By Maija Liuhto
15 January 2019
On a cold winter evening, Mohammad Hassan
Abdul Hameed, 34, walks towards his restaurant, past silk stores in the busy
China Market in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
He, like many others here, belongs to the
persecuted Uighur community from the Xinjiang province of China.
Abdul Hameed's father arrived in Rawalpindi
50 years ago to work in a pilgrims' guesthouse intended for Uighurs heading to
Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj.
Today, the guesthouse sits abandoned in the
market, not far from Abdul Hameed's restaurant.
According to members of the community, it
was closed down at the request of China in 2006.
Uighurs have been migrating to Pakistan
since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some to work as traders and
others escaping communist persecution.
Today, China's brutal crackdown on the
community has made headlines around the world as up to three million Uighurs
are believed to be held in so-called "re-education camps" where they
are made to renounce Islam.
In Pakistan, there are around 2,000 Uighurs
and for decades they have kept a low profile in the country - so much so that
very few people are even aware of their presence.
ut their presence here has not gone
unnoticed by China, Pakistan's "iron brother" and a helping hand at a
time of economic crisis. According to the community, China has started putting
pressure on Pakistan to silence its critics.
"They want to finish off
Uighurs," Abdul Hameed says, referring to the Chinese. "Here, we
cannot do anything according to our wishes because China is after us."
Beijing has invested $62bn in the
construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will connect
Kashgar in Xinjiang to the southern Gwadar port in Pakistan.
China has also promised financial aid to
the country, which is desperate to sort out its economic woes.
Despite Pakistan frequently highlighting
the plight of Muslim minorities across the globe, when it comes to Uighurs,
Islamabad does not wish to anger its powerful neighbour.
The Uighurs in Pakistan know too well what
goes on in China since many have family members who still reside in Xinjiang.
Most have not been able to talk to them for the past two years because they
have been held in the camps.
"From our family, 300 people are
inside [the camps]," Abdul Hameed says. "Even my brother is
Others at the China Market have similar
Abdul Latif, a silk trader, has relatives
"There's no news about them," he
says. "We can't call them. If they get a phone call from here, even if
they don't pick it up, after a couple of hours the police will come and ask who
called them, what their relationship to them is, how long they have known them,
and only with this excuse, they will be picked up.
"If someone dies, there is no one to
read the funeral prayers," he sighs.
"It is such injustice that even
injustice itself becomes ashamed," Abdul Raheem, another trader,
According to Michael Kugelman, deputy
director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Center, the Uighur community in
Pakistan is of some concern for China, despite being minuscule in numbers.
"China knows that the plight of
Uighurs has already generated major headlines and negatively impacted its
global image. So, it doesn't want Uighurs in Pakistan, where they have more
freedom to speak out, bringing more attention to an issue that Beijing wants
kept quiet," he says.
Recently, news broke of the Uighur wives of
Pakistani businessmen locked away in internment camps in China. Pakistan's
inaction has infuriated the community, although it has not come as a surprise.
"Pakistan is the greatest friend [of
China]. Higher than the skies, deeper than the oceans," Raheem says.
Some members of the community say they have
started facing harassment and intimidation in Pakistan for being too vocal.
One of them is Abdul Rehman, who requested
his real name not be used because of the risks to himself and his family
members in China.
"The Chinese government has put
everyone here after each other. Me after him, him after me and him after him.
We are afraid of each other. We cannot talk openly," he says.
"The problem here is that there is
pressure on the Pakistani government from China and the government of Pakistan
puts pressure on us so that we wouldn't talk about [the issues of] Uighurs in
the media here," Rehman says.
"The agencies here put pressure on us
from their side. They pick us up. They have taken many to safe houses. I am one
of them. I was there for 12 days last year," he continues in a hushed
"They ask us about CPEC, what our
opinion is about it. What opinion should we have about it?"
According to Kugelman, CPEC is one of the
main reasons that the community has now come under increasing pressure in
"Beijing has ample influence over many
things in Pakistan, thanks to its frequent largesse and to the trust it enjoys
in Islamabad. China's leverage has further intensified as it builds out CPEC, a
major infrastructure project that's critically important to Pakistan," he
But China has also repeatedly raised alarm
about what it calls "Uighur terrorists" who it believes are plotting
attacks against it from the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In 2015, Pakistan said "almost
all" fighters had been eliminated in army operations.
According to Kugelman, the number of Uighur
fighters is modest.
"Inflating the threat posed by Uighurs
gives Beijing a useful pretext to crack down on them," he says.
Mohammad Umer Khan, founder of an
organisation called Umer Uighur Trust in Rawalpindi, says the problems for him
and other Uighurs in Pakistan have increased significantly in recent years.
"There is danger for every one [of us]
in Pakistan now," he says. "Whoever starts saying I am Uighur, I am
Turkistani, is in danger."
He says the problems started in 2006.
Men, who he thought were from Pakistan's
intelligence agencies, would periodically pick him up and detain him for a day
In 2010, Pakistani authorities closed down
a school he had set up to teach the Uighur language to the community's
children, he says.
"They used violence against me and
they put my name on an ECL (exit control list) so I couldn't travel
anywhere," Khan says. His name was finally removed from the list in 2014
after he took the matter to the Supreme Court.
About a year ago, he says, he was picked up
again and held for around two weeks.
Khan says he was beaten severely which left
permanent scars on his left arm. He was subsequently made to sign documents
where he promised to no longer protest against China's policies.
Khan's account could not be verified because
the Interior Ministry of Pakistan did not respond to Al Jazeera's repeated
requests for comments.
"They say I am ruining the friendship
between China and Pakistan," he says.
But Khan says the real issue is not with
the Pakistani government. "Definitely [the Chinese] have a hand in
it," he says.
The situation, say analysts, is unlikely to
change for the better as long as China continues to hold sway in Pakistan.
"It's quite striking that while
Pakistan often laments the plight of Rohingya, Syrian, Kashmiri, and
Palestinian Muslims, you rarely hear Islamabad making statements in solidarity
with Uighurs," Kugelman says."To be fair to Islamabad, it's not just
Pakistan that's so hands off.
"The Muslim world on the whole, with a
few exceptions, has taken a position of studied silence because of a desire not
to upset a key global player that offers investments and other useful
The Uighurs are aware of this and are
slowly starting to lose hope.
"We have become very disappointed with
Muslim countries, especially Arab countries," Khan says. "After that,
we had a lot of hopes from Turkey, but so far they haven't done anything that
big. When it comes to Pakistan, we don't even have any hopes that they would
raise their voice [for us]."
Despite the threats, Khan intends to
continue speaking about his community's problems.
"I am not against Pakistan or CPEC.
But injustice is being done to my nation, to my relatives. I speak for their
rights," he says defiantly.