In his own words, Hashim Mohammed, 26, tells the story of his escape from the Uyghur region of China via a Thai detention center. His goal was to navigate “the smugglers’ way” through Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, to be able to fly to freedom in Turkey. In China, Uyghur faithful have been persecuted for displays of devotion to Islam, which the Chinese government considers a threat.
The authorities bulldozed mosques, saw any expression of religion as extremist and confiscated Qurans. By 2018, as many as one million Uyghurs had been sent to so-called “re-education” camps. Across the region, an extensive high-tech system of surveillance was rolled out to monitor every movement of the Uyghur population. This remains the case to this day, with the Chinese police in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, reportedly requiring residents to download a mobile app which enables them to monitor phones.
It started back in the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang, 10 years ago now. I was 16 years old and had recently begun boxing at my local gym. In the evenings, I started to spend some time reciting and reading the Quran. The local Chinese authorities were beginning their mass crackdown on Uyghurs in the name of combating terrorist activity. Any display of religious devotion was deemed suspicious.
The local police considered my boxing gym to be a sinister and dangerous place. They kept asking us what we were training for. They thought we were planning something. They started arresting some of the students and coaches at the gym. Police visited my house and went through all my possessions. They couldn’t find anything.