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Over the past century, countries have used the tool of nationalism to pursue their own interests. Nationalism is about people, land and the relationship between them. Nationalist propaganda creates a special relationship between a unique people and a particular territory. The Uyghurs are one of the many peoples who have been left out of this tidy calculation. We are labelled an “ethnic minority” according to the Chinese state narrative, but now even that status is under attack. China’s policies aim to cut our ties to our land. Uyghur pilgrims have been cut off from their places of worship; villages have been uprooted from their fields, and families have been torn apart.
Under the policies being pursued by Chinese President Xi Jinping since 2016, millions of Uyghurs are suffering inhuman treatment in the internment camps within the Uyghur region. Exiled Uyghurs are also suffering because China has cut off all communication between them and their families. I want to use this opportunity to tell you my own story, as an example of how Uyghurs in exile have become desperate in response to China’s ethnic cleansing policies.
In 1989, I was in my second year of my studies at Xinjiang University. I took part in the student protests calling for rights and democracy which were inspired by the Tian’anmen Square protests in Beijing. This incident became a problem for me after I graduated. Years later, I was fired from my job and accused of “separatism” because of my involvement in this protest, and I had to leave my homeland. I have lived in the UK since 2001.
My father died in November 2017, and I could not get a visa to attend his funeral. Soon after that, in New Year 2018, my communication with my mother was cut off. I didn’t know if he was in a camp or even if he was still alive. I wrote a story named “An Unanswered Telephone Call” to express how I felt about this.
Still I felt stressed and had sleepless nights. In April, I discovered from Google Earth that the tomb of my father, along with the whole graveyard where my family lies, had been destroyed. My father stayed in his tomb for only 623 days. The Chinese government said this was done in order to modernize us, but I felt as if my father’s body had been brutally torn out of its resting place in our ancestors’ land.
I believe that their true aim was to destroy Uyghur ethnic, cultural and religious identity. Islam and Uyghur culture cannot be separated; they are both part of Uyghur identity. Our graveyards are holy places that connect us to the spirits of previous generations, and they are symbols of belonging that connect us to our community and to the land.
I wrote a poem for my father when I got news of his death. Here is a short excerpt:
Dear father, you were a gardener with green fingers
Now when the thorns grow, you won’t be there to prune them.
You were a doctor, you cured so many patients
Now my heart is broken, but you are not here to cure it.
You left today in your coffin heading towards your tomb
Your son couldn’t carry you because he was not beside you.
When seven spades of soil were dropped on you
People said farewell to you and I was not there.
Let Elkun cry now because he has lost his father
I could not see you alive for the last time.
Aziz Isa Elkun is a poet, writer and researcher from East Turkistan. He has been living in London since 2001. He has published many poems, stories, and research articles in Uyghur and English, and has co-authored research articles published in Inner Asia and Central Asian Survey. Since 2017, he has served as Secretary of the International PEN Uyghur Centre. From September 2018, he is working as a Researcher Affiliate on a British Academy Sustainable Development project “Uyghur Meshrep in Kazakhstan” based at SOAS, University of London.