Asia Centrale CONIFA

Where football meets international politics: the remarkable story of the East Turkistan Football Association

By Andrea Giuseppe Tommasi (interviewer) and Amanalla Kashgari (interviewee, Acting Head of Operations of ETFA, East Turkistan Football Association).

Many of you are interested in football in Central Asia and we decided to contact a person directly involved in its development. More: we did not just talk, as we did in the past, to a football player or a journalist: we talked to a member of a Federation board. And such football Federation is even more interesting because it is not recognized by FIFA and the Nation that it refers to is not independent nor does it have any sort of autonomy albeit being ethnically, linguistically and culturally different from the country ruling it. We’re talking about the East Turkistan Football Association. Such Federation just joined CONIFA, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations: an organization alternative to FIFA bringing together people and football movements of Nations which are not (yet) recognized by the international community.

We are football fans, but we are also members of a global society. We wanted to talk about football, but we did not only do that. We couldn’t. Amanalla Kashgari, Acting Head of Operation for the East Turkistan Association, provided us with a comprehensive overview of national football in East Turkistan and abroad and the political situation in his country.

We also went to the second ever official football game of East Turkistan, held in Cergy (France) on December 14th which ended with a 5-0 defeat against Tamil Eelam.

A brief introduction to the topic for those who are not familiar with it. East Turkistan is a region in Central Asia officially part of China who calls it Xinjiang, which literally means “New Frontier”. The region is originally not inhabited by ethnic Chinese but by the Uyghurs and other Turkic people of Turkic language and Muslim faith. In the last years the Chinese regime has tried to integrate the region with the Eastern provinces both logistically and culturally. That is resulting in a massive migration of Han Chinese to the province while the locals are undergoing incredible sufferings for the cultural annihilation and the physical elimination that the Chinese government is performing, according to numerous international reports. For some decades, before the last years’ Chinese restriction of emigration policies, Uyghurs have been escaping their homeland and they now form organized communities in many European, Turkish, Central Asian and North American countries.

Good morning, Amanalla. Thank you a lot for agreeing with the interview. Could you introduce yourself a bit describing as well your role in the Football Asssociation and how you got involved?

Good morning! I am the Acting Head of Operation of the East Turkistan Football AssociationMy role is to make sure everything is running smoothly before and after the match. That also includes contacting the media, set up friendly matches, and be the bridge between CONIFA and ETFA. I am also one of the founders of the Association.

I am, as you know, an ethnic Uyghur but I grew up in the United States because my family moved there when I was 14. I am a US national and I’m married with two small children. For us, football/soccer creates a platform that would enable us to make political declarations and expand international relations to exhibit the skills and aspirations of East Turkistanians to the whole wide world. With this goal in mind, some years ago we decided to establish our Football Federation.

The idea started in 2014 when we started an extensive collaboration with members of the Uyghur diaspora in nine countries: United States, Canada, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, France and Australia. There are many more East Turkistanian communities in Central Asia but because of the geopolitical reasons which I’ll explain it is very difficult to cooperate with them. The first team was called Uyghur United and we were playing in Virginia.

Such Federation was officially born some months ago and up until now we’ve played only two games: against Western Papua and against Tamil Eelam. Our goal is to participate in next year’s CONIFA World Cup, a competition designed for teams which are not recognized by FIFA.

So we have a chance of seeing your team in next year’s CONIFA World Cup! How does the qualification rounds work?

You know, because of the difficult circumstances in which many members have to play, there are no qualifying groups or standard playoffs for the tournament for the Asian countries. There is a system of points which you gain by playing and obtaining good results in any sort of matches your Team takes part. Of course you get more points if you play and win, let’s say, against other CONIFA members or even recognized National Teams. You get less if you play against local clubs but those games still count. The goal is to gather the best and most active Independent Football Associations in the world.

How is the Federation organized both in your country and abroad?

As you know, my country is occupied by China which gives our people barely any chances to make it to professional tournaments, although we are on average way more skilled than the average Chinese. Abroad we have a capillary organization in which every city in North America and Europe with a sizeable Uyghur community has a football club. They play in local tournaments and once a year they all gather to play a continental tournament. For example, the last North American tournament was held in San Francisco and 7-8 cities were participating. We even hold a Uyghur World Cup once every few years! The last one was held in Germany. Players get to know and befriend each other and the best are chosen for the National Team which you saw playing.

Could you elaborate more on how the Chinese government makes it hard for footballing activities to take place in your country?

Yes. So, first of all, you need to know repression does not only take place in our country but to some extent abroad as well. I will come back to that later. And, of course, repression doesn’t stop there, but I will also elaborate later.

Officially the Chinese government is spending a lot of money to establish footballing academies all over the country. In reality for our people competing at any professional level in our country and in China is almost impossible. Football for Chinese children in schools and club academies are State and privately-funded; for us it is informally not allowed to take part in tournaments at club level. They discriminate against us and they do not allocate any resources to develop the sport in our community. That is a pity, because we are on average very talented and when our players happen to meet Chinese school teams or academies we always beat them. The team of the main school in Urumqi, our capital, has beaten academies of the biggest Chinese clubs and keep in mind that they do not represent a club nor have great training facilities but they are just students. Uyghurs love football and they have a great talent, but they lack opportunities to express themselves or play for big teams.

A friend I met at the game called Dilyar, who escaped East Turkestan 11 years ago when he was 14, said that back in school they always won against ethnic Chinese…

As I said, we are very talented. You may know Ilzat Akhmetov, playing for the Russian National team. He is Uyghur! He grew up in Kyrgyzstan, our neighbouring country, where many Uyghurs live especially after the repression has grown. Ilzat was chosen by CSKA Moscow and has obtained Russian nationality and, at the age of 22, he is one of the biggest prospects in their National team. I came to know that as a kid he was not even the most talented in his community! Just imagine how many great players could make their way into top level football if they had been given the chance.

How could your National team perform in an hypothetical future where players will have their chances?

We could be at the level of Uzbekistan, which if you don’t know is one of the best Asian teams after the big 4 (Iran, South Korea, Japan and Australia) and above China itself, if not more. Back in the 90s, when repression was not that big, we had teams which regularly defeated Uzbek and Kyrgyz ones. Such is the scenario.

Does the Chinese government try to influence the activity of your Football Federation? Does it interfere with the organization?

Absolutely. You may have understood by now that players in our National Team do live exclusively out of the official Chinese territory which is my country. In many cases they gave up their Chinese nationality and obtained, let’s say, the Norwegian or the Canadian one, but they still get intimidating calls from Chinese officials threatening them to take revenge on their family members back home if they play. Such calls happen a lot throughout the world and they are one of the many terrible things the government is doing to our people.

So gathering players is becoming somewhat difficult because understandably many good footballers fear for their families and refuse to play.

These phone calls are quite scary…

They are not just auto-calls. Chinese officials are performing them and often even family members are forced to contact our countrymen to convince them not to play or even, and I am not kidding you, to send pictures of their personal document and to share private information such as address etc. For many of us life can be a nightmare. Such information was published by a Norwegian agency online as well, Chinese top secret documents were hacked and everything can be found on the internet.

You are an American citizen. Did you give up your Chinese passport?

Of course I did. No Uyghur wants it. Do you know that as individuals we have the universal right to recognize the sovereignty of a country over a territory? That of course does not imply that we can escape its laws but it means that it is one of the fundamental human rights to refuse a country’s nationality and to consider its sovereignty over East Turkistan a form of occupation. For me, China is what’s within the Great Wall. East Turkistan and Tibet for me are not Chinese territories and I refuse such nationality. Every Uyghur thinks the same, but now it became way more complicated to complete the de-registration.

Why?

When me and my family moved to Virginia it was sufficient to fill a form. Now you have to go back there to complete the application to disallow citizenship. And of course nobody wants to go back because a asylee or an ethnic Uyghur would not exactly be welcomed by the authorities.

What would then happen?

That is a trap. They would imprison you and then God knows what would be of you. My uncle five years ago visited me in the United States to attend my marriage. When he came back, for the fact of having visited me alone, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail. Fifteen! He was not a political activist or a member of any institution: just a businessman. He just happened to fly to the United States to see his nephew! That is why I never visited home again in 20 years since I moved. Never! I often travel to Central Asia and Turkey, where it is safe for me and where I feel a bit like at home.

Your people comes from the Turkic family indeed…

Yes, so our language and culture is very close to the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek one for example. In Kyrgyzstan I felt at home. Same people, same language, same landscape, same climate. I love it! I like Turkey as well. There are big Uyghur communities there, our languages are also closely related and we are, in a way, their ancestors since back in the days they migrated to Anatolia from our regions.

Let’s go back to what is happening in your country.

The world has to know. The world has to know that in my country the Chinese government is performing an ethnic genocide. They built a huge network of concentration camps in a way similar to what you were familiar in Europe in WWII. You do not need to be a political activist or, as they define us, a “terrorist” to end up there. As I said, it is sufficient to travel abroad or just to be Uyghur. The Chinese government is trying to eradicate religion as well; we are Muslim, as you know, and that makes only things worse.

Elaborate more on the concentration camps.

There are three types of them. The first one is called a “vocational camp”, the less scary one and the one which China likes to show the world whenever the international community question the matter. People are still held there for an indefinite amount of time to be brainwashed and to assimilate them with the regime’s ideology.
The second type of camp, where I think my uncle is now, is a harsh prison. Keep in mind that people who are put there almost always do not have any criminal charges and are there just because of their ethnicity and religion. Conditions there are terrible and often people who are released do not survive a week. They are tortured and injected with drugs and they undergo incredible sufferings.

The third type are organ harvest camps. Political dissidents are put there. People are killed or performed terrible experiments just as in the worst Nazi World War II scenarios. People are killed and organs are extracted in order for them to be sold in the black market.

Do you know that Chinese export of transplantable organs has increased dramatically in the last years? Those are Uyghur organs. And, because they come from Muslim bodies, they are sold as “halal” in the Muslim countries’ markets. China is the only country in the world where you can get an organ in a day. If you need a transplant in the USA, let’s say, there is a long waiting list because, you know, people who gave their consent first have to die and then the organs are transplantable only for a 72-hours window. In China if you’re very rich you just pay some hundreds thoustand of yuans and by the next day some Uyghur has been killed and his organs are ready for the transplant. After the Second World War the saying goes as “Never again” but the reality is “Again!” and again, and again…

That is quite morbid if you ask me. What is the situation in your family?

Fortunately, my immediate family, as of my parents and my siblings, live in the United States. However, as I said my uncle is held in prison since 5 years and another cousin, a football player, was condemned for 5 years. Two other uncles died: one had heart issues and he was taken to prison where he didn’t receive any treatment. The other one died two days after having been released. Every single Uyghur abroad has at least one family member which died or is in prison but the thing is that we do not know how many of them died precisely because the government in the last years has made it almost impossible to contact people back.

That, and the fact that my family members almost certainly will get in trouble if we keep in contact, has led me to forcefully discontinue relations with them. It is better for them and better for me, and that is a decision that many Uyghurs made. We act as if they were dead.

I contacted you to talk about football, but we couldn’t avoid such discussion…

The activity of our Federation is inextricably linked with politics! How could it be any different? One of the goals of our activity is our voice to be heard. Among the huge difficulties we have, there is one good side: the dramatic story of my people leads players to give not just 100% but 120% of their energy on the pitch. The connection between players is not just language or origin but it is made of a shared history and present of injustice, hardship, tragedy, and fight. Those who make it to the National team are extremely proud to play and they want to protect their identity as well as show the world their skills.

Football is not just a game for us. It enables us to make a political statement. When they say “Politics and sports don’t mix” they always forget a second part, which I would put as “Politics shouldn’t get involved in sports”. But being as such the situation we are prepared and willing to share our story with the world. We are just at the beginning…After the interview had taken place, I happened to meet and befriend some Uyghurs attending the football game of their National team in Cergy as I did, as well as some of the players themselves. We rapidly became great friends, and, although such friendship is based on deeper grounds that shared interest for each other’s culture, I could not avoid but asking many of the things I asked to Amanalla as well. Tragically there were no contradictions between the personal stories of the interviewee and my new friends. Every Uyghur I met underwent great hardships to escape the country and to keep contact with his family. However, the good sides are shared as well. Such supporters travelled from Toronto to Paris (in whose periphery Cergy is located) just to attend the game. Players travelled from many countries of the world just to play together once and to help show the world their skills and their stories. I had the chance to interview the President of the Uyghur Association in France as well, but that is another story which doesn’t belong to our domain, football. A domain which for one occasion merged with international politics, but that could not be avoided. Football will never be just a game.

Andrea Giuseppe Tommasi
Appassionato di storia russa e di calcio, le competenze cultural-sportive di Andrea non si limitano solo all'Europa dell'Est ma spaziano dall'Eredivisie al campionato mongolo. Ora basta incensarmi però che è l'una di notte e sono ancora sveglio solo perché se no non digerisco la polenta.

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