top of page

Stateless restlessness: The Uyghur women longing for a homeland

By Ruth Ingram

June 16, 2022

An Uyghur woman holds images of children during a press conference of the Grand Unity Party in Istanbul [Getty Images]

Since fleeing China, Uyghurs in exile have been detached from their homeland and their families. The New Arab speaks with Uyghur women about their agitation, and feeling vindicated after recent exposés revealed the extent of past hardship.

An aimless wanderer; a stateless nomad with no place to call home. Exiled Uyghurs define themselves in many ways, but as Zuhre chronicles the daily reality of her people, the relentless and profound malaise clinging to them all, it is not just about geography.

It is about belonging and the loss of a homeland. Wherever they settle they will always be guests in someone else's country. Theirs is a gaping sore that neither therapy nor time will heal. They are destined to be restless drifters forever, far from home.

"For many people this [the leaked Chinese police files] is news. But for me, it has been a living nightmare. This is not breaking news for us, it is our lives"

Thirty-one of Zuhre’s relatives have disappeared. The Uyghur exile who fled to Turkey five years ago builds a picture of their rumoured fate from random gossip and the occasional TikTok video that escapes the censors.

The news comes from the grapevine in circuitous ways that evade China's all-pervasive surveillance machinery, which is why the sudden avalanche of photographs, police records, government speeches and other identifiable, irrefutable evidence from hacked police files in their homeland is at one shocking but also reassuring.

Her pain is worse when she feels her people are alone. When she sees the world jumping to attention as Russia invades Ukraine, when Western companies ride on the backs of the slave labour of her people, or when politicians still doubt or make little of the atrocities in their homeland, her sense of isolation increases.

But the discovery of these files has changed everything and she feels lighter, even if only for a moment. "Even if nothing changes," she said, "we are no longer isolated in our grief. The world cannot continue to say it didn't know."

A sense of relief and vindication that the Chinese government's "Lies of the Century", now has thousands of faces and names, has brought some measure of comfort to Zuhre, despite the fact that even after searching through the entire collection twice she is still no nearer to discovering where her own family is. "But I am still so happy that these files have been released," she said. "Now no one in the world can deny this is happening to my people."

Münevver Özgür, part of the 50,000 Uyghur diaspora in Istanbul, and director of the Nuzugum Foundation for destitute women and orphans busies herself with the pastoral care of her considerable flock to keep her own pain at bay.

Their material needs are great but their psychological trauma is a priority for her. Many of the women have left their husbands and children back in China, only able to travel with those who had passports. Small children grow up asking when they will be able to see their fathers again, and the older ones keep their sorrow pent up for fear of upsetting their mothers.

"Many of the women have left their husbands and children back in China, only able to travel with those who had passports"

For those who find a loved one in the tranche of images and whose hopes are dashed with news of lengthy prison sentences, the long slow journey of acceptance and moving forward begins. Some women wracked with guilt over their own freedom lose all joy in the simple pleasures of life, knowing the conditions endured by their spouses.

Even drinking clean water, enjoying food and sleeping in a comfortable bed have lost their gloss and they blame themselves for escaping, leaving their family behind only to assume they have disappeared into the labyrinthine black hole of indefinite detention.

As for her own pain, she prefers to process it slowly, in her own time surrounded by good friends. She immerses herself in organising courses and psychological healing sessions to avoid reopening the festering wounds she knows are there, but which when opened too often, make daily life impossible. She makes short mental forays into Xinjiang, into thoughts of illegally imprisoned relatives, and those who have vanished, and then dips back out.

"Where are my children?" "Where's my sister?" "Where are my grandchildren?" demanded the posters brandished by protesters at a recent gathering of the Chinese Concentration Camps Victims Group in Istanbul.

The campaigners were demanding answers from the UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet as she prepared for her upcoming visit to their region. She would be the tantalisingly closest they were ever likely to get to the prison cells of their relatives and the nearest they might ever get to answers.

Ordinary women, many educated only to primary school, have been transformed into activists overnight by the actions of the CCP in detaining their families. Medine Nazimi, president of the group told The New Arab how her life was turned upside down when her sister vanished.

She was a happily married mother of three with aspirations to go into business, but all that has been put on hold. She has learned how to campaign, hold audiences with government ministers, offer rousing speeches and lead hundreds in protest. "China has changed all of us," she said. "We won't rest until our loved ones have been returned."

Uyghur women gather for a demonstration to mark the International Women's Day [Getty Images]

They are knocked back, they are arrested, they are disappointed, and they sometimes wonder where it will all lead. Their petition to the UN was ignored and swallowed up in the cursory visit by the Commissioner to their homeland that they have branded a "whitewash," but their frustration simply fuels the fire they feel at the injustice perpetrated against their people. Every time they fall down, she thinks of her sister and others in the group to help each other to stay hopeful. "We owe it to them to carry on."

Gulmire who is scraping a living by selling snacks to support the three children she managed to bring with her, flicks through the raw images to see if by some chance the three she left behind might be there.

She saw young shaven-headed children wrenched from their families to be brought up as Chinese; elderly men and women, forced to remain in the camps until they learn a foreign language, and young men and women, the future of their nation, condemned to spend decades in prison for growing beards, reading the Quran with grandparents, wearing a veil or a long skirt or even for turning their telephone off. Tears welled up. Hers were nowhere to be seen.

She felt relief, but also despair and dashed hopes. The sheer number and scope of those corralled from the streets and their homes at midnight and dragged, some hooded and cuffed, into an uncertain future were overwhelming.

She does her best to help her children adjust to their new country but she says that none of them feels truly at home. Worried too about Turkey's cosying up to Beijing and the threat that one day they might be forcibly returned keeps them all from settling and throwing themselves into their new life.

The pain of exiles is unusual. They mourn not for the death of loved ones, although some might do this, where there are stages of grief and there is a chance to move on.

Their trauma for which there is no cure, nags relentlessly in the pit of their stomach.

Münevver describes it as a "very heavy sickness, that has no quick or easy treatment." For her, the biggest trauma of all is her statelessness. "I can never call Turkey my home because we just don't belong here," she said. "This is not my mother country. We will always be guests." She mourns the loss of her nation.

Rahima Mahmut, director of the World Uyghur Congress in London, described the "deep distress" of exiles looking through the files.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 as the revelations hit the world's media simultaneously, she said she hoped the "raw images and the human face of the genocide" would "remind the world that behind the figures there are millions of individual stories and lives destroyed."

"For many people this is news," she said, "but for me, it has been a living nightmare. This is not breaking news for us, it is our lives."

The author is writing under a pseudonym to protect her identity

bottom of page