Bitter Winter visited the Istanbul suburb of Zeytinburnu and heard the sad stories of lives and families destroyed by CCP persecution.
by Ruth Ingram
“The longing and the missing is like a furnace burning in my heart,” are the words of a Uyghur man, severed from his family, and sent to work in a camp in one of the remotest recesses of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China; an area that is experiencing one of the greatest incarcerations of an ethnic group since the Second World War.
Whilst millions on the Chinese side of the border wait for their own knock on the door, more than two million of their friends and relatives have disappeared already into the vast labyrinthian network of so-called transformation through education camps that pepper the province. Neither side knows when or if they will ever see each other again. Others who managed to escape before the iron doors slammed closed two years ago, live in a twilight world of uncertainty, either in other countries of Central Asia or further afield. They too are undergoing one of the greatest trials of their lives. Their bodies are in exile, but their heart and soul is in their homeland with those they love. Their spirits torn apart with longing and grief for those they know they have very little chance of seeing again.
Large numbers of Uyghurs, many Muslim but some not, escaping the draconian surveillance, clampdowns and random roundups at home have taken refuge in Turkey over the years, and particularly during the last three years since President of China, Xi Jinping was voted into position for life. Welcomed by the Turkish government because of their shared Turkic heritage, they have transformed the side streets of their colorful neighborhood into a small replica of their homeland. Uyghurs do not easily adapt to other cultures, and by bringing a touch of home to their displacement; naan bread ovens, Uyghur traditional medicine clinics, vegetable stores selling primarily ingredients for national dishes and even an Avral ice cream parlour, selling the beloved ice cream made to a secret home made recipe in Ghulja on the border of Kazakhstan, this goes some way towards easing the burden of this cruel exile.
“On a good day we can feel as if we are walking through the streets of Urumqi,” said Nurgul, a de-facto widow who managed to escape with three of her children. Her husband is in a camp and because her remaining three children were more than allowed by the birth control policy she could not get them a passport. She was forced to leave them behind in Xinjiang, first with relatives but now she supposes they are in government orphanages once her extended family also entered the camps. “However much we try to recreate Xinjiang here, nothing can replace the ceaseless longing in my heart for my children and family,” she said.
Central Asians of every tribe and tongue mingle among native Turks in Zeytinburnu, one of the many suburbs of Istanbul. While a steady trickle of Uzbeks, Turkmens, Kirghiz and Kazakhs have emigrated largely voluntarily over the years and many of their traders still play the bazars, the Uyghurs have been fleeing literally for their lives, with no nation to call home. Despite putting on smiles and getting on with life as best they can, the hustle and bustle of their banished community is a fine veneer, easily pierced at the mention of a name, a piece of music or thoughts of the future and what lies ahead for their children. The pain and grief are palpable lying barely beneath the surface of the Uyghur tragedy.
Every single one of the Uyghur exiles in the alleyways, pushing prams, carrying produce, sitting arm in arm on the roadside or playing with children in the park has a tragic tale to tell. On the surface they appear to be coping but all are experiencing the emotional fallout of the cruelty being metered out to their people at home.
One of the leaders of the Uyghur community in Zeytinburnu, Kerem Zeyip, said that the entire community was experiencing severe “emotional sickness” brought about by worry, uncertainty, stress, and deep sadness over the fate of relatives in the homeland. One of their biggest concerns was for the physical and emotional well being of 400 widows and orphans who had no means of support at all. “Women fled with as many children as they could carry or had passports for, when their husbands were herded into internment camps,” he said. “ None have had any contact with those left behind since they arrived here 2-3 years ago and the pain of this is with them every moment of every day,” he said. “Every avenue of contact has been cut off and were they to try to call or message their relatives, this would spell immediate danger for them. Most have been told by relatives not to contact them on any account. None have any idea whether those still in East Turkestan (the name Uyghurs in the diaspora choose to use for their homeland) are alive or dead.”
Whilst the Turkish government supports the education of orphans with no parents at all, most of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey is full of women and children who might as well be orphans, marooned in a gray night of unknowing what their future holds. The Uyghur community thanks to donations from their compatriots around the world, support every widow and orphan to the tune of €16 a month. A drop in the ocean of need but enough to provide the basics of life and food on the table.
Tears are never far beneath the surface of this community; they want to tell but again they don’t. They don’t want to be reminded of their grief and yet it is always there. When given the opportunity to tell, it all comes flooding out; tears, anger, blame and guilt, sorrow and “sighinish” (intense feeling of missing), a word that strikes at a Uyghur’s very soul. The “missing” of a mother’s love, a child’s embrace, a homeland and a homestead… the vines, the fruit trees, the melons, the pears, walnuts and almonds. The wealth of the land is in their courtyard and the feeling of belonging to a family and a “nation,” during summer evenings on the kang (a large wooden platform set in the courtyard under a spreading vine)… Every one of them has a yurt (a homestead) but that yurt has gone forever together with those who inhabit it.
This is where the policies of Beijing are particularly cruel. Not only are they trying to tackle problems at home in this draconian way, but the fallout around the world is palpable. “You wonder whether they have really thought this all through,” said Kerem, the community leader. “They are not only destroying the lives of the millions in the camps, but causing untold damage to every other Uyghur wherever they might be. The emotional fallout from their strategy will have untold implications and repercussions in the future. The damage from the broken lives once they re-emerge, the difficulty of rebuilding communities and trust is incalculable,” he said barely able to keep from tears. “And our children. How will we ever find them, scattered in orphanages around China, perhaps even adopted out to Chinese families, and also dispersed around the world?” “But perhaps this is the intention. To break us and destroy us,” he said, “until there is no one left.”