Iminjin Qari felt upbeat as he drove to Istanbul’s airport with three empty buses and a simple task: pick up about 200 fellow Uighurs who had fled China for asylum in Turkey — and escort them to safety.
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Qari, a Uighur emigre and community worker, planned to take the newcomers back to the city of Kayseri, where the Turkish government had set aside empty apartments for their resettlement. As he approached the terminal, his heart sank. About 20 burly Uighurs were already there, greeting the refugees as they trickled out. They were recruiters for Islamic militant groups.
“Just come with us,” the men said. “It’s all arranged: housing, money, everything.”
Qari could only watch as the new arrivals — men, women and children — wrangled their possessions into vans and headed toward the paradise they had been promised: Syria.
As Uighurs flee a Chinese security crackdown in droves, they often end up caught in a tug-of-war between militant Uighur members of Syria-based Islamic groups and moderate leaders of the Uighur diaspora who plead with them to reject calls of jihad.
Extensive Associated Press interviews detail the daily battle some Uighur activists are fighting against the radicalization of their people, members of a Muslim ethnic minority who live in China under heavy surveillance and the constant fear of arrest. In Turkey, religious extremism has peeled away young Uighur men and entire families from Istanbul’s immigrant neighborhoods, from gritty central Anatolian suburbs — sometimes from right outside the airport.
The war in Syria has thrust an ethnic minority from the far reaches of China into the center of the global jihadi movement. Several thousand Uighur men, women and children are estimated to have crossed the border to join the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), an ethnic Uighur militia allied with Al-Qaida on the front lines of the fighting .
“We are losing the deradicalization battle,” said Seyit Tumturk, a Uighur activist, said in a recent interview in Kayseri. “Why? Because we cannot convince our people that hope and human rights exists in the world.”
Around the time Qari watched the jihadi recruiters whisk Uighurs from the airport in 2015, the TIP announced a string of suicide attacks in Syria. That September, Uighurs bombed a downtown Bangkok shrine filled with tourists. Last year, the head of al-Qaida began denouncing China as “atheist occupiers” and courted Uighur fighters in recruitment videos.
The spread of extremism has alarmed many exiled Uighur leaders, who condemn violence and say it will lead their people’s ruin. But they’re confronted by a young generation who see no future under one of the world’s most powerful authoritarian governments and feel ignored by the rest of the world.
The Uighurs are wrestling over decades-old questions: Do we seek freedom with peace or violence? Is our path forward secular or Islamist?
Who will help us face the might of the People’s Republic of China?
Glimpse of freedom
On the outskirts of Kayseri in central Anatolia, the parched, rock-strewn hills resemble the southern swathes of the Uighur homeland in western China, but a fenced compound of five-story concrete towers represents Tumturk’s vision of Uighur freedom — and everything China is not.
In a classroom next to a basketball court, young Uighur boys take Quranic lessons that are forbidden for children in China. Girls in a separate building are taught by women wearing conservative niqab face veils banned back home. Uighur, a Turkic language often written in a modified Arabic script, is freely taught here at a time when Chinese schools in Xinjiang are increasingly enforcing Mandarin-only education.
“Here is a place where they can practice their religion, where kids are going to school, where they have a home. This is our triumph,” said Tumturk, the son of a Uighur village chief who first led a group of exiles out of China on foot in 1954 and settled in Kayseri. The local government handed him the keys to a deserted apartment compound once occupied by police cadets.
Uighurs have fled China through a perilous underground railroad, crossing several Southeast Asian countries and landing in Turkey in search of basic freedoms like the ones offered by the community in Kayseri for years. Many say Chinese police checkpoints, frequent home raids, secret detentions and curbs on religion have made life increasingly unbearable.
Others say propaganda by overseas militant groups beckoned Uighurs to Syria to train with weapons and liberate the resource-rich expanse the size of Iran that’s marked on maps by the Chinese name — Xinjiang — but Uighurs call East Turkistan.
In Turkey, Tumturk works with Qari, a gregarious 35-year-old, who serves as imam, traditional herbal doctor, and building supervisor to the Uighur community that now numbers more than 2,000.
When Qari leads Friday prayers, he throws in cautionary tales about Uighurs who went to Syria but couldn’t come back. There was the rich Uighur who couldn’t leave the Turkistan Islamic Party until his family handed over his luxury car as ransom. There was a group of 10 Uighurs who tried to quit the Islamic State last year — but were caught fleeing and executed.
The stories, Qari admitted, “don’t do enough.”
Nearly all the residents AP spoke to know someone who decided to cross the porous border. They spoke on condition of anonymity or gave one name for fear of retribution against their families in China,
Tumturk says keeping people from leaving is an uphill battle. “We promise that you’ll have a voice as a Uighur here, that you’ll be a free man. But that’s not as attractive if they promise you money, a house. They say paradise is right in front of you, in Syria.”
History repeats itself
For Uighurs of a certain generation, a disastrous history is replaying before their eyes.
Adil Abdulghupur, a scruffy self-trained poet and religious scholar in Istanbul, saw his Uighur friends, acquaintances and former jail mates cross the Wakhan Corridor into Afghanistan in the ’80s hoping to find allies for Xinjiang’s liberation. In frequent lectures to younger Uighurs, he recalls how they pledged allegiance to anti-Soviet mujahideen and later the Taliban and al-Qaida but accomplished little except give the Chinese government reason to crack down on Uighurs.
“Because of terror organizations, Afghanistan is destroyed completely,” says Adil, a bearded 50-year-old who speaks with the moral authority of a man who spent 14 years in Chinese prison for publishing criticisms of the Communist Party.
Western analysts say it’s unclear whether overseas groups provide direct aid or support to Uighur militants inside China. Uighur assailants have in recent years hacked dozens of civilians to death at a busy train station in Kunming, driven a speeding vehicle into Tiananmen Square and set off crude explosives outside government buildings and markets. Chinese authorities have responded with a show of overwhelming force in Xinjiang.
“Do you want our homeland to become a second Afghanistan?” Adil says. “You’re being used as pawns and mercenaries to die for someone else.”
The effort to steer Uighur arrivals away from Syrian militants sometimes calls for creativity. Adil cuts a ubiquitous, shuffling presence in Istanbul along with Sabir Damolla, a straight-talking former importer who runs an afterschool center that doubles as an occasional soup kitchen.
They form a duo of sorts in Sefakoy, a grid of narrow streets next to Istanbul’s airport — lecturing at mosques, crashing weddings and funerals to give speeches and appearing on Istiqlal Media, a Uighur-language television station.
Their message is singular: Stay away from Syria.
Whenever Uighur refugee families, often poorly educated or illiterate, arrive in Istanbul, Adil and Damolla sit with them to explain what’s happening in Syria. By Damolla’s count, they’ve talked 400 people out of going to Syria and convinced dozens to come back. They personally know at least 30 who died on the battlefield.
Adil and Damolla can spot the Uighur jihadi recruiters swaggering in the streets in camouflage pants and Adidas sneakers, but they know they’re also watched.
“It’s like a bazaar,” Adil says. “We’re selling our ideas and they’re selling theirs.”
Because of his speeches around the neighborhood, Adil has been pushed around by muscle-bound young Islamic militants outside mosques and intimidated. He received a death threat by phone after he ridiculed an influential young Saudi cleric in Syria who has called on Uighurs to join the jihad.
Last year, local Uighurs pooled money together to help Adil rent 18 apartments in Sefakoy for several dozen families who regretted going to Syria and wanted to return.
Trouble soon came knocking. He explained to a group of threatening young Uighurs who showed up that some fighters had wanted to return. He held firm.
“These men in Syria will ruin our image, they’ll ruin everything,” Adil said. “The Chinese government through their media and diplomats try to show that Uighurs are terrorists, and, in that sense, the Chinese are winning.”
Hope and despair in Turkey
Even in the relative sanctuary of Turkey, Uighurs say they are isolated economically and engulfed by murky political currents.
In recent months, after Turkey reached agreements with China to crack down on militant activity, the jihadi recruiters have faded from view somewhat. Turkey has strengthened security on the border, making it harder to move back and forth, Uighurs say.
While Turkey has welcomed Uighur refugees, the bureaucracy churns against them after they arrive. Uighurs are considered stateless under Turkish law, unlike refugees from Syria or Iraq, and often unable to receive work permits, health insurance, or schooling for their children.
In the Uighur refugee compound in Kayseri, stories of poverty and despair abound. Men work — if they’re lucky — in local furniture factories and restaurants for about 1000 to 1,500 Turkish lira a month (roughly $300 to $440), far less than what a Turk would legally make and barely enough to survive. A 53-year-old woman told a reporter she was dying without health care, unable to pay $650 a month to treat her lymph disease.
In the abandoned apartments occupied by Uighurs, where hallway windows were shattered long ago but floors are swept clean, Fatima, 29, raises 3 children on flour, rice and vegetables. They haven’t had meat since May, when her husband was taken away by police. She says his arrest had nothing to do with militant groups — but like many cases here, the details are opaque.
In private moments, Fatima has wondered if the journey out of China was worth it. She recently explained to her 11-year-old daughter in seventh grade that because she was not officially a refugee, she didn’t receive certificates from school despite outperforming all of her classmates.
When her girl asked why they fled China to still live as second-class citizens in Turkey, she put on a brave face. “Turkey will protect our freedom and our religion,” she said. “This life is better.”
The day jihadi recruiters whisked away 170 Uighurs arriving from Thailand, the community worker Qari protested to airport police. They shrugged and responded that the Uighurs were free to leave with friends and relatives of their choosing. Qari, after all, had no way to prove that he acted in their best interests.
As he rode back in his near-empty bus, past the dry, rocky hills, he wept.
“We Uighurs are worth nothing to the world,” he thought to himself. “In China, we die. In Syria, we still die. We live without a name, and we die without a trace.”