Just another day: I pick up my phone and open Skype, scroll through my contacts until I reach the “m” section. I select “Mom” and dial the long +86 number for the 28th time since the last time I had spoken to her: April 1, 2018. The phone rings on the other end—up to 50 long seconds until it either just abruptly ends or the usually programmed voice mail responds in Chinese. “The subscriber you are trying to reach is unavailable.”
I have heard this phrase numerous times and so have the mere 1,000 Uyghur-Americans who took refuge in the land of opportunities, leaving behind a land that has placed more than two million of their peers into over 1,000 concentration camps: China.
I arrived in the United States on January 26, 2010 and was granted political asylum a few months after. What I was escaping was the possibility of being returned to Uyghur, or “officially” Xinjiang, a major geographical and cultural region in northwestern China. It was invaded in 1949, in the same manner that Tibet had been. Since the invasion, Uyghurs have maintained the Muslim culture that is bound to their national identity. In the 2000s, their nationalistic desires intensified, resulting in hundreds of protests, some turning violent. There were clear racial divides, with Han Chinese civilians and Uyghurs frequently finding themselves punching each other in the streets.
However, earlier this decade, things took a turn for the worst. The Communist Party of China announced the Belt and Road Initiative: a massive plan costing billions of dollars in which China would invest in infrastructure all over Asia to create a modern-day silk-road and other trade routes. This route would go right through Xinjiang, and Ürümqi (the capital of Uyghur). For the plan to work, they would need Xinjiang to be a peaceful place without any riots. So, what did they do?
Their solution: completely assimilate Uyghurs and strip them of their cultural identity.
That is why, starting in 2017, China built prison camps all over Xinjiang, which they claimed were “re-education camps,” to get rid of radical sentiments. These camps, according to numerous reports from major outlets such as the BBC and verified by satellite images, are the location of systematic cultural cleansing of Uyghurs. Those imprisoned are force-fed pork, forced to drink alcohol and they are subjected to more than eight hours of class time learning about the Chinese government, history and communist propaganda. Mihrigul Tursun, who testified to the conditions in the prison camps before the U.S. Congress, recalled being subjected to torture through electrocution (some were subjected to nail-pulling), and said she “begged them to kill [her].” She had slept alongside 60 women in a room that was only 430 square feet, thereby being forced to take turns each night sleeping while 15 of them had to stand to provide space. Some people had not taken a shower in over a year.
There have been numerous reports of Uyghur women being married off to Chinese officials to force integration, which is extremely worrisome given the fact that my 29-year old sister could be subjected to this practice. Officials also force themselves into homes and live with Uyghur families, commanding their daily lives to ensure they live the Communist way. More horrifically, the China Tribune has reported that the camps were also being used to harvest organs from Uyghur prisoners, that “there was a massive infrastructure development of facilities and medical personnel for organ transplant operation.” Thousands of journalists, teachers and religious leaders have been kidnapped. Testimony by Sayragul Sauytbay, who was granted asylum, states that women are routinely raped and men are sterilized. They are subjected to medical experiments. Their meals consist of a “cloudy soup and a slice of bread,” and starvation is a frequent method of punishment. These crimes are horrific, yet the international community, and even the Muslim nations, are quiet as their brothers and sisters are tortured to death daily.
Despite the awful policies of President Donald Trump, one thing he has done right is to stand up to China’s human rights violations through economic means. He has slapped visa bans on Chinese officials connected to the camps, blacklisted 28 companies that have helped create camp equipment and appointed Elnigar Iltebir, a Uyghur-American scholar, to direct the National Security Council’s China policy. America is doing something, but more must be done on an international scale.
This is not a call for sympathy. This is a call for education—to understand that in a country so many admire and tour, millions of Uyghurs are being tortured to death for the crime of being Uyghur. The most I can do for my mom, sister and everyone else in my family is to inform as many people of the humanitarian crisis going on until it stops. So many outlets, communities and more can afford to be quiet, but I cannot.
So there: be disturbed, be vigilant and share. Humanity depends on it.
Aoguzi Muhameiti is a member of the Class of 2023.