Story: Gulruy Asqar
Writing: Sumayya FS
You’ve heard of Anne Frank. You’ve read The Book Thief. You’ve watched The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. You’ve sympathized with memories turned to ink, binded in books and stacked in shelves. You’ve sworn ‘never again’.
If you’d known of what went on in Germany’s camps in 1941, surely you would’ve done something. You may read about me and my people in fifty years’ time and shed the same tears and say the same words. When the last Uyghur is killed, you’ll whisper once more, ‘never again’.
But you’re here now, I’m still breathing and fifty years haven’t passed. What may happen isn’t the same as what will happen. Listen to my story while I’m still here, told in my words. Listen carefully and listen well, if you ever did mean your ‘never again’.
Adapted from Gulruy’s poem Whispering ‘Never Again’
In high school, we had two blackboards. One at the front of the class, on which we had our lessons, and the other, at the back of the class. The one at the back was decorated with Chinese state propaganda and some rubbish about Chairman Mao. One day, the board at the back was vandalized; a few letters were changed so what had been praises for Mao were now insults. Our teacher was livid. She interrogated us as though we’d robbed a bank. She suspected me for some reason and locked me up in an empty room for two hours, pressuring me to confess. I wasn’t the vandal, so I was defiant; how dare she lock me up without any evidence?
When I think about the story now, I can’t help but marvel at the insanity of her actions. We were all Uyghur — she was Uyghur too — but she was so sold to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology that a simple school vandal made her react this way. What’s more is that if anyone of us had been caught, even as minors, we would’ve been blacklisted by the authorities. The black dot would mean we wouldn’t get into universities or hired by companies. She knew that turning in any one of her students would ruin their future — and she still did it.
My teacher was the product of a systematic brainwashing program that began long before she was even born. Let me take you back, as far back as I can go, to relate the beginning of this lived Orwellesque dystopia through the personal accounts of my family. Let’s go to 1930.
The East Turkestan region has always been a perpetually war-ridden land, much like its twin region, Afghanistan. My grandfather was of the Warlord Era; a time when we were under the Xinjiang clique, ruled by various Chinese autocrats and bad politics. My grandfather ran schools to preserve Uyghur literacy amid Chinese imperialism. His is a long story. One that involves raising orphans with his wife — my grandmother — running schools, resistance and then incarceration and torture by the authorities; he passed away at a very young age, still in his early 30s. It was after his passing, in the 1930s, that the growing sentiments of an Uyghur identity led to East Turkestan’s brief success in wrestling power away from Chinese imperialists to establish her own nation. I say “briefly” because the nation crumpled quickly to be taken over by Chairman Mao who brought back “Xinjiang”. Mao was no ordinary military leader — he had a vision, an ideology and above all, menacing power and influence. And so started the communist rule.
The Cultural Revolution
Rich people were deemed criminals and poverty prosperity. The CCP rule now dictated the One-China ideology; all were subservient to the “motherland”. Propaganda spread like the plague; even mullahs were used as mouthpieces.
Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1966 sought to replace local traditions all over China with Communism. Intellectuals everywhere were jailed and literature burned. In Xinjiang, mosques were destroyed1 and Uyghur literature was burned; the state further sponsored mass Han migrations here to dilute the ethnic Uyghur population and quash all sepratist sentiments. My father was an outspoken scholar of Uyghur literature and critic of the CCP; he became an obvious target for persecution. His persecution must’ve been very bad because he never talked about it. The few stories I know of I’d heard from my mother.
Since then, the CCP oppression of Uyghurs has come in waves.
Forgetting East Turkestan
I was born in a spell of peace in the oasis city of Kashgar. Growing up, education was completely controlled by the CCP who tried everything they could to make us forget the Uyghur identity. It couldn’t have been easy in Kashgar though. Oh, what can I tell you about Kashgar?
Describing it is like ripping a page out of a fantasy novel. It was a cultural hotbed where the land and architecture spoke for themselves with their golden-brick monuments, cold winds but never snow, and rivers. The children were never bored in Kashgar.
Except, of course, inside of schools. East Turkestan didn’t exist in my textbooks, there was only Xinjiang and Uyghurs were only one of China’s fifty-two minority populations. Here, we were indoctrinated in three ideologies, which we saluted everyday — atheism, Marxism-Leninism and Maoism represented by Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Any religious and ethnic identity that the very few of us had came from the stories of our grandparents; even our parents didn’t tell us much for fear that we’d stand up for our rights and subsequently disappear without trace.
I still remember the classes; I remember that in biology class when the teachers told us we came from apes and were nothing more than animals, some of us that knew about creation grew red in the face. Later we had heated debates between classmates about the origins of man. It makes me smile now. We didn’t know very much then as children but we believed in and stood up for truth even then.
On the Chinese National Day we gathered in assemblies before the school, sang songs and raised the Chinese flag. One year, the teachers had chosen me to hoist the flag. I was delighted; given my CCP-controlled educational up-bringing, it was the utmost honour a student could be given. When I went home and told my parents, my father was livid.
‘Don’t raise the flag, Gulruy!’ He insisted, ‘Tell them you have a cut on your hand, that you’re injured. Tell them anything, just don’t hoist the flag.’
At the time, I didn’t understand his reaction.
Remembering East Turkestan
As I grew older, I learned about my history gradually over time. I mentioned that my father was a professor of Uyghur literature; he was also an avid reader and kept an enormous library of Uyghur texts at home. I started to read these books when I was older. Then the whispered news of disappeared Uyghurs, my own neighbours’ kids sometimes, started to make sense.
In the 1990s, with greater access to media and communication among Uyghurs, people started sharing Islamic and cultural knowledge among themselves. Some people started voicing their political concerns and soon, we started seeing political activism. Separatist sentiments are strictly forbidden under the CCP — those who spoke paid a hefty price to be heard.
Public sentencing and shaming was the first punishment for the activists. We never heard of them after they disappeared.The CCP honoured Uyghur traitors who ratted out their peers. In the public displays, they showed us pictures of the “convicts” and praised the traitors. I remember standing in these crowds, distrubed beyond belief. I was in middle school in those days.
After high school, we moved to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Many Uyghurs did the same at the time as the capital provided many opportunities. Here, I attended Xinjiang university and lived for the next thirteen years.
It all changed after 2009.
Have you ever wondered about your grandparents’ white hair? Do you think they remember when they first noticed their white hair? I’m no grandmother but I remember when I got my first white hair. It was in July of 2009 and I wasn’t yet thirty. The persecution came in waves, remember? 2009 was the next major wave. It made strands of my hair go white. It sounds like science-fiction, doesn’t it? It’s not, though.
In June, an unfounded rumour from a toy factory in Shaoguan, a city 2,500 miles from Urumqi, was spread online. The rumour claimed that some Uyghur men had raped a Han woman at the factory; the hearsay led to brutal brawl wherein Han workers brutally beat up Uyghur workers. At least two died in the attacks which were captured on video and then circulated online.
In Urumqi, the videos went viral. Pent up frustration with CCP mistreatment of Uyghur suffering sparked movement among young Uyghurs. Protestors took to the streets on 5th July calling for an investigation into the Shaoguan incident.
I was by the bank when I noticed the peaceful protestors, who were mostly students, marching and chanting, ‘Uyghur, Uyghur’. Their bravery brought tears to my eyes. I hadn’t been watching for long before fully armed Chinese policemen forced me to leave. I lived in the epicentre of the protests-turned-massacre; the scenes that unfolded before my bedroom window haunt me till this day. Walls painted in blood of innocent Uyghur men beaten to a pulp, the echoing screams and so much more that I can’t bear to tell you.
Of course, the state-controlled media didn’t frame it that way. Some Uyghur protestors had turned violent and attacked Hans; these clips were paraded by the media. That night, scores of our men were dragged out of their homes.
Two days later Chinese civilians marched into our neighbourhoods. After the protests were quashed? After the men were taken? Into neighbourhoods? Han civilians were on the streets, brandishing iron batons and Molotov cocktails at Uyghurs and threatening to beat them up. And they weren’t alone; we saw them guarded and protected by armed government forces.
On July 7th, they came after the vulnerable; the unthreatening home dwellers. There were women who’d lost their brothers, husbands and fathers, who felt like they had nothing more to lose. They marched on to the streets and stood tall in front of tanks. Yes, military tanks. I will never forget their brave, unwavering stances.
When I saw the mobs march towards our buildings, I was filled with dread. As I watched from my window, my neighbours picked up whatever they could find, bricks and stones, and chased off the mobs. It never fails to amaze me; mobs armed with batons and cocktails running away from bricks and stones? But there was more; the mobs marched for greed, while my neighbours defended their dignity and community, driven by their prayers. The authorities forbade any kind of video recording. I was watching, horror-stricken, the clashes when suddenly police guns fired at our building. One of my neighbours must’ve tried filming.
The chaos only stopped when foreign journalists stepped in. The mobs disappeared but I was still glued to my window. When the journalists came, I spotted a teenage girl go down our building and run over to a journalist, hand her a phone and run back into the building. The bravery, the nerve, it gripped my heart with mixed feelings of immense pride and immense guilt. I felt so guilty for doing nothing but watching. My husband was working hard to get us out of Urumqi to America. I couldn’t blow this for us. And yet it seemed like a bad excuse.
I was at a psychiatric ward a few days later. The scenes I witnessed there seemed to be straight out of a horror film. Girls lying in beds, staring blankly ahead. They may have been one with the sheets because they didn’t move, speak or eat. They only breathed. The horrors of July 2009 took away the colour of my hair, but these girls? God only knows what they lost.
A year later, I was on a plane headed to America. It felt surreal to be getting away. I felt as though someone would come after me and drag me off the plane. It didn’t seem possible to escape the CCP. But once I was in the air I was so relieved I could cry. I may have been miles above the land but I’d never felt safer, as though I was in the arms of an angel. You’d expect me to be sad to leave my family behind, and I was, but in that moment, all that mattered was that I was away from the CCP.
Settling in America was the easy part. Thinking straight was where I faltered sometimes. Flashbacks and panic attacks would seize me out of the blue. I had spells of sleepless nights and I moved between work and home like a zombie. We run out of many things in life, but I can tell you that I’ve never run out of tears.
When we were new in America, somedays, feelings of guilt ate me up whole. How could I be so safe at home while my family in Xinjiang lived in fear? The only way I could do to help was speak out, tell the world about what I’d witnessed. But I was afraid, China would retaliate and like cowards they would go after my family members back home. So I kept quiet but my hands would always write. Slowly, very slowly I was able to open up to my colleagues and later to the Muslim community. The people always helped and supported us; they gave us hope. Masajid gave my people platforms to inform fellow Muslims about East Turkestan. Many people didn’t even know such a place existed on the same world map as theirs.
Missing family members
Since 2009, there have been mass detentions and disappearances. My nephew, Ekram Yarmuhemmed (艾克热木·亚尔买买提), and brother-in-law, Alim Sulayman (阿力木.苏莱曼), disappeared in 2016 one after the other. No formal notices, just guesses and words of mouth but I somehow learned that they were detained.
Their detentions were the last straw. I could no longer be silent; I put my tawakkul in Allah and started to campaign. I started giving my testimony, I reached out to journalists, activists and lawmakers and I gave interviews. I feared retaliation and my family back home did face the consequences, no doubt. But this was the only way I could do anything for my missing family and my people. At the time of writing this, Ekram and Alimjan are still detained by the CCP.
Everyone has their chance to be brave, to choose between the right and the easy. For the girl with the phone camera in 2009, it was the appearance of the journalist. For me, it was now with the disappearance of my relatives.
The few Uyghur who’ve spoken out about missing relatives have seen results. Family members being released and internet connections being restored. Our activism has been making a difference. Taking the first step was like jumping off a cliff or stepping on hot coal; doubts take over your mind and you can forget why you need to do it. But the fear must be overcome, we must pick trust in Allah over this fear and do the right thing. So I speak today. Everytime I publish a new testimony, I’m gripped by a new fear and lose sleep for nights at a time. But my resolve carries me on.
Ekram and Alimjan
The CCP took away all kinds of people, the most lovely and innocent people weren’t spared. Ekram was the sweetest child; I looked after him from his infancy. In 2016, when I first learned he was taken away I thought it was my fault because I’d transferred some money to his account to return what I’d borrowed from my family back in Urumqi. Foriegn transactions are a red flag for the authorities. Guilt ate me up whole and sleep was out of the question after that revelation.
Later on, I learned that before his arrest, he’d been running a private, Uyghur-language bookstore. This may be why he was arrested. At the time, the CCP was trying to eradicate the Uyghur language altogether; Ekram’s bookstore “had to be closed” and he disappeared along with it. The guilt still consumes me, even after knowing that it may not have been my fault. I still think it was the transfer that flagged him. I can’t explain the gnawing guilt that eats away at my insides.
Alimjan traveled to Turkey in 2014 for his studies. He didn’t like it much and was eager to return home just a year later. My husband had long phone calls with his younger brother trying to convince him to stay in Turkey. Once an Uyghur has ties outside of China, they are under the radar of the CCP- especially after 2014 — there’s no telling what excuse they’ll use to interrogate you and send you to the camps. Alimjan, however, missed home and chose to return. He was interrogated immediately at the airport but cleared. He started his dentistry job at a local hospital and seemed to be fine. Mid 2016, the authorities made a false accusation against him claiming that he’d attended an Uyghur Academy meeting in Turkey. He’d never done so; and even if he had, UA is a legal organization — how could he be detained for just that? But the CCP doesn’t follow a rule book.
Recently, BBC released a rare look into China’s concentration camps via a detainee who managed to keep his phone during his detention for a few days. Merdan, the detainee, is the same age as Ekram and Alimjan. The haunted look in Merdan’s eyes once more kept me up for nights. Are they going through the same thing?
So now what?
What makes one more deserving of help and attention than another? Why have people all around the world, leaders from UAE to Pakistan, endorsed #BlackLivesMatter but turned a blind eye to the Uyghur? When Canadians have taken steps to sanction Chinese businesses for their involvement in the camps, why have the Muslims been in deafening silence?
I think I know the reason. Out of sight and out of mind. Persecuted minorities have very little on their side, but most at least have their voices. From Kashmir to black Americans, the victims are speaking out. But for Uyghurs, China took away even our voices. So, I ask you now, you need to be the voice. Every post you share, comment you write and company you pledge to boycott boils CCP blood. Every effort around the world counts.You may never understand what the Uyghur go through; what it feels like to get white hair overnight, to sleep in a cell with fifty other people, to not speak to your family for four years. You may never understand but you can and must do one thing — be our voice.
“Never again” is now.
Gulruy Asqer (story) is a Uyghur poetess, mother of twin girls, teacher and a woman with a bleeding heart for her people suffering in East Turkestan.
Sumayya FS (writer)is a university student who dislikes talking about herself in third-person.
Geigo Sakayudha (artist) is an illustrator, graphic designer, and ex-barista. He loves books, travel and deep conversations.
YouTube: Geigo Sakayudha
7UHRP REPORT: A city ruled by fear and silence: Urumchi, two years on (UHRP, 2011)