Afghanistan's Uyghurs fear the Taliban, and now China too

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An Afghan street vendor in Mazar-i-Sharif. The city is home to a small community of Uyghurs.Image source, AFP
Image caption,
An Afghan street vendor in Mazar-i-Sharif. The city is home to a small community of Uyghurs.

Earlier this week, as the dust began to settle on the Taliban's blistering takeover of Afghanistan, a small group gathered at a house in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The guests arrived discreetly, in ones and twos, keen to avoid attention.

They were elders from the city's Uyghur community, plus some family members and others who joined from different cities via Skype. The mood in the house was fearful. There was only one topic of conversation: escape.

A middle aged man began making calls to activists in Turkey, seeking help. One didn't answer. Another one who did pick up said he would do everything he could for them, but right now there was not much he could do.

The group urged the man calling to keep trying, keep making more calls, but there was no good news. Eventually, after nightfall, the guests left, as carefully as they had arrived, even more despondent than before.

"We have no one to help us right now," one told the BBC after the meeting. "We are terrified," he said. "Everyone is terrified."

Like millions of other Afghans, the country's Uyghurs are waking up to a different reality this week, one in which the Taliban is in charge. Like other Afghans, the Uyghurs fear a worse existence under the Taliban. But they also fear something else: greater influence for China.

There are about 12 million Uyghurs in China, concentrated in the northwestern Xinjiang province. Since 2017, they and other Muslim minorities have been subjected to a state campaign of mass detention, surveillance, forced labour, and, according to some accounts, sterilisation, torture and rape. China routinely denies all human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and says its camps are vocational centres designed to combat extremism.

Many of Afghanistan's Uyghurs - thought to number about 2,000 - are second generation immigrants whose parents fled China many decades ago, long before the current crackdown began. But their Afghan ID cards still say "Uyghur" or "Chinese refugee", and they fear that if China enters the vacuum left by the US, they could be targeted.

"That is the biggest fear for Uyghurs in Afghanistan now," said a Uyghur man in his fifties in Kabul, who said his family had not left their house since the Taliban took power. "We fear the Taliban will help China control our movements, or they will arrest us and hand us over to China," he said.

All the Uyghurs in Afghanistan who spoke to the BBC said they had been effectively hiding at home since the Taliban seized the country, communicating only occasionally by phone.

"We are like a living dead people now," said another Uyghur man in Kabul. "Too scared even to go outside."

A father in Mazar-i-Sharif described hiding in the house with his wife, children and extended family.

"It's been 10 days now sitting at home, our lives are on hold," he said. "It is written clearly on our ID cards that we are Uyghur."

Image source, Getty
Image caption,
A facility in China's Xinjiang region believed to be a detention camps for Uyghurs

The fear of China is not unfounded. The Chinese state has in recent years extended its crackdown on the Uyghurs beyond its borders, using aggressive tactics to silence people or in some cases detain and render them back to Xinjiang. Data published in June by the Uyghur Human Rights Project suggests at least 395 Uyghurs have been deported, extradited, or rendered since 1997, though the real figure may be much higher.

"China has invested heavily and established close diplomatic relations with states in central Asia, and the result is Uyghurs in those countries being targeted by local police and Chinese agents," said Mehmet Tohti, a prominent Uyghur activist in Canada. "We know from those previous examples that close diplomatic ties with China results in persecution of Uyghurs."

China may be considering a similar strategy with the Taliban. The alliance is unlikely in some ways - the Taliban has some historic connections with Uyghur militants, the very forces China says pose a threat to its security. But the Taliban also has a history of cooperation with China, which shares a short land border with Afghanistan, and analysts say the superpower's ability to provide technology and infrastructure - and lend legitimacy - to a new Taliban regime would likely trump any kind of solidarity with Uyghurs.

"China's belt and road project has given it a lot of economic leverage over countries with which it cooperates, and in exchange Uyghurs are often scapegoated," said Bradley Jardine, an analyst who has studied China's economic and political presence abroad.

"The Taliban will be hoping for economic concessions and much needed investment from China, and Afghanistan's Uyghurs could, to put it crudely, end up a bargaining chip."

In July, China invited a senior Taliban delegation to Tianjin, where foreign minister Wang Yi said he expected the group "to play an important role in the country's peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process". The Taliban pledged they would "not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China".

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in July

The Uyghurs in Afghanistan know about this meeting - news of the growing diplomatic relationship has spread through Ugyhur communities across the country. And they know about China's recent history of pursuing Uyghurs abroad.

"We all know about the Taliban relationship with China, and we fear they will come first for the people who fled," said a Uyghur woman in Mazar-i-Sharif who grew up in Xinjiang.

"We have stopped shopping or leaving the house at all," she said. "We are living in fear. We need help. Please help."

Unlike some other potentially at-risk groups in Afghanistan, the Uyghurs do not have a state ally to work on their behalf - a fact which might make them more vulnerable under Taliban rule.

"This is a community without state representation of any sort," said Sean Roberts, a professor at George Washington University and author of The War on the Uyghurs. "They are watching other countries lift out people who are either citizens or have some sort or ethnic connection - Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, etc. But the Uyghurs, I think, must feel like nobody speaks for them right now."

Efforts are being made by non-governmental groups to get Uyghurs out, but they face the same obstacles as everyone else. Abdulaziz Naseri, a Uyghur refugee living in Turkey, told the BBC he had collected a list of names with the help of Uyghurs inside the country and was submitting it via activist groups to government officials in the US, UK and Turkey. "We are doing our best to get them out," Naseri said.

But in Mazar-i-Sharif, many miles from Kabul, getting out feels like a long shot. Even in the unlikely scenario a family were offered seats on a flight out of the capital, it's a two-day journey by car, through Taliban checkpoints where they fear presenting their ID.

"As a Muslim, we say having no hope is the devil's mindset," said the father in Mazar-i-Sharif.

"But from the time I was born in Afghanistan, all I remember is war. Forty years of war, one after another," he said. "I no longer worry about myself, only my children, especially my daughters. I had hoped they would become educated and become doctors."

None of the family has ever set foot in China. They have only read about the detention camps and the alleged abuses in Xinjiang. The father fears life under the Taliban because he can remember it. "But we fear China more," he said, "because we cannot imagine it."