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‘We’ll kill you’: Uyghur exile who fled to Arctic Circle still fears reach of Chinese state

For asylum seekers, Norway is a sanctuary but even in remote towns, Muslim refugees say they face surveillance and threats

by Isobel Cockerell for Coda Story in Kirkenes, Norway

Memettursun Omer looks out over an icy fjord. The small Norwegian fown of Kirkenes is 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Photopgraph: Frankie MIlls/Coda Story

In a remote corner north of the Arctic Circle, Memettursun Omer gazes out the window at the swirling snowstorm outside as the tinny voice of a Chinese official blares from the mobile phone in his hand.

An Uyghur Muslim from China’s remote north-west Xinjiang region, Omer has travelled about as far as he can go to escape the Chinese authorities – to the small Norwegian town of Kirkenes.

So far, he says, they have always managed to find him. On dozens of messages left on his phone since he left China, voices he says are those of Chinese agents wheedle, cajole and threaten. “We didn’t send you out there so you could behave like this,” drawls an official in one recording. “You’re forgetting who you are.”

Four years before, Omer says he was sent by the same handlers to Europe on a secret mission: to infiltrate and spy on Uyghur groups who were drawing attention to the human rights abuses being perpetrated against millions of their community and other ethnic minorities.

Months before he left, Omer had been detained by the Chinese state after returning from working abroad. He says he was tortured, beaten and interrogated about his connections in Europe before being put through months of grooming, brainwashing and threats. Eventually, his handlers decided he had become a loyal Chinese citizen, willing to do the state’s bidding.

Memettursun Omer beneath the northern lights, which are often seen on clear winter nights in Kirkenes. ‘When we first saw the aurora, we were joking that somebody from our village was here, they would try and fool us that it was a miracle.’ Photograph: Frankie Mills/Coda Story

Before he left the region, Omer says he was forced to sign a statement admitting he was a terrorist. “Wherever you go, we can use this to show you’re a criminal and bring you back to China,” he says his handlers told him at the airport.

“If you ever start to forget what we told you, just look at the moon. Wherever you can see the moon, we can find you.”

Yet Omer had no intention of becoming a Chinese spy. He went to Istanbul, where he attempted to start a new life, getting married and reuniting with his father. All the while he says he was continually threatened and harassed by his former Chinese handlers.

Memettursun Omer still keeps the voice notes he received from his Chinese handlers on his phone. Photograph: Frankie Mills/Coda Story

“We’ll kill you,” he says one agent told his family over a WhatsApp call, shortly after he arrived in Turkey. “You don’t need us to tell you how we do things. We’ll deal with this problem according to our own rules.”

Last year, Omer felt it was too dangerous to stay in Istanbul and left Turkey. He ended up in an asylum camp in this small Norwegian town within the Arctic Circle, near the Russian border.

When Omer arrived in early January, he spent days walking around the icy border town in the blue twilight of the polar winter , gazing out at the desolate wilderness.

“I’ve lived my whole life surrounded by people. But here, there’s hardly anyone around. It’s all so different,” he says. “I never dreamed I would end up this far north.”

But Kirkenes’ isolation was part of its appeal. The allegations of human rights abuses facing China’s Uyghur population have been widely documented and internationally condemned, with an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities thought to be locked up in a network of internment camps.

Bahtiyar Omer and Muetter Iliqud hold the separatist flag of East Turkestan, the name most Uyghurs prefer to call Xinjiang, next to someone holding the Tibetan flag, at a protest in Oslo against the Beijing Winter Olympics. Photograph: Frankie Mills/Coda Story

For those who manage to flee, Norway, with its egalitarian laws and exemplary democracy, seems like the safest place on earth. There are about 2,500 Uyghurs asylum seekers in Norway as asylum seekers. Yet even here, Uyghurs say they are being hunted down.

Oslo-based Uyghur activists say “close to 100%” of Uyghurs in Norway face surveillance, threats and censorship from the Chinese state. This, they say, creates a collective sense of psychological pressure; a constant feeling of being watched.

The surveillance has “a psychological way of crushing your mind”, Omer says. “I felt like I was still in prison. I was scared and paranoid every day.”

Merdan wearing his Uyghur doppa cap as he clocks off. Photograph: Frankie Mills/Coda Story

Merdan, a 34-year-old Uyghur refugee who says he fled Xinjiang in 2010 after being tortured in Chinese prisons, changed his name to the Norwegian-sounding “Martin Gunnar” on his arrival in the country, in an attempt to avoid detection from the Chinese state.

It did not work. Chinese officials called him while he was living in an asylum camp in southern Norway and told him that if he talked to anyone about what he had experienced in prison, it would be dangerous for his family.

Merdan works at night as a nursing assistant for elderly people in Oslo care homes. Photograph: Frankie Mills/Coda Story

Yet Merdan refused to be intimidated. He became an activist, filming YouTube videos about the Uyghur human rights crisis from his home and driving around town in an Audi with an unmistakable customised numberplate that says “UYGHUR”.

“When I first got the plate, I drove five or six times past the Chinese embassy. Because I’m not a terrorist, I’m doing nothing wrong,” he says with a laugh.

Then, in 2018, he got a video call. His father was sobbing while filming his mother, whose knees were bandaged.

“If you don’t stop what you’re doing, maybe they will come to further harm her,” Merdan’s father said.

Merdan says he was called again in 2019 and 2020 by Chinese security officers. “They threatened me, suggesting ‘maybe I would get into a car accident’ or ‘thieves might come into my house while I was on night shift’,” he says.

Kirkenes has a population of 3,500 people and is nearly 900 miles north of Oslo. In mid-January, the town has a ‘sunrise festival’ where locals celebrate seeing the sun for the first time in six weeks. Photograph: Frankie Mills/Coda Story

Merdan claims that the officer offered him money, indicating that in return, he would spy on other Uyghurs. Merdan refused. He has now installed multiple surveillance cameras around his house. “Nobody can trust anybody,” he says.

After Muetter Iliqud began writing anonymous articles about the persecution of Uyghurs for a Norwegian website, Chinese police visited the home of her grandmother. “I have no idea how they figured it out,” Iliqud says.

When Muetter Iliqud first arrived in Norway aged 13, she was given accommodation in the far north. ‘I was too depressed to look up at the sky and see the northern lights,’ she says. Photograph: Frankie Mills/Coda Story

Instead of being silenced, Iliqud, who arrived in Kirkenes at 13 in 2011, stopped using a pseudonym and began publishing under her own name. “I realised there was no sense in being anonymous because they can just find out anyway,” she says.

The harassment of Uyghur asylum seekers in Norway follows a familiar pattern to how other authoritarian states attempt to “eliminate” perceived threats, says Martin Bernsen, an adviser to the Norwegian police security service.

“China, Iran and other authoritarian states use their intelligence services to identify and spy on dissidents and refugees in Norway, and will continue to do so in 2022,” he says.

The Chinese embassy in Oslo denied allegations of persecution by Chinese officials.

A resident shovels snow outside the Kirkenes asylum centre. Photograph: Frankie Mills/Coda Story

“The Chinese government and the Chinese embassy in Norway have never conducted such action,” an embassy spokesperson said in a statement, adding that it had issued several warnings about telecom fraud in the name of the Chinese embassy and had reported these to the Norwegian police.

“What you mentioned are totally groundless rumours and lies fabricated by anti-China forces. There is no evidence so far to support any of those accusations,” it said. “In front of indisputable facts, a lie repeated a thousand times will remain a lie.”

At least for Omer, his fear of the Chinese agents’ threats is starting to fade. Here in the Arctic, where the aurora borealis flickers overhead and every sound is muted by snow, he says he feels safer than he has in years.

“I sleep better here,” he says. “It almost feels like I’ve come to the edge of the world.”

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