Those who have been silenced for too long, tell their personal stories. Three lives, three different generations, but engaged in the same struggle towards finding peace for the Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang Province in China. UNPO introduces Voices From…East Turkestan.
By Camila Souza
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Ilham Tursun was only 15 years old when he went to jail for trying to put the Uyghur flag up in his school courtyard.
“I was just a kid proud to be a Uyghur. They [the Chinese police] took me to jail without any explanation. I had no trial, no defense,” recalls Tursun.
The youngest of four brothers, Tursun was kept imprisoned for two years. Once out, he had no choice but to flee Urumqi to escape constant governmental repression. To leave behind one’s family, only to face an uncertain future is a decision a 17 year-old boy should never have to make.
“My life changed dramatically. I was such a young boy, living well with my family. But then I was in Turkey working as a cleaner to be able to eat,” he explains.
Currently 21 years old and already an exile in the Netherlands, Tursun has not been able to contact his family since the day he decided to leave Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang. Not even after the latest news of violence in his hometown.
“I am scared that if I did contact my family, it would only bring problems to them. I already lost a brother in jail and another in an accident,” says Tursun.
A story too often heard from those who were able to find asylum in other countries, but live with the constant agony of knowing that their families are left to take the burden of a repressive and often violent Chinese government. The struggle of the Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang province has gotten much attention of the media after weeks of rising tension between the Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
On July 5, 2009 rioting broke out in Urumqi, and the police confronted peaceful Uyghur protesters. Several hundred people have been killed. According to the New York Times, as of July 14, the Chinese state news agencies have reported that 184 people had been killed and more than 1,000 injured in the riot. If confirmed, would make this the deadliest outbreak of violence in China in many years.
The Uyghurs, a Turkic race of Muslims, is the largest ethnic group among the 20 million people in Xinjiang. This region had historically been their homeland until the communist revolution, where Han Chinese migrated to the region, encouraged by governmental policies that supported the spread of Han language and culture.
Governmental restrictions and attempts to dilute Uyghur culture have created ethnic tensions and desperation within the community.
“We [Uyghurs] just want the UN to pressure China a little bit. We just want some freedom of speech. Freedom in the media, and a stop to all political violence,” says Ali Jialaliding, a 35 year-old medical student.
Jialaliding has been an exile in the Netherlands for almost a year. He was a medical researcher in Urumqi who studied at Xin Jiang Medical University. He reported findings of some indiscretions by the Chinese government on a Uyghur website. After the ban of such websites in 2001 by the government, he was forced to leave Urumqi to save not only his life but also the lives if his family members.
“The chinese have always treated us like enemies. Everyone from my grandfather to my neighbor was repressed. In school…I was discriminated against by my Chinese classmates. They would tell me I was a Uyghur and that they hated me,” he says bewildered.
For those who have left Xinjiang for many years now, this frustration has only increased.
“They [Chinese government] can do many things. They control everything,” says veteran Uyghur Zainiding Tuersun.
He lights a cigarette as he recalls the day authorities came into his home and took his father and older brothers 36 years ago.
“I remember holding onto my mother. Holding her close to me as they took them,” he says.
Tuersun has been living in the Netherlands for eight years and is the chairman of the Uyghur’s Organization in Amsterdam. He hopes to reunite with his mother, who still lives in Urumqi, and give her the opportunity to tell her story to the international community.
“The Netherlands is a democratic country. They can do a lot to stop the violence and violation of human rights. For us, freedom of speech is very important,” says Tuersun.
Like many Uyghurs throughout the world, who were forced to flee persecution and violence, Tuersun’s frustration has only increased with the development of recent events. This past Monday [July 13] UNPO has called upon the Dutch Prime Minister to support an international investigation into the circumstances that have led to the deaths of many Uyghurs in the recent protests. For veterans like Tuersun, acquiring the support of the Dutch government would be a small step after years of fighting against religious and economic restrictions imposed by the Chinese government. It is a step closer for him to see his child, whom he had to leave behind.
But for the younger generation, like Tursun, whose childhood and family have also been taken away, hope for peace and unity is what they yearn for.
“I have nothing,” says Tursun emotionally. “Stop killing my people. I pray everyday for freedom.”