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The missing

TOPSHOT - A child from the Uyghur community living in Turkey wears a mask during a protest against the visit of China's Foreign Minister to Turkey, in Istanbul on March 25, 2021. - Hundreds protested against the Chinese official visit and what they allege is oppression by the Chinese government to Muslim Uyghurs in the far-western Xinjiang province. (Photo by Bulent KILIC / AFP) (Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)

A child from the Uighur community living in Turkey wears a mask during a protest against the visit of China’s foreign minister to Istanbul, 25th March 2021

January 2021

It’s a rainy winter’s day in the hilly neighbourhood of Sariyer, a sprawling area on the European side of Istanbul that mostly consists of compounds and consulates, where the city’s wealthy elite live alongside foreign diplomats. Two minivans stop on one of the curved roads that cut across the district. The doors slide open and a group of around 20 people get out, carrying protest banners. They walk towards the access road that leads to the entrance of the Chinese consulate and position themselves in a line along the street, making sure not to block the traffic. They do not chant, they do not shout. They just stand there, silently, holding photos of their loved ones. Photos of Uighurs who’ve gone missing in Xinjiang.

Medine Nazimi tightens her black headscarf as the wind picks up. She’s been coming here every working day for over a month now. On previous days the group had been able to walk all the way up to the consulate’s doorstep, but today the security has been tightened. Police fences have been erected to block protesters from even entering the road that leads towards the building. “We asked them to let us through. It’s a public street, we are allowed to be here,” she says with a slightly rebellious look in her eyes, gesturing towards the Turkish police who had stayed after putting up the barriers that morning. “But they are just doing what they are told by the Chinese government.”

It has been exhausting for Medine to travel from her home to the consulate every day. It’s a three-hour round trip, crossing this  sprawling megacity of nearly 16 million people, but she is determined to continue making it. The reason she does so is printed on her protest banner. It shows the face of a young woman with silky dark brown hair.

It is her younger sister, Mevlude Hilal, she explains. Mevlude is smiling at the camera. Her eyes shine. It is a picture from better days, taken years ago. She has been missing for four years now. “I am here to ask the Chinese government: Where is my sister?” Medine says. “They must give me an answer. It’s a simple question: Where is my sister?”

It was in the summer of 2017 that Mevlude, a former student at Istanbul University, travelled back to China. She had been living in Turkey for over a decade and had obtained Turkish citizenship after graduating in 2012. Many Uighurs who moved to Turkey in the years before the latest Chinese crackdown began were granted passports easily because of their cultural and linguistic ties to the country. Mevlude had a good life in Istanbul, where she married and had a daughter.

When their mother fell ill, the sisters decided that one of them would have to go back to Xinjiang to take care of her. Mevlude agreed to go, taking her then four-year-old daughter with her. But soon after she arrived she was arrested without explanation. “I think the Chinese government arrested my sister because she studied in Turkey,” Medine says. “This is happening to many people now. They see us as traitors for living abroad. They say we are at risk of becoming terrorists because we live in Turkey.” She starts crying and pulls down her Covid face mask to wipe away the tears. “Why? Is living in Turkey a crime?”

Medine is convinced that her sister is being held in one of China’s notorious internment camps, which she calls “concentration camps”. “They say these are re-education camps,” she says. “My sister graduated from university and she speaks four languages. She doesn’t need re-education.”

When Mevlude was taken away from the family home in Xinjiang, her daughter was left behind in the care of her sick grandmother. At the end of last year she passed away, leaving the child to be looked after by her grandfather. Medine is unsure whether her sister has been informed. She says that her worries are driving her crazy. “For almost four years I haven’t heard the voice of my sister. I don’t know where she is. If she is alive. If she is healthy. Her daughter needs a mother. I don’t understand why the Chinese government took her.”

A car with blacked-out windows approaches the consulate. It is time for the protesters to make some noise. They try to get the attention of whoever is inside the vehicle by holding up their banners in front of the windows, calling out to them in Mandarin. But they get no response. Just as they got no reply to the numerous letters they have sent to Chinese diplomats in Turkey. Every blacked-out car that approaches trundles through the gates and into the consulate without stopping.

“After 9/11, Beijing began explicitly connecting unrest in Xinjiang to the War on Terror, especially the fight against Islamic fundamentalism”

The Uighur are a 13-million-strong ethnically Turkic people, predominantly Muslims, largely living in the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. When you ask Uighurs where they are from, they’ll never say China. They say they were born in East Turkestan, a country that existed only fleetingly on two occasions in the 1930s and 1940s. After it had been through the hands of various Turkic and Chinese empires, and after several attempts at creating an independent state, Xinjiang – the name given to the region by its Qing dynasty conquerors in the mid-1700s, meaning ‘new border’ – was absorbed by the new Chinese Communist government in 1949. Today Beijing views this act as a largely peaceful “liberation” of Xinjiang from nationalist and reactionary religious fundamentalists. The East Turkistan Government in Exile, based in Washington DC, considers 1949 to be the start of an illegal military occupation. From then on, the Uighurs were considered Chinese citizens, a regional minority within the country’s majority Han Chinese society.

Since 1949 any public calls for independence have been repressed and a mass Han migration campaign instituted to try to alter the ethnic make-up of Xinjiang, which according to a 1953 census was over 70 percent Uighur (it’s now officially reported as less than half). Factions of resistance remained within Uighur society. Some turned radical. From the early 1990s, dozens of bloody terrorist attacks took place throughout Xinjiang, and occasionally in the rest of China too. After 9/11, Beijing began explicitly connecting the unrest in Xinjiang to the War on Terror, especially the fight against Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and Central Asia. During the worst of the violence, from 2009 to around 2014, hundreds of civilians died in terrorist attacks.

In 2017 the Chinese government came up with a new strategy to tackle separatist ideas within the Uighur population. According to Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, this new policy of “preventative repression” came about because of fears that exiled Uighur groups might join forces with Islamic State and Al Qaeda, despite there having been a drop in domestic attacks since the 2014 peak and very little evidence that any coordination between the groups existed. “China’s policy… took a threat that was likely at a very low level to begin with and sought to ensure that it would never materialise into anything more significant,” wrote Greitens in March 2020. “The consequences of this approach have reverberated inside China and around the world.”

Medine Nazimi and other members of Turkey’s Uighur community hold placards featuring missing relatives as they demonstrate in front of the Chinese embassy in Ankara, 5th February 2021

The reality, and sheer scale, of this “preventative repression” is terrifying: a vast network of re-education camps designed to indoctrinate Uighurs and eradicate their unique culture and Islamic beliefs. At least one million Uighurs, and perhaps as many as two million according to the US State Department, are believed to be held in camps across Xinjiang. Human rights groups claim that millions more are under Orwellian police surveillance and that Uighurs are being used as virtual slave labour in the region’s cotton industry, one of the world’s largest. Thousands of mosques have been razed to the ground. There is evidence that Chinese officials have instituted a forced sterilisation campaign to further tip the region’s ethnic balance. The UK’s firm condemnation of the treatment of the Uighurs in April echoed that of the US government, which has been describing China’s policy as a “genocide” since January 2021.

Within China these “reforms” are presented both as a legitimate answer to extremism and also in benevolent terms – part of a breakneck modernisation programme for one of China’s least developed regions. Uighurs, it is claimed, are receiving excellent education and will now be offered greater opportunities in life.

It took a while for the world to notice what was going on in Xinjiang. Getting information out of China wasn’t easy. But by the end of 2018, several Uighurs who had managed to flee the country started speaking about what was happening back home. Human rights organisations and international media investigated their claims about imprisonment, forced assimilation and forced labour. It became clear, based on satellite images, that China had built around 400 internment camps over the past four years. Many more are being constructed. Rights groups have been able to map the locations of these detention centres as well as use satellite data to track the destruction of mosques across the region.

The Chinese state has almost total control over the population, which means few have been able to leave to provide testimony about what is happening. But those who have managed to escape have tended to head to one place above all else.

Turkey has been a country of refuge for many Uighurs ever since the Chinese Communist leadership took power over Xinjiang in 1949. Uighurs have migrated to Turkey for decades, mostly because they speak a Turkic language that is so close to modern-day Turkish that they can easily communicate, go to school or university and find work. There are believed to be 60,000 Uighurs currently living in Turkey, mostly in two of the oldest quarters of Istanbul, Zeytinburnu and Sefakoy. The streets of Zeytinburnu are filled with Uighur businesses and restaurants. Shops sell typical Uighur clothes like the doppa, an ornate skullcap worn by men, and long brightly coloured silk dresses adorned with sequins for women. Bakery windows are filled with large piles of naan, flatbreads made with onion or sesame. Restaurants serve traditional dishes of roasted mutton, lamb kebabs and Uighur breakfasts with plates of naan, sour cream, olives, honey and almonds.

Medine and her husband own a tiny restaurant and tea house on a backstreet in Zeytinburnu. Most of the burden of running the business – which has focused on deliveries due to Covid restrictions – and looking after their three children has fallen on the shoulders of her husband. Medine does not have time. The protests consume her. “There are only 24 hours in a day, and it is not enough for me,” she tells me after a long, cold and wet day near the Chinese consulate.

Before heading home, she has come to the family restaurant to pick up her husband. Together they’ll go back to their three children who’ve been attending online classes at home. But not before she invites me to taste some Uighur specialities: a sugary noodle pie – made from hand-pulled egg noodles – and sweet walnut cake. Tea is served on the side. “Many Uighurs have come to Turkey to study and do business,” she tells me when we sit down in the empty restaurant. “We feel safe here and we can practise our religion, we can use our language. It’s like our second home here. Our people love Turkey and we are happy to live here.”

But something has changed. And it worries Medine and other Uighurs greatly. In early January 2021, Turkish media reported on a controversial and almost forgotten agreement that China and Turkey signed in 2017: an extradition agreement that gave China the right to ask Turkey to send back any Chinese citizen accused of criminal activities or of having suspected ties to terrorist groups. The treaty hadn’t been officially ratified by either party at first, but China’s National People’s Congress unilaterally did so on 26th December 2020. China was now putting pressure on Turkey to do the same.

“It is very heavy for our people,” says Medine. “All Uighurs are worried for their lives in the future. If the agreement is signed, maybe something will happen to them.” Having Turkish citizenship gives her and her family a bit of security, she says. “We are mostly concerned for our friends here that don’t have citizenship. They are afraid to speak out now. They don’t want to come to the protests because of this.” Medine suddenly lifts her head, as if she’s making a speech to a crowd. “I am a Turkish citizen here, and I believe my Turkish government won’t do that [ratify the agreement]. Because we are brothers and sisters in Islam. I hope they never sign it. And give Uighurs a safe life. But I don’t trust China.”

“Erdogan said he had discussed the ‘Uighur issue’ with Xi, but concluded that the issue was being ‘exploited’”

Turkey was one of the first countries to openly criticise China over its treatment of the Uighurs. As far back as 2009, long before the worst of the repression had begun, then prime minister and current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Chinese oppression of the Uighurs a “genocide” – 12 years before the UK parliament and US government made the same accusation. In 2015 Erdogan said that Turkey had always kept its doors open to the “Uighur Turks”, stating that he had once visited East Turkestan himself and that Turkey had accepted over 500 Uighurs as refugees in that year alone. As recently as February 2019, Ankara was calling on the UN to act on the “human tragedy” of the re-education camps. Foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said that “the systematic assimilation policy of the Chinese authorities towards Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity.” He urged UN Secretary-General António Guterres to take steps against China. “It is no longer a secret that more than one million Uighur Turks – who are exposed to arbitrary arrests – are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in concentration camps and prisons,” he said.

But by the summer of 2019 the tone had changed. After Erdogan met with Chinese premier Xi Jinping on a visit to Beijing, his spokesperson told reporters that a solution was needed which “takes into consideration the sensitivities on both sides.” At the time, human rights groups had explicitly criticised China for its “re-education camps”, detention without trial, torture and use of forced labour. Amnesty International called the situation in Xinjiang “a dystopian hellscape”. Erdogan said he had discussed the “Uighur issue” with Xi, but concluded that the issue was being “exploited” and that it was reflecting poorly on the Turkish-Chinese relationship. “Those who act emotionally without thinking of the relationship that Turkey has with another country, unfortunately end up costing both the Turkish republic and their kinsmen,” he told reporters.

“The current government is blind, deaf and mute about human rights violations…They are panicking about the economy”

Turkey wasn’t the only Muslim country to hesitate in criticising China. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, said that he accepted the “Chinese version” of events. Other Muslim countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have sent Uighurs back to China at the request of Beijing. These countries all have something in common – they need China for economic reasons. China has, for instance, invested $60 billion in Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. And Turkey needs China now more than ever thanks to an economic crisis that started in 2018. After the lira plummeted due to US sanctions, it was China (as well as Qatar) that came to the rescue with $3.6 billion in loans.

Chinese investments have also been on the rise in Turkey, as they have in many eastern European countries. Chinese companies lent Turkey close to $1.6 billion, around half the amount needed to finance a third bridge over the Bosphorus, which opened in 2016. At the same time Turkey pledged to allow more Chinese tourists to visit Turkey’s beach resorts and historic cities. Turkey is also hoping to gain from China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The vast Chinese project spans from Indonesia to East Africa, investing in infrastructure projects which will help Chinese exports. It’s thought that China’s key aim for the initiative is to expand its power and economic influence in Europe. Turkey, on the border between Europe and Asia, is in a prime position to benefit.

As Turkey is a majority Muslim country, many Turks had expected their government to continue speaking up against the Chinese repression of the Uighurs. Support for Uighur refugees is high in Turkey and several opposition MPs have turned up at protests. Selcuk Ozdag, vice chair of Turkey’s Future Party, stood in the rain with Medine and her group of Uighur exiles in front of the Chinese consulate. A few days after the protest he and I spoke on the phone. He is calling for Erdogan to refrain from ratifying the extradition treaty until Beijing allows for outside investigations into the situation in Xinjiang.

“The current government is… blind, deaf and mute about human rights violations in East Turkestan. Why? Because they are panicking about the economy.” The Future Party is a new opposition party led by ex-prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who broke with Erdogan a few years ago. Ozdag emphasises that economic ties with China are important, but not at any cost. “Turkey should absolutely have commercial agreements with China. But while we do this China must follow the human rights criteria accepted by the world. They are violating that right now. The Chinese state is a closed box. I spoke to many Uighurs; they can’t see their mothers, fathers, siblings, sons, daughters. They cannot even communicate with them without putting them in danger. And now our Uighur friends in Turkey are afraid Turkey will let them down as well. We must refuse this treaty.”

Covid-19 has given China another way to leverage its power. Like the rest of the world, Turkey was eager to start vaccinating its citizens as soon as possible. While most of Europe was waiting for vaccines by western research projects, such as Pfizer-BioNTech, to finish their trials and gain approval, Turkey decided to go down the much quicker Chinese Sinovac track. Turkey was one of three countries (along with Indonesia and Brazil) that held third-phase trials among its citizens.

By the end of January 2021 Turkey had ordered millions of doses of Sinovac. In the same month the number of police raids on Uighurs in Istanbul shot up. Opposition parties accused the government of selling out Uighurs to China in exchange for jabs. Suspicions grew when the Turkish parliament dragged its feet over the ratification of its extradition treaty and China delivered only a third of the 30 million batches of vaccines it had promised, although Beijing denied that the two issues were connected. The treaty remains unratified by Turkey. “The government must give clarification on these allegations [that the delivery of Chinese vaccines and the ratification of the extradition treaty were linked] but they remain silent,” says Ozdag. “We are facing impositions by China using its powers and abusing Turkey’s weaknesses.”

It is already becoming harder for Uighurs to get residency permits. Over the past year and a half, reports of Uighurs being detained by the Turkish police have increased. Some have been held in deportation centres for months. Abdurehim Parac, a 46-year-old Uighur poet who had been living in Istanbul for five years, was picked up in a restaurant and detained for three months. Although the Turkish police didn’t tell him why he was arrested, he suspected that China was behind the move because of a book of critical poetry that he had recently published.

An estimated 200 to 400 Uighurs were arrested in Turkey between 2019 and 2020, including families with children. The Turkish authorities have urged some  of them to stop protesting against China before letting them go. Although there is no official extradition treaty  in place yet, some Uighurs have nonetheless been deported to third countries like Tajikistan, which has close ties to China.

Zinnetgul Tursun, her husband and their two children were living in the Turkish city of Kayseri but were taken to a deportation centre in Izmir, hundreds of kilometres away from their home. Their extended family lost all contact with them only to find out later that Zinnetgul had been accused of travelling to Syria, and that the family had been extradited to Tajikistan, where Chinese officials were waiting at the airport to take her and her daughters to China. According to Zinnetgul’s sister, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, eyewitnesses saw her and her two children being taken on to the plane unconscious. The two toddlers were later delivered by officials to their grandparents. Nothing has been heard from Zinnetgul or her husband since.

The case of Zinnetgul has struck fear into the Uighur community in Istanbul, as has that of Abdulkahhar Abdulaziz, a quiet young man with a great love for Uighur literature. He was working in a small, Uighur-owned, Zeytinburnu bookshop when on 30th December 2020, shortly before I met Medine, plain-clothes police walked into the shop and took him away. The owner of the bookshop, who does not want to be identified because of security concerns, has not heard from his employee since. Sitting behind the counter, he explains what happened. “The boy was on his own. He came to Turkey a few years ago and has no one here, so I took him in to work with me, to keep him away from trouble,” he says in a low voice. “He became like my son. Then suddenly four plain-clothes policemen came and took him. I asked them what they were going to do with him. They only said there was a complaint about him.”

He shows me around the bookshop. Along with regular stationery items, the shop is filled with hundreds of books by Uighur writers, standing in orderly rows on the shelves. There aren’t many customers, but by keeping the bookshop open he hopes to help keep the Uighur language and Uighur literature alive. “Right now 90 percent of the authors you see here are in prison back home,” he says. “Or they’ve been killed.” He sits back down and sighs. “If we don’t win this struggle, our kids will lose their language. That’s why I chose this job. I make no money out of this. I pay the salaries from my pocket. But I keep it running.”

Now in his fifties, the bookshop owner recalls leaving Xinjiang almost a decade ago, right after he had served a ten-year prison sentence. “Why was I in prison? Because I went to a school to study the Qur’an. They said I was learning to become a terrorist. After I got out of prison my father told me to get out of China. I chose Turkey, started a business here, and got citizenship. In 2014 I brought my family here.” But the long arm of Beijing has now reached Turkey, he says. “I trusted Turkey before, but now I’m really worried. Turkey says they are not doing any such thing. But they are catching people for no reason. People who have committed no crimes.”

Uighurs have long suspected that China uses ‘agents’ based in Turkey to intimidate and pressurise them. The bookshop owner has received several phone calls over the past five years. “They say they are Chinese intelligence. They mention our family members still living there [in Xinjiang]. They threaten me, saying I should quit this job. Sometimes they ask me to work for them. I block the number, but they call again with different numbers.”

Nine months later there is still no news of what has become of Abdulaziz. “The situation has not changed,” the bookshop owner said when I called him. “I don’t know where he is.” There was, though, something that had changed over the past few months, he said. “Many from our community have left. They don’t feel safe here. They have left for Europe.”

September 2021

Nine months after that cold and rainy protest near the Chinese consulate, I meet Medine in a park near her house, where she looks back on what has been a hectic period of her life. After the regular daily protests at the Chinese consulate in Istanbul started to get bigger and gain more attention, the Turkish authorities banned the gatherings altogether, citing concerns over Covid. Medine’s group decided to take things to the next level.

“We have forgotten what is scary or dangerous. I just said I want my sister back…Why can’t my Turkish government do something?”

In March they got into their rented minivans and instead of driving up to hilly Sariyer, they turned on to the highway out of Istanbul and headed to Ankara, the capital. “We didn’t get answers at the consulate in Istanbul, so we went to the embassy,” she said. “There were a lot of police, more than in Istanbul. And we did the same thing. Holding the pictures. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

But after a couple of days, the Turkish police received instructions to end that protest too. When the group refused to leave, several people were detained, including Medine. She was taken to a police station and let go after a few hours. “I wasn’t scared at all,” she said. “We have forgotten what is scary or dangerous. I just said ‘I want my sister back’. I told the police: ‘You have to do something. You are my government.’ Why can’t my Turkish government do something? I don’t understand. My sister is a Turkish citizen.”

Another regular protester, Mirsahmet Ilyasoglu, joins Medine for a cup of tea in the park. He is almost 40 years old and neatly dressed in a grey suit. The banner he holds at protests carries photos of four people. Four old friends, two couples, whom he’d studied with when he moved to Istanbul in 2007. He stayed and, like Medine, got Turkish citizenship. His friends went home and were arrested. “They were sentenced to 18 and 20 years in prison,” he says. “I got information that it was because of a scholarship from a Uighur academic organisation in Turkey they studied at. The Chinese government claims this organisation is a terrorist organisation. It’s nonsense.”

A Turkish passport had given Medine a feeling of security when we first met. She is more pessimistic now. What had once seemed improbable now seemed possible. “For us it is dangerous now too,” she says. “This extradition agreement, if they sign it, can also target us. For China we are Chinese citizens first. And China can make up a story saying that we did some crimes a long time ago. Turkey will have to make a decision to send us to China or not.”

Another worry is the consequence of their protests for their families back in China. Once, when Mirsahmet went on a Turkish TV channel to talk about human rights abuses of Uighurs and about his missing friends, he got a call from his sister in Xinjiang. “I hadn’t talked to her in three years, and suddenly she called. It was very suspicious,” he recalls. “I was convinced the police were with her when she phoned me. She said: ‘We miss you so much. When are you coming to see us?’ I told her: ‘I know there are police. Let me talk to the police.’ She hung up. What they do is try to break your emotions. They want you to be scared that they’ll do something to your family members.”

Mirsahmet pulls out his phone and shows us a series of pictures in a group on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. There’s one photo of a typical Chinese living room, and one of a typical Uighur living room. There are many carpets on the floor in the Uighur room. It’s part of Uighur culture to sit on the carpets and cushions rather than a sofa. Chinese text is printed on the photos giving Uighurs instructions. “The [Chinese] government is now sending these pictures to the Uighurs,” Mirsahmet explains. “It says: ‘You have to take away your carpet. You have to use a sofa and chairs to sit on. Like the Chinese way of living.’” Medine sighs. She had not seen it before. “This is how they put fear in the society, because people don’t know what will happen if they don’t follow the instructions. It is a cultural genocide.”

Both Medine and Mirsahmet are exhausted. After the Ankara protests in March, the group moved on to other cities in Turkey. They have just returned after weeks on the road. “A tour,” they call it, “to tell people all over Turkey about what is happening to our people. To show the Turkish government that we will keep fighting.” After a few days’ rest they will set off again. “I have to,” says Mirsahmet. “If I don’t do this, one day my children will ask me, ‘Why did you do nothing?’ Many Uighurs stay silent because they are afraid. But I don’t want my friends to die in a concentration camp while we are silent. We try to keep them alive.”

Medine is also convinced that she cannot be silent. “I have to say my sister’s name,” she says passionately. “The Chinese government knows what I’m doing. We know how they work. I believe I can save my sister.” In June, after months of receiving no answers to her letters to the Chinese embassy about her sister, Medine finally got a reply. “It said that my sister was sentenced for crimes but they didn’t say what kind of crimes. They said I can make a request to have contact with her. I don’t believe them, but at least this means that she is alive.”

Medine’s children are fourteen, ten and eight years old. They go to a Turkish school and have never seen their home region. It makes her sad. “I want my children to know where they are from. To see the beautiful landscapes. The place where I had a happy childhood. My children are asking a lot of questions. I started telling them about what China is doing to our people,” she says, her voice breaking, tears running down her cheeks. “My whole family is broken by the Chinese government.”

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