Photography by Theo Santana
by Yi Xiaocuo
At a regular school event in Tennessee, the children were laughing and playing joyfully and they didn’t notice their teacher—Gulruy Asqar—couldn’t hold back her tears. Everything reminded her of her family members in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have imprisoned millions of innocent Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities. She has lost touch with her family there, but confirmed through credible source that her brother, two nephews, her husband’s brother, and his many relatives are among the detained.
Watching her students perform Chinese dances at the event celebrating American multiculturalism, Gulruy’s heart was burning with frustration. In Xinjiang, Uyghur cultural expressions are banned in their native land. Their music and dance, their food and clothing are appropriated and manipulated to extol Chinese nationalism and policies in the region. Gulruy’s brother Husenjan Esqer is a linguist, senior translator, and department head of the terminology office of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s Ethnic Language Committee (新疆维吾尔自治区语言委员会名词术语办公室，高级翻译). He has published more than forty Uyghur-Chinese dictionaries. In the last two years, he was also sent to the countryside to do government’s “stability maintenance” (维稳) work as a cadre. In early 2019, he was arrested along with his other six colleagues. At the time, they were working on a dictionary project of Uyghur toponyms in Xinjiang. Gulruy’s nephews (her older sister’s two sons) Behram Yarmuhemmed (Nanjing University graduate, born in 1988) and Ikram Yarmuhemmed (Xinjiang Medical University graduate, born in 1989) were also taken. Ikram was even given a ten years prison term. Before that, the brothers owned a private bookstore in front of Xinjiang University. Recently, Gulruy heard that Behram was released, after spending more than two years in the camp. The disappearance of these highly educated intellectuals and aspiring young entrepreneurs again expose China’s lies about these detainment facilities as “vocational training centers.” Their “crimes” were simply being Uyghurs and keeping Uyghur culture and history alive.
Changing Places, Remembering Names
Since the 1950s, the land reclamation work done by the state’s paramilitary organization–Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp–required many indigenous place names to be rendered in Chinese characters or even replaced by military regiment numbers, for example “186 regiment” to refer to part of Jimunay near Sino-Kazakhstan border. The Chinese Pinyin transcription of the indigenous place names does not translate the meanings, so the renditions are stripped of the history or the mental image of the place and become empty sounds of the syllables, for example, 阔克塔勒 (kuoketale), when the original name Koktal meant “revived willow tree.” Some names were changed to Chinese during the Republic of China era, for example, Koktogay county in Altay was changed to Fuyun (富蕴). Koktogay means “Green Forest” in Kazakh language. The Chinese term fuyun (富蕴) is taken from the Chinese idiom “天赋蕴藏” (heavenly bestowed natural reserves) due to the place’s rich mineral reserves that are valuable to the state.
Place names are thus significant carriers of indigenous knowledge, history, and worldviews. They enable people to connect their languages to the landscape, as anthropologist Keith Basso says, place names “acquire a capacity to evoke stories and images for the people who knew the places first.” In Xinjiang, Uyghurs and Kazakhs know and live the space in their own languages, even when the place names were later officially changed to Chinese. Place names ought to be seen as intangible cultural heritage in their capacity to preserve traditional knowledge, memories, and vantage points. If mosques, shrines, and cemeteries are tangible landmarks for indigenous spaces in Xinjiang, place names are intangible, living knowledge that is disseminated via Uyghur, Kazakh, and Mongolian languages.
The Overburdened Agents of Change
The term “genocide” began to be used by more and more scholars and activists to describe the situation in Xinjiang. In her essay, “‘Never again?’ It’s already happening,” Anne Applebaum compared global indifference to the Xinjiang atrocities today to indifference toward the famine in Soviet Ukraine in 1933, which was widely covered in western media at the time like Xinjiang today. Fred Hiatt used “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) — the destruction of synagogues, cemeteries, and Jewish businesses — to describe the mass demolition of Mosques and Muslim cemeteries in Xinjiang today.
The genocide of Uyghur, Kazakh, and other minorities in Xinjiang is also accompanied by the Chinese settler state’s projects of rapidly replacing native landmarks and populations with Han establishments and neighborhoods comprised of incoming Han migrant laborers. Anthropologist Darren Byler points out that the the “Kristallnacht” in Xinjiang is also a way to desecrate indigenous ancestors and eliminate indigenous futures. The tangled web of global capitalism involving the supply chains of cotton, tomatoes, and many raw materials in Xinjiang has made western democracies reluctant to take concrete, effective acts and reflect their complicity and moral ambiguity toward Xinjiang.
This leaves Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities in and out of Xinjiang in the dark. The diasporas are overburdened with a lonely and endless fight for justice, providing testimonies, taking risks with personal security, repeatedly exposing their trauma and vulnerability to western reporters and government agencies in hope of change. Refusing to be a victim, Gulruy has taken agency to act and make change within her means. She has given testimonies to the Xinjiang Victim Database, to reporters, and has published her own family stories. As a Muslim woman living in an era of global Islamophobia, she has to fight on multiple battlefields. It is under this urge and frustration that she has connected Uyghur plight to the struggle of Holocaust victims, calling on the world not to look away again.
Whispering ‘Never Again’
by Gulruy Asqar (Serwi)
We shed tears for Jews who were mass murdered.
Yet, their sorrows we have not truly understood.
We were sympathetic to their bitter memories when we heard their stories,
Yet, we said, “if only we had helped when we could.”
We pitied Jews for being killed in millions,
We watched films that reveals their sad fate.
We read novels that describe what a Nazi camp was.
Yet, we have not learned to act before it’s too late.
We asked,” how is it possible to be humiliated like this?”
We asked, “how is it possible to be hated like this?”
We asked, “how is it possible to be tested with secret drugs?”
We asked, “how is it possible to be burned with your family to death?”
We were emotional when we read Anne Frank’s diary,
We wished this little girl made it to the end of the war.
Yet, We feel her words questioning our conscience still today,
Yet, We have been only whispering “never again” softly so far.
Yes, we said, “never again a nation should experience torture in the camps.”
Yes, we said, “never again humanity should allow such a crime.”
Yes, “we said never again a Hitler should rise,”
Yes, we said, “never again, a mass murder should prevail another time.”
We know that “never again” have not come true for Uyghurs,
We know that Chinese camps were rebuilt in my weten,
We know that my linguist brother is the one among the millions in the camp,
We know it’s an irony that his crime is being an Uyghur who holds a pen.
We know that Jewish fate fell upon Uyghurs, this unlucky nation,
We know that on them, Jewish history repeats itself in two fold.
Yet, we chose not to do anything to turn the “never again” to a reality.
Yet, what we have done is to witness this bloodshed and wait for the martyr’s body turn cold.
We know that many Uyghur Anne Franks who are locked in the camps.
We know that these Anne Franks can’t make it to the end again.
We know that Uyghurs, now are like a herd of sheep waiting to be slaughtered,
We know that at the end, eradicating Uyghurs would be CCP’s biggest gain.
I know that the world will say “never again” when the last Uyghur is killed in my weten,
I know that people will cry when they read sad novels about Uyghurs in the future.
I know that people will say regretfully why we did not help them when we could.
Yet, now, Uyghurs are bleeding on their deathbed alone with endless torture.
I, an Uyghur, choose not to believe in this phrase “never again” any more.
Million of Uyghurs are being tortured in the Chinese camps and saying no more.
I don’t know how to help my people who are in dire need,
Yet, I let my poem whisper the same old phrase “never again” once more.