“If you don’t come back home now, you’ll never be able to see your homeland again.” Memet Atawulla received the threatening message last May on WeChat, China’s main messaging app. Though written in the Uighur language, he immediately knew it had come from the Chinese secret services. “They wanted me to go back,” explains Atawulla, 31, as he sips a soda in one of Ankara’s glitzy cafes. Originally from the oasis town of Hotan in Xinjiang, northwest China, he moved to Turkey in 2016 to pursue a master’s degree on a scholarship program.
“When I told the agents I was staying here, they said they would leave me alone if I cooperated.” As with many Uighurs living abroad, the Chinese secret services asked Atawulla to become an informant for them. He refused, and is now certain traveling back home would result in his arrest.
Atawulla’s two younger brothers have already been placed in what China calls re-education camps. In March 2018, his mother was taken into custody. “That’s what they do to Uighurs who have family members in other countries,” he says, referring to the Chinese authorities.
His relatives are among the estimated 1 million Muslims — mostly Uighurs but also Kazakhs — who have been sent to internment camps since China tightened its grip on minorities in 2016. While Beijing insists the camps were set up to combat Islamic extremism, human rights organizations have decried them as indoctrination centers whose true objective is to subvert the identities of the country’s Turkic-speaking Muslim minorities and undermine their devotion to Islam.
Atawulla came to Turkey thinking its stance on the Uighur question was clear: enduring brotherhood.
Cultural and linguistic similarities have long united Turks and Uighurs, who view each other as distant if familiar cousins. Turkish nationalists regard Uighurs, along with the other Turkic peoples, as Turkey’s ethnic brethren. Because of such ties, Ankara had always been the prime defender of the Uighur cause on the world stage. Read more