where do we go?"

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's regional director for East and Southeast Asia, says Beijing wants Uighurs back in China in order to silence them.

"They don't want witnesses. They don't want people who can to talk to the degree of political, cultural, religious repression that's taking place in Xinjiang simply because it's shocking and beyond the pale," he says.

Bequelin says the Chinese do not want Uighurs to secure the kind of worldwide sympathy enjoyed by Tibetans, another oppressed ethnic group in China.

"And that is one of the reasons why they've played the Muslim card so much," he says. "China tars the Uighurs as terrorists."

For decades, the Chinese government has blamed violent attacks in China on militant Uighur separatists who are part of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The crackdown expanded in 2009, when nearly 200 people died during Uighur protests against state-sponsored Han Chinese migration into Xinjiang. Many Uighurs fled to avoid imprisonment.

Beijing pressures countries to repatriate Uighurs so "they can be kept under tight monitoring, to reduce what [China] sees as a threat, both real and potential, to the country's national security," says Chien-peng Chung, a politics professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and an expert on ethnic nationalism in China.

"We can't live like this"

Bequelin of Amnesty International says the ground is shifting for Uighurs in Turkey. "The government seems more and more inclined to pacify Beijing by taking stronger measures against Uighurs," he says, "but that's not going to be popular with Turkish people."

Turks see Uighurs as "their brothers and sisters," says Karaca, the professor at Istanbul Aydin University. In December, thousands of Turks marched in Istanbul, calling Uighurs "warriors who resist persecution" and chanting, "Murderer China, get out of East Turkestan."

Abdul Kadir Osman, who was a doctor in Xinjiang but now makes a living baking walnut-encrusted flatbread in Istanbul, says he appreciates the support but knows its limits. "The Turkish government will do what's best for itself, not for us," says Osman, 45.

Osman is one of thousands of Uighurs to whom Turkey has denied residency papers, local leaders say. Without residency permits, Uighurs risk getting deported. Osman says he sees Uighurs in this situation getting arrested every day.

"It's stressful to walk outside of my home, even when I'm with my entire family," Osman says. "Running errands is a nightmare. I'm afraid to take public transportation, in case the police are there."

Another baker, a man who gives his name as Abdulla, says he's also stranded in Turkey with an expired Chinese passport and no residency papers. He was arrested and sent to a deportation center in 2018 for reasons he still doesn't understand.

Now that the arrests seem to have stepped up, he says, he's a nervous wreck. He can't sleep. He has headaches. He worries that his family will go hungry if he's arrested again. He has nightmares that he will be deported like Zinnetgul Tursun.

"It's hard to live like this," he says, "so we are trying to move to a safe place."

Like many Uighur exiles in Turkey, he's making plans to flee with his family to Western Europe. He's heard people there don't like refugees or Muslims — but he does hope they might stand up to China.

Samarjan Saidi assisted with reporting and translation in Istanbul. Additional translation by Eren Devrimci and research by Durrie Bouscaren and K. Murat Yildiz in Istanbul.

This story is part of a special series on Uighurs in Turkey.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.