Rukiye Turdush was studying history in Shanghai in 1992 when she came across some Russian history books. They told a very different story about her people: the Uyghurs of what she calls East Turkestan, and what China calls the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in the country’s far northwest.
The Chinese had taught her that their rule of Uyghur land was “unifying,” yet as she read the Russian books Turdush discovered that East Turkestan had defended itself from Chinese dynasties for centuries, and had twice briefly formed its own republic before being claimed by China in 1949.
Turdush remembers that Uyghurs were discriminated against by the Chinese when she was growing up. “They wanted to eradicate Uyghur culture and systematically implemented this policy,” she says. While she was in Shanghai her brother was killed, one of 18 activists trying to block Chinese buses from entering Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. He was stabbed by members of a paramilitary group that ran the city, and Turdush says Urumqi’s police did nothing to investigate the murder.
In 1998, aged 28, Turdush left for Canada with her 5-month-old son. “We didn’t see any other way,” she says. “I wanted to see the world and freedom, for my son to grow up in a different world.”
The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is four times the size of California and forms the largest province in China by land area. It is home to 11.3 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs in a total population of 21.8 million.
The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China has called what is happening in Xinjiang the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.
Since the U.S. war on terror began in 2001, China has used claims of Islamic extremism to crack down on separatist movements, blaming them for a series of attacks against Chinese interests. It claims the detention camps are actually “vocational schools,” designed to defuse terrorism. Turdush…