Dreaming of Uighuristan

Malika and children
Image caption Malika and her children in Kazakhstan

The Uighurs of north-western China have long fled to neighbouring countries of Central Asia to escape restrictions on their freedom at home. But now - as China's influence grows across the region - campaigning for Uighur independence has become impossible in Central Asia too.

The outside world knows a lot about the Tibetans' historic struggle for independence, but much less about the Uighurs' dream of a state in Xinjiang, to the north of Tibet - Uighuristan, as they call it, or just Watan, meaning "homeland".

The last attempt to create such a state was crushed by the Chinese in 1949, prompting more than 60,000 Uighurs to cross the Soviet border into Central Asia in the years that followed.

Now about 350,000 live in the region, mostly in Kazakhstan, and until recently they were free to voice support for Uighur self-rule in Xinjiang.

But things have been changing, as China has poured investment into Central Asia, building oil and gas pipelines, railways, roads and cross-border trading zones.

"The Chinese influence in Central Asia is growing," says Kakharman Khozhamberdi, the Central Asian representative of the World Uighur Congress.

"They almost control Uighur society in Kazakhstan.

"Now talking of the Uighurs' problems in Xinjiang has become impossible. Whoever talks of them will be punished."

Khozhamberdi used to head a political party, but he says Kazakh officials have refused to register it for years. He can no longer travel to Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan - when he attempts to enter, he is turned back at the border.

But Uighurs in Kazakhstan still enjoy freedoms they are denied in China, where even their Muslim religion is viewed with suspicion.

Young Uighur men in Xingjiang are banned from having long beards, and under-18s may not attend prayers in the mosque - while women face restrictions on wearing the Islamic veil.

Even traditional cultural gatherings for men involving discussion, music and feasting are rarely allowed in China.

Image caption Making noodles in Kazakhstan

One Uighur immigrant to Kazakhstan, 43-year-old Malika, says she has noticed another change in the political climate - an increasing risk of extradition.

There have been a handful of examples, she says, of Uighurs visiting Central Asian countries who have been sent back, and she now fears for her own safety.

Malika (not her real name) fled to Kazakhstan in 2005 after her father and brother were jailed for attending anti-government demonstrations - and she was ordered to stop wearing a headscarf or face jail herself.

Initially she was given documents confirming her status as a refugee, but these, she says, have now been taken away. And despite her marriage to a Kazakh man, she feels uneasy.

"I'm too scared to go outside… I don't feel safe any more, because China is next door."

Equally, China itself feeling unsafe on account of a minority of Uighurs who are resorting to violence.

In the last few years there have been a number of bloody attacks including, in 2014, a mass stabbing at a railway station in south-west China, which left 29 dead and 130 injured, and an attack on a market in Xinjiang, which claimed 31 lives.

China says the perpetrators are linked to global jihadi networks. Whether this is true or not, some young Uighurs are indeed turning to radical Islam.

"Now radicalisation is present in every society and it stems from the fact that many people don't know or understand real Islam. They got the religion by the wrong end," says Sadriddin Ayupov, an imam dressed in Western clothes in the Uighur quarter of Almaty, the former Kazakh capital.

Asked for his views on the Uighurs resorting to violence in Xinjiang, he pauses.

"What cannot say why some Uighurs are resorting to terrorism," he says. "We haven't been to Xinjiang. Maybe they endured repressions. Maybe they lost their fathers or children?"

One of his methods of keeping young people on the right path is to get them to play sport - tennis and basketball courts are under construction in the courtyard of the mosque.

The way many Uighurs see it, the activities of a minority of militants are jeopardising their vision of an independent homeland, because it gives China a pretext to clamp down.

But the dream of a Uighur state remains very much alive, even if it's now become a taboo in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as at home in Xinjiang.

Watch Rustam Qobil's Our World television documentary on the BBC News Channel at 04:30 or 21:30 on Saturday 18 April and 03:30 on Sunday 19 April - or click here to find out when to see it on BBC World News.

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