“It took me years to feel normal again. Actually, I still don’t feel normal.”
“I realized that the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward us had fully changed.”
“It made me feel more desperate about the future of humanity than I have ever felt in my life.”
Pictured: The author with Ablikim in 2015, the last time they met.
All names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees.
I met Ablikim for the first time in late 2014 at a Uyghur house party in a neighborhood in Southern Ürümchi. He was a thin man with a closely-trimmed moustache. He sat hunched over, his shoulders drawn in. We told each other our names, but I wasn’t really sure how to place him. Over the course of the evening, he sat in the corner quietly, his eyes darting around the room. It wasn’t until much later, when we were walking to our homes side-by-side, that he began to speak. He said he didn’t like speaking in groups because he didn’t like talking openly with strangers. Like many of the young Uyghurs I interviewed over the course of the past decade, Ablikim had been deeply affected by his encounters with police and Han society.
In the months that followed, Ablikim and I became close friends. We met nearly every day to drink tea, read novels, and talk about his job search and the future of Uyghur society. Slowly, he told me the story of his life. What came up most often was the story of his detention nearly 10 years before. It happened when he was on a public bus traveling from his school, which was in a predominantly Han neighborhood in the northern part of Ürümchi. As they were going through a checkpoint he realized that he was the only Uyghur on the bus. Not only that, but he had a mustache, which marked him not as an urban Uyghur with a high level of Chinese language education, but as a migrant from the countryside. He knew that, in the minds of many Han people he met, he looked like a suicide bomber. The police took one look at him and forced him off the bus. He said, “At that time I didn’t even know what I said. I was just so terrified. I didn’t know what they would do to me.” Ablikim said that he felt completely exposed and vulnerable. After that, he realized that being a Uyghur in the 2010s meant that his body could be taken at any time.
Ablikim’s story inspired me to ask other Uyghurs what the past decade has felt like to them. I asked them to think about the memories that most stuck out — the moments that changed their lives. Most of the people I spoke with for this story are now living in unplanned exile outside of China in places around the world. Ablikim is still in Xinjiang.
The Uyghurs and Kazakhs I have spoken with recently told me that the 2010s have been punctuated by moments of extreme fear and loss. In between these moments of trauma, people have tried to recover their sense of security, to protect their family and friends. They have told each other their stories of police brutality, stories of ethnoracism that made them question their humanity. They have tried to remain the authors of their own lives and the lives of their societies. But the 2010s have been a time of historical shifts. As many as 1.8 million Muslims have been “disappeared” into a vast internment camp system, and millions more have been separated from their families by labor and education systems.
Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been forced into an experience of what the China historian Gail Hershatter refers to as “campaign time.” For Hershatter, these were the times in the recent Chinese past when political violence invaded nearly all aspects of daily life: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In the 2010s, Turkic Muslims have entered a similar moment: Reeducation Time. It is a time in which their way of life has been targeted for replacement. As in those earlier moments of intense turmoil, the space they have to recover from violence and ethnoracism has become smaller and smaller. They can feel history happening to them. Their world is out of their control. There is no time for the “post-trauma” of PTSD. Over the course of the decade, all of life has begun to feel like it is disordered by an unending trauma.
Back in 2015, Ablikim told me that the traumatic stress of his life stemmed not only from his experience with policing, but also from the apathy and discrimination he received from his Han coworkers who refered to him as the “mustache teacher” (胡子老师 húzi lǎoshī) behind his back. He said that the experience of being harassed and isolated turned him into a “crazy person” (Uy: sarang).
“After I was put in the interrogation room for a couple of hours, it took me years to feel normal again. Actually, I still don’t feel normal. That was the whole reason why I started hating that school and my job and why I eventually quit. It is so hard to get over things like that. For the next year I acted like a crazy person. I think I gave all of my coworkers a very bad impression of me. They thought I was some strange guy who was always nervous, always shy, never willing to talk or act in normal ways.”
Another Uyghur young man I interviewed, who I’ll call Memtimin, told me that he had numerous similar experiences in 2013 and 2014. He said that when he traveled he was refused service at a number of hotels. “Sometimes (they) refused me (when they saw me). Or they told me that they did not have a room available when they saw my birthplace was Xinjiang on my ID.” He said these experiences made him feel helpless and angry. The legal system itself had denied him equal civil rights.
But what was even more troubling to him was the way other citizens accepted this. “A couple of times (when he was in the city), Han people greeted me in a very friendly and polite manner in English. They asked me, ‘Where are you from?’” Assuming they were speaking to him in English because they thought he was a foreigner, he would answer back in in Mandarin: “I am Uyghur (我是维吾尔人 wǒ shì wéiwú’ěr rén).”
“Without fail, they would roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh, a Xinjiang person?!’” Memtimin said. “Then they would give me a look of disgust — their lips would be pulled up like they had just seen a rat or a mangy dog.”
The institutions Memtimin and Ablikim found outside of the Uyghur-majority areas were oriented around Hanness. As the Pakistani-British social critic Sara Ahmed points out, racialized institutions “take the shape of ‘what’ resides within them.” They make non-majority bodies feel “‘out of place,’ like strangers.” When Ablikim entered these institutions, he felt his body being stopped and searched over and over again both by security guards at the entrance to the institutions and by all of the bureaucrats he encountered. He told me he felt as though every conversation, every encounter was filled with questions: Who are you? What are you doing here?
Underlying and supporting this systemic ethnoracism is the police. Over the past decade, police harassment and discrimination has transformed the lives of millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Another story Ablikim told me over and over again was how he and another of his friends, Tursun, were stopped when walking in a market area near the train station. A Han policeman confronted them and asked to check their ID cards.
“I told him, ‘Why do you want to check our ID cards? We’re not doing anything. Why don’t you check some Han people’s ID cards?’” Ablikim said. “He immediately made us go with him to the police station. I wasn’t scared at all. Tursun was scared. But I wasn’t scared at all. I didn’t do anything wrong, so why should I be scared of them? If they don’t respect me, why should I respect them?”
After threatening them, eventually the police let them go. Every time Ablikim told this story, his voice quivered. Beneath his shyness and his trembling hand he carried a deep anger. Despite his fear, he was still the narrator of his own story.
The anger of Ablikim and other migrants I interviewed was always mingled with the fear of being taken by the police at any moment. Near the beginning of 2017, this fear dramatically intensified when hundreds of thousands of Turkic Muslim parents, sisters, and brothers had contact cut off with their loved ones, and then one by one disappeared. Gulnar, a Kazakh woman who is now stranded in North America, told me that the pivotal moment of the decade for her was when she said goodbye to her parents at the Ürümchi airport near the end of 2016.
“The flight was delayed from Ürümchi to Beijing. Xinjiang was covered with Xi Jinping propaganda. Red banners with the big characters of ‘socialist core values’ were everywhere. Even my parents, who seldom make political comments, said, ‘This looks just like the Cultural Revolution.’ They came to see me off at the airport. The flight was delayed, but both of them stayed with me until it was really late. When I had to go, they both cried even though I said I would come back again many times. It was as if they felt that it was going to be our last goodbye or something. I didn’t cry because I had a life waiting for me back in North America.
“Actually, this was a narrow escape. I learned later that the situation in Xinjiang worsened suddenly in early 2017. After our farewell, when crossing through Chinese customs, the officer asked what ‘ethnicity’ (民族 mínzú) I was. I was nervous every time when I went through customs, but I usually pretended to be calm and nonchalant. I said ‘Kazakh.’ They studied my passport for a long time and even discussed with their supervisor about whether to let me go. Eventually they said I could go, but I remember sitting on the plane feeling like, ‘Fuck! What was that all about?’ Many times I have reflected on this, after reading all the news about Xinjiang. I feel so scared, thankful, guilty, and mad at the same time.
“Now it’s been three years and I haven’t seen and been together with my family. They are getting older and older and I have no idea whether I’ll see them again. I remember their tearful eyes clearly and I feel horrible for not being a caring daughter who stays close by. Or a capable daughter who could predict the future and get them out of there before things got so bad. What drives me crazy is not knowing whether or not this was our final farewell.”
A young Uyghur woman, who asked me to call her Musafir, told me that her deepest points of trauma over the past decade also began in 2017 when Uyghur public figures began to disappear. As an international student, they were her lifeline back to the Uyghur institutions where she felt she had a sense of belonging and purpose. She said:
“After that, I realized that the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward us had fully changed. Any semblance of trust we had before in our rights as citizens was completely broken. Ever since then, I have felt powerless and intimidated. I did not imagine that such injustice was possible. My belief in humanity was shattered.”
But state violence did not stop with the replacement of Uyghur institutions; it also began to sever Musafir’s ties to her family and friends. She told me:
“In the summer of 2018, my closest friends deleted me on WeChat one after another. Then my mom called me. Through her tears, she told me something that broke my heart. Her exact words were, ‘If you care about us, please don’t call us again.’ At that very moment, I was deprived of my basic human right to contact my loved ones.”
As the decade draws to a close, Musafir fears that she may never hear from or see her family again. She has been exiled. She said, “This decade has changed my life forever.”
As the decade wound to an end in 2019, the fear and trauma that many Turkic Muslims experienced often turned to despair and hopelessness.
For Musafir, one of the most moving moments of the year was when she watched a Vice documentary called, “They come for us at night.” She said, “It brought tears to my eyes to see my beloved home, the streets I used to walk. But it just broke my heart to see that it had become such an unimaginable police state, full of surveillance. It had been so emptied out, nothing like what I remembered. It has haunted me ever since.”
The thing that filled her with the most despair in 2019 was when an elderly Han woman on the train told the reporter Isobel Yeung, “Uyghurs should be the same as Han people, I don’t feel sorry for them.” Musafir said, “That was the moment that made me realize the majority of the Han Chinese actually believe the government’s narrative and are actively contributing to this human rights atrocity. I know it is almost impossible to change the state’s discourse without public support, and this means we have neither government support nor public support. The darkness only deepens. It made me feel more desperate about the future of humanity than I have ever felt in my life.”
In 2015, Ablikim taught me a Uyghur saying that describes the sort of obligations that friendships with Uyghurs entail: “A friend’s friendship is revealed the day tragedy befalls you” (Uy: dostning dostluqi bashqa kün chüshkende biliner). Friendship requires a friend to share in the tragedy of another. This is why friendship can be empowering. It can also mean that violence hurts most when you are not able to protect your friends from it.
On June 29, 2017, I received a final message from Ablikim: “It’s been a long time that we did not talk, I am sorry to say I had to delete all foreigners from my WeChat friends list for security reasons.” He said he had returned to his village near Kashgar because his parents had arranged for him to marry a woman from his neighborhood. Several months later, Ablikim’s friends lost touch with him. They have not heard from him since. He has simply disappeared. They are certain that Ablikim has been taken to one of the newly built reeducation camps. It is likely that he had been deemed a “pre-terrorist” because he had used a VPN to download movies, listen to music, and read unfiltered news.
In 2019, Memtimin received a similar cryptic message from an acquaintance in China. “The message said ‘your brother has passed away.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure that you are talking about my brother? He is only in his 40s.’ He replied, ‘Yes.’” As he absorbed the news, Memtimin felt lightheaded. “I found myself on the floor in my room because I had passed out. I looked at his photos again and again and I also looked at our last WeChat conversation from June 2017. I could not stop crying. I wish so badly that I could have talked to him one more time before his death.”
This decade, Ablikim and my other Turkic Muslim friends have taught me that sharing the pain of others means listening to their stories and finding ways to help them tell their stories. As the anthropologist Michael D. Jackson has argued, storytelling is a way of giving order and consistency to events, whether they are tragedies or triumphs. In personal stories, people become the main characters rather than bit players on the sidelines of social change. It is not just that stories give meaning to human lives in general, but rather, Jackson argues, they change how people “experience the events that have befallen [them] by symbolically restructuring them.” In doing this, stories give people a way of overcoming even the bleakest of circumstances and remaining the authors of their own lives. This is why Memtimin, Gulnar, and Musafir are telling their own stories and the stories of those they love, as loudly as they can.
One of Ablikim’s favorite songs is “Say Goodbye” by Norah Jones. It is a song about not pretending to still be in love, being honest, and moving on with your life. When I went to Ürümchi for the last time in 2018, I went to our table at the Turkish tea place. The song mix had changed a bit, but it was close enough to bring back the memories of our conversations about that song and evoke the horror of what has happened to him since then. His deepest fear has come true, he is no longer in control of his life. His story has been suspended by Reeducation Time. In order not to be the weird foreigner crying in the corner, I went outside and smoked two Hong He cigarettes, one for him and one for me.
For most of the past decade I have thought about the stories Ablikim told me. My friendship with him, more than anything else, is what motivates me to keep telling difficult Xinjiang stories. It is what he would do for me if our positions were reversed. I do not know if Ablikim is alive or dead, but his stories will live on.
Darren Byler’s Xinjiang Column is published on the first Wednesday of every month. Previously: