“I fled China 20 years ago – the state is still chasing me”

Husband and daughter, their faces in shadow – Alessandra Schellnegger

Police pulled a black hood over Seypiddin’s head, pushed him into a car and sped away.

Confined to solitary confinement in China, he was interrogated for hours every day about his activities as a student in Egypt – who he met, what he did.

The officials threatened his parents to get him to cooperate. They implied that otherwise he might someday die in an accident—a car crash, food poisoning.

Sometimes he heard people screaming from other cells.

“There were days when I thought about killing myself; I was under so much pressure,” said Seypiddin, a Uighur whose name was changed to protect his identity.

A month later, he was released as suddenly as he had been imprisoned.

“I really wanted to leave; I was so afraid that I would be brought back in and questioned,” he told the Telegraph. “[China] didn’t feel like home anymore; it felt like a big prison.”

Seypiddin raced back to Cairo hoping to be freed by the Chinese state. He never dared to return home again.

It was 2004 and he was 28 years old – years before China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs, an ethnic Muslim minority, accelerated, leading the US government and British Parliament to call it a genocide.

In fact, this was only Seypiddin’s first clash with the authorities. For nearly two decades, they continued to stalk him even though he was thousands of kilometers from China.

Even after asylum in Europe, the 46-year-old Seypiddin does not feel free. In recent months, Chinese police have harassed him, called him and sent him messages asking about his activities.

“I can’t really believe we came here and I don’t feel a lot of emotional relief yet,” he told The Telegraph from his new home over a bounty of apples, biscuits, tea and pasta.

More than a million Uyghurs have been detained in extrajudicial “re-education” camps by the Chinese state in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region, with detainees subjected to torture including beatings and electric shocks.

The Telegraph has uncovered evidence that China, under international pressure, has downsized some of the camps from around 2020.

However, some detainees have been shunted to other parts of a vast system – for example sentenced to prison terms for so-called religious crimes such as studying the Koran, or placed in a forced labor program. Others were forced to work for little or no wages.

Some have been released, although Xinjiang residents have told The Telegraph that they feel constantly monitored by facial recognition cameras, police officers and whistleblowers.

In return for his release asked to spy

Eighteen years ago, before surveillance technology became widespread, Seypiddin already felt he had lost his freedom.

After landing in Cairo, Chinese police officers called him regularly, asking him to report his whereabouts and his interactions with other Uyghurs.

The calls often came after he’d been hanging out with Uyghur friends in Egypt – a sign, he believes, that Chinese secret police were monitoring the diaspora.

Spying on the Uyghur community in Egypt had been a condition of Seypiddin’s release from solitary confinement, and the police even offered him a job after he completed his studies abroad.

Seypiddin played along to get his passport back to flee China for good.

So he dutifully took her calls and gave vague answers for about a year before he found the courage to ditch his phone in favor of a new number.

Passport on an Islamic prayer rug - Alessandra Schellnegger

Passport on an Islamic prayer rug – Alessandra Schellnegger

For a while the harassment stopped. He learned Arabic, got married, had children and earned enough as a small trader, selling prayer rugs and Korans from Egypt to China.

He sometimes chauffeured Uyghurs visiting Egypt for tourism or business.

But the Chinese authorities kept coming back.

When his wife Ayshe – also a pseudonym – and children went to Xinjiang for her brother’s wedding in 2011, their relatives received calls from the police.

Officers wanted them to give up their passports and forced them into hiding – a challenge with a newborn. Eventually they managed to escape back to Egypt.

In the years that followed, it became increasingly difficult to keep in touch with relatives back home. By 2016, the calls were no longer connected, and he worried that trying to contact them any other way would put them at risk.

Soon, “mass arrests started at home, so I was afraid to contact them and they were afraid to do the same,” he said.

Sending money to relatives abroad, visiting other countries and having WhatsApp on the phone were enough for the authorities to arrest Uyghurs.

Seypiddin’s sister and brother-in-law were arrested and taken to camps.

Pressured by Chinese authorities to return – where they would certainly be arrested – some of his Uyghur friends in Egypt began fleeing to Turkey. But Seypiddin stayed where he was.

“I didn’t think the Egyptian government would sell us to the Chinese,” he said. “I was sure that China is not so strong that there is no way they could reach me.”

He was wrong. In 2017, Egyptian authorities began rounding up and deporting Uyghurs to China.

Seypiddin and his family were out and about during the first raids. In fact, he was almost home when he saw Uyghurs being herded into a huge police truck in the street and received a call from a friend warning him to stay away.

One Egyptian officer even looked at him directly and told him to get out of the way.

“It was pure coincidence how we looked,” said Seypiddin, who could pass for Egyptian with his shaved head and mustache.

For the next five years, they hid, lived in constant fear, and moved ten times to avoid detection. He slept with his shoes next to the bed for fear of a late-night mugging. Friends had ropes ready to rappel out the window in case the police came.

Suitcase under the bed - Alessandra Schellnegger

Suitcase under the bed – Alessandra Schellnegger

Seypiddin threw away anything that might give her away – like embroidered Uyghur textiles or traditional hats called doppa. But he couldn’t let it all go, insisting his children continue to learn the Uyghur language with an online tutor.

“Egypt was my new home. I had felt free and safe… my children went to good schools,” Seypiddin said. “Losing that hit me hard.”

As time passed, the threat grew that Seypiddin and his family would be deported, even though it pushed his asylum application granted last year to the top.

During a recent phone call with his brother, Seypiddin held up a piece of paper saying they were safe in Europe; he did not dare utter the words as he was being watched constantly.

His brother – who sometimes calls from other parts of China as his job occasionally allows him to leave Xinjiang – cried.

Seypiddin’s mother died a few years ago, possibly due to health complications while she was incarcerated – although he only found out about her death much later due to the communications breakdown.

And he suspects his father was jailed again – his brother said he was “taken to the hospital,” a euphemism among Uyghurs for jailed.

Chinese police constantly ping him with text and voice messages asking how he is doing – warm in tone but cool as they are sent over his brother’s phone, a sign that authorities are missing the family watch closely in China.

But he is doing his best to get ahead, finding schools for his children, whom he has taught to say when asked in their new homeland that they are Uyghurs from East Turkestan – which many call their homeland rather than the Chinese name of Xinjiang.

“The last few years have been very tough,” he said. “I’m completely exhausted.”

Additional translation and reporting by Rune Steenberg

This is the third part in a series about Uyghurs in exile. The first, on the dangerous exit route from China, can be found Here. The second concerns children who lose their parents in the camps Here.

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