Ibrahim’s parents fled political unrest in China for Afghanistan more than 50 years ago. By this time, Mao Zedong had sparked the Cultural Revolution and the lives of many Uyghurs, the predominantly Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang that included Ibrahim’s parents, were devastated.
Ibrahim was born in Afghanistan. But now he too is trying to escape the clutches of Chinese authoritarianism.
He and his family have been afraid to leave their home in Afghanistan since the Taliban, the country’s new rulers, took control last month, venturing outside only to buy basic necessities. “We are extremely worried and nervous,” said Ibrahim, whose full name is withheld for his safety. “Our children are worried about our safety, so they asked us to stay at home. “
For years, Chinese authorities have called on Afghan leaders to crack down and expel Uyghur militants they say were sheltering in Afghanistan. Officials said the fighters were from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist organization that Beijing has held responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in China since the late 1990s.
The United States removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its list of terrorist groups under the Trump administration, angering Beijing. But the Taliban, in their new role as diplomats, have shown an interest in establishing a warm relationship with China, meeting more recently with Chinese officials on Thursday. Many Uyghurs in Afghanistan fear they will be branded terrorists and sent to China as pawns in the Taliban’s efforts to win the country’s favor and economic aid.
It is not known whether the Uyghurs in Afghanistan face an immediate threat to their security, but some say they fear the future that would await them if they were sent to Xinjiang. Since 2017, the Chinese government has locked up nearly a million Uyghurs in camps and subjected those outside to constant surveillance. China says the camps are necessary to eradicate extremism and “re-educate” Uyghurs.
Before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the Chinese government said it had received assurances from the insurgents that the country would not become a platform for terrorist attacks. Concerned Uyghurs in the country watched footage of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on television alongside Taliban leaders in July. Earlier this month, Wang pledged $ 30 million in food and other aid to the new government, as well as three million doses of the coronavirus vaccine; On Thursday, he said Afghan assets abroad “should not be unreasonably frozen or used as bargaining chips to exert pressure”, indirectly referring to US control of billions of dollars owned by the central bank. Afghan.
Since the late 1990s, Beijing has successfully put pressure on several countries to expel Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington-based human rights group, has counted 395 cases of Uyghurs sent to China since 1997. The group said in an August report that journalists and organizations from Human Rights Defenders have documented 40 cases of detentions or returns from Afghanistan to China, although it has only verified one.
Khorsid Hasan, a Uyghur retiree living in Virginia, said that after contacting the Uyghur Human Rights Project in August, the group wrote a letter to the State Department urging U.S. officials to address the vulnerability of Uyghurs in Afghanistan. The country’s Uyghurs “fear their lives more than ever,” Ms. Khorsid said in an interview. “They hope to be evacuated as quickly as possible. “
The rights group’s letter to the State Department warned of serious fears that the Taliban “will now make secret deals with China to extradite Uyghurs to the PRC”
The Uyghur population in Afghanistan is estimated at around 2,000 to 3,000. They arrived in waves, some as early as the 18th century. Many are second generation immigrants with little connection to China. Their parents joined an influx of refugees from Xinjiang in the late 1970s, ending up in neighboring Afghanistan, where they settled and had families.
These families are once again seeking to uproot their lives. Even though they are Afghan citizens, their ID cards indicate that they are either Chinese refugees or members of the ethnic group, making them easy to follow should the Taliban decide to round them up.
The Taliban did not respond to requests for comment.
In the town of Mazar-i-Sharif, Mohammad, a 39-year-old Uyghur farmer whose full name has been withheld to avoid reprisals, said he was so desperate to flee Afghanistan with his young family that he contacted human traffickers for help. enter Iran. He was told it was impossible to do with the Taliban in charge, he said.
He also contacted unsuccessfully exiled Uyghur groups in Germany and Turkey, as well as refugee aid organizations in the United States and Canada, he said.
Long before the Taliban took control, life was difficult for Uyghurs in Afghanistan, who often faced discrimination. Ibrahim, 54, said he keeps a low profile as a businessman. “We have done our best to erase our identity as Uyghurs,” he said.
He and his wife, who is also Uyghur, live with their two daughters, 28 and 20, and a 25-year-old son, who has a one-year-old baby. He said his children were depressed and spent their days surviving on food they had stored before the fall of the government.
Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was hit by shortages of food and money. People have been unable to withdraw money from the banks. Grocery store prices have skyrocketed. The Taliban have also looked to China to avoid a possible economic collapse.
Andrew Small, a senior researcher at the German Marshall Fund who studies China’s policy in Afghanistan, said the Taliban had not previously demonstrated an “obvious willingness” to hand the Uyghurs over to the Chinese, although he believed their fears were legitimate.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
“The lines are blurred on the part of China between who constitutes a terrorist and who constitutes someone who has simply been politically active,” Small said. “Individuals who are politically and economically linked to activities they find problematic” are likely to be targeted, he said.
The uncertain future of Uyghurs in Afghanistan caught the attention of Abdul Aziz Naseri, a Uyghur activist born in Afghanistan and now living in Turkey. Mr. Abdul Aziz said he compiled a list of around 500 Afghan Uyghurs who wish to leave the country.
“They say to me, ‘Please save our future, please save our children,’” he said.
He shared the names and photographs of these people with The New York Times, but requested that their information be kept confidential. At least 73 people on the list appeared to be under 5 years old.
Shabnam, a 32-year-old Uyghur, her mother and two sisters managed to leave Afghanistan last month. Women rushed to Kabul airport during the frenzied evacuation of the United States. Her sisters got on one flight, her mother on another. Shabnam said she was the last to leave.
In an interview, she described being separated from her husband as she walked through chaotic airport security lines. She was holding her passport and begged the security guards to hand it over to her. No one helped, she says.
Shabnam waited for her husband for four days, while people around her at the airport encouraged her to leave.
She finally did – boarding a US military plane with hundreds of other Afghans late last month. Her trip took her to Qatar, Germany and finally the United States, where she landed on August 26. She is now in New Jersey and still trying to get her husband out of Afghanistan.
“I was happy to be out of there, thank goodness,” Shabnam said. “I like it here. It’s safe and secure.
Nilo tabrizy contributed reports.