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They Fled China Decades Ago. Now, They Must Flee The Taliban In Afghanistan

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Tens of thousands of Afghans tried to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover - among them, a small community of ethnic Uyghurs. They escaped persecution in China decades ago, settling in Afghanistan. Now they're trying to flee the Taliban amid fears that the militant group will send them back to China. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In 1976, Abdul Aziz Naseri's parents packed up as many of their belongings as they could and left their home in Yarkant, a county in southern Xinjiang. Several dozen Uyghur families went with them.

ABDUL AZIZ NASERI: Because of cruelty of Chinese communists there, they killed many, many - a lot of Uyghurs. They didn't give the permission of prayer.

FENG: From Yarkant, they walked across the snowcapped Pamir Mountains separating Xinjiang and Afghanistan, then down into the Wakhan Corridor.

NASERI: On horses - they're riding on the horses and then came to Badakshan. Then after that, they go to capital of Kabul.

FENG: The Uyghurs were farmers and traders back in Xinjiang, but they had to start new lives. Many of them found jobs in export-import, restaurants or tailoring. They became Afghan citizens. Muhammad (ph) is another one of those citizens. His parents left Xinjiang's Ghulja, or Yining city in Chinese, and came to Afghanistan in 1961. And during the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, life improved.

MUHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) I started a business selling precious gems. My wife became a doctor. My eldest daughter was about to graduate with a university degree in law, my son with a journalism degree.

FENG: Finally, Muhammad thought, he'd found a home, until the Taliban took over this year.

MUHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) We have all the same fears of the Taliban and the chaos that other Afghans have. But we also fear the Taliban will send us back to China.

FENG: Where the government is detained and jailed hundreds of thousands of them. We're using only Muhammad's first name because he fears for his family's safety. China believes Muslim Uyghurs want to split from China and are sympathetic to global jihadist groups, and that without U.S. troops in the region, Uyghur fighters could train in Afghanistan to then attack China. In July, China's foreign minister met with the Taliban, who pledged they would stop any Uyghur terrorists.

Some Uyghurs have traveled to Syria and Afghanistan to fight with extremist groups, but there's no evidence those fighters have ever managed to attack China. There's also little evidence that they share the hardline ideology of the Taliban or other radical groups.

SEAN ROBERTS: Most Uyghurs don't profess the same sort of Islam that the Taliban does.

FENG: This is Sean Roberts, a Georgetown University professor who has studied the Uyghurs.

ROBERTS: They're 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 Sharia law as the ultimate authority in their lives.

FENG: But China's fears that Uyghurs in Afghanistan might have links with terrorism have been hard to shake off. In 2001, the U.S. captured 22 Uyghurs in Afghanistan who they suspected were working with al-Qaida and sent them to Guantanamo Bay.

ROBERTS: Most of the Uyghurs who ended up in Guantanamo Bay were basically sold by Pakistani bounty hunters to the U.S. government. And they were interrogated for years, in some cases, before the U.S. realized that these people were not a threat to the U.S. or really to anybody.

FENG: Uyghurs do have a long history in Afghanistan. Rian Thum, historian of legal culture at the University of Manchester, says for centuries, Uyghurs frequently traveled to the Middle East and Central Asia, but as merchants and on pilgrimages to Mecca.

RIAN THUM: With the arrival of the People's Republic of China in 1949, a lot of movement stops. But before that, the movement of caravans and individuals even across really high mountain ranges was extremely common.

FENG: Now Uyghurs of Afghanistan are on the move again, as Muhammad, the Uyghur gem trader, contemplates leaving.

MUHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) My parents lived through years of war, and now I must suffer through war once again. My only hope now is my children.

FENG: His wish is to send his children to a place where they can be educated and be able to live in peace. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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