By Dr. Mamtimin Ala
Mar 11, 2022
Image: Chenspec / Pixabay
We were ordered to deny who we were. To spit on our own traditions, our beliefs. To criticise our language. To insult our own people. Women like me, who emerged from the camps, are no longer who we once were. We are shadows; our souls are dead.
--Gulbahar Haitiwaji, an Uyghur concentration camp survivor
Since 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, China has stepped up its efforts to crack down on Uyghurs in the name of counter-terrorism. The CCP launched a Strike Hard campaign (严打) in 2009 as a response to the Urumqi massacres, which led to even more extreme measures of surveillance and oppression. Eventually, it became known in 2016 that Uyghurs were arbitrarily and indiscriminately detained in large numbers in so-called “re-education camps.” As the survivors of this genocide have testified in a collaborative way on various occasions, in these centres mass torture, rape, forced deserialization and abortion, starvation, organ harvesting, slave labour and mass murder are a norm, pointing unambiguously to a planned programme to erase an entire ethnic identity and, resultantly and effectively, constituting a genocide of the Uyghur people in their homeland.ii
This genocide has definitely had a deep, complex, and long-term psychological impact on Uyghurs both in East Turkistan and in exile. As we have no capacity to do research on this impact inside East Turkistan as the CCP (the Chinese Communist Party) keeps the whole genocidal operations as a top national secret without allowing external access to them, the scope of this article will be confined to examining the psychological reactions of the Uyghurs in exile to this genocide with a focus on the preliminarily observed episodes of collective grief and trauma. While survivors’ guilt and shame have also been observed and expressed in these reactions, they are not part of the current discussion. Hence, the purpose of this article intends to demonstrate levels and prevalence of collective grief and trauma from the perspectives of a preliminary online survey on Uyghurs in exile. Furthermore, it sheds light on how their grief and trauma are shaping their perceptions of their reality and future. In the end, it strongly suggests that more international attention be given to the severity of the mental health issues that the Uyghurs in exile are experiencing and to find ways to protect and support the Uyghur communities around the world.
A psychological warfare against Uyghurs
The Uyghur genocide has been ongoing since 2016 with no end in sight. Uyghurs both inside and outside of East Turkistan have psychologically been dragged to the depths of hell over the past six years. This hell consists of a network of what Chinese authorities have euphemistically called “re-education camps.” These camps are, in reality, torture chambers with multi-levels. The CCP has put the most dangerous “sinners” in the worst part of this hell, from which no return to life is possible, while offering a certain sense of leniency for those who are fully repented and psychologically re-engineered for social re-integration.
The term “re-education” masks the true nature, goals, and operations of the camps used as secretive spaces to exterminate Uyghurs on an industrial scale. Isolated from the outside world with high walls, hi-tech security facilities, and monitoring towers, they nevertheless reveal what kind of a crime the CCP is committing there—unlimited psychological warfare against Uyghurs as a final solution to the Uyghur issue. The “re” of the “re-education” stands for coercive measures to destroy the inmates from within while the word “education” stands for forced indoctrination and thought reform—in fort, the killing of the mind of the inmates.
These camps are designed by the communists to force camp inmates to relinquish their identity, religion, and language to accept the new colonial identity that they are not Uyghurs but Chinese. Any resistance to it means death. These communists are motivated by the belief that the mind of Uyghurs is infected with the viruses of terrorism, which is a grave threat to Chinese society. To eliminate this threat, they must be separated from society and, resultantly, quarantined in camps to go through thought reforms. One CCP official in Ili, a Kazakh autonomous prefecture in East Turkistan, characterized re-education’s purpose as “eliminat[ing] the hidden dangers affecting stability in society [to] put people whom we do not trust into a trusted place . . . to make them into people who are politically qualified.”iii
The camp survivors have depicted harrowing pictures of what is going on inside these camps. For example, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, an Uyghur camp survivor, described the condition of the camps as follows: there are “No mattress. No furniture. No toilet paper. No sheets. No sink… This was no school. It was a re-education camp, with military rules, and a clear desire to break us.”iv Without a doubt, this condition is dire, soul-crushing and inhuman. Under such a condition, a crucial dichotomy between nature and culture ceases to exist, leaving camp inmates with no other option than to survive as much degraded as possible. It is the dehumanization of the human condition as part of any genocide we have seen in history.
Dehumanization produces a huge sense of humiliation, resulting in a loss of identity and self-esteem. It is like cracking open the skull of the inmates, not physically but emotionally, to rob them of everything making them feel human—a rational being living with a purpose in life. Once their dignity is crushed, then the torturers force them to accept that they are inferior, undesired, and sick creatures that they deserve how they are treated. This is the whole process of the thought reform there—to deliberately destroy the self-esteem of the inmates in a tightly controlled and fear-triggering environment, to show the only way to be salvaged, and to force them to accept into a political and ideological framework that they had previously refused to comply with. However, in Chinese camps, not all inmates whose mind is brainwashed are re-integrated into society—they are also perished. That is, it is more about the slow killing of the Uyghurs, both mentally and physically, en masse than about transforming them into a “new” man, suitable for return to Chinese society. For the psychological damage done to their collective psyche is too much to repair, making it extremely difficult for them to lead a normal life upon their release into society. Some photos of the inmates released into their homes are heartbreaking—they are rather too thin as a ghost with an empty gaze without being able to walk by themselves. Their physical depravity reminds us of the harrowing photos of the Jews as concentration camp prisoners in Auschwitz and elsewhere during the Holocaust. Their frail and pale existence tells us about the unspeakable ordeal they sustained in the camps: malnutrition, torture, ill health, unhygienic situation, etc.
In this sense, China is targeting the mind of Uyghurs in the camps through ruthless and inhuman psychological warfare. The goals of this warfare are not only to transform them into being submissive, predictable and controllable but also to eliminate their will to fight against it as a way of self-defense in the future. It is not only the killing of their vital mental processes, but also of their will to re-create themselves in the future.
The Uyghurs outside of the camps are no better either. The constant and penetrative surveillance networks across East Turkistan can track them down anywhere in time and space. They are reduced to an easily identifiable dot in a vast empire of surveillance. No escape is possible. They are imprisoned in this hell on earth for good. The fear and paranoia that they experience there is beyond description. The Big Brother keeps watching over them everywhere and at all times. Still worse, an AI emotion-detection software has recently been tested on them, making their mind as much readable as an open book.v Consequently, they are made observable inside out—they are perfectly objectified to be surveilled from all angles.
Along with this, the CCP has sent millions of government officials into the homes of Uyghurs to monitor them. Since the late 2010s, the CCP has vigorously implemented a program called Civil Servant-Family Pair Up (结对认亲) as a governmental policy that forces Uyghur families to host these officials, most of whom are Han China, in their homes, to form a nominal, indeed mandatory, kindship, and to allow the latter to monitor and assess the resistance of the former to assimilation.vi Refusal to cooperate entails imprisonment in camps. Beginning in 2018, more than one million Chinese government officials were hosted by Uyghur families, many of which had already lost men in their household and were left only with women and kids. As such, the Uyghurs became surveilled in their most private and sacred space—in their homes. With the loss of privacy, they were made defenceless, observable, public, and humiliated.
The destruction of the Uyghur families saw its worst part when about a million Uyghur kids were either turned into orphans after their parents ended up in camps or were arranged to attend government-sponsored boarding schools or kindergartens, which are also a kind of a concentration camp in disguise.vii They have, thus, become a lost generation—a generation that is the worst victims of this genocide with no capacity to defend themselves nor to comprehend what is happening to them. They have already carried in their psyche the scars of forced separation from their parents, causing them to be traumatized, from which they may never recover from throughout their life.
Unlike the Holocaust victims, the Uyghurs have no liberators at this stage. No country has ever been able to liberate them from these horrific camps for fear of the economic and diplomatic retaliations by China. While the US, the UK and few other countries have recognized the Uyghur genocide, there has been no effective action against China to stop its crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghurs.
The existence of the Uyghurs in East Turkistan is so precarious that for them everywhere is a prison as there are no difference between inside and outside of the camps. As they are singled out by Chinese authorities as an enemy of state, they are indiscriminately targeted. That is, to be an Uyghur is criminalized. Therefore, any feeling or emotions to express their identity as an Uyghur is criminalized, accordingly. The unexpressed of emotions and feelings are buried alive in them, aggravating their pain and suffering. Bottling these emptions up can be harmful to their mental health. As a study shows, avoiding and supressing expressions of emotions can “lead to problems with memory, aggression, anxiety and depression.”viii With the gradual loss of their identity and the inability to express their feelings freely, they appear in human shape in a worst possible way that the perpetuators of this genocide intend to achieve.
This has undoubtedly taken a huge psychological tool on them. Strictly speaking, it can be said, without being able to prove it on the ground, that the Uyghurs in East Turkistan are living at the end of their rope with the absence of any help and hope. They are abandoned to themselves with no psychological support. Their religion, Islam, in which they had found tremendous sources of resilience and consolidation over a century under Chinese occupation, is now the source of their own demise—as the most convenient alibi for China to wipe them out as “terrorists.” Therefore, they are banished from the realm of spirituality to find strength and consolations as well. As such, they are left with their bare minimum existence, whose past is dead, whose present is controlled and their future is alienated.
2 Collective grief as a complex response to the massive loss
The reaction of the Uyghur diaspora to the Uyghur genocide could well be construed through the five stages of grief that a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross Elizabeth Kübler-Ross put forward in her book, “On death and dying”. These stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
At the beginning, in 2018, after the publication of the critical article on AP News called “China’s mass indoctrination camps evoke the Cultural Revolution”, the Uyghur diaspora communities were shocked to know the existence of the camps across East Turkistan where millions of Uyghurs were incarcerated.ix In the meanwhile, they came to know that almost all prominent Uyghur intellectuals, artists, businessmen/ businesswomen and others were arrested, incarcerated in camps or given long prison terms. Among them were Ilham Tohti, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Perhat Tursun, a famous Uyghur modernist writer, Rahile Davut, a well-known Uyghur anthropologist and others. The best Uyghur minds, were, thus, silenced, imprisoned or eliminated.
This shock shattered the illusions of some of the Uyghurs about the CCP, which has used all propaganda channels to convince them of a utopian picture that it endeavours to improve the wellbeing of the peoples from different nationalities in China. The murderous face of the CCP was revealed and made them feel that they had been deceived by it.
These feelings were followed by the gradual revelations of the monstrous operations inside camps which caused the global outrage of the Uyghurs. A number of the demonstrations were organized by Uyghur organizations across the globe. The Uyghur genocide survivors and other Uyghurs who lost their loved ones to the camps, to the prisons and to the slave labour camps came to the fore to speak out about their horrific experiences in the camps and expressed their anger and claim for justice.
The collective anger defined the general mood of the Uyghur diaspora communities. At times, the target of this very anger was gradually shifted from the Chinese government as perpetuators externally to the other fellow Uyghurs as victims internally. The intensity and frequency of this internalized anger could give us a glimpse into the collective psyche of the Uyghurs who have already started to experience collective grief and trauma as a complex response to the ongoing genocide. The internal tension among different political groups was intensified to a point where Uyghurs were divided into seemingly irreconcilable groups. The pinnacle of this tension was expressed in this dilemma: what is the priority of the Uyghurs at the moment—to garner international support to force China to stop the genocide or to pursue an agenda of independence as the source of this very genocide?
Followed by widespread anger, the bargaining process kicked in as acute moments of helplessness, hopelessness and vulnerability that comes through a collective loss—the loss of dear ones, hometowns, mosques, sacred books, language, and everything else that matter to Uyghurs—as an attempt to regain control and to rationalize what is deeply irrational, absurd and inhuman. This bargaining is more about helping them accept this toxic truth on an emotional and psychological level than about trying to explain the things that could have done differently or better in their mind. “If only we had acted differently, we could or would have avoided such genocide.” This bargaining, at the same time, filled their heart with an urge to cling on to the threads of hope, however thin and worn the fabric may be and however repudiated it is by the widespread sense of the indifference of the world to their plight and pleas.
The bargaining process progressed slowly but surely into depression and trauma as the genocide has not slowed down, let alone stopped. It is partly due to the fact that despite the recognition of the Uyghur genocide by many Western countries, China has continued its genocide of Uyghurs as relentless and vicious as ever. The hope of the Uyghurs in exile has dwindled in the midst of the genocide that no power—political or otherwise—seems to stop it altogether. On the other hand, China seems emboldened to carry out this genocide in a more brazen way in the very eyes of the world as against the silence of the world at large.
I have spoken with many Uyghurs on many occasions since the beginning of this genocide. Our conversations always ended up on how they are struggling to cope with the sense of being treated like sub humans by China which is destroying their identity, self-esteem and dignity. They told me that they know that they are experiencing depression at various levels and at different times with intensified feelings of helpless, self-worthlessness and abandonment.
Finally, the acceptance process has come into effect in the midst of this widespread depression as a way out of it. This process is the most complex face of the Uyghur genocide. For some, the most conspicuous aspects of this process are not only to accept the truth, but to normalize it—to reconcile with their utter defeat and destruction. For some others, it signifies a moment and an awareness of how this colossal loss has changed their life forever. As such, it has awakened in them an urge to look forward a future for their kids as a flight from or a shield against their past and current reality, which is unbearable, oppressive and shameful. For them, the best way is to withdraw from a political arena to fight against the atrocities of the CCP against their fellow Uyghurs back home into their private space—as apolitical as possible—to re-organize their life for their kids to be happy on foreign soil—to save them from the assaults of collective and, possibly, intergenerational trauma. In this sense, to put their hope in the future of their kids is actually perceived as part of self-care as a healing process for their collective grief.
It must be pointed out that this grief is too complicated to understand and too rigid to overcome—it is a kind of complex, unresolved and unending grief. It is unresolved in a sense that the colonial reality of Uyghurs under Chinese rule that has caused their demise has not been resolved. Therefore, it is quite safe to anticipate that this grief will last much longer and, perhaps, intergenerationally as long as this power keeps threatening their very existence in East Turkistan. Furthermore, this trauma will be much more severe and intense, not lessening with time but instead often worsening off, posing a serious threat to their collective survival in the long run as a people with a unique culture in exile.
Unfortunately, in the process of the genocide, Uyghurs have found themselves unable to process their grieving successfully. No communication with their family members back home has been allowed for the past 6 years, during which this genocide has silently and menacingly evolved. This has emotionally plunged them into darkness—into the darkness of anxiety and depression. Most Uyghurs, me included, have no idea of whether their family members are dead or alive.
On the other hand, the internal feud has palpably widened the already existing cracks within the Uyghur communities across the globe. This has made it difficult for them to come together to form a sense of solidarity and of collective resilience against the senseless destruction of the CCP. Lack of a cohesive community life, though normal during a crisis, has been proven to be too negative for Uyghurs to show their care for each other in a self-emphatic way.
Still worse, the news about the crematoriums established by the Chinese authorities adjacent to the camps have given the Uyghur diaspora communities a terrifying anticipation that their loved ones many have secretly been burned in those crematoriums and their ashes may never be found.x Adding this anticipation are the chilling revelations that the Uyghur graveyards are demolished. The respect for the death as one of great virtues in Uyghur culture is violated and vandalized. Uyghur life is, thus, systematically desecrated and all traces of Uyghur culture are brutally erased, as if it never existed.
In the end, this complex grief is sustained by endless uncertainty. This uncertainty feels like an opening wound as if outside of their psyche, keeping terrifying them with their emptiness—as empty as a grave that denied the dead, making him an eternal wanderer. The visions of this emptiness, be it imaginary, hallucinatory or anticipatory, rob Uyghurs in exile of their peace of mind, threatening their life with the emptiness of death.
3 The collective trauma of Uyghurs in exile
The CCP has notably increased its efforts to keep Uyghurs all around the world from speaking about the situation in East Turkestan. This is demonstrated in a report from Amnesty International called “Nowhere Feels Safe” (Feb 2020) detailing the infiltration worldwide of the CCP to threaten and intimidate Uyghurs abroad from speaking about the conditions of their families in East Turkestan. The report stated 400 Uyghurs completed an online questionnaire, participated in telephone or face-to-face interviews. Of these, 21 people reported that the Chinese authorities had used social messaging apps to track and intimidate them; 39 people received intimidating phone calls to obtain personal information; 181 people were threatened when they tried to speak out; and 26 people at least were asked to be informants.xi
The Uyghur Human Rights Project also released two reports, “Repression Across Borders: The CCP’s Illegal Harassment and Coercion of Uyghur Americans” (Aug 2019),xii and “The Fifth Poison: The Harassment of Uyghurs Overseas” (Nov 2017),xiii both of which back up the claims made by Amnesty International that the Uyghurs in exile still live under the extended threats of the CCP. These threats have indeed created the prevalence of collective fear, anxiety and trauma among Uyghurs—the hypothesis that led me to conduct an online survey to measure, initially, this collective trauma, exclusively.
There were a few different tools considered for utilizing as a way of measuring collective trauma in refugee communities. Several studies utilizing the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire (HTQ) to measure collective trauma within specific communities including the Iraqi, Sri Lankan and Cambodian communities, published respectively in the following journals: Journal of Immigrant Minority Health, (Arnetz, et. Al 2014)xiv, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, (Tay, Jayasuriya R., Jayasuriya D., Silove, 2017)xv, and The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (Silove, D et al. 2007).xvi Given the broad use of this tool internationally and the specific focus on considerations of culturally and linguistically diverse communities, it was decided to utilize the HTQ for this research.
By translating the questionaries of the HTQ from English into Uyghur, I wrote in native Uyghur language a request to complete a trauma survey and placed a link to a Survey Monkey on Twitter.xvii There was 223 Uyghurs who accessed the survey – of these 45 completed the biodata and not the HTQ, 178 completed the HTQ. However, 13 of these did not answer all the questions. This left a total N=165 full responses to the questionnaire. The biodata collected was gender, country of residence, age ranges (18- 25, 25-35, 35-45, 45-55 and above), and levels of education. The results were analysed with the purpose of understanding the prevalence of PTSD within the Uyghur community in exile and further which symptoms most prominently presented in relation specifically to Uyghurs. Whilst there was no specific question relating to if the respondent was of Uyghur descent – the complete process was only offered and the questionnaire only available in native Uyghur language. All participants would be able to fluently read and understand the survey information, including its purpose and method, and questions in Uyghur language on the basis of the assumption that the participants are Uyghurs.
An analysis of the response data showed that the majority 52% (N=86) were studying at university, and respondents from Turkey were the highest represented, 39% (N=64). Overall, almost half the respondents have scores indicative of PSTD 47%, (N=78). There were two age groups where the majority have scores indicative of PTSD being 18 – 25 years old 57% (N=12) and 45 – 55 years old 66% (N=21). Half of the male respondents scored above the indicative score for PTSD, (N=50). Of all the groups, the lowest prevalence of PTSD was in the 35-45 years old range at 40%. The highest rate of PTSD by nations was in Uyghurs residing in European nations, as a majority 57% (N=25).
Despite being the majority of responses (N=67), Uyghurs who resided in Turkic nations had the lowest percentage of participants suffering from PTSD, 43%, (N=29). This may be because Uyghurs feel close cultural kinship to Turkic peoples and therefore feel more at home within these countries. This is still a high prevalence of PTSD and is therefore indicative of collective trauma felt by the international Uyghur community, wherever they are situated. This is indicative of collective trauma being experienced by Uyghurs in exile internationally, which is caused, partly or fully, by the genocide unfolding in their home nation—East Turkistan.
University students, aged between 18 and 25, are among those who have shown most prominently the signs of PTSD. We can assume that they are either alone without their parents or they live with their parents. In the first hypothesis, we can say that they may suffer from lack of parental guidance, love, and care, which exasperates their existing anxiety over the safety of their parents back home in East Turkestan. In the second hypothesis, we can say that they are exposed to the adverse effects of the genocide that they struggle to make sense of from a rational point of view. Furthermore, this result is concerning in that it may well indicate intergenerational trauma is gaining more ground among Uyghur youth, who may carry it over into a next generation.
4 Moving forward: How to help Uyghurs?
The most pressing issue around the prevalence of unresolved grief and collective trauma is the senses of hopelessness and helplessness. A significant number of the participants responded in the aforementioned survey feel that they are at the end of their rope, due to the unstoppable ravages of this genocide. Yet, they are still resilient, hoping against hope that they would get over this hardest time in their history by turning negative energy into something positive and promising. On the other hand, a widespread sense of pessimism is, to a certain extent, dominating the feelings of the Uyghurs in exile. This demonstrates that while Uyghurs are resilient and have a broad range of coping strategies, they are suggesting their current trauma is collectively becoming too much to bear, which is further complicated by a way, in which they are losing hope of the genocide ending. As the Uyghur genocide is continuing, the general psychological condition of the Uyghurs is far more complex, with its seemingly contradictory and conflicting aspects, and may not show any improvement at this stage or in a near future.
Another point worth mentioning here is that the notion of mental health is quite a foreign concept for Uyghurs. It is still difficult for them to be fully aware of the psychological impact of this genocide upon Uyghur communities all around the world in general and upon individuals and families in particular. It is predictable that as the impact of the genocide deepens in the form of collective and, possibly, intergenerational trauma as time goes by, the Uyghurs will need more awareness raising activities about the importance of self-care as a priority. Therefore, it is advisable that there be a series of follow up processes to increase awareness of the importance of psychological wellbeing among Uyghur diaspora communities, for which such a survey plays an important role in showing where the pressure points are and suggests how to alleviate them.
It is also important to conduct scientific studies on the psychological reality of this ongoing genocide, which has now been largely neglected. The goals of psychological studies will be to describe, explain, predict and perhaps influence mental processes or behaviours of Uyghurs in relation to and as a result of this genocide. Eventually, such studies will help people understand the psychosocial challenges of the Uyghurs at a deeper level and with a holistic perspective, who are desperate to find resources of resilience and optimism to overcome the adverse effects of this genocide aiming to destroy them from within.
There are a few newly established trauma-recovery sessions for Uyghurs around the world. They are making efforts to train Uyghurs on how to cope with the ongoing effects of the trauma and PTSD upon the Uyghurs in general and on how to help those who suffer from a variety of mental health issues. This will be a starting point for Uyghurs to follow up on this matter further and to create culturally sensitive trauma informative awareness, prevention and treatment sessions, courses, presentations and strategies by themselves in the future. However, they need intensive support at this stage to take on this role in a more confident and professional way. More importantly, Uyghurs will also need some specific mental health sessions on Uyghur woman, Uyghur youth and Uyghur kids, respectively, to deepen the understandings of the psychological issues that they are facing as a specific group.
In the meanwhile, special attention should be paid to the Uyghurs who need to express their complex feelings and emotions through a variety of ways in creative, safe and constructive manner, i.e., though art forms. For example, Uyghur genocide literature can be a good initiative for Uyghur writers or others to consider for psychological healing purposes. Painting can also be a powerful way to channel the negative moods, feelings, memories and experiences with an aim to heal from the wounds of trauma and to create a collective sense of identity, figuratively and creatively.
In fine, the shockwaves of the Uyghur genocide will be felt across many generations over time. It is vital that the Uyghurs in exile will be motivated to get as much mental health support as possible from the professional agencies, health institutions, NGO and governments to help them cope with and overcome the adverse impact of this unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the 21th century as a matter of common responsibility and of urgency. In the meanwhile, it is of utmost importance for the leaders of the Uyghur communities to put the mental health issues on high priority to help their community members build resilience and solidary and promote knowledge and expertise to prevent, tackle and treat the negative effects of the collective trauma effectively.