Uyghurs gather to break the Ramadan fast together, and tell Bitter Winter how the CCP is breaking families and causing “spiritual sickness” in their community.
Against the shadow of a holocaust back home, Uyghur diaspora Iftar celebrations in Turkey this year were a solemn but defiant affair (Iftar, إفطار, is the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset). With the catalogue of disappearing mosques and demolished shrines continuing unabated, and threats of almost certain incarceration for anyone observing the fast in the province, members of the Uyghur community in Turkey are standing with their brethren under siege this Ramadan. Three thousand Muslim Uyghurs and their children who have the freedom to practice their religion away from the disapproving eyes of Beijing, gathered in Istanbul this week at dusk to break the fast.
Together with a score of local Turkish dignitaries and heads of a variety of Uyghur organizations, they sat in the open square of the Zeytinburnu Culture and Arts Centre, in a suburb of Istanbul, to share a meal together and to remember families and friends left behind in their homeland. The gathering was organized and presided over by Hidayet Oguzhan, head of the East Turkestan Ministry of Education and Solidarity Association. He spoke animatedly on the virtue of celebrating the Iftar meal and the feeling of brotherhood it engendered. Joined by the deputy mayor of Zeytinburnu, Hurshid Bekaroglu, and a host of other public figures he thanked Turkey for welcoming the Uyghur community and for the solidarity they felt as cousins with shared turkic roots.
Not one family in this far flung community tens of thousands strong, has remained untouched by the clampdowns at home and profound grief, anger and sadness tainted the otherwise joyful affair. After a day of abstinence, breaking the fast in families and neighborhoods back in Xinjiang used to be one of the highlights of the calendar. “This is the time of year when we would traditionally spend a month seeing friends, catching up with people we don’t often see, and eating special food together,” said Arzigul, a woman who escaped Xinjiang with her two toddlers shortly after her husband was taken into a camp three years ago.”This has become my new family,” she said, adding that she has had no contact with her parents or close relatives since she left. “Sometimes I think I will break apart with sadness,” she said. “I think of my husband every day and wonder what has become of him. My parents and all my close relatives have gone silent and everyone is too terrified to keep in touch. I have no idea whether they are dead or alive.”
Arzigul fears for her children’s future. “They ask when their father is joining us and what can I say? My little boy has become very quiet. He knows something is going on but still wants his daddy back.” “How can I tell him that we will probably never see each other again?” She asked.
“This is the cruelest punishment,” said Hatiqe, “to deprive children of one or more of their parents, and to break up families.” This young mother of three has also taken on two more children, abandoned when their parents were forcibly repatriated from Egypt three years ago. Young singles and couples studying in Cairo were suddenly rounded up over the course of two or three days and some of their children who had not been with them at the time of the arrests, fell through the net. “I couldn’t just leave them there when my own husband was taken too,” she said. “No one knows what has become of any of those students who studied in Cairo and were sent back to China. Their children are part of our family now.”
Everyone without exception has a story. There are widows and children who just managed to get out of China as the clampdowns took hold with a vengeance and their husbands disappeared. There are “orphan” children who had been sent to study, very often the Quran, in Istanbul and now have no financial support and probably no means ever, of being reunited with their parents. Some women, stranded during business trips once Turkey became a forbidden destination a few years ago, are even discovering their husbands have found second wives back home and are making a new life without them.
There are tragedies wherever you look, and raw emotions barely disguised beneath the surface. Huge vats of traditional Uyghur pilau were steaming in the open, to be eaten with fingers or scooped up with large spheres of nan bread, made by specialist bakers from Kashgar, in the south of the province, distributed among the tables.
Sweetmeats of dates and slices of bright red water melon from Iran sat ready for the moment the Iftar was declared. Children were excited. Everything was in place for a feast to be remembered with joy and happiness.
Kerem, a community leader and Uyghur Education Department official, said despite the outward show of festivity, the community was deeply disturbed. There are needs everywhere, he said, but the biggest “sickness” was emotional. “Everyone is spiritually ill,” he said sadly. “It is an incurable condition,” he said, “and there is no end in sight.”