'The world must look back in shame': The courageous Uyghur women ensuring China's genocide is not erased from history
With every season that passes since all contact was severed from their homeland, Uyghur women mourn their children taken to state orphanages to be brought up as Han Chinese, their mothers who are getting older and frailer without the succour of daughters by their sides, and their husbands, unable to travel with them to freedom, now languishing who knows where. Will they ever meet again? A question that plagues them night and day.
"The world must look back in shame at what the Uyghur people have had to endure. The camp survivors have ensured that there is an undeniable record of the Chinese government's atrocities"
Human rights activists and scholars gathered online this year to highlight the persistent pain of a diaspora whose healing is slow to come and to speak about the latest horror visited on women in their homeland of incentivised marriage.
As early as 2014 inter-ethnic marriage was beginning to be pushed and rewarded in the "troublesome" regions of Tibet and Xinjiang in a pilot project offering incentives of 10,000 yuan ($1,577) to consenting couples every year for five years.
The plan was to encourage "mingling" of the races, stability and "Hanification". After negative Western press coverage, the idea was suspended with the state mouthpiece Global Times citing "wide external slander."
But the crusade has continued nevertheless beneath the radar of global media, explained US researcher Andrea Worden at a webinar organised by the Uyghur Human Rights Project to flag up the phenomenon that is gaining momentum again in Xinjiang.
In setting the scene for the accelerated campaign of inter-racial marriage since 2016, she described the climate of terror against which it is flourishing, and from which there is no escape.
The "open prison" that is now Xinjiang and the continued extrajudicial detention of more than 1.5 million Turkic people ensures that all major life decisions are made against the backdrop of "the camps".
The threat of incarceration for disobedience or insubordination, or worse still, a return to the black holes of abuse, torture and humiliation from which they barely escaped with their lives and their sanity the first time, is ever-present.
Beijing has the bit between its teeth in its push to water down the ethnic mix of Xinjiang, citing the urgent need to eliminate extremism and separatism and resolutely combat the "war on terror" within its borders.
December 2017 saw the mobilisation of one million Han cadres to "live, eat and sleep" with Uyghur families. The heavy-handed move to effectively spy on every Uyghur family, affectionately known as "pair up and be family," soon morphed into something more sinister.
Many a lonely Han man, billeted for a year or two with women whose husbands had disappeared, took advantage of the situation and soon reports of bed-sharing, sexual harassment and even rape were rife. Against the threat of the camps, however, these women were powerless to complain and had to make light of their "relatives" advances.
The word went out in 2020 for 100 Uyghur brides for Han youths: "We thank the government and the party for creating this beautiful life,” the video begins in Uyghur, saying its “urgent” call to rally 100 Uyghur brides is “giving voice to the government’s promotion of Uyghur and Chinese intermarriage.”
Uyghur activists interviewed by Voice of America said that the drive was not as claimed by the Chinese government to "promote tolerance and peace in the region", but a cynical attempt by the CCP to "erode the Uyghur identity and change the demographics of the region."
Andrea Worden spoke about deals Uyghur women had been offered, to marry a Han suitor or else. Refusal would mean that they or a relative would be sent to a camp. Another woman interviewed had admitted she had been forced to marry a Han youth in order to effect the release of a male relative from a camp. " Uyghur women have little choice but to comply," she said.
Zumretay Arkin, the spokeswoman for the World Uyghur Congress, condemned Beijing's tactics that put a "prize on the head of an Uyghur woman." "This indicates that Uyghur women are for sale," she said.
"Elderly Uyghur farmers' wives who never mastered Mandarin are condemned to a future of captivity until they can recite Communist Party speeches and anthems"
Rahima Mahmut, director of the World Uyghur Congress in London, praised the courage of the handful of women survivors of the camps who have come forward to tell their harrowing stories, whose testimonies have literally changed the course of Uyghur advocacy around the world.
Often acting as a translator as the camp survivors poured out their hearts, Rahima recounted the immense strength needed to counter the shame they felt and to describe the horror of their ordeals.
Tursunay Ziyawudun, was tortured and raped three times by guards, teacher Sayragul Sauytbay, together with other inmates described how she was forced to watch the gang-rape of a young girl without flinching, Gulbahar Haitiwaji has described life in the camps that rendered her dead inside.
These accounts and others, said Mahmut, would "ensure that the Uyghur genocide would not be erased from history."
"It is so important that the world bears witness for this genocide to come to an end," she stressed. "The world must look back in shame at what the Uyghur people have had to endure. The camp survivors have ensured that there is an undeniable record of the Chinese government's atrocities," she said.
Their freedom and their speaking out have incurred the wrath of Beijing, but despite the terrible cost of telling the truth, they continue to tell their stories.
Not only are they still mercilessly hounded by Beijing but their families are paraded on national TV to shame and denounce them, and live daily with the possibility that they too could be taken away in revenge.
Rahima Mahmut said this year's International Women's Day was an occasion to celebrate the brave women who had stepped forward to tell the world what was really happening in their homeland and to speak up for those still languishing in camps.
There are hundreds and thousands of women young and old whose stories have yet to be told. Gulshan Abbas, a retired doctor was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment for being the sister of Rushan Abbas, CEO of Campaign for Uyghurs, Rahile Dawut, a petite Uyghur academic and folklore enthusiast has disappeared without a trace.
Elderly Uyghur farmers' wives who never mastered Mandarin are condemned to a future of captivity until they can recite Communist Party speeches and anthems, there are singers and dancers, authors and poets who no one has ever heard of; they languish in overcrowded cells, are subject to brutal regimes and are cut off from those they love.
Even those who are now in the free world are not free from deep psychological wounds and the weight of what they have seen and experienced. "These brave women who spoke out will need years of mental health support and counselling," said Mahmut. "I cannot imagine experiencing such horror. They told me they would rather have had an easy death."
Andrea Worden condemned the "rights-free zone" that Xinjiang has become. She denounced the environment of impunity where women have been disempowered to the extent that they cannot even choose their own life partners.
"Of course they are resourceful and resilient," she said, "but there is very little they can do when all their rights have been stripped away, including the rights to marriage, to speak their own language, to be able to practice their own religion and enjoy their unique culture."
Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch urged the world to step forward in support of the survivors and all those like them and to wake up to the atrocities in Xinjiang. "I am astonished by their courage," she said. "We have an obligation to try and make something better happen for these women and their community."
The author is writing under a pseudonym to protect her identity