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Uyghurs in Afghanistan fear China pushes Taliban to expel them: NPR


A Wakhi man gazes at the mountains in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. Uyghurs leaving China have traveled the region. Now, many Uyghurs in Afghanistan fear the Taliban will deport them to China.

Tom McShane / Loop Images / Universal Images Group / Getty Images


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Uyghurs in Afghanistan fear China pushes Taliban to expel them: NPR

A Wakhi man gazes at the mountains in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. Uyghurs leaving China have traveled the region. Now, many Uyghurs in Afghanistan fear the Taliban will deport them to China.

Tom McShane / Loop Images / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

BEIJING – In 1961, Muhammad’s then teenage parents loaded as much goods as they could onto yaks and horses, then set out for the snow-capped Pamir mountains. Their destination: Afghanistan.

They were among the hundreds of Uyghurs who have fled the Xinjiang region (northwest China) to Afghanistan since the 1950s. The Uyghurs, a Turkish ethnic minority predominantly Muslim, have made an arduous journey along the river. ancient pilgrimage and trade routes to the neighboring country to escape the religious and political persecution of the Chinese government.

They settled all over Afghanistan, raised families and created new life for themselves as Afghan citizens.

Now, like thousands of other Afghan citizens, they desperately want to leave Afghanistan as the Taliban cement their grip on the country. Except the Uyghurs say they face another threat: deportation by the Taliban to China, which arbitrarily detained large numbers of them and subjected them to severe religious restrictions, forced labor and even to forced sterilization. Chinese authorities deny allegations of human rights violations and say they are working to prevent a Uyghur insurgency.

“We are afraid of the Taliban, but we are also afraid of China,” said Muhammad, 45, from his home in Kabul. NPR is only using one of his names because he fears that speaking out could result in retaliation from the Taliban or Chinese authorities.

Taliban visit to China alarmed Afghan Uyghurs

China has long accused separatists loosely linked to the East Turkestan Independence Movement, a militant group seeking to create an independent state for the Uyghurs, of trying to instigate attacks on Chinese soil. The Chinese government blames the ETIM for the violent attacks in China in the late 1990s and at its embassy in Kyrgyzstan in 2016.

Uyghurs in Afghanistan fear China pushes Taliban to expel them: NPR

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) meets with senior Afghan Taliban official Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, northeast China, July 28.

Li Ran / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images


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Uyghurs in Afghanistan fear China pushes Taliban to expel them: NPR

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) meets with senior Afghan Taliban official Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, northeast China, July 28.

Li Ran / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

The Uyghurs traveled to Syria and Afghanistan and fought there alongside the insurgents. Last week, the Islamic State of Khorasan said that a Uyghur member of the militant group was involved in the suicide bombing of a mosque in Kunduz province, northern Afghanistan, which killed dozens of faithful.

But there is no sign that the Taliban have incorporated Uyghur fighters into their forces. Experts say the Taliban have in fact worked with the governments of Pakistan and China for the past two decades to monitor groups of Uyghur fighters in the region.

Still, with most of the US troops now out of the region, China fears Uyghur separatist fighters will train in Afghanistan to then attack China and has asked the Taliban for assurances to prevent this from happening. In July, China hosted a top Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the coastal city of Tianjin. There, the Taliban delegation pledged that it would not allow any group prejudicial to China’s interests, including ETIM, to use Afghan soil for training.

The Taliban’s visit has worried Uyghurs in Afghanistan, who fear China will push the Islamist group to expel them. This wouldn’t be the first time, say Uyghur advocates, who say the Chinese government has successfully pressured other countries to forcibly return Uyghurs to China, where they are at high risk of being detained. or imprisoned.

Uyghurs say they are already harassed by the new Afghan rulers. “The Taliban come to my relative and ask questions about her daughters,” said Abdul Aziz Naseri, a 27-year-old Uyghur born in Kabul, which made the family fear that Taliban fighters would force the girls to marry them. “That is why they are very afraid to live there.”

Naseri’s parents fled the city of Yarkand in Xinjiang and entered Afghanistan with a caravan of several dozen other families in 1976. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan three years later, his parents moved to Pakistan. Naseri himself moved to Istanbul, Turkey.

Naseri compiled a list of around 500 Uyghurs who wish to leave Afghanistan for destinations like Turkey, Pakistan, or anywhere that takes them. They include four of his uncles and an aunt, as well as dozens of cousins ​​who are stuck in the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif.

So far, since the Taliban returned to power in August, Naseri says he knows only one Uyghur who has managed to leave Afghanistan – a woman who traveled to Italy.

Uyghurs have historically migrated to Afghanistan

Long before Naseri and Muhammad’s parents left for Afghanistan, the country had already been home to Uyghurs for centuries.

“Most Uyghurs don’t profess the same type of Islam as the Taliban,” says Sean Roberts, a Georgetown University professor who has studied Uyghurs. “[Uyghurs are] much more focused on gender equity in terms of their children’s career path and future. They may be religious, but they don’t focus on Sharia law as the ultimate authority in their life. “

Well-established family, business and pilgrimage networks connecting communities in China and Afghanistan go a long way in explaining why many Uyghurs leaving Communist Party-ruled China have chosen Afghanistan as their refuge.

Yet the Uyghurs have struggled to shake the suspicions of the officials they work with and to sympathize with the activists. In 2001, the United States captured 22 Uyghurs in Afghanistan suspected of working with al-Qaida and sent them to Guantánamo Bay.

Roberts says most of the Uyghurs who ended up in the Guantanamo detention center were economic migrants who were actually sold by Pakistani bounty hunters to the US government. “They were interrogated for months and months, and years in some cases, before the United States realized that these people were not a threat to the United States or really to anyone,” he said.

While most Uyghurs still live within the borders of modern China, for centuries before, they frequently crossed the Wakhan Corridor to Afghanistan and beyond, as international merchants and on pilgrimage to Mecca.

“With the arrival of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, much of this movement stopped,” explains Rian Thum, a professor at the English University of Manchester who studies Uyghur cultural history. “But before that, the movement of caravans and individuals – even across very high mountain ranges and very long ocean distances – was extremely common.”

Omer Khan, director of a Pakistan-based Uyghur advocacy group, estimates that he has contact with as many as 80 Uyghur families living in Afghanistan, mainly in the north of the country, but the exact total number of the community in the country is unknown.

Life is on hold since the return of the Taliban

Among them are Muhammad and his relatives. His parents and grandparents were part of a community of Uyghur farmers and merchants in Ghulja, or Yining in Chinese, a city in northern Xinjiang. But they sought to escape ethnic discrimination and religious persecution under the Communist regime by making a bold offer: a trek across China’s narrow border with Afghanistan, through one of the highest mountain ranges. mountains of the world.

They survived and briefly settled in Kabul before being uprooted in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, as did Naseri’s family. Muhammad did not return to Kabul until 2002, after the US military flushed out the last shred of Taliban control.

Life was good for almost two decades after, especially for women in Muhammad’s family. He started a gemstone trading business. His wife, a doctor, worked in an Afghan public hospital. Her son is currently studying journalism. Her eldest daughter graduated from law this year.

But their lives were put on hold after the Taliban returned to power this summer.

During the Shiite Ashura festival in mid-August, Muhammad called an urgent family reunion. Panicked relatives have made desperate proposals to smuggle into Iran or Pakistan. Muhammad has decided that his priority now is to send his five children, aged 12 to 24, to any stable country that takes them.

But the family remains stranded in Afghanistan.

“My parents went through years of war, and now I have to endure war again,” Muhammad said. “My only wish is to bring my children to a place where they can live in peace and receive an education.”

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