Otkur’s Story

Otkur* grew up in the countryside, in a valley surrounded by mountains, about 200 km from Ghulja city. His childhood was distinctly rural; there was no TV, no telephone and no car – every Sunday the family travelled by horse drawn cart to do their shopping. The village had long, freezing winters, and the two thousand-metre altitudes meant it remained cold even during the summer months. 

Otkur’s village was multi-ethnic; populated by Uyghurs, who formed the majority, as well as Kazakhs, Mongols and a few Chinese families. There were some strong cultural and religious differences; Otkur remembers being unsettled by the Mongolian sky burial sites he came across as a child whilst grazing the family sheep. Despite this, the distinct ethnic groups were socially close.

Even as a child, Otkur felt a sense of injustice at the way his people were treated by the Chinese state. His family members, especially those that had lived through the Cultural Revolution, warned him to keep quiet about his political views. But when his father’s friends came to the house, their inhibitions lowered by Chinese rice wine, their dissatisfaction would slip out and Otkur’s ears would perk up. Then, when Otkur was around 12 years old, he found a banned book written by a Uyghur historian. A classmate’s father, who was also a government official, had hidden it in his library. Otkur and his friends found the book and shared and discussed it between them. Otkur knew that reading a true account of his people’s history was a privilege many of his peers would never enjoy.

After completing secondary school Otkur was accepted to University in Beijing. He was the first Uyghur from his county to be admitted, and his entire first-year tuition fees were donated by family and friends from his hometown. After the obligatory two-year Chinese language course all non-Han students were forced to complete, Otkur studied physics for four years in mainland China. He was shocked that so few of his Uyghur classmates at University questioned the repressive status quo. Otkur’s village, close to the Kazakhstan border, was also home to Tartars that had escaped Russia. Most of them were educators and intellectuals, which he thinks contributed to a general culture of questioning state propaganda.

When Otkur graduated from University he struggled to find work and decided instead to study abroad in the hope it would make him more employable when he returned. In the early 2000s he travelled to Germany where he completed a Master’s and a PhD, and then a few years later he came to the UK to complete another degree.

“His mother picked up the phone and asked him to stop contacting them.  She said ‘I know you’re good, you know we’re good.  We have to do it this way.'”

During a visit to the region in 2015, Otkur heard that more Uyghurs were being arrested, including a few from his own village. His friends and family were not too concerned because it was only very religious people at risk. Only the relatives of those that had been taken with no explanation were alarmed. 

The following year Otkur decided to skip the visit home; he was still single and didn’t want to face questions from his family about when he was going to find a wife. Now he looks back and sees that this decision changed the course of his life. Had he gone back in 2016 his passport would have been confiscated and he would likely still be trapped in the region now.

Towards the end of 2016, Otkur’s friends and classmates started disappearing from his WeChat. Then rumours reached him of the arrests; he heard of friends that had been taken, or others that had returned home and then weren’t allowed to leave.

Otkur used to call his family every Sunday. This came to a sharp halt in the second half of 2017 when his mother picked up the phone and asked him to stop contacting them. She said, “I know you’re good, you know we’re good, we have to do it this way.” The emotion in her voice painted her face in Otkur’s imagination. He knew that she felt helpless.

The next time Otkur had contact with his family was a few years later, when his sister added him on WeChat. She told him that they were asking when he was going to return to the region. He knew instantly that they were CCP Officers. The police later visited Otkur’s family home and sent him videos of his parents. He felt angry and violated, but also anxious for his loved ones’ safety. He knew that this was deliberate intimidation; the Chinese government telling him to ‘keep his mouth shut.’ Hanging over these calls was the omnipresent threat of his family being sent into the region’s labyrinth of concentration camps.

“Otkur stood on the Kazakh side of the Ile Valley and saw his homeland on the other side, and he cried.”

Otkur now lives in the UK, working as an academic. He is a British citizen and enjoys his life here, but he misses home. Most of all he misses his family. He says that if he could sit with his parents for a few minutes, even in silence, he would be the happiest man in the world. He also misses his homeland, the smell of his country, the way the trees look and the spectacular landscape. Otkur realises that a lot of what he loves about his country will have been destroyed now – the sacred cultural sites, historic mosques and cemeteries.

Recently Otkur visited Kazakhstan, where he still has relatives that stayed on the Kazakh side when the border was drawn. Otkur stood on the Kazakh side of the Ile Valley and saw his homeland on the other side, and he cried. He thought about how his ancestors had struggled, how one Uyghur generation followed by another had been terrorised on that border. He thought about how still, on that day, Uyghurs were enduring some of the worst persecution they had ever known. 

While Otkur was in Kazakhstan, he also saw a few Uyghur villages. He saw people living in the traditional Uyghur way, speaking their language and practicing their religion. It reminded him that his culture is still breathing and growing from exile.


*Our interviewee’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity

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