The author’s identity has been kept anonymous for safety reasons.
Starting in 2017, the Uyghur community living in China has been subject to increased targeting and indiscriminate imprisonment by the Chinese authorities. This policy of racial and religious profiling has led many young Uyghurs to leave China or stay in exile, chiefly in Europe. The 11 million Uyghurs in the western region of Xinjiang in China are a Muslim Turkic nation that has been targeted by Beijing more systematically since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Widely portrayed as ‘motherland separatists’ or simply ‘terrorists’ in mainstream Chinese discourse – including government statements and the media – Uyghurs have been deprived of their most basic human rights, including freedom of religion, movement, and of using their native language.
The persecution of Uyghurs takes different forms, ranging from imprisonment, often with heavy sentences of over 10 years, and more recently, internment in camps where, according to many different testimonies and sources, over 1 million Uyghurs – and other Muslim minorities — are detained. Given the secrecy surrounding these internment camps, the fact that China presents them as ‘vocational training centers, exact numbers are difficult to come by, but hundreds and possibly thousands of people are believed to have died in detention. More detailed information is available in the Shahit Xinjiang Victims Database.
Global Voices interviewed Abdurehim Gheni, a 43-year-old native of Aksu prefecture in the south of Xinjiang. Gheni currently lives in the Netherlands, and in June 2018 started a regular solo protest in central Amsterdam.
The interview was conducted over the phone in Uyghur and edited for brevity.
Losing contact with family members
Abdurehim Gheni is an educated man: he graduated from university and later worked as a chemistry teacher in his hometown of Aksu for a couple of years. But due to discrimination against Uyghurs he moved abroad and has been living in the Netherlands since 2007.
The last time Abdurehim met members of his family was in 2014 in Turkey. This does not sound so long ago, but it feels like a different time altogether. Briefly, around 2014, the Chinese authorities eased up the measures Uyghurs were subject to. It was relatively easy for them to receive passports for international travel, something that had always been difficult for those without the right connections. But this apparent relaxation ended abruptly for Gheni on May 23, 2017, as he tells Global Voices:
Since that day I have lost contact with all my relatives in China. Before I could always contact them by phone. May was the fasting month of Ramadan, so I tried to call everybody back home, but strangely, no one picked up. At first I thought they were all busy because of the festivities. At last my father answered the phone. He said: “Don’t call us again. Just take care of yourself and your children.” Then after a few days I got a text message from my brother in which he wrote “You must not call us again! Don’t contact us under any circumstances!” I was so confused. We didn’t know anything about the camps or the intensified crackdown on the Uyghurs by the authorities. By the end of the year, we had heard about the camps, and from 2018 bad news just kept coming, each new piece of information worse than the last.
There has been no news at all about the 17 missing family members of Abdurehim Gheni, and he fears the worst:
Did the Chinese regime kill them all? I´m missing my father, stepmother, my brothers, my sisters in law and their children, my wife’s siblings. They are all ordinary people, law-abiding citizens. My father is a retired bank manager, my older brother a businessman, and my younger brother used to work for the government at the Water Agency in our hometown in Aksu prefecture.
Creative activism: solo protest
Known in Russia as the one-person demonstration (because of local legislation requiring police authorization for demonstrations involving more than one person), the solo protest is less known in Western Europe, but this is how Gheni decided to speak out about his family and the fate of thousands of other Uyghurs who have lost contact with their relatives in Xinjiang.
As he explains, he first joined an Uyghur rally in Amsterdam, chanting anti-China slogans. But as he recalls:
I noticed that of the bystanders, no one came up to ask us who we were or what we were demonstrating for. It seemed like no one cared, and that we were just doing this for ourselves. Some time later, I saw a man standing all by himself on Dam square, with signs and folders to raise awareness of the Palestinian issue. I saw people coming up to him to talk and ask questions. I did the same, and got to know him. This way I realized that a dialogue seemed like the best way for me to raise awareness of how the Chinese regime is oppressing Uyghurs, including my family.
Since June 23, 2018, Gheni has been solo protesting every week-end until the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Netherlands in spring 2020. He started his protest again on July 13, as can be seen in his Facebook video, and has attracted new supporters, including diplomats:
Today, the US ambassador in the Netherlands, Mr. Pete Hoekstra, met with Uighurs in the Netherlands to hear about the…
Posted by Abdurehim Gheni Uyghur on Wednesday, July 15, 2020
As he says, he is not alone anymore: “I have talked to a lot of people that had never heard of the Uyghurs before. A couple of them now join me on the square to protest.”
Gheni is determined to maintain high visibility: he has written letters to the reigning king of the Netherlands, the country’s prime minister and foreign minister, asking for help to find information on his family’s whereabouts. He has also posted a video on the Shahit Xinjiang Victims Database site (with English subtitles):
Gheni concludes: “I know that if I was still living in China, I would likely be detained in a camp, sent to prison, or even dead by now. But I was lucky enough to be living abroad. So as I see it, I have this chance to be the voice of the voiceless.”