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How Can I Stay Silent : The Story of My Activism
By Uyghur Aid - May 12, 2019
By Halmurat Harri Uyghur
My name is Halmurat Uyghur, people also call me Murat Harri Uyghur. I am an ethnic Uyghur and a human rights activist now living in Finland. I am also the director of Uyghur Aid, a non-profit organization we established in the summer of 2018.
Over the past couple of years, China has tightened its grip on the Uyghur population. According to the UN 1 million people, The US State Department says 2 million and according to Amnesty International 3 million Uyghurs have been sent to so-called “re-education camps”, for the most trivial of crimes such as having the contact information of people living abroad – or for having a beard, among other things.
Officially, China says it is fighting against terrorism but in reality, it is one of the biggest ongoing ethnic persecutions in the world.
After my mother went missing in 2017 and my father in 2018, I started to campaign against their unlawful detention. I wanted to put pressure on the Chinese authorities to release them. By doing so, I was also hoping to encourage other Uyghurs, who have remained silent, to do the same. Many have feared China’s retaliation. I wanted to up speak up against China’s state brutality and arbitrary mass detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. My own parents being detained, I had nothing to lose.
I decided to use social media to my advantage. In the spring of 2018, I posted a public video on Facebook, in which I shaved off my hair, in order to demonstrate against the detention of my parents and demanded their immediate release. The video went viral among the Uyghur community in exile. Later I uploaded many other videos in which I was encouraging other Uyghurs to stand up against China’s unjust and cruel treatment of their relatives in the Uyghur region (Uyghurs prefer to call their homeland as East Turkestan; however, the official term is Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).
Eventually, other Uyghurs also started to speak up for their missing relatives, they too started uploading video testimonials on their social media accounts, mostly on Facebook. Individuals and groups like “Ghulja Meshrep” have been able to persuade people, who have their relatives in China’s concentration camps, to give video testimonies for their relatives. This soon became a wave of hundreds of videos. This campaign has also provided ordinary Uyghurs with a platform to raise their own cases.
I had been hoping, that this could be a shifting point and it did help in many ways. But, somehow the whole issue became politicized and started to go to a different direction from what I had anticipated. I had hoped, that people could speak out but leave their political and religious views aside. I thought this way the testimonies could reach a wider audience. Things went differently and Uyghurs are now advocating for many different causes: Some for the freedom of their relatives, some for an independent East Turkestan and some for more religious causes.
In the summer of 2018, I embarked on a two-week Freedom tour, which in fact was a serial demonstration in major European capitals. This way I was able to connect with many other activists in Europe and later was able to join them in many other demonstrations in their countries.
In December last year, as I was visiting Turkey, my heart skipped a beat, when I received a photo of my parents on my mobile phone. In the photo, they looked fine. They had had a haircut and their clothes were new. They must have been released from the camp, I thought.
Of course, I immediately sent a message and asked if I could call. When I got in touch with them, I soon understood that they were in some sort of an office somewhere, under surveillance.
In the Uighur culture, the relationship between the parents and the child is very close and important. I hadn’t talked to my parents for two years. A normal reaction for all of us would have been to start crying and ask how we all have been doing. However, the conversation over Skype went quite differently. At first, my mother said that I should not worry about them, that they were doing just fine. They said their time at the camp had been “a great educational opportunity that they were grateful for”. The whole conversation only lasted for 14 minutes.
It was made clear, that in the future I would not be able to contact my parents without arranging it in advance. Calls could only be made under the surveillance of the Chinese authorities. I don’t want any harm to come to my parents, that’s why I have not called them again. I asked a foreign journalist, whom I know, to secretly check that my parents really are at home. Seems like they are under house arrest, but it is also a relief to know they are not in a camp anymore.
However, I still feel China has kidnapped my family.
I wonder if it was a coincidence, that my parents were released just a couple of weeks before our President’s visit to China in January 2019? My wife’s parents were also released at about the same time. My wife has talked to them a few times over the phone.
I have talked to a friend, who has provide me information about what is going on. However, communication is always cautious, and things have to be said in between the lines, in a code language so to speak.
For example, when my friend says that “his grandfather came to visit him, and was quite angry about the fact that his daughter in law had not returned to home,” it does not refer to the real grandfather, but rather to the “Chinese authorities”. Being sent to a camp or being arrested are referred to as ‘being ill’. By the way, my grandfather passed away years ago, and my grandmother passed away right after my father was detained. Neither of my parents were allowed to attend the funeral, both of them were in a concentration camp when she passed away. Last time my friend said that “the weather has been getting colder, that my parents may get sick again.”
I always have the feeling, that my next event or campaign might just go too far.
My trip to Turkey last December was unforgettable for another reason, too. In Turkey, I finally understood what my campaigning meant for other Uyghurs.
I was eating at an Uyghur restaurant in Istanbul when someone sitting at a table next to me had discreetly taken a photo of me and posted it on Facebook. It was accompanied by something like “hey look who is here: It’s Halmurat”. Then the person came and thanked me for everything I’ve done. When we left the restaurant in an hour, a crowd of close to a hundred people had gathered outside. Many women were weeping.”
How did I feel?
Difficult, I must say. There is this feeling that I haven’t done anything, and these people were hoping for something, that I was not able to give to them. But on the other hand, I strongly feel that the Uyghur community needs encouragement and if I have been given this platform of influence, I’ll need to do, what I can to encourage others.
After my parents’ release, I had a bit of a dilemma. Should I continue with my activism, and risk them being sent back to a camp. I soon decided, I will have to lend my voice to those, whose families are still missing.
As a matter of fact, less than two months after my parents’ release a great opportunity presented itself. After the presumed death of “Abdurehim Heyit” in February this year, and Turkey’s open condemnation of China, the CCP quickly released a video proof of Mr. Heyit being alive.
The following morning, I felt an urge to make a video clip, and challenge all my fellow Uyghurs to post a video demanding proof of the well being of their parents. I named the campaign #MeTooUyghur. To my surprise, the video went viral within 24 hours.
Uyghurs from all walks of life started posting videos about their loved ones. The campaign even forced the Chinese government spokesperson to answer the question of the Associated Press journalist, about the #MeTooUyghur campaign. As you can imagine, her reply was pretty evasive. The campaign has been a major breakthrough, as the situation of the Uyghurs has since gained more publicity on mainstream media.
My current and future plans are as follows; to show the world what the Uyghur people are going through, and also working towards becoming an expert in this field. Therefore, we are aiming to set-up “human-rights activism” courses, connecting and building relationships with various international organizations, that stand for basic human rights, freedom, and liberty, in order to bring in non-Uyghur activists to join our cause.
Through this, we try to show that, the Uyghur’s plight should not just be led by the Uyghurs themselves, but all of humanity should play a role, because a country, who is on its way to becoming the ultimate superpower, its crimes against basic human rights, freedom and democracy, this super-power's current and future threats to humanity as a whole, is not only the responsibility of the Uyghur people, and will not just affect Uyghurs, on the contrary, it will affect the today and tomorrow of mankind as a whole.
After the tragedies of the 20th century, the world said and had promised: “Never Again”. Unfortunately, this horror is most likely to happen or is already happening now. A Super-power that does not tolerate other civilizations or cultures, one that is destroying civilization, a government which is rounding up millions of innocent people into Concentration Camps, for this power to end up being the number 1 super-power in the world, will mean, that a power against the common human values, that we hold here, will come under serious threat, and could eventually disappear. The world has to keep its own promise, because today’s Uyghur tragedy, could possibly end up as the tragedy of others.
The Uyghurs, historically one of the most cultured people on Earth, have a rich history. Historically, the Uyghurs have been tolerant of other peoples, and have accepted the good parts of other cultures into their own, which today make up the Uyghur culture itself.
This beautiful culture is currently being erased, we need to save this rich civilization from being exterminated, where hundreds of our intellectuals are in the camps, and even some of them have received death sentences, for example, “Halmurat Ghupur, who is a Medical science doctor and the head of the Medical University.
The ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur people, through forced marriages of our women, our children forcefully taken from their parents, and taken into the so-called “mother” houses, essentially orphanages, where they are taught everything and anything besides Uyghur-culture, language, lifestyle, and ideology.
For now, the best and the most realistic thing we can hope for is to closure of the camps, to stop this oppression,and for the Uyghurs to be treated in a just way, and for there to be an environment where they can freely speak.
Let us not stand by, because as I mentioned before, this is not just an Uyghur issue, it is possibly an issue that the whole world will eventually have to deal with, if we do not “nip it in the bud” as they say. International organizations and activists who take part in the Uyghurs plight, give hope for this matter, to be resolved in a peaceful way.
Even though small actions we can do big things. Our small actions can cause the Chinese government to correct its incorrect policies, to see the Uyghur people as a real society and culture that deserves to be respected. We need to protect the Uyghur people and give them a chance to live with the basic human rights of freedom and liberty, that each person on the planet is either currently living, or is on the pursuit of, we should even respect the decision of the Uyghur people to become an independent state, if they so desire. This is the root to all the problems that needs to be solved eventually.
The Uyghur people do eventually want an Independent state; however, its fruition will be and should be determined by the Uyghur people themselves, but this can only happen if the things that I have mentioned above are supported by all sides.
I think, that the situation of the Uyghurs should be solved peacefully, through negotiations, and I would gladly be part of these negotiations. That is why I have recently, among other things, been in contact with Finnish politicians and other politicians across Europe. Social, political, economic or environmental reforms can be obtained in various ways, forms and methods.
Anyway, we have come this far, and a lot has happened during the last twelve months, and I believe many good things are lying ahead, as well as challenges. There is still much work that needs to be done.