When, on October 27, a Uyghur man, his wife and mother, crashed their car in Tiananmen Square, near Mao’s famous portrait, killing two and injuring dozens, China’s response followed an established pattern. After a couple of days of silence, during which only a few sketchy details were made public, Meng Jianzhu – Chief of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee – officially said that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was behind the attack.
The ETIM is a terrorist organization allegedly based in Pakistan, and although information is still sketchy, it is generally said to have between 300 and 500 members. Meng Jianzhu mentioned it as he was in Uzbekistan for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting, stressing the ETIM’s connections in Central and Western Asia, perhaps as a way to emphasize that terrorism in Xinjiang is not only a Chinese problem.
Although most Western scholars and Uyghur activists reject China’s official narrative, pointing to the lack of evidence provided and to the internal nature of Uyghur grievances, Beijing’s fears and claims seem to have significant international repercussions. Pakistan, in particular, has been repeatedly pressured to monitor, strike and – at times – hand over Uyghur militants hiding within its borders. Less known, however, is the extent of China’s influence within Pakistan, and its impact on the lives of a few hundred Uyghur migrant families who live there. The stories of these families, moreover, are revealing for a number of reasons, as they often go back well before the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the founding of the People’s Republic of China. What follows is based on several months of research between Xinjiang and Pakistan, and tries to shed some light on this untold, yet fascinating, story.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Sultan Khan’s father was born in Baluchistan, today Pakistan’s westernmost province. He was a trader, travelling through Afghanistan, British India, and what was known as Chinese Turkestan, or Xinjiang. In 1949, as Mao’s Red Army took control of the country, he found himself on the wrong side of the border, in south Xinjiang. Back then, the partition of the subcontinent into two hostile states, India and Pakistan, had already triggered a war, and the situation south of the Karakoram range did not look encouraging. He decided to stay, hoping that life under the communists would bring him fortune, and married a local woman in Yarkand. After a few years, however, when the Maoists had confiscated all his property and the failure of the Great Leap Forward had brought famine throughout the country, Khan Snr. decided that he had had enough and applied to the Pakistani authorities for expatriation. Years later, in 1967, he was eventually allowed to move to his native country with his wife and three children. It took them more than fifty days to cross the high passes of the Karakoram and reach northern Pakistan. Once in Gilgit, Sultan Khan learned from his father the art of trading. With the Chinese border still sealed, they established a successful business importing goods from Afghanistan and “down country.” In 1985, Sultan Khan’s father died in Gilgit, and one year later Sultan Khan took his mother to his native town, Yarkand, through the newly opened Karakoram Highway.
Sultan Khan calls himself a “Kashgari,” although at times he seems to prefer the expression “ex-Chinese.” Including his, there are about 300 Kashgari families in Pakistan, many of them living in the cities of Rawalpindi and Gilgit. The Kashgari are Uyghur migrants from Xinjiang, whose families moved to Pakistan between the 1940s and 1980s. Most of them, like Sultan Khan’s father, were originally from the subcontinent, but in some cases entire families left Xinjiang out of desperation, without a clue as to where they were going.
Mohammad Tursun was one of them. I meet Mohammad Tursun in Rawalpindi, near his house in Westridge. Many Uyghur migrants, the Kashgari, live in this neighborhood, where the local mosque used to be called “Turkestani.” Turson has a handsome white beard, and wears a white shalwar kameez with a black waistcoat which he keeps open as he walks with the help of a stick. He tells me that he was born in Yarkand in 1945, to a wealthy family of traders. Before the communist revolution, his uncle was a carpet dealer. The uncle was from Yarkand, but through his business he had many Afghan and Kashmiri friends. After the communist state confiscated his land he decided to leave China. He thus asked for expatriation in Afghanistan, claiming that his family was originally from there. It was a lie, but the Afghani ambassador believed him and the Chinese government allowed him to leave. It was 1961 and Mohammed Tursun was 16 years old. He and his uncle, who had adopted him, walked for three months to get from Yarkand to Badakhshan, in Afghanistan. They were not the only ones. Between 1961 and 1964, hundreds of Uyghur families went to Afghanistan, most of them lying about their origins.
One of these families was that of Karim Abdullah. Like Mohammed Tursun and Sultan Khan, he is now living in Pakistan, and despite his advanced age maintains vivid memories of his youth in Xinjiang. “I used to have my own business in Yarkand,” he tells me, “but with the communists I was forced to work in a cooking oil factory that was built by the government on the land confiscated from my father.” When he migrated to Afghanistan, Abdullah was 26 years old. Like Tursun, he had to walk across the Pamir to Badakhshan, where he stayed for a month before moving to Kabul.
Once in Kabul, Abdullah opened a small shop and married a local woman, with whom he would have five children. Meanwhile, Tursun worked as a laborer on various construction sites across the country, while his uncle earned a living making manta (Uyghur dumpling) at the bazaar. In 1973, when Mohammed Daoud Khan abolished the monarchy in a non-violent coup, Tursun married another Uyghur migrant from Xinjiang. Then the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and Abdullah and Tursun found themselves on opposite sides. Tursun was forced to work as an interpreter for the Russians, while Abdullah elected to join the mujaheddin. After the war, both Tursun and Abdullah decided to leave Afghanistan. Like many other refugees, they moved to Pakistan, and eventually joined the community of Kashgari families in Rawalpindi. Today, as the three of us drink a milk tea in Rawalpindi, they agree that the time of the Soviet war in Afghanistan was the most miserable of their lives.
The Karakoram Highway
After the Karakoram Highway was opened to the public in 1986, most Kashgari in Pakistan took the opportunity to visit their families back in Xinjiang. Many of them used their connections to launch profitable import-export businesses along the road. Back then, Sultan Khan tells me, “the Xinjiang government invited us to visit China and do business there.” Like many other Kashgari he began to import silk, and soon became one of the most successful businessmen in Gilgit. Now, however, because of the depreciation of the Pakistani rupee, this kind of business is not as profitable as it used to be, and as he puts it, “there is too much competition.” His business has thus once again changed, and he is now the owner of different shops where he sells European watches. The first time I meet him, in Rawalpindi, is in the back of one of his new shops, which is getting ready to open.