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am writing as a Uyghur woman, and I would like to talk through my own personal experiences and share some stories told to me by different individuals who have recently escaped from the region. I was born in the city of Ghulja, in what was once known as East Turkistan, but the Chinese now call it Xinjiang. I prefer to call my homeland by the name East Turkistan. For many years, if people living in the region used this name they could be victimised and labelled as a separatist. I think China is maybe one of the only countries that victimises people for using a geographical name. I believe every Uyghur person has the right to use the terminology that they want to use.
I was brought up in a large religious family. The discrimination and the persecution of the Uyghur people has a long history. As a Uyghur, from my childhood right up until I left my homeland in 2000, I experienced frequent discrimination and witnessed brutal crackdowns on moderate dissenting voices. One of the most serious of these incidents was the Ghulja Massacre of 1997, when police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of a group of Uyghur social activists. A 1999 report by Amnesty International, "Gross Violations of Human Rights in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region", documented the killing of many of these protestors by police, and the widespread torture and up to 190 executions that took place during the crackdown that followed the incident.
Since coming to the UK in 2000, I have been unable to return home because of my involvement in activism to raise awareness of human rights violations against my people by the Chinese government. Over the past few years I have been unable to contact my family because I am afraid that they would be sent to a camp if the police find out that I have communicated with them. The last time I spoke to my brother was in January 2017. His voice was shaking as he told me, “Please leave us in God’s hands, and we will leave you in God’s hands too.”
My work as an interpreter and a translator brings me first-hand information on those who have suffered in the notorious twenty-first century internment camps, as well as the heart-wrenching accounts of mothers and fathers who have lost their children, young and old. Every Uyghur family has a similar story, one more horrible than the next, as a result of the brutal policies, which I believe amount to genocide, that have been taking place since 2017 shielded from the view of the international community. The most painful part of my job is that I cannot offer those in pain and suffering any words of comfort and hope.
I worked as a consultant and a translator for the documentary Undercover: Inside China’s Digital Gulag by Robin Barnwell, which was broadcast on ITV in July 2019. Information was gathered both through interviews with people who had experienced the camps, and through an undercover reporter within the Uyghur region. In one part, there is an extraordinary conversation between the undercover reporter and the Chinese official in Ürümchi:
The official commented, “The authorities say it is a special situation here. What is happening is excessive and too extreme. The police look at Uyghurs with suspicion. If a Uyghur refuses to be checked or asks why, they just lock them up. There is no procedure.” So the undercover reporter asked, “Do Uyghurs feel their human rights are being violated?” And the reply was, “They don’t have human rights. It’s not about violation. They just don’t have human rights.”
Another important aspect of the campaign is the way they are using technology to criminalize the Uyghur people and other Turkic Muslims, and to maximize arrests. Using this technology, the so-called Integrated Joint Operations Platform, massive amounts of data are collected in a huge data reservoir. We interviewed a Uyghur IT expert who worked for a state-controlled high-tech surveillance company. I can share some of what he said about this surveillance situation.
When your name is in the reservoir, it will pop up every day, he told us, and all your movements are analysed. There are three different colours: green, yellow, and red. Red is dangerous. Yellow is suspicious. Green is normal. No one can guarantee that they are clean. Even this expert was himself detained for three months. He said, “I knew how to avoid it. I knew the technology so well, but still somehow my ID, when I swiped it going through a checkpoint, was yellow. And for that, they arrested me.”
To give a very simple example, one dangerous thing about this technology is that if you stay in a hotel on the same night as someone who has served a prison sentence in the past, your name is automatically linked to that person. You are not aware that this has happened. And in this way, your ID can be marked as yellow and you become a suspicious person. The IT expert we interviewed said, “Everyone was fearful, whether those already taken inside or those who are waiting to be taken in. Our relatives, under the influence of the state terror, dare not even greet one another openly without fear. It is unbearable to describe life there. A knock on the door, from anyone, would bring extreme anxiety and fright.” On our last information-gathering trip, I spoke to the IT expert again. He told me that the last time he spoke to his mother, he learned that his neighbour’s daughter had hanged herself on the next day after she was released from a camp.
I also worked as a translator for the BBC documentary China: A New World Order. Translating the interview records was heart-breaking. I would like to share just one mother’s story. This is what she said: “My mother-in-law was looking after my children. My sister-in-law could not get a hold of my mother-in-law for a few days, so she went to visit. When my sister-in-law got there, the children told her that their grandmother was taken away by police three days ago. My mother-in-law is 72 years old. I could not believe it. She’s old and in poor health. Three days after my mother-in-law was arrested, my children were taken to an orphanage. My heart was just torn apart. I never thought this kind of disaster could happen to me.” This mother went to Turkey in 2016 because her father was ill. When she wanted to return home, the mass arrests had started, so she was trapped and couldn’t go back. Her mother-in-law, a 72-year old woman, was looking after her children. Then the police arrested her mother-in-law, and three days later, all her children were taken away. Up until now, she doesn’t know what has happened to her children.
The most difficult part of my job was to interpret for interviews with people who had suffered torture or rape. Probably the best-known account of violence against women in the camps was made by Mihrigul Tursun to the US Congressional Commission in 2018, but there are many other less well known cases. Earlier this year, I went to Germany to interview a young woman called Ruqiye. We spent five hours on the interview and then I had to ask the researcher to leave the room because I couldn’t translate anymore. It was impossible for me to translate the details of the scene and how it happened. It was just too much. Ruqiye told me, “Rape occurs in prison and in the prisons. 99% of women are actually experiencing it, but they wouldn’t talk about it because they feel too ashamed. That is why I have to tell the world, because this is an extreme situation and the world should know what has been happening.”
I translated a book a few years ago, called The Land Drenched in Tears. It is a memoir, the story of a Tatar woman called Soyungul Chanisheff, and her life during the Cultural Revolution in East Turkistan. When I compare what is happening now to what happened at that time, I think we can safely say that now it is maybe a hundred times worse. Last time I spoke to Soyungul Chanisheff, she said, “At least I had freedom in that little cell because there wasn’t a camera watching me. And I had some time and opportunity to speak to the people in the next cell, pretending to read the newspaper aloud, but at the moment, that is not the case. Even in your own home, you don’t have that freedom.”
Every morning when I wake up, I think about this question of how to combat this evil; how, if in any way, this situation can be changed. What motivates me is the belief that the more truth that comes out, the better. And the truth lies in the real human stories, the human suffering, and particularly with the women.
I think that when truths are exposed, more people will join our campaign. I am hopeful, though I am not an expert in legal procedures, that there will be international action. I also wonder if Chinese people within China might take some kind of action when these truths are revealed, because too often people inside China don’t believe what is happening. But now, I think, more and more people are understanding the situation. When brave people like Soyungul or Ruqiye, or Gulbahar Jelilova come forward to tell their own most shocking stories, I think this is very powerful. We know from other atrocities committed against Muslim peoples, like in Bosnia, that many women were raped, and it was very difficult for them to speak out, because of the shame, and so I think these Uyghur women who have spoken out about their terrible experiences are particularly brave, and their words are very important. The first step before any organization or country can take action, is that they must have strong evidence of what is happening.
Rahima Mahmut is a Uyghur singer, human rights activist, and award-winning translator of the poignant prison memoir The Land Drenched in Tears by Soyungul Chanisheff. Her latest work includes working as a consultant and translator for the ITV documentary Undercover: Inside China’s Digital Gulag shown July 2019; and translator for the latest BBC documentary China: A New World Order. Currently, she is the UK representative for the World Uyghur Congress.