A Uighur refugee in Delhi longs for home

(First published in Open magazine on 16 July 2009.)

Ey pekir Uighur, oyghan! (Hey poor Uighur, wake up!)
— Abduhalik Uyghur (1901–1933), killed by a Chinese warlord for inciting Uighur nationalism through poetry

Kashmir ke peechey hamara mulk hai (Beyond Kashmir lies my homeland),” says Abdullah Dawood, 49, seated at a guest house in Nizamuddin. It is a room rented by a fellow Uighur on a visit to Delhi from his place of exile, Istanbul. “Just beyond the Karakoram Pass,” specifies the visitor, Osman Uzturuk.

Uzturuk speaks in Turkic, and Abdullah translates: “In the olden days, much before India’s independence, we had great links with India.”

As Uzturuk fills us in about the riots in China’s western Xinjiang province that began on 5 July, Abdullah’s mind returns to that night 12 years ago in the old city of Ghulja, officially known as Yining. It was 5 February 1997: Abdullah, who ran a grocery store, gave up both prudence and silence on politics. He joined a freedom rally. The protests were sparked by the regime’s execution of 30 Uighur independence activists, accompanied by a crackdown on attempts to revive banned elements of Uighur culture (such as traditional gatherings called meshrep). The People’s Liberation Army moved in swiftly to crush the demonstrations, killing nine.

What drew Abdullah to join those protests was China’s enforcement of the two-child norm. Abdullah had four daughters and had just adopted a son, and though he could get away with bribes, those who couldn’t had to see their children put to death, he claims. Any kind of public dissent in China is dangerous, all the more so if exercised by people tagged as separatists for their distinct culture, ethnic origin (Turkic), religion (Islam) and yearning for lives less suffocated by Communist Party impositions.

The 1997 sloganeering, Abdullah knew, would not go unpunished. Plain-clothes men had made videos and taken pictures of the rallies, and he got wind that soldiers would come to pay him the customary midnight knock. Chances of escaping an ordeal were not estimated to be high. Abdullah would be just another statistic, someone who had ‘disappeared’, on some dusty noticeboard. Disappear he would, he resolved, but on his own terms. So he fled. First to Ürümqi (pronounced Oroomchi), the province’s capital 800 km away, and then to Tibet, and from there to Nepal. In 2003, while Nepal was threatening to deport him to China—despite his refugee certificate from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—he came to India.


Xinjiang is Mandarin for ‘new territory’, and has been inhabited by followers of Islam for centuries. Uighurs, who call themselves ‘Turki’, have a separatist movement calling for a free East Turkestan. The province is part of a vast swathe in Central Asia, once called Turkestan, that lay along the ancient Silk Route and is currently divided among Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. Culturally, the Turkic-speaking Uighurs of Xinjiang identify with their neighbours to the west. “All the nations Russia had captured are free today,” remarks Abdullah, “Only we are still chained.”

Uighurs have a long history of political assertion. Under the Qing dynasty, even before the formation of the People’s Republic of China under Mao, Uighurs had staged a series of armed uprisings to free themselves of Chinese overlordship. In recent decades, Communist China’s strategy to quell separatism involves a mix of co-option and coercion vis-a-vis Uighurs, and demographic alteration across the landscape; the majority Han Chinese are given incentives to settle in Xinjiang. Given the army presence, the Uighur sense of being under siege has given rise to further unrest. There are an estimated 7 million Han Chinese in the area today, and 8 million Uighurs. The capital Ürümqi is three-fourths Han Chinese now, and only 16 per cent Uighur. “These Chinese census figures are lies,” insists Abdullah, “There are only 2.5 million of us left there.”

There are other figures that the man in exile contests. “The Chinese government says only 184 died,” he says, “But my friends in Istanbul say it was 3,000.” The recent violence began in Ürümqi, when local police tried to squash a rally protesting the alleged lynching of a couple of Uighur workers—accused falsely of rape—in a toy factory in faraway Guangdong. The rallyists turned on not just the police but Han civilians as well, which brought down a still mightier force. In Abdullah’s telling, the Han backlash was severe.


Abdullah refuses to be photographed, fearful that his family back home might have to pay the price for his outspokenness in Delhi. Even otherwise, he constantly worries about his family’s safety, though they live 800 km away from Ürümqi, still tense. Over the years, there has been little contact, and Abdullah is unfamiliar with the Internet. Between the violence that led to Abdullah’s exile and the riots last week, there have been many such instances. Says Abdullah, “There have been instances when they deliberately organise rallies by their informers amongst us to see who comes out, and then those persons disappear. Bodies are found months later. All this never comes out.” He speaks incessantly of Chinese brutality, of zulm, claiming that Uighurs are not even given the right of assembly, their human rights routinely violated and culture crushed. When the Olympic torch arrived in Delhi on 17 April 2008, says Abdullah, Tibetans were allowed to voice their protest, but he, a lone Uighur in Delhi, was detained at a police station in Seelampur in North-east Delhi. “The Chinese had told them that Uighurs are terrorists. But the police were very nice to me. I called a friend and got addresses of websites that document Chinese torture on us. The officer couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw those images,” he says.

Given the atheism of communist dogma, religion is frowned upon in China. Beards were disallowed, says Abdullah, while the syllabus in Islamic schools was regulated and the Quran could be published only under state supervision. Since 9/11, he complains, repression has found a new cloak with Uighurs branded as terrorists. It only adds to their alienation.

“There’s a reason why Chinese oppression is so brutal,” assesses Abdullah, “They don’t believe in God and fear no one. They eat rats, frogs, dogs and monkeys!” The disgust changes to ridicule as he adds: “Even donkeys!”

Abdullah’s friend from Istanbul is similarly exiled, and both say that life under Chinese rule would be unbearable. And it is dangerous to talk too much, no matter where they are. All it took was a snap in a Kathmandu paper in 2003 for the Chinese to bring pressure to bear on the Himalayan kingdom. Four Uighurs were rounded up for repatriation to China. Abdullah got away. Along with seven others, he escaped to Delhi. They have since been resettled by the UNHCR in Sweden. It’s been years and Abdullah is waiting for his turn too. It’s the heat in Delhi that gets to him. “My home was colder than Kashmir,” he says, cutting coriander leaves.

“In Nepal we got enough money from the UNHCR to live by, but here we get only 2,245 rupees a month,” says Abdullah. India does not allow employment for international refugees. He survives on Uighur and Turkish businessmen from Istanbul who come to buy scarves, shawls and cushion covers, selling them in Istanbul at thrice the price. Abdullah, who has picked up enough Hindustani, helps them with translation and bargaining, in lieu of a commission. That’s how he pays for accommodation in Delhi.

Doesn’t he long to be among his own? When friends from Istanbul bring him traditional naan and cook mutton without Indian spices, he finds nostalgia taking over—he asks them to take him away. It is from one of them that he got the number of Washington-based Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress, whom China has accused of fomenting trouble these past few days. “I keep calling her and she has promised help in resettling me,” he says, “India is good, but there’s no Turki here. I get very lonely.” Freedom, he concedes, will never come in his lifetime. “I am prepared to die here.”