Story: Gulruy Asqar
Story: Gulruy Asqar
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; there is still time, still hope. 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 adorned with displays of Chinese state messaging, including expressions of loyalty towards 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.
To say our teacher was ‘livid’ would be an understatement. She interrogated us as though we’d robbed a bank. For some unknown reason, she was convinced that I was the vandal, and put me in an empty room for two hours in an effort to force a confession out of me. But I was not the vandal, so I remained defiant and thankfully, we were all let go without any serious consequences.
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 thoroughly indoctrinated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology that a minor school vandal provoked such a reaction from her; being caught for such vandalism, even as minors, would’ve meant being blacklisted by the authorities. The black dot would mean we wouldn’t get into universities or be 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 social conditioning program that began long before she was 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 dysfunctional 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, 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 a brief success in wrestling power away from Chinese imperialists to establish an Uyghur nation by the name of East Turkestan. But the young nation was quickly 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
Under the CCP, rich people were deemed criminals and poverty prosperity. The CCP One-China ideology brought Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1966 which sought to replace local traditions all over China with Communism.
Intellectuals everywhere were jailed and literature burned. In East Turkestan, now 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 separatist sentiments2. My father was an outspoken scholar of Uyghur literature and critic of the CCP; he became an obvious target for the CCP. He was taken away for long periods at a time and his persecution at the hands of the CCP must’ve been gruesome because he never talked about it. The few stories I know of, I’d heard from my mother and, to this day, cannot bear to repeat.
Since then, the CCP oppression of Uyghurs has come in waves.
Forgetting & Rediscovering East Turkestan
I grew up in the oasis city of Kashgar where education was completely controlled by the CCP who tried every trick in the book to make us forget the Uyghur identity. East Turkestan didn’t exist in textbooks, there was only Xinjiang and Uyghurs were only one of China’s fifty-two minority populations.
At school, 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 wouldn’t tell us much for fear that we’d say the ‘wrong’ thing and subsequently disappear without trace.
As I grew older, I started to learn more about Uyghur history. 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 activists; we never heard of them once they disappeared.The CCP honoured Uyghur traitors who sold out their peers. In the public displays, they showed us pictures of the “convicts” and praised the traitors. I remember standing in these crowds, feeling disturbed beyond belief.
After high school, we moved to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Many Uyghurs did the same at the time as the capital provided more opportunities. Here, I attended Xinjiang university and lived for the next thirteen years.
But 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.
In June, an unfounded rumour4 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 a 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 Uyghurs5 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’. 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-massacre6; the scenes that unfolded before my bedroom window haunt me till this day; walls awash with blood of innocent Uyghur men beaten to a pulp, the echoing screams and so much more that I can’t bear to tell you.
The state controlled media chose to portray the events in a different light. During the mass protests, a small minority of Uyghur protestors clashed with some Han Chinese men; this incident was blown out of proportion and the clips were paraded by the media7, while no attention was paid to majority peaceful protestors. That night, scores of our men were dragged out of their homes8.
The next few days saw the situation escalate dramatically; the Uyghur protests were quashed by the authorities, Han civilians marched into Uyghur neighbourhoods9 brandishing iron batons and Molotov cocktails at Uyghurs as retaliation, all while being guarded and protected by armed government forces. The scenes that played out were out of a war novel; women who’d lost their brothers, husbands and fathers, who had nothing left to lose marched on to the streets and stood tall in front of military tanks in brave attempts to protect their people.
While the events unfolded, the authorities forbade any kind of video recording. At one point while I stood watching, horror-stricken, the clashes from my bedroom window, the police guns randomly open fired at our building, and I realized one of my neighbours had tried filming despite the prohibition.
The chaos only quelled when foreign journalists started to show up. The mobs started to disperse but we remained glued to our windows. 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 sheer bravery, the nerve, it gripped my heart with mixed feelings of immense pride and immense guilt. I felt guilty for doing nothing, but my husband was working hard to get us out of Urumqi to America, and I couldn’t blow our only chance for escape. And yet it seemed like a sorry excuse.
A few days later, I was at the psychiatric ward at our local hospital. I saw things there I wish I could forget; girls lying in beds, staring blankly ahead, unmoving, unspeaking and never eating, almost as though they were one with the sheets. The horrors of July 2009 took away the colour of my hair, but these girls? God only knows what they lost.
Missing Family Members
A year later, my husband and I reunited in America. It felt surreal to be able to leave the occupation, and for the first few years in our new home, we lived only half awake; the other half dreamed nightmares born from trauma of what I’d witnessed in Urumqi, and guilt that gnawed at me for leaving behind my family.
We were afraid to talk about our experience, afraid to speak up for the fear the CCP would silence us by going after our families at home. Following 2009, there had been mass detentions10 and disappearances11 of Uyghurs across East Turkestan. It was in 2016 that my nephew, Ekram Yarmuhemmed12 (艾克热木·亚尔买买提), and brother-in-law, Alim Sulayman13 (阿力木.苏莱曼), disappeared, one after the other. There were no formal notices, just guesses and words of mouth. It was after this that we could no longer keep silent and after what felt like stepping on hot coals, I put my trust in Allah and started to speak up and share the hidden reality of East Turkestan with our friends and later, the Muslim community in America. The support we’ve received from the community was the only thing that gave us hope.
I have since started giving my testimony, reaching out to journalists, activists and lawmakers and I giving interviews. My concerns about retaliation were justified when my family back home experienced unannounced visits from the police at their residences. 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 detained15 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. Some unjustly detained Uyghurs have been released and our activism has been making a difference. Everytime I publish a new testimony, I’m gripped by a new fear for what may befall my family in China and lose sleep for nights at a time. But it is all we can do hope and try to stand up for our people.
What makes one more deserving of help and attention than another? Why have people all around the world endorsed #BlackLivesMatter but turned a blind eye to the Uyghur?
Perhaps one reason is this: persecuted minorities have very little on their side, but most at least have their voices. From Kashmir to black Americans, victims are speaking out. But for Uyghurs, China took away even our voices.
So I ask you now — would you lend us your voice? Every post you share, comment you write and company you pledge to boycott boils CCP blood. 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 seven years. You may never understand any of these things — but you can do one thing — you can be our voices.
“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.
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)