By Yalkun Uluyol
My father, Memet Yaqup (Maimaiti Yahefu), is missing without a trace.
He used to have a thriving business exporting fruit. June 7, 2018 was the last time I spoke to him. We hadn’t seen each other since 2016, and I wanted to share with him the good news that I was graduating from a bachelor’s program in the Department of Economics at Istanbul University, Istanbul.
My father was back in Guangzhou, Guangdong—the city where his business was based. He asked if I could send him legal documents for myself and my mother and sister, both of whom were in Turkey with me. After I sent him the documents, he disappeared.
Now, more than three years later, I still don’t know where he is or if he is well.
We are Uyghur, members of the majority-Muslim Turkic ethnic group. When I first went abroad, to study English in Malaysia in 2010, very few people knew what I was talking about when I told them I am Uyghur. Now, people have a growing awareness of who we are, but for a devastating reason.
Four years ago, the Chinese government began disappearing my people by the millions. Xinjiang officials locked Uyghurs up in internment camps and prisons, where survivors have recounted torture, starvation diets, forced sterilization, and death. Since then, they have separated Uyghur families, forced perhaps millions of people into coercive labour schemes, suppressed our language and culture, and prevented the births of Uyghur babies by the millions. Governments around the world have recently begun recognizing this campaign as genocide.
Of course, the Chinese government is angry at the international response, tepid though that response may be. The government claims that all Uyghurs are would-be terrorists who need the government to “reeducate” them and intervene in their lives, and, perhaps most insultingly of all, that we are happy with these policies.
How can we possibly be happy to watch helplessly from afar as our families are destroyed? To live each waking hour under a cloud of ambiguous grief? To bear witness to the destruction of our entire people and our hopes for a collective future?
My father is a university graduate. He worked as a civil servant for seven years before going into business on his own. Our homeland, East Turkistan, is famous for its fruit, and he set up a business exporting qoghun (Hami melon) to a number of other countries.
My father supported me financially, spiritually, and morally, from the time I went to Malaysia to study English in 2010 to the time I chose to study in Turkey on a scholarship in 2013, my first steps toward a life in the free world.
More than three years since we last spoke, I find myself wondering every day: Is he in a camp? Is he doing forced labour? Will I ever see him again? Is he even still alive?
Devastatingly, it’s not just him. In total, I suspect that up to 30 people from my family have been disappeared by the government. My uncle Ahmet Yaqup, a loving father to three girls, disappeared in July 2017. Another uncle, Yusup Yaqup, was taken into a camp with no explanation in 2017. My uncle-in-law Yaqup Sherol and my cousins Iskender Yaqup, Ibrahim Yusup, Ismail Yusup, Suleyman Yaqup, Rayhan Yaqup. The list goes on and on.
Virtually every Uyghur I know has stories like this.
I think of my family members—and indeed of all the Uyghurs whose lives have been ripped apart in this genocide—as “unforgettable forgottens.” Missing Uyghurs have been largely forgotten by the world, and yet they are still unforgettable to those of us living on the outside: their children, their siblings, their spouses, their relatives, their friends.
We do not have the luxury of forgetting, and we carry a heavy burden and deep pain every day.
For the Chinese government to say that nothing is wrong is a slap in the face of people like me, who each day face the indignity of begging the world to do the bare minimum to help us. To say that nothing is wrong is also a bald-faced lie, given the mountain of evidence from Chinese government documents, social-media posts, and statistics. The evidence is hiding in plain sight: the government wants to destroy us.
When I got married last summer, none of my family and friends from home were able to share the joy of that day with me. All I could do was post some of my wedding photos to my wall on WeChat, hoping that some of my family, who long ago deleted me from the app, might someday search for me and find them.
Uyghurs are fighting for our families, our existence, our very dignity. Some days, even hope feels like it’s far too little.
Yalkun Uluyol is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of International Relations and Political Science at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. Follow him on Twitter.
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