Exiled Uighurs in Turkey say they are anxious for loved ones in China
Ankara's words on plight of Uighur community may ring empty
At first glance, Istanbul’s 58th Boulevard has all the characteristics of a typical Turkish area.
On the southern flank of the Zeytinburnu neighbourhood, it is lined by the same banks, cafes and pharmacies as any other shopping street in Turkey’s largest city.
It is the passers-by, wrapped up warm against the February wind, that identify it as the heart of Turkey’s Uighur diaspora, a Muslim minority from China’s north-west Xinjiang region.
Elderly men with long, wispy beards chat on benches, their traditional felt hats pulled down against the cold, as boys wearing doppas – square-shaped, embroidered skull caps – run past.
It is in this working-class district near Ataturk airport that concern for friends and relatives in China is felt acutely.
Last week their spirits were lifted when Ankara issued a statement on the plight of Xinjiang’s Uighurs.
In recent years Beijing has increased surveillance of the Uighur population. Hundreds of thousands have reportedly been jailed, often for claimed threats to national security.
China's President Xi Jinping ordered security forces to "strike first" against extremism in 2014 after a deadly bomb blast in Urumqi and other attacks across China.
The rise in violence followed reports of thousands of Uighurs fighting in Syria for Al Qaeda-linked groups and ISIS, raising Chinese concerns about returning fighters.
The Turkistan Islamic Movement, a separatist organisation of Uighurs who seek a "caliphate" for Xinjiang and eventually Central Asia, has been fighting in Syria.
It has been designated a terrorist organisation by the EU, US, UK and other countries.
In his statement, Turkish foreign affairs spokesman Hami Aksoy called for an end to the “human tragedy” in the north-western region and said at least a million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim minorities were in internment camps.
Uighur dissidents claim a higher figure for those interned, while China denies allegations of torture in camps, which they say are “re-education centres”.
Mr Aksoy’s statement was widely welcomed by Turkey’s 20,000 Uighurs after a period of public silence regarding the fate of their cousins.
In particular, a reference to “our kinsmen and citizens of Uighur origin” who “cannot get news from their relatives in the region” gave a glimmer of hope to those in Zeytinburnu.
Many of those who spoke to The National described the frustration of not knowing what had happened to family members in Xinjiang.
“My family has been missing for more than four years,” said Ekber Kazak as he gestured to an arrangement of photos of missing relatives set up in the street.
“I got word two years ago that one of my brothers was in a camp but I don’t know about the others.”
He has not heard from his father Sabir Omer, 70, his mother Tacigul Abdulkadir, 68, or a second brother and his wife and son.
“I don’t know if they are alive or dead,” Mr Kazak, 45, said. “I don’t know where they are.
"The last contact I had with them was by telephone four years ago. I heard my brother was taken away after speaking to me on the phone.”
Turks claim kinship to Xinjiang’s 11 million Uighurs, and other nationalities across Central Asia, through shared cultural, ethnic and linguistic heritage.
In 2009, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned rioting in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, which was his first stop during a visit to China three years later.
Despite that Turkey’s relations with China have gone from strength to strength, with bilateral trade reaching $26 billion a year.
China has invested huge amounts in Turkey as Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative seeks to recreate the Silk Road trade route that once spanned Asia.
With such large sums dependent on smooth relations with China, there had been concerns that Turkey, which is in economic turmoil, was putting Uighur rights aside.
But there are worrying signs for the diaspora. Mr Cengiz said about 200 people have been ordered to report regularly to the Turkish police after China identified them as agitators.
Another 80 Uighurs are being held in detention in Turkey awaiting deportation as illegal immigrants, he said.
The Turkish statement on human rights abuses in Xinjiang followed reports this month of the death of a popular Uighur musician.
China later released a video showing the musician, Abdurehim Heyit, alive and well.
Kutluk Kagan Sumer, president of the Turkic Human Rights Association in Istanbul, said the statement and the purportedly contradictory video could undermine Turkish support for Uighurs.
“When people saw the government speak out about Uighur rights and Abdurehim Heyit they were happy, but in the future, people will have doubts about the situation and wonder if they are being manipulated.”
But the incident sparked a reaction among overseas Uighurs who are calling on China to provide video evidence of their relatives’ well-being.
The #MeTooUyghur social media campaign has emerged as a tool to seek news of loved ones, document the identities of detainees and put pressure on Beijing.
In Zeytinburnu, Iskiyar Abdurrahim, 27, longs for news of his grandfather, mother, father and two sisters.
Of his extended family, he claims almost 100 are behind bars.
Mr Abdurrahim said he fled to Turkey through Egypt in 2014 after having seen all the male members of his family thrown in jail. He claimed one uncle was tortured.
He called on the international community to “protect our people".
An earlier version of thisarticle referred to China’s Xinjiang province as East Turkestan. This is incorrect. There was also no clarification on the Turkistan Islamic Movement fighting in Syria, or its designation as a terrorist organisation. This has been added to clarify to the reader the complexity of the issue
Updated: February 21, 2019 05:05 AM