'Free physically but spirit still imprisoned': How survivor's guilt has become a Uighur exile's constant companion

Despite physical and psychological torture, Uighur's that survive are the lucky ones.
10 min read
04 June, 2021
Under increasingly repressive forms of trauma, the Uighur minority are undergoing a torturous process of ethnic cleansing by the Chinese authorities. Yet for those that survive their mental relief is short-lived, continually reminded of past horrors.

"I just woke up from a nightmare. I went back to Urumqi. I was surrounded by Chinese police at my arrival. They took me to a dark place. I heard horrible noises. I thought of quick dying without being forced to speak against my people.”

Uighur exiled activist Tahir Imin reacting to the latest round of reports from North-West China speaks of the nightmares that still haunt his nights. On waking, he realises with relief that he is free. “I woke up to see I am in America. I said, Oh thank God, thank America, a free country to save me from nightmare life in China.” But his exhilaration is short-lived. “This is my everyday life. I am free physically, but my spirit is imprisoned along with millions of Uighurs detained in the camps.”

Years of waiting in agony, campaigning and rehearsing their stories of death, loss and disappearance

First-hand accounts of torture and rape in the Xinjiang internment camps have been another crushing blow to exiled Uighurs around the world. Following the latest revelations in February by Tursunay Ziawudun of atrocities meted out to her at the dead of night by masked Han Chinese men whilst being held in a so-called Vocational Training facility, diaspora Twitter accounts for the past three months have been awash with expressions of helplessness, shame and thoughts of suicide.

Already traumatised by the agony of not knowing what has become of their loved ones, this and subsequent first-hand accounts have caused their worst fears to be realised, unleashing cries for help from the diaspora as never before.

In 2020 a group of concerned human rights and mental health activists came together to form the Uighur Wellness Initiative (UWI). They developed training materials, recruiting mental wellness professionals to volunteer their time to address the growing crisis among the Uighur diaspora. Their first online event to address “Survivor’s Guilt”, organised by the Uighur Human Rights Project was held recently, where Uighurs and wellness professionals gathered to air issues that many have long endured silently.

Almost four years have passed since Beijing’s unprecedented crackdown on the Uighurs began. Years of waiting in agony, campaigning and rehearsing their stories of death, loss and disappearance. Until now the exiles have born their grief largely privately. But recent graphic personal accounts of camp survivors have started to push them over the edge, and they are finding the courage to express their despair openly.

Following a BBC piece on Ziawudun, China analyst and journalist Vicky Xu pointed out in a tweet in February that every compelling exposé on the plight of North-West China’s Turkic people’s, however necessary, drives a dagger into the heart of readers whose sisters and mothers are potential victims of the same barbarity.

Responding to the “powerful and brilliant” piece, she said it had just “delivered death notices to tens of thousands of Uighur families around the world.

“Today is a day in hell for the Uighur communities,” she concluded.

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Tahir Imin, himself a former political prisoner has reported fellow exiles asking whether taking their own lives was an option. They were wondering “If suicide wasn’t a sin” in their religion, he said.

The most common question asked since the iron fist of Chen Quanguo took control of Xinjiang province in 2016, corralling hundreds of thousands of their countryfolk into camps, has been, “Why are we still alive?” he said. They ask, “what is the point of living under such shame, such pains, without doing anything?”

Fellow exiles asked whether taking their own lives was an option... They were wondering 'If suicide wasn’t a sin' in their religion

He described the helplessness of those left behind in the free world, waiting and hoping in vain for news of loved ones. “They really don’t know what to do more than praying, crying, giving testimonies, speaking to media, going to protests or writing something,” he wrote.

Every exiled Uighur handles the burden of freedom in different ways, but none are spared the constant reminder that their loved ones are not free.

Some, like Akida Pulat, daughter of disappeared folklore researcher Rahila Dawut, and Jewher Ilham, daughter of Ilham Tohti, handed down a life sentence for separatism, have thrown themselves into activism.

Akida’s day job in the States before her mother was arrested, became untenable combined with the all-consuming task of trying to locate and free her mother. Now she works for the advocacy group, Campaign for Uighurs.

The faces of trauma are many... sleeplessness, recurring nightmares, fear, guilt, blame; the list goes on. Some people find themselves going into overdrive with anxiety, panic attacks and racing thoughts. Others at the opposite extreme become passive. They feel helpless, unmotivated, numb and disconnected

UK, PhD student Memet (not his real name for fear of implicating his parents) has also become a reluctant activist. “My suffering is real,” he tells The New Arab, “so is that of my many other Uighur friends and acquaintances who are fortunate enough to live outside of China. Yet we are suffering so much from the horrendous situation, living with 'survivor's guilt', the agony of separation from our families, communication cut off and a daily struggle with mental health. 

“This is the only way I can feel a little less guilty while living in freedom,” he said.

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Others, such as Tornisa and Gulmira feel paralysed by their feelings. For the sake of their children, they try to persevere and pretend life is normal. But their health is deteriorating, they have sleepless nights and have sunk into a deep depression.

After a four year silence, Tornisa heard last month that her brother had died two years ago, whether in a camp or not, she doesn’t know. The news came circuitously via friends of friends of acquaintances in the form of a throwaway remark. "He was my dearest friend and brother,” she sobbed. “And I didn’t even know he had gone.”

Some are too afraid to speak out for fear their relatives in Xinjiang might suffer. Some like Halmurat Harri, the Finnish Uighur famous for his #MeTooUighur campaign shied away from politics until his parents were interned. “I had never had the ambition to become an activist, defender of human rights, I have been taught to keep a distance from politics, so I would have a safe and peaceful life,” he said in an interview with the Swedish PEN organisation last year. Now he has thrown himself, heart and soul, into telling the world what is happening to his people.

Those who have made a new country their home bring up third culture kids whose loyalty is divided and whose apparent indifference to a land they have never lived in can deeply wound a parent desperate to return.

"I argue with my daughter all the time... She tells everyone she is Turkish... She tells me that no one has heard of the Uighurs. She doesn't want to be sad all the time like me"

"I argue with my daughter all the time," said Reyhan, whose daughter was born in the UK and wants to move on. "She tells everyone she is Turkish," she said. "She tells me that no one has heard of the Uighurs. She doesn't want to be sad all the time like me."

Dr Adrian Zenz, whose research has been pivotal in bringing the plight of the Uighurs to world attention, instigated the recent seminar on survivor's guilt. Flagging up the severe mental health challenges faced by Uighur people who are being confronted daily with agonising news from their homeland he described the wide-ranging but powerful symptoms experienced by members of the diaspora, who often feel they are going crazy under an unbearable weight of grief.

The faces of trauma are many, he said. Sleeplessness, recurring nightmares, fear, guilt, blame; the list goes on. Some people find themselves going into overdrive with anxiety, panic attacks and racing thoughts. Others at the opposite extreme become passive. They feel helpless, unmotivated, numb and disconnected, he said.

Addressing the unusual nature of the Uighur crisis which makes the trauma experienced by the diaspora particularly unique, China director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson speaking at a World Uighur Congress meeting recently to discuss the "unprecedented Uighur crisis", described the terrorism-narrative fuelled" campaign and the long term, strategic and calculated planning of the camps dating back to 2014, was shocking. "The fact that Beijing was already designing apps back then for police specifically to track Turkic Muslims, is of the utmost concern," she said.


This malice and cruelty combined with the ongoing nature of the treatment of their loved ones makes living a normal life or moving on especially hard for Uighurs. Many are plagued by thoughts that they should be doing more to help and others wracked with guilt, have suspended fun and enjoyment.

Ilholm, now living in Istanbul, who escaped Xinjiang with his mother and two sisters after their father was arrested, works in a bookshop to support the family. Unable to get passports for the other two children, who have been taken away to state orphanages, his mother is inconsolable. He described the sterile life they now live. "We have stopped smiling or laughing," he told me. "My mother lives as if she is in mourning and expects us to," he said, adding that day trips or excursions were out of the question until the family was reunited. "But we also know that will never happen," he said ruefully. "They are gone forever."

Two studies into trauma among the Uighur diaspora have found shocking levels of distress. US-based researcher Memet Imin found that out of almost 1,000 Uighurs he interviewed for his study, 90 percent were experiencing "deep psychological stress."

A human rights legal group, the Rights Practice in London surveyed Uighurs living in the UK. "Our survey revealed a community desperate for information about relatives in Xinjiang," it reported. Quoting the Economist's 1843 magazine which found 500 London-based Uighurs "living in fear of the Chinese state," the findings of the survey were presented as evidence to the UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into Xinjiang’s detention camps.

The exhilaration of having reached the 'free world' is always tempered with a burden of grief and responsibility for those left behind

The Rights Practice report found that 62 percent of those surveyed were worried about being followed and monitored by Chinese authorities and alert to the presence of CCP spies in the UK who might use information about their activities overseas against family members back home.

"A significant majority of respondents reported that they had been approached by the Chinese authorities to provide various types of information about their situation in the UK from their contact details to the place of work or study. Many had been required to send photos holding their open passport," it reported. Some had been told to return to Xinjiang, usually by relatives during staged social media calls, accompanied by threats, usually directed at their loved ones.

Uighurs around the world are facing a unique and unenviable situation. They are watching the slow, incremental genocide of their people, and they are heartbroken. Heartened by nations rallying to their cause they throw themselves into more campaigns and activism to numb the pain of silence, disappearance, quashing of their culture, banning of religion and sudden, random news from the home of deaths and draconian prison terms. But the exhilaration of having reached the "free world" is always tempered with a burden of grief and responsibility for those left behind.

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Ehmet, an exile in London talks about the "fire burning in his heart." "It feels as if it is going to explode," he says. Delighted with the genocide vote in the UK parliament recently, he nevertheless felt that nothing could extinguish the agony and guilt of knowing that his widowed mother would herself have to face death one day without her only son by her side.

Tursunay, a de facto widow in Turkey who fled after her husband was rounded up and later sentenced to life imprisonment, fingered the crumpled photo of the daughter she was forced to leave behind when she fled with her older daughters. Her phone had been cut off in China and with it the last remaining photos and video clips of her daughter. She is left with the agony of her choice. No amount of seminars, counselling, government pronouncements, demonstrations or sanctions against Beijing will ease this pain.


The author is writing under a pseudonym to protect her identity.