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Introduction to Atajurt Human Rights activities in Kazakhstan

Updated: 8 hours ago


Author: Zarina Mukanova

7 May 2024

 

This blog post delves into the impact of the grassroots initiative Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Homeland, also known as Atajurt[1]), which aids the relatives of Muslims detained in Xinjiang's re-education camps and raises international awareness about this issue. Initially, Atajurt was organized by Kazakh returnees from Xinjiang to assist their fellow Kazakh compatriots in migrating to their ancestral homeland of Kazakhstan. Since 2017, Atajurt volunteers, led by their former leader Serikjan Bilash (charged with "inciting ethnic tensions" in 2019), have primarily focused on gathering testimonies from detained Muslims in Xinjiang and sharing them on social media. Through these testimonies, Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri's activities (one of the active divisions of the original Atajurt[2]) has contributed to existing and escalating Sinophobia in two ways. Firstly, by fostering nationalistic sentiment though emotional support for the kandas[3], and secondly, by instilling fear that the Xinjiang issue may worsen international cooperation with China. The natural compassion felt for brethren suffering in Xinjiang contrasts with the economic interests of the elites, who attempt to depict Xinjiang-born Kazakhs as instigators of international disturbances while simultaneously rebranding the term oralman (returnee) to kandas, meaning "blood relative."[4]

Source: https://www.facebook.com/kazakhrights/

This analysis draws from interviews I conducted with camp survivors in Xinjiang who escaped to Kazakhstan, numerous testimonies provided by relatives of detainees collected by activists of Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri and its recent division Talpyn Jastar[5] (“Young enthusiasts”), international scholarly publications on Xinjiang, and my data on Kazakh returnees from China gathered between 2017 and 2024.




Oralman, Kandas and Atajurt


The emergence of the Atajurt grassroots movement was made possible by the postcolonial state of Kazakhstan. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Kazakhstan, as part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, experienced a significant loss of its ethnic population due to the demarcation of international borders with China. This led to the formation of one of the largest Kazakh diasporas in the north-western region of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where Kazakhs are the second-largest ethnic minority after the Uyghurs. Following the official independence of Kazakhstan in 1991, as part of nation-building efforts, Kazakhstan began to encourage the return of Kazakh diaspora to their historical homeland. Kazakh ethnic returnees were given the special term oralman, meaning 'returnee,' which was an official and temporary designation for those applying for Kazakh passports. The adaptation and integration of Kazakh ethnic returnees became a social saga spanning thirty years, marked by name changes and cultural adjustments.[6] Atajurt and activists within this circle were motivated to assist people of the same origin who faced similar struggles, especially those whose relatives ended up in re-education camps in Xinjiang. In contrast, local Kazakhs, who were born in Kazakhstan, felt less emotional and physical detachment from those in Xinjiang. This emotional distance could also be attributed to a weak sense of the colonial past and a skewed focus on the idealization of the Soviet regime rather than a concentration on post-independence reality. Finding themselves in a relatively emotionally familiar historical homeland, ethnic returnees formed their own networks[7] based on migration backgrounds.


Atajurt's Origins

 

Atajurt's history predates the repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang[8]. It initially comprised a group of Kazakh enthusiasts who migrated from Xinjiang to their ancestral homeland Kazakhstan in the early 2000s and later extended assistance to their former compatriots from Xinjiang in relocating to Kazakhstan. Founded by Kidiraly Oraz and Kairat Baitolla, ethnic Kazakhs who returned from Xinjiang in late 2016, with later involvement from Serikjan Bilash, the group's formation was prompted by a leaked document that hinted at the CCP's plans to achieve ethnic homogeneity in China by 2020. In response, they created a WeChat group to encourage Kazakh families in Xinjiang to move to Kazakhstan as soon as possible. They scouted plots of land in Kazakhstan, advertised them through this group, and facilitated the relocation of 67 families before facing obstacles such as tightened border controls and detainments.


In May 2017, shortly after people began to be detained, Atajurt started encouraging relatives of the detainees to petition and demand answers from the Chinese consulate in Almaty. Despite ongoing petitions, they never received a response from China's official representatives and failed to garner serious attention from the World Kazakh Association[9] , from whom they sought help. Atajurt Eriktileri remained a relatively unknown group of activists at that time while still endeavoring to demand assistance from Kazakhstan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Since 2017, branding themselves as Atajurt Eriktileri, the organizers have sought to legally register their organization. However, they have yet to obtain official status as a legal entity with several unsuccessful attempts at registration. In 2019, Atajurt split into two factions: many of Bilash's former associates successfully registered an organization using the original name Atajurt Eriktileri, while Bilash's loyalists had to rebrand as Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri (The True Atajurt Volunteers), which remained unregistered. The registered Atajurt Eriktileri is now led by Erbol Dauletbek, and after Bilash's resignation, Bekzat Maxuthan was declared the head of Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri[10].



Discussion between Erbol Dauletbek and Bekzat Maxuthan with Azattyq (in Kazakh, source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPqJXh8nYr4).



Serikjan Bilash, the current leader of Atajurt, is an ethnic Kazakh born in China and was not initially part of the volunteer group. Before that, he authored a blog describing his travels abroad (around the world) under the pseudonym "Jarkyn 7," starting in 2009 under the name "Myn bir sapar" (Thousand and One Travels). He was also known under the pseudonym Anar Atabay on Facebook. His blog covered various topics, including ethno-nationalistic sentiments aimed at helping ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang preserve their identity and move to their ancestral homeland. Later, he began running WeChat and WhatsApp channels in Kazakh language with pro-Kazakh nationalist content. One of his WeChat channels was named "Kazakhstanga kosh" (Migrate to Kazakhstan). His channels gained popularity among Kazakhs, and according to some critics[11], his circulation of Kazakh nationalist discourse within Xinjiang was one reason many of his readers ended up in re-education camps.


In 2017, Bilash began speaking out about detentions and criticized Kazakh intellectuals in Xinjiang for their silence, eventually joining the Atajurt initiative. In April 2019, during the early stages of the pandemic, Kazakh authorities declared the organization illegal and conducted a raid on its headquarters. Bilash himself was arrested and accused of inciting ethnic hatred and damaging relations between China and Kazakhstan. In September 2020, Bilash fled to Turkey and then to the USA, where he continues his activism by regularly running several YouTube channels and livestreaming multiple times a day.



Serikjan Bilash on an undated photo (source: Radio Free Asia).



Atajurt's Database


The database of testimonies collected from former detainees, relatives, and family members of victims spans from 2017 to 2019 and remains with the registered Atajurt Eriktileri organization. While the registered organization has been relatively inactive in the field after the legal registration, the unregistered Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri has continued its work with gathering testimonies, hosting conferences, and attracting international attention to the genocide in Xinjiang. Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri operates several YouTube channels: Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights-USA (329K subscribers, 2.8K videos), Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights-QAZAQ (109K subscribers, 1.5K videos), Atajurt Eriktileri(6K subscribers, 836 videos), Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights Serikjan Bilash (363K subscribers, 10K videos), and Nagyz Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights (3K subscribers, 4.5K videos). These channels cover not only human rights violations but also land issues[12].



Gene A. Bunin: On Xinjiang, Atajurt, and Serikjan. March 18, 2019 (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ao1keGNxl1w)



Atajurt employs a specific format for video testimonies where the testifier is asked to state their name, degree of relation, date of birth, Chinese ID number, and show their ID photo close to the camera or include a photo of the ID or passport. They also display any available court or official documents (usually in Chinese) close to the camera, allowing viewers to read them independently. Some testimonies have been translated into Turkish, Arabic, Russian, and English. When testimonies are provided by camp survivors themselves, interviewers ask specific questions about their experiences, including the number of people in the cell, the oldest and youngest detainees, and details about daily routines, food, medical checks, classes, and punishments.


This format has proved helpful to other documentation efforts, as many open testimonies from relatives and camp survivors have been transcribed and used to populate the Xinjiang Victims Database, managed by Gene Bunin, who closely collaborates with Atajurt.


Impact of Atajurt's Human Rights Activities


Despite encountering problems with state officials and obstacles in legitimizing their activities, Atajurt continues to work with victims in Xinjiang, collecting testimonies, and providing various forms of support to camp survivors and their relatives on a daily basis. Testifiers who have given their testimonies openly acknowledge the impact of Atajurt's assistance, which has given them a platform to speak out about human rights violations.


Atajurt's members collect two types of testimonies: those from relatives and family members of detainees in re-education camps, and those from camp survivors themselves who openly accuse the CCP of its criminal policies towards ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang. Many family testimonies have had positive effects, leading to improvements in conditions for specific victims, releases, and even the possibility of relocation to Kazakhstan. Gene Bunin, activist and founder of the Xinjiang Victim Database, has openly discussed these outcomes[13]


Critiques of Atajurt’s Activities


Atajurt’s activities have faced numerous critiques, one of which argues that their efforts to help those in the camps have resulted in more negative than positive effects. After giving testimonies, relatives and families of detainees in Xinjiang faced oppression and blackmail, while similar persecutions awaited those in Kazakhstan. Furthermore, Atajurt has even been blamed for initiating opression of ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang, as the initiators of Atajurt in late 2016 encouraged Kazakhs in Xinjiang to move to Kazakhstan.


Another critique is directed towards the personality of Serikjan Bilash by various individuals, accusing him of being pathos-driven and harboring unhealthy ambitions. Bilash, as a public speaker and leader of the marginalized group of ethnic returnees from the Kazakh diaspora in China, has indeed made significant contributions, but there is criticism that his personality has sometimes played into China’s hands and contributed to people ending up in the camps. Additionally, there is blame on Atajurt for inciting panic through creating WeChat channels that encouraged people to return to their ancestral homeland.


The basis for these critiques could be explained by the extreme idealization of Kazakhstan as the diasporic Kazakhs' dreamland, where they could live as Kazakhs without any problems and educate their children in Kazakh culture. Former president Nazarbayev’s policy of diplomatic conflict resolution and emphasis on peace and stability was adopted by oralman (returnees), which was seen as a way of integrating and adapting into Kazakhstani society. Ethnic Kazakhs from China, separated from their families and relatives, did not want their loved ones to be affected if they openly testified. Others, who were formerly Chinese state servants, found it hard to believe that the CCP could orchestrate such a massive campaign against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.


Atajurt’s Current State


At the end of 2023, Atajurt faced another crisis. Although the division under Bilash’s leadership failed to obtain legal registration, activists were able to register the organization under a different name Talpyn Jastar focused on youth activism. Currently, part of the stakeholders of Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri decided to support the new division, while others expressed their desire to support the political direction of the leader.


Despite their stated desire to help the broader Kazakh diaspora out of natural compassion and empathy, Atajurt nevertheless harbors political ambitions. Serikjan Bilash streams daily since leaving Kazakhstan, addressing global politics and the internal and external affairs of Kazakhstan. Some members of Atajurt have concerns about politicizing the organization’s activities and aim to maintain its focus on human rights, while others align with Bilash’s political ambitions.




[1] In this blog post, I will refer to the organization led by Serikjan Bilash as "Atajurt,": although its members identify themselves as Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri, publicly they often shorten it to Atajurt for simplicity and known under this name in media.

[2] Atajurt also known as Atajurt Eriktileri, has been divided few times, due to different issues. Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri is one of the active divisions. This will be explained in this blogpost.

[3]The new official term for Kazakh ethnic repatriates who applied for Kazakhstani citizenship. The term kandas that means “blood-relative” replaced the older version oralman that means “returnee” for the negative connotation of the latter. On the term “kandas” https://eurasianet.org/kazakhstan-words-mean-everything-in-ethnic-kazakh-debate.

[6] Mukanova Z, Steenberg R. 2021.Returnees, blood relatives or backwards? Foreign politics, stigma and coloniality in the debate about how to call ethnic Kazakh immigrants to Kazakhstan. In: Geographica Augustana (33). Augsburg, Institut für Geographie, Universität Augsburg. p.86-97.

[7] Mukanova, Z. 2022.Challenges of the ethnic Kazakh repatriates from China in rural Kazkahstan. In:  Achiers d’Asie Centrale, IFEAC (Institute Français d’Etudes sur L’Asie Centrale) online publications.

[9] The World Association of Kazakhs is an international non-governmental organization with republican status. It was established on September 29, 1992 at the congress of Kazakhs in Almaty for the first time. The association is created to support ethnic Kazakhs around the world. Interview with the head of public Council of the World Association of Kazakhs https://www.azattyq.org/a/32646896.html.

[10] Discussion between Erbol Dauletbek and Bekzat Maxuthan with Azattyq (in Kazakh)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPqJXh8nYr4

[11] Әділет Ділмұрат. Жарқын жеті деген кім? Ағартушы ма, әлде арандатушы ма? 20.02.2018. (Adilet Dilmurat. Jarkyn jeti degen kim?Agartushi ma7 alde arandatushi ma?) https://abai.kz/post/66415

[12] Atajurt also accepted the testimonies from people from Xinjiang whose lands  were  taken away by Chinese state for highway construction, tourism, etc.

 

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