[A shorter, edited version of this story appeared in Open magazine on 16 July 2009)“Ey pekir Uyghur, oyghan!” (Hey poor Uyghur, wake up!]
- Abduhalik Uyghur (1901-1933), killed by a Chinese warlord for inciting Uyghur nationalism through his poetry.
“Kashmir ke peechay hamara mulk hain,” says Abdullah Dawood, 49, sitting in a guest house in Nizamuddin, in a room hired by a fellow-Uyghur visitor from Istanbul. “Just beyond the Karakoram pass,” smiles the vistor, Osman Uzturuk. Uzturuk adds in Turkic, and Abdullah translates: “In the olden days, much before India’s independence, we had great links with India.”
As Uzturuk fills us with information about the riots in Xinjiang since 5 July, Abdullah’s mind returns to that night twelve years ago in the old city of Ghulja, officially known as Yining. 5 February 1997: Abdullah, who ran a grocery store, let go of his reticence about politics and decided to join a rally demanding freedom. The protests were sparked by the execution of 30 Uyghur independence activists accompanied by the crackdown on attempts to revive traditional Uyghur culture such as traditional gatherings called meshrep. The demonstrations were crushed by the People’s Liberation Army, who killed nine.
The trigger for Abdullah to join those protests was the enforcement of the two-child norm. Abdullah had four daughters and had just adopted a son, and though he could get away with bribes, those who couldn’t, had to see their children killed, he says. Plainclothesmen made videos and took pictures, and Abdullah got wind that the army would come knocking in the night looking for all those who took part. Fearing that he may become part of the long list of the ‘disappeared’, Abdullah ran away – first to ürümqi (pronounced Oroomchi), the capital of the province 800 kms away, then to Tibet, and from there to Nepal. In 2003, when Nepal was threatening to deport him to China despite his refugee certificate from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he came to India.
“Xinjiang” is Mandarin for “new territory”; the local Muslim population still calls it “Turki” and separatists want to establish a new country, “East Turkestan”. This is part of a vast swathe in Central Asia once called Turkestan. The region today is divided between the West Turkestan countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan – countries once part of the Soviet Union. Culturally, the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs of Xinjiang are closer to these people. “All the nations Russia had captured are free today,” says Abdullah, “Only we are still chained.” Abdullah looks at a map of China and shows how much smaller China would be without Xinjiang, whose land area is double of Pakistan.
Under the Qing dynasty, even before the formation of the People’s Republic of China under Mao, the Uyghurs tried several times, in armed uprisings, to be free from the control of Chinese warlords. The Chinese Republic’s main strategy of dealing with the separatism of the Turkic Muslim Uyghurs has been, like Tibet, to give incentives to the majority Han to settle in Xinjiang. Today, there are 7 million Han Chinese in the area, and 8 million Uyghurs. The capital ürümqi has 75% Han Chinese and only 16% Uyghurs. “These Chinese census figures are lies,” insists Abdullah, “There are only 2.5 million of us left there.”
Such were the disputes Abdullah had with the news this past week on TV and radio. “The Chinese government says only 184 died. But my friends in Istanbul say it was 3,000.” These were riots sparked on 5 July in ürümqi when the confrontation between the police and Uyghur protestors led to the Uyghurs targeting the local Han population. The Han backlash lasted several days. The riots were caused in the first place by the killings of two Uyghur workers in Guangdong, in another end of China. The Uyghurs claimed that the Chinese did not protect Uyghur workers and let off the Han killers without punishment. The murdered workers were accused of raping a Han woman, charges later found untrue by Chinese authorities.
Abdullah is worried about his family’s safety, though they live 800 kms away from ürümqi. Over the years there has been little contact, and Abdullah doesn’t know English and is not familiar with using the internet. Between the violence that led to Abdullah’s exile and the riots past week, there have been many such instances. “Kashmiris also ask for freedom, but India does not brutally repress them the way China does,” says Abdullah. “There have been instances when they deliberately organise rallies by their informers amongst us to see who comes out, and then those persons disappear. Bodies are found months later,” he says with anguish. “All this never comes out.” He speaks constantly of Chinese brutality, of zulm, claiming that Uyghurs are not even given the right of assembly, their culture is being destroyed and human rights violated on a daily basis.
When on 17 April 2008 the Olympic torch arrived in Delhi, says Abdullah, Tibetans were allowed to protest, but he, a lone Uyghur in Delhi, was detained at a police station in Seelampur in north-east Delhi. “The Chinese had told them that Uyghurs are terrorists. But the police were very nice with me. I called a friend and got addresses of websites that document Chinese torture on us. The officer couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw those images,” he says.
The Chinese have restricted religious freedom. Abdullah says he couldn’t keep a beard, the syllabus in Islamic schools were regulated and only the government-approved version of the Qu’ran that could be published. China, on its part, has found it easier to quell separatism since 9/11, branding them as terrorists. China claimed that some terrorist incidents before the Olympics had Uyghur groups behind them, and suspects that they may be getting help from the Taliban in the Af-Pak region.
The Han migration to Xinjiang has made the Uyghurs feel alien in their own land. The alienation is visible when Abdullah says: “There’s a reason why the Chinese oppression is so brutal. They don’t believe in god and fear no one. They eat rats, frogs, dogs and monkeys!” The disgust changes to ridicule when he adds: “They even eat donkeys!”
Abdullah’s friend from Istanbul is similarly exiled, and both say they’d rather be exiled than live under Chinese rule. Abdullah did not agree to be photographed as he may be recognized and his family back home harassed. A photograph in a Kathmandu paper in 2003 did him great harm. After the newspaper article about Uyghur refugees appeared, Nepal deported four of them under Chinese pressure, he claims; Abdullah and seven others escaped to Delhi. They have since then been re-settled by UNHCR in Sweden; it’s been years and Abdullah is waiting for his turn, too. It’s the heat he wants to escape the most. “My home was colder than Kashmir! ” he says, cutting coriander leaves that he will mix with his soup. “It’ll help against the itch and allergies I get from this heat.”
“In Nepal we got enough money from UNHCR to live by, but here we get only 2,245 rupees a month,” says Abdullah. India does not allow employment for international refugees. He survives thanks to the visiting Uyghur and Turkish businessmen from Istanbul. They come here to buy scarves, shawls and cushion covers, selling them in Istanbul at thrice the price. Abdullah, who has picked up enough Hindustani in all these years, helps the Istanbul businessmen with translation and bargaining, and then takes a commission from them as well as the Indian wholesalers. That’s how he’s able to afford a room in Delhi.
When friends come from Istanbul, they bring traditional naan and cook mutton without Indian spices, and he asks them to take him away. It is from one of them that he got the number of Washington based Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress, whom China has accused of fomenting the present riots. “I keep calling her and she has promised help in re-settling me,” he says, “India is good but there’s no Turki here. I get very lonely.” Freedom, he concedes, will never come. “I am prepared to die here.”