By Zumretay Arkin
The summer of 2009 began like any other, I was excited to spend my first summer in my home country after migrating to Canada, reunite with my family and friends, go to all my favorite places in Urumqi, eat the delicious seasonal fruits, but–most importantly–be in a Uyghur environment. Little did I know that this summer would irrevocably change my life and my homeland, East Turkestan.
I had never realized how deeply rooted racism was crippling our Uyghur society in East Turkestan. However, that changed over that summer in 2009, when I was in Urumqi for the summer holidays.
On our way to Urumqi through Beijing, we had been racially profiled at the airport multiple times, and my mother was taken to an interrogation room and questioned for over an hour about the motives of our visit.
We were visiting my grandmother who had been ill for some time. We arrived in Urumqi late at night on July 8. The authorities had shut down all means of communication, the Urumqi airport was shut off, and the only driver present at the airport refused to take Uyghur families.
Ten minutes before we reached home, we saw a group of Han Chinese soldiers equipped with machetes, on their way to beat up any Uyghurs they could find. I was 16 and I couldn’t understand why we were being treated this way in our own country, as if we were second-class citizens. The fear and tension I felt in the city was distressing.
Three days before I had arrived in Urumqi, Chinese authorities had brutally cracked down on Uyghur protesters in the city, killing and disappearing hundreds of people. The protests were in reaction to the Chinese government’s inaction after a number of Uyghur workers had been killed and several hundred more were injured in a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guandong on June 25, 2009.
Uyghurs across the country felt powerless against the systemic racism they continued to face. On July 5, thousand of Uyghurs took the streets of Urumqi and marched throughout the city demanding the government to respect their basic fundamental rights.
Freedom of association and the right to protest in China are virtually nonexistent. Despite that, in a desperate attempt to echo their demands, hundreds of Uyghurs took the risk of being severely punished for a simple, peaceful protest.
In the following days, unrest spread across the city and the ethnic tensions between the Uyghurs and Han Chinese increased. Chinese police and security forces swept through the city, arresting, killing and disappearing hundreds of Uyghurs who were alleged to have been at the protest.
On the other hand, the protests had a significant impact on the Uyghur human rights movement. These protests were especially meaningful to Uyghurs in the diaspora, who were inspired by the courage of young people demanding justice. Uyghurs in the diaspora joined them from abroad and called for the end of the system that was oppressing Uyghur people, in a multitude of ways. We understood that staying silent was no longer a viable option.
Growing up in Canada, I had taken for granted being able to use all my guaranteed freedoms in any possible forms, but when I was in Urumqi that summer, I had to be extremely careful about what I was saying, where I was going, and which language I was speaking.
I remember every time we entered a house, we had to unplug all the electronic devices, because everyone knew that they were being monitored, even in the privacy of their homes.
Even outside, I was told not to speak much, not to speak any foreign language, not to talk about Canada, not to ask or talk about the Urumqi Massacre or the political atmosphere.
Soldiers were deployed throughout the city, guarding every gate of every neighbourhood, tanks were patrolling and Uyghur men were being arrested for showing their identity. Police brutality was evident and spies were following us.
Uyghurs were forced to continue living their ‘’normal lives’’ as if nothing had happened, and they did, because of the fear of retaliation.
This was my reality for two months and I felt suffocated, but this is the reality of all Uyghurs in China for 365 days, every year since.
In the following years, the authorities’ tight control of the region increased with the introduction of draconian laws to control an entire ethnic group, for their cultural and religious identity.
These policies never helped to ‘’create ethnic harmony’’, as the Chinese authorities want us to believe. These measures only exacerbated the existing racism and discrimination the Uyghurs had been facing for decades. Instead of governance according to the rule of law, it became the rule by law.
Uyghurs can now be persecuted openly and publicly, because the legal system is based on discriminatory practices.
Today marks the 11th anniversary of the Urumqi massacre, a dark period of the history of East Turkestan.
On this occasion, we are not only commemorating the deaths and enforced disappearances of Uyghurs, but we are also commemorating the courage of these inspiring protesters who risked it all to voice out their frustrations with a regime that was–and continues to be–totalitarian and abusive.
As an Uyghur myself, who is committed to defending the rights of my people, I would like to invite non-Uyghurs to do the same, because the ‘’it’s none of my business’’ attitude is woefully out of date.
The international community failed to act and condemn China during the Urumqi Massacre, and we have since seen a decade of escalating atrocities committed against the Uyghurs in China. At the end of the day, this is about human rights, and if we want to be on the right side of history, the international community has to act now to stop the atrocities being committed against the Uyghurs, who are now victims of a new genocide.
Zumretay Arkin is the Program & Advocacy Manager at the World Uyghur Congress. She is a Uyghur-Canadian human rights advocate promoting Uyghur human rights and has been engaged with advocacy work at the UN. She tweets at @ZumretErkin.