For Uyghur family, a legacy of rootlessness

Tursun Muhammad was thirteen when political persecution forced his family to leave their prosperous farm in Yarkant, East Turkistan (Xinjiang), and flee over the Pamir Mountains.

Tursun’s father was targeted during the Cultural Revolution for his wealth and the fact that he was a landlord, Tursun told RFA. After attending Friday prayer at the local mosque he was locked up for three days.

So, he packed up his family and left Yarkant to journey into Afghanistan. 

It took 45 days to reach Kabul. So high are the Pamir ranges that they are known as the “roof of the world.” The family sheltered in caves on the route. Once, Tursun passed out from lack of oxygen. An older sister died along the way. 

“Her body is left on the mountain, buried in stones,” he said. 

In Afghanistan, the formerly prosperous farmer sold vegetables from a cart to feed his family. Tursun learned to be a tailor, and as a young man started a family of his own with another Uyghur refugee, until fighting in the country forced the Muhammads to move again, this time to Pakistan.

Now, decades later, the family’s legacy of rootlessness may soon pass to Tursun’s son, Turghunjan, who along with his wife and their three children are part of a small ethnic Uyghur community of Afghan refugees in Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s fourth largest city.

The Muhammad family has built a modest, if limited, life there, but they remain undocumented and could be forced to leave their home as the government moves to deport Afghan refugees due to a claimed fear over terrorism. 


Hundreds of other Afghans have already been kicked out of Pakistan. With the help of human rights groups and the U.N. refugee agency, the Uyghurs have for now been allowed to stay, but it isn’t clear how long the reprieve will last. 

The family’s main worry remains being sent back to Afghanistan, a place they left decades ago. 

But they have heard about China’s persecution of Uyghurs. Could the Taliban, as it cozies up the Chinese Communist Party, force the Uyghurs to return to China in some sort of gesture of goodwill?

Bradley Jardine, managing director of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, a Washington, DC-based group that promotes scholarship about the region, said it is “not beyond the realms of possibility” that the Uyghur families could be sent back to China.

“Such incidents have occurred in the past when Uyghur passports have expired" to exiles who have caught the attention of Chinese officials, he said.

From 1997 through January 2022, 424 Uyghurs were deported to China and another 1,150 were detained in 22 countries, according to a database maintained by the Oxus Society. 

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