My name is Rahima Mahmut, I was born in Ghulja, near the Kazakhstan border, and I am from a large Muslim family. After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, there was a time of relative freedom for Uyghurs, mosques re-opened, and there was the gradual reinstatement of religion and culture for them and other ethnic groups. However, after 1989 and the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests there was widespread discrimination against Uyghurs in all aspects of their daily lives. On February 5th 1997, people in my home town of Ghulja took to the streets protesting against the Chinese government’s policies against Uyghur people, demanding religious and cultural freedom, and equality. As usual, the government crushed the peaceful demonstrators with military force where hundreds were killed, thousands were arrested and mass executions followed. It was heart-breaking to witness the helplessness and despair felt by my people. Many of my relatives and family friends were arrested and later sentenced to long prison sentences. 

In 2000, I came to the UK to study and have lived here ever since. For the past 18 years, I have been unable to return to see my family and my beloved homeland due to speaking out against the human rights violations imposed on my people by the Chinese government. In 2013, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, I asked my sister to come here, as I had no close family to take care of me in England, but her application was refused even with a doctor’s letter stating that I had malignant cancer.

I lost my mother the same year while I was fighting my own battle, the only comfort I had was being able to speak to my family. However, this was cut short at the beginning of 2017. For about a month, I tried to contact my family, but no one would answer my calls. One day I rang my eldest brother non-stop until he finally picked up the phone. I asked him why no one was answering, he replied: “They did the right thing, we are fine, please leave us in God’s hands, and we will leave you in God’s hands too.” He said in a trembling voice. I said nothing as I understood the fear and the emotional blackmail imposed on them. And that was my last contact with my family. Up until today, I don’t know if they are safe or detained in re-education camps.

  Rahima with her mother. 

Not long after I spoke to my brother, news about the mass detention of people in so-called re-education camps started to emerge. The gruesome details of how people have been targeted and criminalised under the guise of cracking down on religious extremism, whereas in fact it applies to all ordinary practicing Muslims. I have spoken to many Uyghur people in this country, and none of them have been able to contact their relatives back home for over a year, many of them have heard from other sources that a number of their family members are in re-education camps. There are also people who have not heard about the death of a family member until 1 or 2 months later. When calling home to express their condolences, their families are too frightened to speak to them. 

Radio Free Asia recently reported that, according to local police, the number of deaths in a re-education camp from one village alone was 26. Also, an eyewitness, released recently from a re-education camp in return for his father agreeing to act as a spy in Germany, reported on the overcrowded and inhumane conditions he encountered. 70 people shared a room less than 70 square meters. Only 15 people could sleep at a time. They would strip off their clothing to keep cool and stand near a vent to breathe fresh air for five minutes at a time. They would only be allowed to wash once a fortnight, with such unhygienic conditions everyone suffered from lice and skin diseases.

Those of us living overseas are very concerned by news of the building of crematoria in all regions and cremating those that have died in prison and re-education camps without informing the families. Another problem is children whose parents have been sent to re-education camps and have no one to look after them so they are being placed in orphanages regionally or elsewhere in mainland China. This has been treated as a state secret as their actual whereabouts are unknown. This is causing great anxiety and worry for the exile community.

From my own experience, although I am living in a free country, my mind is not free from the atrocities that are occurring to my people and country. I am here today not asking for sympathy for myself but for action to be implemented to save the Uyghur people from eradication.

Bio: Rahima Mahmut is a London-based Uyghur singer, award-winning translator, and human rights activist. This is an edited version of a personal testimony given on July 2, 2018 at a UK Parliamentary Roundtable, on Increased Repression and Forced Assimilation in Xinjiang.

Banner photo: The house where Rahima grew up in Ghulja, Xinjiang. Photos courtesy of Rahima Mahmut.