Uyghur culture is being eradicated in East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang). Young men I grew up with are incarcerated or have “disappeared.”
by Dilmurat Mahmut
Sentenced to 13 years in jail: Niyaz Qahar.
I used to be very passionate about becoming a writer when I was very young. That childhood dream faced some serious challenges as I grew older, because I quickly noticed the deep injustices and maltreatments my people, the Uyghurs, were facing in the majoritarian Chinese state. During my early teenage years, I learned that I belong to a group whose status is second-class vis a vis the majority Chinese.
Still, I did not want to give up my dream despite the reality that I would be in trouble if I decided to write about the truth. Thus, I went to a university to study Uyghur literature, which was still tolerated to some extent by the Chinese government. This program was completely abolished five years ago from all educational institutions in East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang). For that reason, I feel so lucky that I chose to study that subject, which enabled me to learn about our own cultural heritage and literary figures and their works. The Chinese government has long ordered to eliminate all books that are related to Uyghur culture and identity.
Banning Uyghur culture, both Islamic and secular, from Uyghur lives has become a state rhetoric and policy in the last five years. However, this does not mean such a development is new; Uyghurs have always faced various degrees of restriction upon their religious and cultural rights. During the past five years I have witnessed the culmination of such oppressions.
Over the past decade, many of my friends and relatives have become victims for following their very limited cultural and human rights. Among them, I want to highlight my two childhood friends, Niyaz Qahar and Abduwahit Semet. They are either in prison or have simply disappeared. I feel lucky and guilty at the same time for not having lived with them in East Turkestan during its darkest time.
Niyaz studied Uyghur literature at the same university I attended in the 1990s. After graduation, he became a journalist at a newspaper company in Urumqi. In the summer of 2009, I remember calling him from the UK, and he said not to call him from the UK at this time. We did not stay long on the phone before hanging up each other. A student protest had just happened in the city where there was a bloody crackdown on the students by the government.
After a few days, I found that I could not communicate with anyone in our homeland, and soon realized that the whole internet and international phone service had been shut down in East Turkestan. Only after ten months, was I able to hear the voices of my parents over the phone again. I remember I cried as I had not spoken to them for so long. Soon afterwards, I learned that Niyaz had been sentenced to 13 years in prison just because he sent some photos of the students’ protest to a foreign media outlet. He was charged with the crime of “revealing state secrets.”
About four years ago, I learned that my other friend, Abduwahit, had been sent to jail in 2016. That was the year the Uyghurs in the diaspora started to lose contact with their loved ones back home. I know that in his late thirties he became a very pious man who would strongly encourage his two daughters to wear the hijab. He was accused of being a terrorist, just because of his open religiosity. I only know that much about his fate. I don’t know where I can learn more about his situation. I know that no one can find out his whereabouts, as he is a “terrorist” in the eyes of the Chinese government. Nobody knows if he is alive or dead. I only hope and pray to God that he is alive and has not become the victim of forced organ harvesting, as there is growing evidence that this is occurring. I should say now that all Uyghurs have become potential terrorists or extremists in the eyes of the Chinese Community Party, not only him and other pious Uyghurs. However, these people are facing the most brutal treatment.
I always dream of them and wake up with a very heavy heart. In my dreams they chat with me, smiling, just like in good old days. I can only dream of their faces as I saw them more than a decade ago. I don’t know how they look like now. I don’t want to imagine how they look now actually, which is very painful. I always feel I have done nothing for them. I don’t know what else I should do apart from what I am doing now. I only hope I can see them again alive one day. I hope we will be able to have a reunion before everything is too late. We know that the Chinese government has been primarily targeting religious people for organ harvesting because their organs are healthy as they abstain from drinking or smoking. Thinking of this makes me more worried about Abduwahit’s safety.
Note: The author would like to express his deepest gratitude to the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC), especially the Project Manager Simone Francis who created a workshop space for him to write up his story.