Ershiddin could not believe his eyes when he finally held the Chinese passport he received early last January in his hands.
The 29-year-old Uyghur, who had been a political prisoner, took his passport and headed to the airport in Urumqi, capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang region, to board a plane to Turkey where he planned to spend the rest of his life in exile.
“Through a complicated process and long walk for freedom, I got my passport at the beginning of 2015,” he said.
Ershiddin, who requested that his surname not be mentioned because he feared for the safety of his relatives still living in Xinjiang, applied for the passport in mid-2014 following his release from prison in Urumqi, capital of China's far western Xinjiang province that is the homeland of the ethnic, Muslim Uyghurs.
He spent the next three months obtaining different letters and stamps from prison authorities, community officials, police stations and other relevant bureaus in order to leave China, he said. Human rights groups criticize Chinese policies that make it difficult for Uyghurs and Tibetans to get passports.
The trip to Turkey would be bittersweet for Ershiddin. In April, as he prepared to leave, he was informed that his mother, who had been living in Turkey since her divorce from his father in 1993, had died. Nevertheless, he continued with his plan.
“With great fear and anxiety, I went to the Urumqi international airport,” he said.
Just after he crossed the airport hall, a Uyghur girl, wearing a black headscarf and a full-length skirt, asked him where the waiting area for arrivals was, because she had to meet some relatives from Kashgar there.
As they were in the international terminal, Ershiddin directed her to the first floor waiting area of the domestic terminal.
After he took a few steps toward the young woman, they were confronted by several Chinese policemen who grabbed her and took her outside where they forced her into a police minibus.
Ershiddin’s older brother later told him that police apprehended and detained the young Uyghur woman because her “religious dress.”
“This event really increased my fear and anxiety again,” he said.
After Ershiddin checked his bag at the counter and headed towards the security checkpoint, he told his brother to wait up to an hour until he called him on his mobile phone to let him know that he made it through the checkpoints and was on the plane.
But police stopped him at the passport control counter and escorted him to an office where they questioned him about why he was going abroad, who his relatives in Turkey were, where he would be staying in Turkey, and why he was previously in jail.
They looked through Ershiddin’s carry-on bag, mobile phone and documents, including his prisoner release certificate.
“At last, 10 minutes before the plane’s door closed, they let me go,” he said. “I stepped heavily onboard with fear and anxiety.”
Deported from Pakistan
It wasn’t until Ershiddin made it to Turkey at the end of April that he told RFA’s Uyghur Service about his unpleasant experience at the Urumqi airport and ordeal in prison in Urumqi.
Ershiddin is one of the three sons of a wealthy Uyghur family from Urumqi. His father was a successful businessman and enjoyed a privileged life and good relations within the city’s upper-class circles. He owned several stores at the Rebiya Kadeer Trade Building in the most prosperous area of Urumqi during the 1990s. Kadeer went from a model minority businesswoman to political prisoner and is now the president of the exiled World Uyghur Congress based in Washington.
Ershiddin had been jailed twice, from 2002 to 2003 and 2010 to 2014, at Kaziwen Prison in Urumqi.
The first spell in jail came after Pakistani authorities deported Ershiddin and his two brothers to China at the request of Chinese government, and his family’s fate changed.
Ershiddin’s father sent him and his brothers abroad to study religion and international trade in a few Muslim countries, including Egypt and Pakistan.
But after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Chinese authorities pressured his father in Urumqi to recall his sons.
“The Pakistani authorities began to detain immigrant Uyghurs, including traders, temporary residents and students, just after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” he said. “Some Uyghur students and traders disappeared, one after another, and we heard that the Pakistani government was deporting immigrant Uyghurs to China.”
Pakistani officials deported the brothers at the request of Chinese government, while other young Uyghurs and students left Pakistan for Turkey, Arab countries or Europe with help from the United Nations.
“We three brothers went back to Urumqi at the request of our father at the beginning of 2002,” Ershiddin said.
His father arranged for him to study computer science, Chinese and English at Xinjiang University.
On a cold day in later 2002, he was going into an Internet café at the university’s main entrance when an unfamiliar Uyghur man called his name. When Ershiddin approached him, the man forced him into a black minibus, where more men inside the vehicle covered his head with a black bag and drove off.
The men interrogated Ershiddin for three days and nights and then took him to a detention center. Later, they also detained his two brothers.
Chinese authorities sentenced his older brother to two years in prison, and his other brother to 18 months, believing them to have links to terrorist groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan, although it was never proved, Ershiddin said.
“At that time, I was just 17 years old, and I had spent more than half a year at the detention center,” he said. “At last, I was sentenced to two months in jail just because of my age.”
The facility used to be a women’s prison in the past, also called Number Two Prison, where Kadeer was jailed in 1998-2005. It was later changed into a shaoguansuo, a Chinese labor camp for teenager offenders.
“I was released after two months, but I have never been able to end the invisible pressure on me as a former political prisoner,” he said.
After authorities had released his two brothers, the second one experienced psychological problems.
During this time, Ershiddin’s father also had been detained because he sent his three sons to Pakistan, and his business collapsed, Ershiddin said.
Second time in jail
Relations between Han Chinese and Uyghurs grew tense in Urumqi after July 5, 2009, when a protest escalated into a series of riots and violent attacks that mainly targeted Han Chinese.
China’s armed police were called in to quell the unrest during which nearly 200 were killed, more than 1,700 were injured, and many vehicles and buildings destroyed.
“Because I had been jailed before, I was very careful, but an unpredictable quarrel pushed me to the black door of China’s prison again,” Ershiddin said.
On a cold autumn evening in 2010, Ershiddin and two friends had just left the Changleyuan residential area in Urumqi to go to the evening bazaar. But as they headed out, they encountered several young Han Chinese at the front entrance who taunted them with profanity and called them “chantou” (turban heads).
Ershiddin said he and his friends ignored them, but the group of Chinese followed them and continued to verbally abuse them. When one of the Uyghurs warned them to stop hurling profanity, the Chinese suddenly attacked them, and a fight ensued.
They immediately heard a police car siren. When the police arrived, however, they detained only the three Uyghurs without saying a word as the Chinese group left the scene.
After spending three months in the detention center, Ershiddin was sentenced to four years in prison for committing an ethnic hate crime along with his two friends.
He spent three years and four months in prison, from Sept. 21, 2010, to Jan. 21, 2014. Prison authorities released him eight months early because they said that his attitude had changed.
But Ershiddin said his time behind bars with other Uyghur political prisoners was rough.
“I lived with 10 other prisoners in a narrow room,” he said. “Most of the Uyghurs were political prisoners from the southern part of Xinjiang. Their crimes were simple ones, such as reading a religious book published overseas, watching a religious video or film, or selling a religious propaganda poster.”
“The Uyghur political prisoners were not only beaten and tortured by the prison guards, but also insulted by the Han Chinese prisoners inside the prison,” he said.
Authorities only provided political prisoners two meals a day, which included one piece of dumpling bread and a cup of water, he said.
They did not allow the prisoners to receive any food or money from their families, or let them work outside in the prison’s farms and factories.
Authorities also forced the Uyghur inmates to recite prison readings and political texts and sing “red songs” that praised the Chinese Communist Party and country.
Since he arrived in Turkey, Ershiddin has been living in Istanbul and doing odd jobs with his older brother, who recently arrived, he said.
His other brother who still suffers from mental illness has disappeared in Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county of Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture.
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.