BEIJING — In 1961, Muhammad’s then-teenage parents loaded as many belongings as they could onto yaks and horses, then set off walking toward the snow-tipped Pamir mountains. Their destination: Afghanistan.
They were among hundreds of Uyghurs who have fled northwest China’s Xinjiang region to Afghanistan since the 1950s. The Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic minority, made the arduous trek along ancient pilgrimage and trade routes to the neighboring country to escape religious and political persecution under the Chinese government.
They settled all over Afghanistan, raised families, and created new lives for themselves as Afghan citizens.
Now, like thousands of other Afghan citizens, they are desperate to leave Afghanistan as the Taliban cement their hold on the country. Except Uyghurs say they face another threat: deportation by the Taliban to China, which has arbitrarily detained vast numbers of them and subjected them to tough religious restrictions, forced labor and even forced sterilization. The Chinese authorities deny allegations of human rights abuses and say they are working to prevent a Uyghur insurgency.
“We are afraid of the Taliban, but we are also afraid of China,” says Muhammad, 45, from his home in Kabul. NPR is only using one of his names because he fears speaking out will bring retaliation from the Taliban or Chinese authorities.
A Taliban visit to China alarmed Afghan Uyghurs
China has long accused separatists loosely linked to the East Turkestan Independence Movement, a militant group that seeks to make an independent state for Uyghurs, of attempting to foment attacks on Chinese soil. The Chinese government blames the ETIM for violent attacks in China in the late 1990s and at its embassy in Kyrgyzstan in 2016.
Uyghurs have traveled to Syria and Afghanistan and fought alongside insurgents there. Last week, the Islamic State in Khorasan said a Uyghur member of the militant group was involved in the suicide bombing of a mosque in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province that killed dozens of worshipers.
But there is no sign the Taliban have incorporated Uyghur fighters into their forces. Experts say the Taliban have actually worked with the governments of Pakistan and China over the last two decades to monitor Uyghur fighter groups in the region.
Nonetheless, with most American troops now gone from the region, China fears Uyghur separatist fighters could train in Afghanistan to then attack China and has sought assurances from the Taliban to prevent this from happening. In July, China welcomed a top Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the coastal city of Tianjin. There, the Taliban delegation pledged it would not allow any group harmful to China’s interests, including ETIM, to use Afghan soil to train.
The Taliban visit worried Uyghurs in Afghanistan, who fear China will push the Islamist group to deport them. It would not be the first time, according to Uyghur advocates, who say the Chinese government has successfully pressured other countries to forcibly return Uyghurs to China, where they are at high risk of detention or imprisonment.
Uyghurs say they’re already being harassed by Afghanistan’s new leaders. “The Taliban is coming to my relative’s house and asking about her daughters,” says Abdul Aziz Naseri, a 27-year-old Uyghur born in Kabul, which made the family worry that Taliban fighters might force the daughters to marry them. “That’s why they are very afraid to live there.”
Naseri’s parents fled the Xinjiang town of Yarkand and crossed into Afghanistan with a caravan of several dozen other families in 1976. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan three years later, his parents moved to Pakistan. Naseri himself has relocated to Istanbul, Turkey.
Naseri has made a list of about 500 Uyghurs who want to leave Afghanistan for destinations like Turkey, Pakistan or anywhere that would take them. They include four of his uncles and an aunt, as well as dozens of cousins who are stuck in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north.
So far, since the Taliban returned to power in August, Naseri says he knows of only one Uyghur who managed to leave Afghanistan — a woman who made it to Italy.
Uyghurs historically migrated to Afghanistan
Long before Naseri’s and Muhammad’s parents departed for Afghanistan, the country had already been home to Uyghurs for centuries.
“Most Uyghurs don’t profess to the same sort of Islam that the Taliban does,” says Sean Roberts, a Georgetown University professor who has studied the Uyghurs. “[Uyghurs are] much more focused on gender equity in terms of their children’s career path and future. They may be religious, but they are not focused on Shariah law as the ultimate authority in their lives.”
Well-established family, trade and pilgrimage networks connecting communities in China and Afghanistan were in large part why many Uyghurs leaving Communist Party-ruled China chose Afghanistan as a refuge.
Yet Uyghurs have faced difficulties shaking officials’ suspicions they are working with and sympathetic to militants. In 2001, the United States captured 22 Uyghurs in Afghanistan suspected of working with al-Qaida and sent them to Guantánamo Bay.
Roberts says most of the Uyghurs who ended up in the Guantánamo detention center were economic migrants who were actually sold by Pakistani bounty hunters to the U.S. government. “They were interrogated for months and months, and years in some cases, before the U.S. realized that these people were not a threat to the U.S. or really to anybody,” he says.
While most Uyghurs still live within modern China’s borders, for centuries before, they frequently crossed the Wakhan corridor to Afghanistan and beyond, as international merchants and on pilgrimages to Mecca.
“With the arrival of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, a lot of that movement stops,” says Rian Thum, a professor at England’s University of Manchester who studies Uyghur cultural history. “But before that, the movement of caravans and individuals — even across really high mountain ranges and really long ocean distances — was extremely common.”
Omer Khan, the director of a Uyghur advocacy group based in Pakistan, estimates he has contact with as many as 80 Uyghur families living in Afghanistan, largely in the country’s north, but an exact total number of the community in the country is unknown.
Life’s on hold since the Taliban returned
Among them are Muhammad and his relatives. His parents and grandparents were part of a community of Uyghur farmers and merchants in Ghulja, or Yining in Chinese, a city in northern Xinjiang. But they sought to escape ethnic discrimination and religious persecution under communist rule by making a daring bid: a trek through China’s narrow border with Afghanistan, through one of the highest mountain ranges in the world.
They survived and settled down briefly in Kabul before uprooting to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, like Naseri’s family did. Muhammad did not return to Kabul until 2002, after the U.S. military flushed out the last shred of Taliban control.
Life was good for the nearly two decades afterward, especially for the women in Muhammad’s family. He set up a gem trading business. His wife, a doctor, had a job at an Afghan government hospital. His son is currently studying journalism. His eldest daughter finished her law degree this year.
But their lives were put on hold after the Taliban swept back into power this summer.
During the Shiite holiday of Ashura in mid-August, Muhammad convened an urgent family meeting. Panicked relatives made desperate proposals to smuggle themselves into Iran or Pakistan. Muhammad decided his priority is now to send his five children, ages 12 to 24, to any stable country that will take them.
But the family remains stuck in Afghanistan.
“My parents lived through years of war, and now I must suffer through war once again,” says Muhammad. “My only wish is to bring my children to a place where they will be able to live in peace and receive an education.”