I spoke to a Uighur escapee who might never see his family in China again – what he told me was horrifying

We’ve all heard of the ‘re-education camps’ where they are indoctrinated, punished and psychologically tortured. But the stories of everyday life are just as, if not more, harrowing

Sara Tor
Thursday 12 March 2020 11:39
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Uighur Muslim woman tells Congressional-Executive Commission on China she asked Chinese to kill her whilst in detention camp

“My parents have warned me my whole life: comply with the Chinese regime, don’t say anything against the party.” Frustrated, angry and unable to speak out for fear of reprisals, one Uighur has bravely done the next best thing – talk to someone who can. He has helped me formulate the following narrative and for the safety of him and his family, I will refer to him only as X. The treatment of Uighurs reported by Western media is shocking; the treatment of Uighurs reported by Uighurs themselves is harrowing. Cultural genocide is occurring and it’s time the world woke up to it.

For thousands of years, the Uighurs have lived in the area known to them as East Turkestan, but to others as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Since the 18th Century takeover by the Chinese Manchu Empire, however, Uighurs have been lobbying for independence. Despite three periods of victory in 1864, 1933 and 1944, the struggle for liberty has been extremely tough and ultimately unsuccessful. With the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, clampdowns became far more frequent and since 2017, the systematic erasure of Uighur culture and identity has increased dramatically.

The life of the Uighur language, for example, is now limited. While X himself – and his parents and grandparents – had the opportunity to be educated in Uighur-speaking schools, the new generation no longer have this chance. From 2010 up until 2017, only Uighur literature was taught using the Uighur language; now, however, both primary and secondary schools within the region are obliged to teach completely in Chinese. There is no longer any Uighur spoken or taught in schools. Children currently at school will grow up with barely any knowledge of their ethnic language; future generations might not even know it existed at all. Lose a language and you lose meaning and true understanding of your history, culture and people. Lose the Uighur language and you lose the Uighurs. This is what I mean when I say cultural genocide: by killing the culture – of which language is the main element – you kill the people’s identity. They will no longer be Uighur, but simply Chinese.

This is not the only way China is crushing the Uighurs. We’ve all heard of the “re-education camps” where they are indoctrinated, punished and psychologically tortured either by the uncertainty of when they will be released or by the fact their children have been put in an “orphanage” because both parents are interned. However, the stories of everyday life for the Uighurs that X has shared with me are just as, if not more, horrific. He tells me people have been arrested while trying to avoid riots and tortured for weeks with atrociously brutal methods, including a sharp wooden stick inserted into the rectum. Others disappear completely after returning from work abroad. Many are hounded by secret police for information, particularly on Uighurs living abroad, and comply for fear of dreadful repercussions.

This violent treatment of Uighurs is not new. Many who grew up during the time of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s are still traumatised by what they saw. The communist student paramilitary group of the Red Guards would enter Uighur villages nearly every day, calling for all residents to gather in a central location where a stage had been erected. The Guards would take an individual from the crowd and punish them for something they had done. I heard how one man, for example, was picked out for “teaching his cows to walk in a line like the army”, despite the fact cows walk in line by instinct. Punishments were often heavy beatings in front of the whole village, followed by the forced wearing of demeaning hats. This torture may have been subtler than tactics applied today, however it had its effect. Another Uighur who spoke to one of my sources said that humiliation caused one person in a village to slit his own throat; the blood pouring from his neck scarred the eyes of each resident, young and old, as they tried in vain to help him.

China’s security services are pressing members of the country’s Uighur minority abroad to spy on compatriots

But over the years, the majority of Uighurs have remained silent. They submit to this treatment because it is expected – human rights are not something they anticipate in China. More importantly, they submit to keep their family safe. The Uighur family unit is everything; parents help children well into adulthood and the elderly are looked after by the younger generation. China knows this and regularly uses it today to intimidate. If a Uighur does anything out of line, it won’t be him personally who is disciplined, it will be his family members. This is why X hasn’t spoken directly to his parents for a few years. He no longer lives in China and having foreign contact could get his family into deep trouble. It was his mother who made the heart-breaking decision to tell him not to call or visit again.

So, we have to be the voice of the Uighurs. Cultural diversity makes our world beautiful, yet a whole ethnicity could soon be wiped out. Speak up and help to save them, or remain silent and be party to this inhumane persecution.

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