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The Rediff Special/Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi
August 19, 2003
His beard made Umar Aziz's life difficult.
So the 31-year-old Uighur refugee from China's Autonomous Province of Xinjiang, who now lives in Delhi, finally decided to get rid of it.
In 1995, he was imprisoned for four years for sporting a beard -- seen as a symbol of Muslim identity -- and supporting a separatist movement in China. After escaping from his hometown, he spent some time in Tibet and Nepal before finally arriving in India in October. His beard remained.
After workers at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees office in New Delhi made fun of his beard he finally decided to get rid of it.
"When I went there (UNHCR office) to take my monthly stipend, some people made fun of me. They laughed at me, saying I look like the Taliban. I was having problems at other places also. So I shaved it off," said Aziz. "Now when people ask me, I say rats have eaten it all," he laughs wryly.
But his laughter fails to cover his anguish and fear over his fate and that of seven other Uighur refugees who followed him to India.
Apart from the financial crisis -- they subsist on Rs 1,400 per month provided to four of them and the occasional aid from fellow Uighur refugees settled in Germany -- and the travails of having to adjust to an alien culture, Aziz and his compatriots in Delhi fear time is running out.
Things got worse after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to China in June.
"We have been living here for about an year. Everything was going well," says Aziz.
"After Vajpayee's visit to China, we have been facing problems. The immigration authorities are not clearing our visas. We don't know if we will be able to leave India. We fear we will be sent back to China. And if we go there, death is waiting for us."
Chinese authorities took four of his friends from Nepal last year. Three are in jail and one has been killed, Aziz says.
All of them were accused of being part of the separatist movement in the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province. The Uighurs accuse China of politically, socially and culturally subjugating the 20 million people in Xinjiang, once a separate country.
UNHCR has provided Aziz and another refugee Tahir Nasir, 28, visas to go to Sweden. But they cannot leave India unless the Indian authorities allow them.
India does not have a refugee law. But New Delhi has been helping Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama, in India.
During his recent visit to China, Vajpayee signed an agreement with China, formally recognising the area known as the Tibetan autonomous region as part of the People's Republic of China. The joint declaration reiterates that India will not allow 'anti-China political activities' by Tibetan exiles, who have fled to India in tens of thousands.
Critics say this is a dilution of New Delhi's staunch support of the Tibetan cause since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. Vajpayee, however, denies this.
Out of the eight Uighur refugees living in India, two have obtained visas for Sweden. Four of them get a monthly stipend of Rs.1,400 from UNHCR, while the other four have not been given refugee status. Since their application is under consideration, they are living illegally in India.
Aziz say four of them have got identity cards from UNHCR recognising them as refugees. The Indian immigration authorities have their details; the Indian police has visited their house several times inquiring about their whereabouts.
Of the eight Uighurs who arrived since October, three live in a rented house and four in another rented house in Delhi. One disappeared three months ago. "We don't know where he is," says Aziz.
"When we came to India last year, they (the immigration authorities) questioned us several times about how we reached here and what is our purpose. They know where we live. They also have copies of the documents given to us by UNHCR," he says.
"Recently they started inquiring about us again. This started after Vajpayee's visit to China. So we are scared." Last week, the immigration authorities questioned five of them for about six hours on two consecutive days.
"They are now treating us like terrorists. They ask questions like what we used to do in China and what we are doing here and why we came to India," said another refugee, Abdushakur, 31.
"During questioning, they didn't allow us to go to drink water alone. Two policemen escorted us to the tap. We told them everything earlier. Even UNHCR has given them our details."
Adds Aziz: "We were living under UNHCR protection in Nepal."
The Uighurs complain that despite having visas from Sweden, the Indian authorities are not letting them leave the country. UNHCR got two of them tickets to Sweden -- once on May 6, then on May 20. But the tickets had to be cancelled because the Indian authorities did not allow them to leave the country.
The immigration authorities took their photographs and photocopied their UNHCR documents. "They took my phonebook and
UNHCR too seems to have changed its position. Says Aziz: "UNHCR has to stamp our identity card every month. This formally extends our stay here for a month. But they have not stamped it this month."
"They (UNHCR officials) say they cannot help us and we need to talk to the Indian authorities. UNHCR officials don't want to meet us. They say they will contact us on the phone and there is no need to meet them," adds Abdushakur.
UNHCR officials were unavailable for comment.
"Lots of people come here looking for us. They ask our neighbours if Chinese live here. We don't know who these people are. We are scared and prefer not to meet them."
"Life is very difficult here. We cannot get jobs. We want to go to any other country like the US, Canada or Sweden. Any country where we can start life afresh," says Aziz.
While Aziz wants to concentrate on improving his life, Abdushakur wants to join the anti-China movement from outside his homeland. According to Abdushakur, there are 48 countries where Uighur people live as refugees and fighting for a free Xinjiang.
Inspired by India's democracy, they came to Delhi with hope. But they now feel Nepal was a better place to live.
"We used to get Rs 3,000 per month in Nepal," said Aziz. "We enjoyed living there."
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