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My fate wasn’t in my own hands

The activist Halmurat Uyghur, who among other things initiated the movement #MeTooUyghur, began his political engagements as a direct reaction to his parents’ internment in a re-education camp in Xinjiang. In this personal narrative he gives us some insight into the work of an activist—from being a Uyghur voice in the media to being directly threatened by the Chinese regime.

Credits Text: Halmurat Uyghur Photo: Antoine Védeilhe May 19 2020

I am an ethnic Uyghur, a proud citizen of the Republic of Finland. Halmurat is not my actual name, my given name is Halvar, grandmother gave me this name, it is a very unique name, among the Uyghurs, I think I am the only person who has this name. However, beside my special name, I have never wanted to be special. I had never had an 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. The reason for that is that my family’s connection to politics has always been painful. From ancestors being forced to move over fears of retaliation from provincial rulers, to my grandfather being sent to a labor camp during the cultural revolution.

As far as I can remember, my mother used to write poetry when I was little, I don’t remember when she stopped writing poetry. I don’t know what the reason is, maybe she thought it was not safe to express her feelings through poetry. Or that such sentiments, which are the source of her poems, have disappeared during the Uyghur life centered on family safety. Maybe she realized what was probably the most real thing. With the exclusion of the Uyghur language, there was not much readership in Uyghur poetry, and perhaps the exclusion of the Uyghur language may have discouraged and disappointed my mother, who loved the beautiful mother tongue. My mother may have chosen to submit to fate. Maybe I have inherited her talent, I used to write poetry, but it has been a long time since I have stopped, for the similar reason. She used to read my poems with excitement, but she encouraged me to be a doctor, not to be a poet. My mother worked for the Turpan newspaper and retired from there. The Turpan newspaper was a Communist Party propaganda machine. Her life was spent not with poems written in beautiful Uyghur, but with news and reports promoting communist ideology. For the safety of our family, my mother even gave up her feelings and beautiful Uyghur poems, but could unfortunately, still not escape the clutches of the lizard. In early 2017, perhaps at the end of March, she was taken to a concentration camp.

My fate has changed after my parents were sent to the concentration camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, which Uyghurs calls East Turkestan. Chinese government claims the camps are facilities for deradicalization, but they are in fact facilities for political indoctrination, punishment for innocent people and erasing Uyghur identity. It has targeted innocent people like my parents. This is why I became an activist to free my parents and other people who have been faced the same atrocity. As far as I know, there are at least a million Uyghurs believed to be held in the camps.

My parents are retired civil servants, I am not ashamed to say that they were working for the government. They didn’t have any political ambitions; I have never witnessed them practicing any religion. They don’t fit the criteria with which the Chinese government frames their unbearably inhuman treatment of the Uyghurs as a better solution for counter terrorism, the narrative which they are pushing to export as an alternative for resolving extremism, in fact deceiving the international community and exporting their definition of human rights, which is challenging common values of democracy and human rights.

After my mother went missing in 2017 and my father in 2018, I have started to campaign against their unlawful detention. I am their only child, I wanted to up speak up against China’s state brutality and arbitrary mass detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. Many feared China’s retaliation, but my parents are being detained, as the only child, I have nothing to lose. I wanted to put pressure on the Chinese authorities to release them. By doing so I was also hoping to encourage other Uyghurs in the diaspora, who have remained silent, to do the same.

I decided to use social media to my advantage. In the spring of 2018, I posted a public video on Facebook, in which I have testified about my parent’s situation, and demanded their immediate release. Since then, I have flooded social media with videos encouraging Uyghurs to stand up against China’s unjust and cruel treatment of their relatives in our homeland. Quickly, I had over 15 thousand followers, mainly Uyghurs. With this platform, I have gained an influencing position to mobilize the Uyghur diaspora community to organize different events to rise awareness.

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 meet with the Uyghur community in those countries, convincing them to testify about their missing relatives. I found that it is the only way we could let the international community know there are mass detentions targeted at our kinsmen, so this will help us raise awareness and attention of the countries, organizations and people who see defending human rights as their task. The other important significance is keeping in contact with many other activists in Europe and later to be able to join them in many other demonstrations in their countries.

Many Uyghurs followed my example and testified about their missing relatives, I saw the necessity of documenting, along with a few volunteers, we started to collect testimony videos uploaded to our YouTube channel, for this, I see that we need a more organized work and coalition. We have registered our organization UyghurAid in August 2018 after failed attempts to convince existing Uyghur organizations to help us with this project within their organization. We have collected over 400 videos, which is the main source for the list of Uyghur detainees for the Xinjiang Victim Data Base project. Later this was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council as a contribution to the Special Procedure experts’ reports on the situation.

I have received wide attention from the media as one of the very first who spoke openly about the camps and relatives who are victims of the new initiative of the Chinese communist government for assimilating the Uyghurs. My parents’ case was covered by many famous media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, their case became strong evidence in the exposure of China’s lies about the Uyghur concentration camps.

My parents were released on 24th December 2018, I am still struggling to understand how this became possible. After their release, I faced a bit of a dilemma, I questioned myself, should I continue with my activism, and risk them being sent back to a camp? I decided to help others, those whose families are still missing. I am well aware that as long as the oppression continues, my parents and other relatives will not be able to avoid the risk of being victimized again.

My experiences of activism for my parents’ release, gave me the knowledge of how to raise awareness, gain attention and arranging effective movements. I have traveled to most of the western countries which hosts Uyghur diaspora, this gave me the opportunity to get an overall view of the Uyghur diaspora, its capacity which and have space for improvements. Online activism was a big blank, so I saw the opportunity to introduce the use of hashtag movements to my fellow Uyghurs.

As a matter of fact, less than two months after my parents’ release a great opportunity presented itself. After the presumed death of a famous Uyghur singer in February 2019, and Turkey’s open condemnation of China, the CCP quickly released a video proving him to be alive. The following morning, I challenged all my fellow Uyghurs to post a video demanding proofs of the wellbeing of their parents. I named the campaign #MeTooUyghur.

Uyghurs from all walks of life started posting videos about their missed ones. The campaign even forced the Chinese governments spokesperson to answer a question from the Associated Press journalist, about the campaign. As we can all imagine, her reply was pretty evasive. The campaign has been a major breakthrough, as the situation of the Uyghurs has since gained more publicity in mainstream media. The success of the #MeTooUyghur movement has successfully introduced a new kind of activism, the hashtag movement. Since then, the Uyghurs have started many other online hashtag campaigns, contributing to the Uyghur cause.

#MeTooUyghur movement has played the role of being a platform for individuals to raise awareness of their own cases, which gives me an opportunity to have a network with both Uyghurs in the diaspora and journalists. Journalists from different media from different countries have got in touch with me for help in finding individuals who have stories which fits their topics. I became a key person, linking media with the Uyghur diaspora community. My activism was highlighted in many of their reports and thanks to this, I became a well-known spokesperson for the Uyghurs, and now have a position in advocacy.

Alongside activism I have been closely involved with advocacy, I have talked with foreign diplomats, human rights organizations and intellectuals who have been closely involved with the Uyghur people. I have been invited to be a panelist at over 12 different universities, including Cambridge University, Liberty University of Brussels and Copenhagen University. This gave me the opportunity to approach intellectuals, learn from them and start to network among them. Learning from bright minds gave me a deeper understanding of the situation, and helped me understand how to approach the problem with more academic and rational thoughts. I have started the Uyghur Talk program, interviewed over 20 intellectuals: anthropologists, historians and political scientists. I share this knowledge with my fellow Uyghurs, and people concerned with the Uyghur situation, who want to understand more and get involved with the work of defending human rights in the Uyghur region.

The price for Uyghur human rights defenders is high, I have received threats, been pressurized and even attacked. And worst of all – the Chinese authorities have pressured my parents in law to pressure my wife to make her pressure me to stop being an activist. She hasn’t pressured me to stop, but the pressure she has been facing caused her and me depression and anxiety. This has greatly impacted our emotional connection; however, she is the most beautiful thing that has happened in my life, our love and marriage continue resiliently despite China’s long arms.

We’ve been trying to use all the opportunities within our capacity to raise awareness of the current situation of our people, who are subjected to China’s unbearable crimes against humanity. Yet, western countries have not reacted to this in a manner and on a scale that I and my fellow Uyghurs had been hoping. Thanks to the trade war between the USA and China, America has begun to help the Uyghurs. I have always been careful not to be labeled a puppet in America’s anti-China propaganda, so far, I haven’t ever accepted any financial aid from USA based foundations or grants. The main reason wasn’t that I hesitated to approach the USA, it was because the USA is the only country which has spoken out about the Uyghur plight, where countries like Germany, Sweden, Canada and others, have failed to give the Uyghur concentration camps and the worst human rights abuse, top priority when dealing with China. Thanks to the tireless work of many people, there are countries that share the values we struggle and risk our lives for, and that are now catching up and prioritizing the Uyghurs.

Uyghurs are at the frontline of the no man zone of the attack from authoritarianism on democracy, human rights and liberty, this is not a war that can be fought by the Uyghurs alone, we are waiting for people who share our values, to rally around our fight for human dignity.

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