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   Friday, 14 May 2021
World

Anger with China drives Uighurs to Syrian war

Sagarica

Anger with China drives Uighurs to Syrian war

ISTANBUL: It was mid-afternoon when the Chinese police officers barged into Ali’s house set against cotton fields outside the ancient Silk Road trading post of Kashgar. The Uighur farmer and his cowering parents watched them rummage through the house until they found two books in his bedroom — a Quran and a handbook on dealing with interrogations.

Ali knew he was in trouble.

By nightfall the next day, Ali had been tied against a tree and beaten by interrogators trying to force him to say he took part in an ethnic riot that killed dozens in western China. They held burning cigarette tips to Ali’s face, deprived him of sleep and offered him only salt water. When he asked for fresh water, they gave it to him — in buckets poured over his head.

That winter night in 2009, Ali recalled years later, would set him on a path that ended on northern Syria’s smoldering plains, where he picked up a Kalashnikov rifle under the black flag of jihad and dreamed of launching attacks against the Chinese rulers of his homeland.

Since 2013, thousands of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from western China, have traveled to Syria to train with the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party and fight alongside al-Qaida, playing key roles in several battles. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops are now clashing with Uighur fighters as the six-year conflict nears its endgame.

But the end of Syria’s war may be the beginning of China’s worst fears.

“We didn’t care how the fighting went or who Assad was,” said Ali, who would only give his first name out of a fear of reprisals against his family back home. “We just wanted to learn how to use the weapons and then go back to China.”

Uighur militants have killed hundreds, if not thousands, in attacks inside China in a decades-long insurgency that initially targeted police and other symbols of Chinese authority but in recent years also included civilians. Extremists with knives killed 33 people at a train station in 2014. Abroad, they bombed the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan in September last year; in 2014, they killed 25 people in an attack on a Thai shrine popular with Chinese tourists.

China is just like the West, its officials say: the country is a victim of terror, and Uighur men are pulled by global jihadi ideology rather than driven by grievances at home. Muslims in the Uighur homeland of Xinjiang, as one Chinese official declared in August, “are the happiest in the world.”

 

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