I've always been my mother's favorite. Our family used to joke that I was an only child, as if I didn't have three younger brothers. It's me that Mom turns to when she gets sad or stressed and needs to talk. She always used to say, as she got older and her health became more fragile, that her one dream was to live long enough to see me marry. I guess that's the bond you forge when you were born in a Communist re-education camp during China's Cultural Revolution.
And that is why China still uses my mother to torture me, even though I have lived in Washington, D.C., as a free Uyghur for more than 20 years. I have not seen her since 2004. I have been able to spend only 11 months — six months in California and five in Washington, D.C. — with my parents since I left China 27 years ago.
Mom was first arrested when she was about five months pregnant. She was just 19 years old at the time. Her crime: She had opened the door to some of her father's guests when they used to visit our home in the late 1960s. While the '60s were a decade of cultural upheaval in the West, in China they were an era of extreme repression, when Chairman Mao and his Red Guards were attempting what his late Russian counterpart Joseph Stalin had once described as the "engineering of human souls."
My mom's name is Ayshe. She came from an influential family. Her father had once been a fairly important official in the ministry of culture in the Second East Turkistan Republic, a short-lived and now mostly forgotten country that flourished briefly in the 1940s. It had been backed by the Soviet Union but then ceded by Stalin in post-war horse-trading to China's newly victorious Communists in 1949. The Chinese reverted its name back to Xinjiang in 1954, which in Chinese means "New Frontier," a colonial name that dates back to the mid-18th century, when generals of the Chinese Qing dynasty conquered the region to their far west, a vast area of desert oases, mountains and glacier-fed lakes.
It is a beautiful, haunting landscape: In places, it looks like the mountainous forests of California or the sculpted deserts of Arizona. In its farthest western reaches, the grasslands of Central Asia spread out as far as the eye can see, still peopled by Tajik and Kazakh herders in yurts, living the same lifestyle that Turkic tribesmen lived since before the days when the Ottoman and Seljuk Turks moved out to conquer the Middle East. Its ancient cities had been key bazaars lining the Silk Road, a crosscurrent of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Chinese cultures, where Buddhist fiefdoms slowly ceded to the eastward advance of Islam a thousand years ago. But its capital, Ürümchi, is one of the largest and most modern cities in Central Asia.
My grandfather, a jeweler by trade, used to keep up with his old contacts from those heady days of independence, and they would pay social visits to his house. This obviously marked him in the Communist Party's eyes as a highly suspect person. So he was carted off to a camp and his daughter was sent for "re-education," accused of being "intoxicated with separatist ideology." Guilty by association.
While my mother, with me in her belly, was being "educated" into the joys of Mao's workers' paradise of collectivization and labor camps that cost the lives of millions, my father, Ablikim — who had been raised in the north of what we Uyghurs still call East Turkistan — had been sent to an agricultural labor camp. A math teacher, he knew little about working in the fields from dawn till dusk. But he had cousins who, during the Chinese reannexation of our land, had ended up on the other side of the border, in the Soviet Union. By the late 1960s, China and the USSR were no longer friends. My father's crime was listed as "intoxication with Soviet ideology" and having relatives in a hostile country. And so it was, just about a year after they were married, that both my parents entered the vast Communist penal system.
The re-education camp wasn't hidden out of sight, like Stalin's gulags that had once sprawled just across the border in Siberia. In fact, this one was in downtown Kashgar, in an old Soviet-era government building, a brutalist slab of early 20th century concrete whose windows were boarded up to prevent inmates from seeing more than thin cracks of sunlight.
In these gloomy confines, I came into the world in 1970. Food was scarce and my mother suffered terribly, both physically — there was little nutrition for anyone, let alone the mother of a newborn baby — and mentally due to her worry over me. She wasn't quite sure what she had done to offend the rulers in Beijing, but she could see quite clearly the effects of her incarceration on her baby. I was badly malnourished because she was malnourished. When she tried to breastfeed me, almost no milk came out and she would cry in pain. I was a scrawny infant, lacking calcium and vitamin D because so little sunlight came into the prison. The only times she was allowed outside were for the raising of the red flag at dawn and the singing of songs about the glory of Chairman Mao at sunset, after eating the scraps that passed for dinner.
Between those tiny cracks in the boarded-up window, she could just steal glimpses of Kashgar, a city that was already a trading post on the Silk Road 2,000 years ago. The onetime desert oasis now blended timeless markets and twisting alleyways with modernist monstrosities like the one she was trapped inside. If you have ever seen the movie The Kite Runner, then you have seen old Kashgar, before the authorities knocked it down and built a new Disneyland-like heritage site to attract tourists and spy on the residents: Kabul was considered too dangerous to shoot the movie in, so Kashgar became the Afghan capital's stunt double. Every day, her mother would stand in the street outside the prison, hoping to catch a glimpse of her and the new grandchild she had never laid eyes on and praying for some sign they were both still alive. And somewhere out there, beyond the city limits, was her husband, a man 12 years older than her whom she had met at a university dance just a year or so before.
My father came from the town of Ghulja in the north, near the border with Kazakhstan, a more European part of the country where the Soviet influence had taken greater hold than in the more conservative and religious south, where my mother hailed from. My father was the son of a famous Uyghur dancer who was known across the country, the way a celebrated tango dancer might be known in Argentina at the time. Dad was a good dancer and had been brought by authorities to Kashgar as part of a move to integrate Uyghur intellectuals from the north into the ancient city of Kashgar, once a hub for scholars, merchants, and artists but now a conservative, traditional town.
As a young high school teacher, he was showing off his ballroom dancing skills at an event when my mother, then only 18, caught his eye. She had fair skin and light brown eyes, and Dad was immediately smitten. He asked her to dance, but she was too intimidated by his fancy footwork, his suit, and his tie. So instead, she offered to hold his coat while he danced with another young lady. But my father has always been a persuasive man and was determined to dance with her. Eventually, she relented, and a romance quickly blossomed.
Even though they were from different parts of the country, their parents shared a connection: His mother and her father, who was also a musician, worked in cultural affairs such as performing Uyghur music and dance to various audiences including the soldiers in the East Turkistan Republic Army. Despite the age difference, her parents were happy with the match, and in 1969 — three years after Mao declared his Cultural Revolution — they were married. By September 1970, when I was born, they were both behind bars. Sadly, thousands of Uyghur children, if not millions, are in a similar situation today as I was 50 years ago.
Weakened by hunger and nursing a scrawny newborn, my mother — still only 19 at the time — had a hard time surviving in what was, despite its euphemistic title of "re-education center," a prison camp. One of the guards was a Uyghur woman, a party loyalist who had taken a particular dislike to the pregnant young inmate. She used to beat her frequently, even hitting her across her swollen belly. This woman would kick her and call her a whore for marrying an older man, and repeating the absurd, trumped-up accusations against my father. Mom was terrified she would miscarry and lose her first child. But she was young and strong, and that's what saw her through. Then one day, just weeks before she was due to give birth, she fell down a flight of steps, weak and dizzy from hunger. Her ankle and hip bone were fractured. When she finally gave birth to me, her hip bone was still broken, her body in a cast from the waist down.
When I was about five months old, we were released from prison. We had both survived, but my mother never made a full physical recovery. When I was growing up, on cold winter days she'd struggle to find a comfortable position to sit in the evenings as we gathered around the coal stove in our living room. When we went out walking in Kashgar, I would notice her limp as we walked downtown. We would often pass the building where I'd been born. She'd point up at a second-floor window and say, "That's the one, that's where we were locked up."
It was hard to miss the building: It loomed over the entrance of the old bazaar where two of my uncles had shops selling Chinese products to tourists from Central Asia. At weekends I would help them out in their stores and would pass the place where I was born. As I got closer to my teen years, my mother would tell me about how I was barely able to open my eyes when she was allowed to take me outside, because I was so accustomed to living in the gloom of the prison.
This is an excerpt of No Escape: The True Story of China's Genocide of the Uyghurs (Hanover Square Press, May 10, 2022), available for purchase here or wherever books are sold.