“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.
So when the news came out about the mass detentions in China, Atawulla was stunned to see the Turkish government remain silent.
Until now, Turkey was not only one of the only nations speaking out for the Uighurs’ plight, but it had also maintained an open-door policy toward them.
Following Mao Zedong’s invasion of the region referred to by Uighurs as “East Turkestan” in 1949, Turkey took in its first wave of Uighur refugees. In 1952, about 1,850 of them were re-settled in designated areas in the cities of Istanbul and Kayseri. In 1961, Turkey accepted another 2,000 Uighur families who had first fled to Afghanistan after being driven out of China by a decree stating that those with a foreign-born parent must leave.
Neighborhoods such as Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu came to be known as Uighur areas, rife with restaurants serving the community’s customary laghman and pilaf.
Among these émigrés was Isa Alptekin, the de facto leader of the Uighur nationalist movement in exile for most of the 20th century. The Turkish government sheltered Alptekin until his death in 1995.
“Since the times of Ataturk, it had been a lot easier for us to move here and obtain citizenship compared to other immigrants,” contends Erkin Emet, a professor of the Uighur language at the University of Ankara and secretary of the World Uighur Congress, a Munich-based organization founded in 2006.
In 2009, after violent riots broke out between Han Chinese and Uighurs in Urumqi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, likened the ill treatment of the Uighurs to genocide. In January 2015, Turkey intervened in Thailand to rescue 500 Uighurs who had escaped from China and were spotted by Thai police in a human smuggling camp. At that time, China accused Turkish consular services of helping Uighurs escape from Thailand and Malaysia by providing them with fake passports.
More recently, though, Ankara seems to have given up on the Turks' Uighur brothers.
“For a few years, Turkey has stopped distributing passports or residency permits to Uighurs,” Emet says. “Now, we’re subject to the same rules as any other immigrants.”
The president has also ceased to fulminate against the Chinese "oppressors" and pro-government media outlets now blatantly ignore Uighur-related news.
This drastic change in policy goes hand in hand with a rapprochement between Turkey and China. As the Turkish government deepens economic ties with its Chinese counterpart through the Belt and Road Initiative and by welcoming direct investment, it appears to be yielding to pressure from Beijing.
“After the economic crisis here, the Chinese government granted Turkey a loan of $3.6 billion,” remarks Emet. “That’s why no one reacted to the atrocities in the camps.”
Like many Uighurs, Abduweli Ayup feels betrayed by their traditional patron. “The Chinese persecute us because we eat Turkish food, wear Turkish clothes and sing Turkish songs,” he says in a cafe in Fatih, a stone’s throw from Istanbul’s historic quarter.
“Erdogan always says he defends the Muslims who are oppressed in the world. So why isn’t he doing anything for us?” he adds vociferously, attracting stares from Arab tourists a few tables away.
A linguist, Ayup had worked to set up a network of Uighur-language schools until his arrest in August 2013. He was jailed on charges of taking part in separatist activities before being released in November 2014. Still, his schools were shut down and Chinese officials closely watched each move he made.
Ayup moved to Turkey in 2015 hoping to find some respite, but to no avail. During his last interview with a journalist, he realized two Chinese spies were sitting behind him. And as Ayup was followed and threatened, his cries for help to Turkish officials fell on deaf ears.
“They bother me all the time asking me to go back to China. The Chinese Embassy canceled my passport so the spies blackmail me, saying they’ll renew it if I cooperate. I can’t ask the police here for protection; it’s an open fact that calling them is useless.”
Now effectively stateless, Ayup is stuck in Turkey, though he does not feel safe there. He fears the Turkish authorities will collaborate more actively with Chinese intelligence and would immediately leave for Germany if he could.
Two months ago, he found out his two sisters and one of his brothers had been thrown into camps. The topic brings him to tears.
When asked why he thinks Turkey has let his people down, Ayup pauses and sighs. “Money is evil,” he said.