Nearly a decade ago, while pursuing my Master’s degree at the University of Frankfurt in Germany, I became accustomed to spending most of my time in the library; I inhabited it from the early morning until late at night. While tiring, my extended time there afforded me the good fortune of coming across and getting to know one of the brightest individuals I have ever met: my Uyghur friend, Nurali.
I had previously seen Nurali serval times at the student dormitory where I lived, but we never really spoke. I was new to Frankfurt and had few friends, but I was interested in getting to know serious students, who could motivate me and from whom I could learn. It was on an unassuming morning that I saw Nurali during my break in the library, and decided to finally greet him with a simple “hello.” With a delighted look, Nurali greeted me back, and we began to build a friendship almost immediately. After introducing ourselves to one another, we both wondered at how long it had taken us to speak, given the frequency with which we crossed paths in the library (and even at the dormitory).
It was during this initial, brief chat that I heard for the first time about the Uyghur people—a persecuted Muslim minority of Turkic origin that lives in the Xinjiang region in China. Nurali told me about the distressing history of the Uyghurs and their life under the Chinese government. When I asked him how many “hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs” lived in China, he responded, with a smile, that there were “over 20 million.” I felt shocked and embarrassed, but even more curious to learn about these surprising people.
After spending more time with Nurali, I realized I had met perhaps the most polite, decent, benevolent, generous, and kind person I had ever known. In a short period, the library had become a place where I not only studied, but also went to spend time with my best friend, Nurali. During almost every break, and during virtually every weekend, Nurali and I would meet, often for tea. We even traveled together to other cities in Germany. I still remember our wonderful journey to Heidelberg, where we walked for hours around the old castle.
On top of educating me about the politics, culture, and history of his hometown, Nurali used to bring me Uyghur food—a most wonderful culinary experience. After staying for long hours in the library, we used to go home and cook together. Through this direct and intimate experience, I discovered some of my favorite Uyghur foods, such as Polo and Lagman.
I was extremely sad when Nurali left Germany in 2012. I took him to the airport, all the while wishing he could stay. Still, we stayed in contact. One year later, in 2013, Nurali received his PhD and became a lecturer at Xinjiang Normal University. That was the same year I moved to Turkey. We continued to email each other and communicate on Skype—he even promised to visit me in Istanbul. Starting in late 2014, however, I suddenly stopped hearing from Nurali. I wrote him many times, and attempted to call him too, but never received a response. Around this time, Nurali’s Facebook and Twitter accounts also disappeared. I remembered wondering to myself, “why is Nurali not making any effort to reach out to me?” I would continue to contemplate this question, sometimes feeling upset and often worried by his silence.
On the morning of Thursday, November 22, 2018, I finally heard from—or rather, about—Nurali. His name appeared to me, like a bullet in the chest, in a document titled “List of Uyghur intellectuals imprisoned in China from 2016 to the present.” I immediately understood why I had not heard from Nurali for so long: he was one of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Uyghur Muslims who had been interned in concentration camps by the Chinese government.
I have been incredibly sad and frustrated to learn about my friend’s fate. As with other Uyghur prisoners in these concentration camps, there is no real way to know what Nurali’s condition is. Is he alive? Is he dead? Is he being tortured? Is he in good health? The inability to know is numbing.
Nurali is a very talented, peaceful, and tolerant person, and is, in fact, a-political; I cannot imagine he would harm anyone. There is simply nothing Nurali could have done to justify the massive injustice and discrimination committed against him by the Chinese government. Nor can I understand how the Uyghur people (or any people) themselves could merit the punishment being meted out by the Chinese.
Reading about the concentration camps is horrible and shocking. Various reports have documented the unbearable psychological pressures placed on detainees, leading some Uyghurs, sadly, to commit suicide. In these camps, Uyghurs are forced to denounce Islam, adopt atheism, and even pledge allegiance to the Chinese state. They are forced to listen, repeat, and embrace communist party propaganda. Detainees are denied medical treatment and are tortured, often to the point of death. They are not even given suitable clothing to endure the freezing night temperatures. As reported by The Independent, Riam Thum, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, has said these camps “echo some of the worst human rights violations in history.”
China claims its concentration camps are “vocational training centers,” and are meant to prevent “acts of terrorism.” But if this were true, why won’t China allow international human rights organizations to visit or report on these “vocational” and “educational” centers? Why is the media not allowed to conduct independent investigations about what is happening in Xinjiang?
I am not an expert on China or its politics. I am simply a man deeply concerned about his old friend—a friend who may or may not still be alive. Like many other Uyghurs who are unable to obtain information about their imprisoned friends and family members, I am stuck between hoping Nurali will be released and praying upon his soul, as if he has already passed.