One by One,
My Friends Were Sent
to the Camps

  • By Tahir Hamut Izgil

  • July 14, 2021

Introduction by Joshua L. Freeman

If you took an Uber in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago, there was a chance your driver was one of the greatest living Uyghur poets. Tahir Hamut Izgil arrived with his family in the United States in 2017, fleeing the Chinese government’s merciless persecution of his people. Tahir’s escape not only spared him near-certain internment in the camps that have swallowed more than 1 million Uyghurs; it also allowed him to share with the world his experience of the calamity engulfing his homeland. The following articles are Tahir’s firsthand account of one of the world’s most urgent humanitarian crises, and of one family’s survival.

Before I met Tahir, I knew his poems. I encountered them soon after I began working as a translator in Xinjiang, the Uyghur region in western China. A close friend there kept telling me that if I really wanted to understand Uyghur culture, I had to read the poetry. Like many Americans, I rarely felt drawn to poetry, but one day, another friend put a sheaf of Tahir’s verses in my hand. Poetry had never affected me so deeply.

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For Uyghurs, poetry is not merely the province of writers and intellectuals. It is woven into daily life—dropped into conversation, shared on social media, written between lovers. Through poetry, Uyghurs confront issues as a community, whether debating gender roles or defying state repression. I wake up many mornings to an inbox full of fresh verse, sent by the far-flung poets of the Uyghur diaspora for me to translate.

Influence and eminence in the Uyghur community are often tied to poetry as well. Ask Uyghurs to name 10 prominent Uyghurs, and several will be poets. Ask Uyghur intellectuals to name the most important Uyghur thinkers and writers, and Tahir’s name might well come up.

When I met Tahir in early 2008, his presence struck me much as his work had. His gaze was intense, his speech forceful and precise.

The son of dairy farmers, Tahir had grown up in a village outside Kashgar; the rhythms and folkways of Uyghur village life remain a wellspring for his poetry. He was born in 1969, during the Cultural Revolution, but came of age as an era of economic and cultural liberalization was dawning in the 1980s. The dreary, politicized poetry of the Mao years was giving way to an efflorescence of new genres, styles, and themes. When Tahir published his first poem, while still in high school, he was joining a literary scene very much in ferment.

At college in Beijing, Tahir learned Mandarin, in part by reading Chinese translations of Freud. He then moved on to Western poetry; for a while, the Chinese edition of Wallace Stevens’s selected poems rarely left his side. It was a heady time, as he and other Uyghur students in Beijing formed groups to discuss their reading and to push forward in their own literary efforts.

It was also a tumultuous period in China’s capital. A new generation, unwilling to accept the tepid pace of reform, was demanding democratic rights and an end to corruption. As a sophomore, Tahir helped organize hunger strikes and marches during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

After college, Tahir worked in Beijing before taking a position teaching Mandarin in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. All the while, he continued writing poetry. In 1996, he left Urumqi with the hope of studying abroad in Turkey but was arrested while attempting to leave China. Following a confession elicited under torture, he was imprisoned for three years, first in a facility near Urumqi and then in a forced-labor camp outside Kashgar, on charges of intent to expose state secrets. Conditions were harsh, and his weight fell below 100 pounds.

After his release, Tahir had to begin his life again, only now with a black mark against his name. The next year, he began working in film production, and by the early 2000s he had established himself as a significant and highly original director.

Perhaps because of his experiences, Tahir saw what was coming earlier than most. One night in late 2016, we had dinner with several other friends. Afterward, Tahir offered to drive me home. Instead of setting off, though, we sat in his car in the empty parking lot and continued talking. In a city where the walls have ears, this was a good place for a private conversation.

We discussed the worsening political situation in Xinjiang, and he asked in some detail about life in the U.S. I sensed it was time to talk about something we had never discussed before. “Are you thinking about moving to America?”

He looked me straight in the eyes. “Yes.”

The following year, reports of mass arrests and internment camps began trickling out of Xinjiang. Although I had left by then, I could see for myself that something serious was happening. One by one, my closest friends began deleting me from their phone contacts, as communication with individuals abroad became a pretext for arrest.

Tahir stayed in touch longer than most. In late June, he sent me a voice message. “In May the weather here got really bad,” he told me, using the typical Uyghur circumlocution for political repression. We exchanged a few messages.

And then, silence. Those were the last messages I ever received from any of my friends in the Uyghur region.

In the months that followed, the news from Xinjiang grew darker. As the dimensions of the crisis came into focus, I thought constantly about everyone I knew there, especially Tahir, given his past as a political prisoner. But I had no way to know if he was all right; I had no way to know if anyone was all right.

In late August 2017, I received word from a mutual acquaintance that Tahir was preparing to leave China—something that by then had become dangerous and difficult for Uyghurs. I held my breath, not daring to contact him until he was safely out of the country. Then another friend gave me an American phone number and told me it was Tahir’s. I called.

He picked up. Tinchliqmu? “How have you been?” We greeted each other as usual. Then I asked where he was. When he replied that he was in Washington with his family, relief washed over me. After months of relentlessly grim news from Xinjiang, this felt like a miracle.

Tahir and his family are now in the midst of the asylum application process. A few years passed before Tahir was ready to set down his experiences in writing. Once he began, it poured out of him. He sent me new entries faster than I could translate. The articles that follow comprise one man’s recounting of the political, social, and cultural destruction of his homeland—corroborated by The Atlantic’s fact-checkers, who contacted others intimately familiar with these details, and who reviewed personal documentation, reports from the press and human-rights organizations, and similar eyewitness testimonies collated by the Xinjiang Victims Database. Aside from Tahir’s immediate family and a few other individuals, names and identifying details have been changed to protect those mentioned from state retribution.

Among the galaxy of talented Uyghur writers in Xinjiang, Tahir is to my knowledge the only one who has escaped China since the mass internments began. His account combines a poet’s power of expression with a clear eye for the moral ambiguity found in even the most extreme circumstances. While the system of state terror in Xinjiang is orchestrated by an inhuman bureaucracy, the individuals running that system—and those crushed by that system—are human in full, and their complexity is present throughout Tahir’s narrative.

The world revealed by that narrative is one we all must grapple with. The Chinese government’s war on its Uyghur minority is new, but the tools it employs are familiar. State repression in Xinjiang relies on weaponized social media, computer algorithms that monitor and predict behavior, and an array of high-tech surveillance technology, much of it developed in the West. Islamophobic discourses that gathered strength in the U.S. have been central to China’s efforts to justify its Xinjiang policies, while Western corporations have been implicated in supply chains reaching back to forced labor in the Uyghur region. Soon, the world will need to decide whether the 2022 Winter Olympics should be held in Beijing, a city where officials are actively orchestrating concentration camps.

Over the course of a decade, I enjoyed innumerable dinners in Urumqi with Tahir and our friends, writers and intellectuals with whom we would talk deep into the night. The richness and vibrancy of this milieu can be glimpsed even amid the tragedy coursing through these memoirs: the shopkeeper lovingly translating Bertrand Russell as the threat of arrest draws closer; the novelist whose irrepressible sense of humor leavens the unfolding atrocity.

Every one of these individuals could testify eloquently to the ongoing crisis—if they could speak to us. But they cannot: The persecution of the past several years has silenced their voices, at least for now. It is for them, and for countless unknown others, that Tahir shares his story with the world.

Part 1

The Police-Station Basement

‎ساقچىخانىنىڭ يەر ئاستى ئۆيى 派出所的地下室

On a Saturday morning in May 2017, my wife, my daughters, and I piled into the car and headed to Turpan, a nearby city, to relax for the weekend. The winter cold still hadn’t left Urumqi, and we were hoping a couple of days enjoying the warm spring weather in Turpan would be good for us.

On long car trips, we usually passed the time with conversation. But it was hard to talk about anything besides what was happening.

The Chinese government’s mass internment of Uyghurs was in full swing. This campaign had begun in Kashgar, Khotan, and other predominantly Uyghur parts of southern Xinjiang. Now it had reached Urumqi, the regional capital, where our acquaintances were regularly disappearing. Every day, hundreds of Uyghurs who had moved here over the decades—finding work, starting families, buying houses, coming to consider themselves locals—had been shipped out to concentration camps known as “study centers.” Nearly everyone I knew from the labor camp where I’d been imprisoned two decades earlier had already been rearrested. My turn would clearly come soon.


Human-rights groups, academics, and multiple governments contend that China has interned more than 1 million Uyghurs, along with thousands of individuals from other Muslim minority groups, and undertaken a campaign of forced sterilization against Uyghur women. The U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands have officially recognized the crisis as a genocide. Beijing rejects these charges, insisting that Uyghurs are voluntarily undergoing “reeducation” at the camps.

Surveillance technology, already ubiquitous in our city, had become even more sophisticated and invasive. Police were everywhere. I had spent hours cleaning my phone of pictures, videos, audio recordings, and even instant-message records—anything that authorities might seize on as “evidence.”

I wanted to leave the country, but my wife, Merhaba, was reluctant. In 16 years of marriage, we had confronted all manner of difficulties. We had bought an apartment, raised two kids, and started our own film-production company, small though it was. It hadn’t been all that long since we’d established ourselves, but we were finally doing well. Merhaba cherished our way of life and had no desire to leave her relatives and friends. “Things can’t get that bad,” she would say. “God help us. We haven’t done anything they could arrest us for.”

It is not an easy thing to leave your homeland in your 40s and start life anew. Although we had never spoken openly about it, we both knew that if we left, we might never be able to return.

Our two girls, who had long since tired of these endless discussions, had fallen asleep in the back seat. To our right, below the Heavenly Mountains, Salt Lake shone like a giant mirror tossed into the desert.

My cellphone rang through the car speakers. It was an unknown number. Everyone now feared unknown numbers.

“Hello. Is this Mr. Tahir Hamut?” It sounded like a young Uyghur woman.

“Yes, speaking.”

“This is Güljan, from the neighborhood committee.”


In China’s cities, the neighborhood committee is the Chinese Communist Party’s lowest-level governing organ.

She was calling because the police station was collecting fingerprints from anyone who had been abroad, and that meant they wanted ours. I offered to come by on Monday morning.

“I’m sure it will be crowded in the morning. Why don’t you come at two in the afternoon?”

“All right. Seems like you’re working even over the weekend?”

“Yes, we’ve been working weekends for a while.”


Our weekend in Turpan passed under a cloud of anxiety. As hard as Merhaba and I tried to enjoy ourselves, we couldn’t put our appointment out of our minds.

“They don’t want anything else besides our fingerprints, right?” she asked. By “anything else,” she meant whether we would be sent to “study.”

The word from Kashgar was that the wave of arrests there had been so expansive that all existing detention facilities in the city—police-station lockups, prisons, holding centers, labor camps, drug-detox stations—were quickly overwhelmed. Schools and government offices had been repurposed as “study centers” and hastily outfitted with iron doors, window bars, and barbed wire. Rumors spread that outside the city, construction was proceeding rapidly on multiple new internment facilities, each meant to house tens of thousands. Fear reigned. Everyone could only hope that all this “study” would in fact last, as the government said, a matter of months.

On Monday, Merhaba and I made our way to the police station. From the window of a small guardhouse by the gate, a middle-aged Uyghur guard recorded our names, ethnicities, ID numbers, address, and purpose of visit. Then he waved us through.

We stepped inside the police station, and a young Han Chinese police officer stationed at a desk in the front hall sent us down to the basement, pointing us to a door at the top of a stairwell.


China is home to an array of ethnicities, but the Han make up the overwhelming majority of the country’s people, and its leadership. Even in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, most positions of responsibility are held by Han.

My heart skipped a beat. Three years earlier, I had come to this same police station to take care of some passport paperwork for my wife and daughters. After combing through our family’s digital files, an officer had prepared a statement in Chinese affirming that my wife and daughters had no criminal records, were not among the “seven kinds of people prohibited from traveling abroad,” had not participated in the 2009 violence in Urumqi, and were eligible for passports.


In June 2009, Uyghur employees at a factory in eastern China were lynched by Han co-workers after baseless rumors circulated that Uyghurs there had raped a Han woman. These events sparked protests in Urumqi, which began peacefully but turned violent following police suppression. The riots left at least 197 dead and marked a turning point in the Chinese state’s treatment of Uyghurs.

The application forms needed to be signed by the police station’s deputy chief for national security. Standing in this very hall, a Han police officer had told me to wait, as the deputy chief was questioning someone in the basement. I took a seat on an iron bench in the corridor. Soon, I heard a man’s voice crying out wretchedly. I shuddered. The officer on duty hurried over and shut the metal door leading down to the basement. Typically, stairwells didn’t have doors like this. It was clear that this police station had constructed an interrogation chamber.

Now my wife and I had to walk through that metal doorway, down the stairs to the basement. At the bottom was a corridor about 20 meters long. On the left were three cells, metal bars separating them from the corridor. The cells’ doors were open, and they were unoccupied. In the first stood a heavy iron chair. Along the walls, iron rings were affixed to the concrete floor; I figured these were for shackling people. In the middle were what could only be faded bloodstains.

On the right was a row of offices. When we entered the basement, two other couples were waiting their turn. Before long, about 20 other people, nearly all middle-aged Uyghurs, had lined up behind us. What I saw on their faces was worry and confusion.

When our turn came, we entered the second office. Güljan, from our neighborhood committee, was waiting for us. She had us sign a registry. In addition to our fingerprints, she now said that they would also be taking blood samples, voice samples, and facial images. My wife looked at me anxiously.

Nearly everyone I knew from the labor camp where I’d been imprisoned two decades earlier had already been rearrested. My turn would clearly come soon.

Clumsily preparing to take our blood samples were a young Uyghur woman, likely from the neighborhood committee, and a young Uyghur man, an assistant police officer. The woman rubbed alcohol on my index finger, then the man drew blood with a needle. She held out a white plastic container the size of a matchbox while he dripped the blood from my finger onto a sponge in the container. Then she sealed the container, wrote my name in Chinese characters on the label affixed to the lid, and wrote my ID number below my name.

In the next room, three computers had been set up on a big table. One was being used to take voice samples, one to take fingerprints, and the third to take facial images. In front of each computer was stationed a Uyghur woman, brought in temporarily from another government department.

On the table were two copies of the Urumqi Evening Gazette, one in Uyghur, one in Chinese. The technician responsible for voice samples pointed to the newspapers. “Read for two minutes without pause. I’ll give you a signal when two minutes are up.” I picked up the Uyghur paper, opened to the second page, and began reading a news item on relations between the United States and North Korea. The technician recorded my voice and saved the file.

I then placed my hands one at a time on a fingerprint scanner, fingers splayed. After that, one by one, I placed each finger of my right hand and then each finger of my left hand on the scanner. To ensure that all of the fingerprints were fully recorded, I was told to roll each fingertip slowly over the scanner. If a scan did not meet the computer’s requirements, the system would reject it, and the technician would instruct me to press my finger to the scanner again.

I had given fingerprints a number of times in my life. But I had never seen or heard of a fingerprinting process as exhaustive as the one I underwent in the police-station basement.

Now it was time for facial imaging. On the other side of the office stood a camera, with a chair facing it. A Han police assistant instructed me to take a seat. He walked over to the camera and adjusted the tripod so the lens was level with my face.

Getty; Adam Ferriss

By then, I had been a film director for 18 years. I had seen and used cameras of all shapes and sizes. After the 2009 violence in Urumqi, surveillance equipment had been installed on every corner of the city. But this camera was unlike any I had seen: Running from one end to the other was a flat lens about three centimeters high and 20 centimeters long.

The woman operating the computer explained what I was to do. When she gave me a signal, I needed to look straight at the camera, then turn my head slowly and steadily to the right. I was then to turn at the same speed back to face the camera. Then I had to turn my head fully to the left, and back again to face the camera. At the same slow, steady speed, I was then to tilt my head back and look up, then to look straight at the camera. After that, I had to tilt my head down at the same speed and look toward the floor, and then to return to the original position. Finally, I was to slowly and completely open my mouth and hold that position. After I closed my mouth and looked steadily at the camera, my facial scan would be complete. All of these movements needed to be carried out in the assigned order in a single, uninterrupted sequence, two seconds per position. If any movement did not conform to the requirements, the computer would give a signal and stop running, after which I would have to start over from the beginning.

I successfully completed the sequence on my third try. I noticed my palms were sweaty.

My wife, who had been going through these procedures immediately after me, struggled when she came to the facial scan. The sequences for men and women differed in only one way: While men were required to open their mouths wide at the end, women had to close their mouths tightly and puff out their cheeks. I wondered what the reason was for this difference. As hard as she tried, Merhaba couldn’t maintain the steady speed required. Her movements would be too fast, then too slow. Her face reddened with frustration and resentment. I stood to the side, encouraging and prompting her. On her sixth attempt she finally succeeded. We couldn’t help but feel as happy as kids.

We reported to Güljan that we had finished all of the procedures, then made our way past the weary line of people waiting their turn and headed upstairs. It was past 5 o’clock by the time we exited the police station.

“We need to leave the country,” my wife said bitterly.

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  • Part 2

    The United Line of Defense

    بىرلەشمە مۇداپىئە سېپى 联合防线

    On a Monday morning in May 2017, my family finished breakfast and my daughters headed off to school. Before long, my cellphone rang. It was Wang, a Han neighborhood-committee official who had jurisdiction over the building where our film-production company was based.

    Every Monday and Wednesday, he came to inspect our office. After each visit, he would use his phone to scan the QR code on the wall just inside the office door. That code contained identifying information for each of our employees. We were all used to such things by then, and none of us thought much of it.

    Wang told me over the phone that our office was locked and he was waiting for me in front of the building. He asked me politely to come as quickly as I could to open the office door for him. I got in my car and headed over.

    New “stability preservation” measures had recently been rolled out across Xinjiang. One of these was mobilizing residents into a “United Line of Defense Against Violent Terrorists.” Wang was tasked with presiding over our office building’s maneuvers. When he gave the order, the security guards at the front entrance would blow their whistles. The owners and office managers of all the companies in the building would come running down the stairs; within three minutes, we would be standing in formation on the plaza in front of the building. Reading from a list in Chinese, Wang would call out our names to check attendance. Sometimes, at his direction, we would form into military-style columns and jog over to the courtyard of the neighboring building, where we would join its staff in forming a United Line of Defense Against Violent Terrorists.

    There wasn’t much to these maneuvers. The cadres would consider their work successful if everyone showed up and demonstrated a serious attitude and urgent bearing. Officials from higher up would regularly come to observe. Ostensibly, the purpose of these maneuvers was to maintain a state of readiness against violent terrorists; if anyone failed to cooperate or took part only passively, their name would be forwarded to the neighborhood police. In reality, it seemed that the aim of these activities was to keep us in a constant state of fear.

    People eventually felt as though they were part of the police, with a taste for watching and reporting on one another. They remained constantly ready to confront enemies, and at the same time often felt that they themselves were the enemy. I began to sense this indistinctly in the people around me, and even in myself.

    Before the mass arrests reached Urumqi, no one could afford to ignore the activities organized by the neighborhood committee. But since they’d begun, the building had emptied out and the maneuvers had ceased.

    It seemed that the aim of these activities was to keep us in a constant state of fear.

    Our company was on the sixth floor of the building. I opened the door for Wang. He walked into the office, took out his phone, and scanned the QR code on the wall as he had many times before. Then, like he always did, he took a look through the premises. He registered no surprise that none of those he had been monitoring were in the office anymore.

    For a month now, our work had come to a halt: The partnership with the local television station had lapsed; preparations for film production had ceased; advertisements ready to be filmed had been abandoned. Some of our employees had been ordered by the police to return to their hometowns, while others remained in Urumqi, unsure of what to do. I was unable to continue employing them or paying their salaries. Wang knew all this, but he continued coming twice a week to inspect the office.

    “Wang,” I said, “you know as well as I do that our company no longer has any work or any people. From now on I’ll be staying home myself.”

    “I know, I know,” he responded amiably, “but you also know that I have to do my job.”

    “How about this?” I said. “I’ll give you the key, and you can come inspect the office whenever you like.”

    He looked a bit taken aback, perhaps thinking I was mocking him. I quickly added, “Don’t think twice about it. This will be more convenient for both of us. There’s nothing to worry about in this office, anyway. I’ve moved all the important equipment to my cousin’s warehouse.”

    Wang heard the sincerity in my voice. “All right, then. Let’s do it.”

    Now I had one less burden.


    One Friday night, I headed out for a walk. After my business had closed, I’d barely left the apartment, and hadn’t done much besides eat and sleep. I’d begun to feel like a lamb being fattened for slaughter. The constant anxiety weighed on me, and each day, my body and spirit hung heavier.

    I didn’t even have the concentration to watch television or read. Writing poetry seemed laughable. My wife and daughters and I couldn’t find much to say to one another. Going out for a walk in the evening offered a little relief.

    As she did every day, though, Merhaba reminded me: “Don’t stay out too long, or I’ll get worried.” She feared that I would be detained on the street and taken away.

    The roads were crimson with the sunset. Our district was deserted. I ran into a man I knew from Kashgar who had also come out for a walk after dinner. We exchanged pleasantries and began walking together. He recounted a recent story from his old neighborhood.

    The government in Kashgar had required all Uyghurs there to hand over any religious items they held. Frightened by the ongoing roundups, most had surrendered to the state any belongings relating to their faith: religious books, prayer rugs, prayer beads, articles of clothing. Some were unwilling to part with their Qurans, but with neighbors and even relatives betraying one another, those who kept them were quickly found out, detained, and harshly punished.

    Some time after, a man in his 70s had come across a Quran in his house that he hadn’t been able to find following the confiscation order. He was afraid that if he turned it over now, the officials would ask why he hadn’t relinquished it earlier, accuse him of “incorrect thinking,” and take him away to be punished. So he wrapped the Quran in a plastic bag and threw it in the Tuman River. But the authorities had installed wire mesh under all bridges, and when the mesh was cleaned, the Quran was found and turned over to the police. When officers opened it, they found a copy of the old man’s ID card: In Xinjiang, the elderly have a habit of keeping important documents in frequently read books, so that they are easily found when needed. The police tracked down the old man and detained him on charges of engaging in illegal religious activities. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

    Such stories were now commonplace among Uyghurs. While relating it, my friend repeatedly checked our surroundings. If anyone was approaching, he would stop speaking. Like all of us, he spoke in whispers.


    In the middle of June, my wife and I drove to visit her cousin, in the north of Urumqi.

    After the 2009 violence, the Chinese government had implemented a policy it called the Slum Renovation Project and begun the wholesale demolition of houses in predominantly Uyghur districts. Those who owned houses slated for destruction were assigned apartments in high-rises built on the same site as their home, or in new apartment complexes elsewhere. Uyghurs who had rented homes in the demolished neighborhoods could apply for cheap apartments on Urumqi’s outskirts.

    Merhaba’s cousin had moved to one such apartment complex in 2010. Although the apartments were shoddy at best, the residents—their livelihoods now ruined—were thankful to have somewhere to live.

    She had divorced her husband, and lived with her son, Arman, in a one-bedroom apartment. The young man had graduated from college two years earlier with a major in engineering. But, like many Uyghur graduates, he had been unable to find work in his field and was cycling through odd jobs.

    After dinner, he told us what had been happening in the complex. That Monday, the neighborhood committee and the police station had delivered an urgent joint order at the daily flag-raising ceremony, which all residents were required to attend. It stated that each household had to turn over any Islamic items within three days; those who failed to do so would face consequences.

    Getty; Adam Ferriss

    The neighborhood was thrown into a panic, and many people handed over their Qurans and other religious items. Some worried that it would be a sin to turn these items over to the state, which would surely burn them, so they hid their sacred belongings at home. Rumors began circulating, though, that the police had a special device that could detect hidden religious objects. The night before, as soon as it was dark, terrified residents had begun tossing religious articles down the manholes that led to the complex’s sewer system. To avoid tripping over one another, they hid inside the buildings’ entrances; when one person returned from tossing out their items, the next would run out, throw theirs into the manhole, and dart back inside.

    All of this happened surreptitiously, but because there were many people with items to throw out, it continued throughout the night. Some sprinted out of the building and stumbled into others, after which both would retreat. Arman watched all of this from his window. By the time dawn broke, some religious items had simply been discarded in front of buildings. Later that morning, neighborhood-committee officials and police officers made the rounds of the complex, collected all the discarded items, loaded them onto a truck, and drove away.


    When we returned, Merhaba and I discussed what to do with the religious books in our home.

    We had three copies of the Quran—one each in Uyghur, Arabic, and Chinese—as well as Uyghur-language editions of a few other books relating to Islam. None of these was prohibited; all had been published with state sanction. Recently, though, many previously legal things had suddenly become illegal, and it was impossible to say what was permitted and what was not. What counted was whatever the government said at any given moment.

    “Keep these books,” she said. “Since you’re a writer, they shouldn’t object if you say you kept the books for professional use.”

    “If I say that, you think they’ll believe me?” I replied somewhat sharply.

    Merhaba paused. “Maybe we should hide them?”

    “And if they search the house and find them?”

    In the end, we decided to bring six books, along with our three prayer mats, to her aunt and uncle’s house. Not wanting to risk discussing our plan over the phone, we simply told them we were coming for a visit. Before we left our apartment, we checked each of the books thoroughly. After we arrived, we explained the situation. “Good thinking,” Merhaba’s aunt said.


    A few days later, we were having lunch when my cousin Mustafa called from Kashgar. Mustafa never called unless it was important. These days, with bad news arriving from all quarters, I worried constantly about my family there.

    Mustafa began by asking if I knew where the women’s prison was in Ghulja, in northern Xinjiang. I didn’t. He had thought I might because Merhaba is from there. I asked him what the matter was.

    Six years ago, one of his mother-in-law’s neighbors had held a Quranic reading for the women in the neighborhood. Mustafa’s mother-in-law arrived late; the recitation had already begun. The room was full, so she sat on her haunches on the concrete doorstep. Before long, her legs grew uncomfortable and she headed home.

    A month earlier, as the mass arrests had began to empty out Uyghur neighborhoods and villages across southern Xinjiang, the residents who remained were obliged to attend political-study meetings each evening. During these sessions, people started denouncing one another, sometimes for supposed infractions committed long ago. For briefly sitting on that doorstep years earlier, Mustafa’s mother-in-law was arrested on charges of having participated in unauthorized religious activities. Her family heard that she had been sentenced to five years in jail and sent to the Ghulja women’s prison. This information hadn’t been received through official channels but rather through asking around, and it needed to be confirmed. Her family hoped to find her and bring her necessary items and medical supplies.

    Since the internment campaign had begun, police had kept families in the dark about their detained relatives’ legal status and location. If a person was arrested, their relatives would first try to learn who had arrested them. The simplest way to do this was to inquire at the police station where the detained individual’s household was registered, but the officers there generally refused to answer questions. If family members insisted, the officers would threaten to send them to “study” alongside their relatives. The word study, once signifying the acquisition of knowledge and skill, had become the term for a feared punishment.


    A few days after we visited their house, Merhaba’s aunt called.

    “There’s a storm brewing in our neighborhood,” she said. “So I sorted those things out.”

    Her voice was strained. After many years of repression, Uyghurs were accustomed to using coded language. A “guest” at home meant a state-security agent. A “storm” typically referred to a political campaign. If someone had been arrested, they were “in the hospital”; the number of days they were to be in treatment marked the years of their sentence. Thus I understood: The house searches must have reached her neighborhood.

    “Which things did you sort out?” I asked.

    She lowered her voice. “Those things you brought over the other day.”

    It took me a moment to catch her meaning. “Which things we brought over? Just tell me.”

    “Those books! The books!” she said with frustration, lowering her voice still further.

    I immediately felt queasy. “How did you sort them out?”

    “Don’t ask. We took care of it.”

    Part 3

    Waiting to Be Arrested at Night

    كېچىدە تۇتقۇن قىلىنىشنى كۈتۈش 等候在午夜被抓

    On a Friday in June, my wife and I were home eating lunch. The day was muggy. “It’s been a week since I’ve heard from Munire,” Merhaba said suddenly, referring to my friend Kamil’s wife.

    The mass arrests had been ongoing for months. Just to check in, we had been meeting up with or texting our close family and friends on a regular basis. Although we couldn’t protect anyone, it gave us some measure of comfort to hear from them.

    “Leave her another message,” I said. “Maybe she’ll respond.”

    Merhaba recorded a voice message for Munire and sent it via WeChat. “Salam, Munire, how have you been? I’ve sent you a few messages and haven’t heard back—we’re a bit worried. If you’re there, please say something.”

    Not long after, Munire responded, also with a voice message.

    “How are you doing, Merhaba? I’m here.” Her voice was despondent.

    “How’s Kamil? Tahir is asking after him.”

    “Kamil’s not here,” she said.

    “He hasn’t gone away, has he?”

    “Let it go for now, my friend, I’m feeling under the weather. Let’s talk later.”


    The previous month, we had gone to Turpan for a short vacation with Kamil and Munire. Kamil and I had been classmates during high school in Kashgar, and later at college in Beijing, where we grew close. He was an even-tempered, earnest, and hardworking man whose interests ran to linguistics and philosophy. Whereas I stayed in Beijing to work after graduation, Kamil moved back to Xinjiang, where he took a position at a research institute. Around that time, Kamil and Munire were introduced by their parents, and after a while, they got married. They were always happy together.

    Recently, though, their relationship had been troubled. In 2016, Kamil spent a period as a visiting scholar in the U.S., with a stipend from the education ministry in Beijing, and took his daughter with him. Munire visited them; while she was there, some of their friends urged them not to go back. When Kamil had left for the U.S., though, the Chinese government had required that two of his friends serve as guarantors. If he did not return, they would be punished. Kamil did not want to stay in America at the price of a lifetime’s guilt. He returned to Urumqi after a year, just before the mass-internment campaign began. Under the terms of the American and Chinese governments’ agreement, he was barred from reentering America for two years. His passport, like those of other Uyghurs working in state-run organizations, was confiscated.

    Now, as we ate apricots in an orchard in Turpan, Kamil told me he worried that he would be arrested during the ongoing sweeps. A few years earlier, he said, he had attended an academic conference in Turkey, his first trip abroad, at the invitation of an NGO that had now been blacklisted by Beijing. Even though Kamil had completed the appropriate paperwork and obtained permission from his research institute and the local police department, many things that had once been allowed were now off-limits.

    “Before my most recent trip to the U.S. and after I returned, state-security officers came to speak with me,” he told me in a low voice as we left the orchard. “I told them about everything that happened while I was in America. I don’t think it will cause me any problems.

    “Except I’m still worrying about that Turkish conference.”


    Concerned by Munire’s voice message, my wife and I decided to visit. Their apartment was in the same complex as the research institute where Kamil worked. We approached the gate, told the guard that we had come to visit Kamil’s family, registered our ID numbers, and drove inside to a small, attractive courtyard surrounded by offices and residential buildings.

    Munire’s face was drawn, her unease palpable when she opened the door. She led us to the couch in the living room. After we had exchanged the usual pleasantries, I asked, “Is Kamil not home?” Munire hastily put her right index finger to her lips, and with her left hand pointed to the ceiling. Her meaning was clear: We must not mention Kamil, because there might be a listening device in the apartment.

    “Let’s head down to the courtyard,” Munire said wearily.

    We walked out of the building together. In the small garden out front, a few Uyghur women sat on a long bench, talking in the shade. Munire avoided them and led us some distance away. The moment we sat down, she burst into tears. After a little while, Munire dried her eyes and began telling us in a soft voice what had happened.

    A few days earlier, Munire had texted Kamil at the office to tell him dinner was ready. He said he would be home soon, but half an hour went by with no sign of him.

    “The food’s getting cold,” she texted again. “Where are you?”

    “You guys go ahead, I’ll eat later.” Oddly, Kamil was texting in Chinese, rather than their native Uyghur.

    Another half an hour went by. Munire was getting worried. “Are you all right? Why haven’t you come home yet?”

    This time Kamil didn’t respond. Munire walked over to his office building and looked up at the fourth floor, where he worked. The windows were dark. Munire called Kamil, but he didn’t pick up. She then called a colleague of his, who said they needed to speak in person. His apartment was in the same courtyard, and Munire walked over.

    Earlier that day, the colleague said, Kamil had received a phone call; by the end of it, he looked ashen. He left the office in an agitated state and headed downstairs. His colleagues looked out the window and saw three men load Kamil into a car and drive off.

    Munire called Kamil again as soon as she returned to her apartment. No answer. She texted him, and this time he wrote back. He was fine, he said, the police just had some questions for him, and he would come home soon. Then his texts stopped.

    Two days later, three police officers drove Kamil home. One officer took Munire to wait in the garden in front of their building while the other two led Kamil inside. Two hours later, they emerged with Kamil and his laptop, and drove off. Munire returned home to find their apartment turned upside down. Closets, drawers, chests, and suitcases had been flung open. In the bedroom, even the mattress and bed frame had been dismantled and thrown to the floor. Kamil’s books and papers lay scattered everywhere.

    The next day, Kamil texted again. “They’re taking me to Kashgar,” he wrote. He was still texting in Chinese, presumably at the insistence of the police. “Please bring me a few changes of clothes.” In an hour, she should come to the front gate of a courtyard near the headquarters of the state-security office. A police officer would come out to meet her. Munire asked what else Kamil needed, but he didn’t reply.


    China’s constitution guarantees minority peoples the right to use their own language in private and public life. However, over the past two decades the government has gradually restricted the use of Uyghur in education, administration, and publishing. Since 2017, Uyghur children have been sent to mandatory boarding schools, where they are punished for speaking their native language.

    Munire brought the clothing. Kamil was being held in an apartment inside the courtyard. The moment he saw Munire, he started crying. He couldn’t bring himself to speak. The police told Munire to trust that the government would resolve the situation fairly. They told her not to inquire with them about Kamil, and that if necessary they would get in touch with her. Then they sent her home.

    After that, Munire lost all contact with Kamil. She had no idea what had happened to him.

    I felt cold sweat on my back. We told Munire we were ready to help in any way we were able, and gave her all the words of comfort we could. But everything we said felt futile to me.

    There was nothing for us to say. I was shattered.

    Before we left, Munire asked us not to tell anyone what had happened. Whatever the cause of an arrest, and regardless of whether it was just or unjust, people in Xinjiang were extremely wary of those who had been arrested. If one member of a family was detained, especially for political reasons, those who caught wind of it would feel uneasy around that family, or avoid them entirely. Everyone understood this. We promised Munire we would tell no one. We had no desire to be the bearers of this bad news.

    The sky was growing dark. People were hurrying home from work. We were silent all the way home. There was nothing for us to say. I was shattered.

    Two decades earlier, after returning to Urumqi from Beijing, I had started working as a teacher. Kamil, who was already working at the research institute, told me of a six-volume set of Chinese-language books in the institute’s library. Intended for internal circulation only, the mimeographed books were titled Studies on Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism. They had been compiled to help “purge the poison” of so-called Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism from the Uyghur region, and to assist in the struggle against “ethnic separatism.” Two of the volumes were translations of foreign scholars’ writings. The government permitted only select researchers and officials to view such books and materials. I was very eager to see them. At my request, Kamil borrowed those two volumes from the library and lent them to me. After I finished reading them, though, I forgot to return the books.

    Not long after, I left Urumqi with the intention of studying in Turkey. On the way, I was arrested by the Chinese police for the crime of “attempting to leave the country with sensitive materials.” They searched my room at the school where I worked and found those two books. Kamil was in deep trouble. As the police interrogated me, they also called him in for questioning. They failed to turn up any evidence of a crime but nevertheless sentenced me without trial to three years’ detention. With that, the police ceased questioning Kamil.

    I thought about all of this on the drive home. Usually, if one Uyghur was arrested, the authorities would target others connected with the case, as well as the arrested person’s close friends and family.

    That night, after our daughters had gone to sleep, I grabbed a pair of sturdy autumn shoes and put them behind the door. Then I rummaged through the wardrobe in our bedroom and pulled out a pair of jeans, a sweater, and a roomy coat. I put a small towel in the pocket of the coat. As I sat folding these on the bed, Merhaba came into the bedroom.

    “What are you doing?”

    “I’m preparing, just in case.”

    “For what?”

    “They might come for me too. If they take me away, I want to be warmly dressed.”

    “Don’t frighten yourself. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

    “These months, these days, there is nothing that can’t happen to us.”

    I continued folding the clothes as I spoke. “You know that everyone who was in the labor camp with me has already been arrested again. I’ve never been as worried about this as I am now.”

    She looked at the clothing. “It would be better to take that black sweater you have. It’s warmer.”

    Getty; Adam Ferriss

    Most of the Uyghurs detained in the mass arrests had been summoned by phone to the local neighborhood-committee office or police station and then taken away. But some, especially intellectuals, had been spirited from their homes in the middle of the night. The police would knock on the door of the person they planned to arrest, slap handcuffs on their wrists, and haul them off. They wouldn’t let them change clothes; whatever they were wearing was what they would leave in. Some people had even been taken away in their pajamas.

    Everyone knew what happened next. The police would imprison these people in cells or lockups where there was nothing besides a high ceiling, four thick walls, a camera in every corner, an iron door, and a chilly cement floor. If you felt hot, you could remove clothes, but if you were cold, there was nothing you could do. Even in high summer, this was a practical problem. If someone knocked on my door in the middle of the night, I planned to put on these warm clothes and autumn shoes before answering. Kamil was arrested during the day, but I had a strong feeling that they would come for me at night.

    Merhaba and I were both silent for a moment. We lay side by side on the bed. I turned out the light.

    “I’m going to ask you something,” I said to Merhaba, “and you have to promise me you’ll do it.”

    “What is it? Tell me first,” she said.

    “I’m serious. Promise me first,” I said firmly.

    “All right,” she replied quietly.

    “If they arrest me, don’t lose yourself. Don’t make inquiries about me, don’t go looking for help, don’t spend money trying to get me out. This time isn’t like any time before. They are planning something dark. There is no notifying families or inquiring at police stations this time. So don’t trouble yourself with that. Keep our family affairs in order, take good care of our daughters, let life go on as if I were still here. I’m not afraid of prison. I am afraid of you and the girls struggling and hurting when I’m gone. So I want you to remember what I’m saying.”

    “Do you have to talk like you’re heading to your death?”

    “You know the PIN numbers for my bank cards.”

    Merhaba began crying. In the pitch black, there was no sound besides her weeping.


    For the next week I remained prepared for arrest. There was no news from Kamil. We gradually got the impression that Munire didn’t want us to keep asking after him, so we stopped.

    The days went by without incident. I felt that the most dangerous moment had passed, and grew slightly calmer. But I kept those clothes ready beside the bed.

    It turned out I was not alone. One evening, I went out to buy milk and ran into a young man I knew. He had studied Uyghur literature but since graduating had been unable to find work, and instead made his living as a translator of Arabic and Turkish.

    He now lived in fear: Foreign connections, a history of travel abroad, or even just having relatives and friends in other countries were enough to land Uyghurs in jail, especially if the countries in question were Muslim. Although he had never been to Turkey or the Arab world, and had learned those languages here in Xinjiang, my friend worried that he was in danger.

    While we were talking, he mentioned that for the past month he’d been sleeping with a set of warm clothes by the head of the bed, and that a fair number of his friends and acquaintances were too. I told him I had been doing the same. We laughed for a moment.

    It has been four years since Kamil was taken away. I have continually tried to get word of him but have yet to find any reliable information on his fate. Even now, in the safety of a free country, every time I fold my clothes, I think of the days when I waited to be arrested at night.

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  • Part 4

    There
    Are No
    Goodbyes

    خوشلاشماي ئايرىلىش ‏不辞而别

    One evening in June, I met up with four friends at the convenience store one of them owned. The five of us spent the night talking.

    There were whispers of Uyghur intellectuals being taken one after another. It was impossible, though, to know what was true and what wasn’t. Whenever we heard that someone had been detained, we would wonder about the reason. But each time we asked the question, we realized immediately how absurd it was. We knew very well that the majority of alleged crimes were mere excuses to arrest people. We were all constantly aware that we could be taken for no reason at all.

    With everyone smoking, the one-room store grew hazy, and every little while we would open the door to air it out. Afraid that passersby would overhear us, we always quickly pulled the door closed again. If a customer walked inside, we would halt our conversation until they left.

    My friend who owned the store, Almas, had seen his greatest success as a translator. He had rendered a number of works by Western philosophers from Chinese into Uyghur; two of these had been published as books. Only those who have translated philosophical texts know how difficult a task that is. Almas’s work was highly valued in the Uyghur scholarly community.

    But he’d always had money troubles. After graduating with a degree in Uyghur literature, he had begun working as an editor at a Uyghur-language magazine and, soon after, had married a high-school teacher. Almas had told me that a couple of years after getting married, and a few months before the Urumqi violence of 2009, he had asked a friend in Norway to send him a letter of invitation so he could apply for a passport and study abroad.


    At the time, the Chinese government placed many obstacles in the path of any Uyghur hoping to obtain a passport; one was the requirement that they procure an official invitation letter from another country.

    Before Almas had a chance to submit his application, he received an unexpected nighttime visit from two young Uyghur policemen. The pair interrogated him until daybreak, focusing on his relationship with that individual in Norway, and on other people he was in contact with abroad. Almas respectfully answered every question. After the officers compiled an exhaustive interrogation report, they cautioned him to put his passport application on hold for the time being. The next morning they released him, but only after requesting that he stay in touch. Eager for the questioning to end, Almas consented.

    Getty; Adam Ferriss

    For the next two months, the policemen frequently called Almas and asked to meet. He felt he had no choice but to go. According to him, these meetings did not involve any special discussions. They merely chatted about trivialities over a meal; sometimes, the two cops would insist that they drink together while they ate. Needless to say, Almas always picked up the tab.

    Almas’s salary wasn’t high to begin with; his wife had just given birth and was not currently employed. Repeatedly treating the policemen to these pointless dinners placed a strain on their finances. Almas’s wife complained frequently about it, and he himself was fed up with the officers’ behavior. Finally, on receiving yet another call from them, Almas spoke heatedly into the phone. “If I’m guilty of something, arrest me and lock me up. Otherwise, stop bothering me!” After this, Almas didn’t take their calls.

    Soon after, however, his boss at the magazine abruptly fired him. Almas was sure this was connected to the policemen, though he had no proof. And even if he could prove it, there was nothing he could do about what had happened. His finances grew even more precarious.

    Later, Almas’s family moved to an apartment complex near ours, and after a year of effort, he rented a storefront on a nearby street and opened a convenience store selling various household items. When the political atmosphere in Urumqi grew harsher, Almas, like other shopkeepers, was required to join the United Line of Defense Against Violent Terrorists.

    We were all constantly aware that we could be taken for no reason at all.

    Sometimes after dinner, I would take a walk through the neighborhood and drop by Almas’s store. Several close friends and I regularly gathered there to chat, and would purchase this and that to support him. Ever since it opened, the store’s business had been disappointing, but Almas was certain it would improve. When I went by, I would often find him seated at a table across from the entrance, translating Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy from Chinese to Uyghur. On his sleeve he wore a red armband with security written in Chinese.


    As part of the United Line of Defense Against Violent Terrorists, authorities obliged shopkeepers to buy a truncheon, a whistle, and an armband.

    That evening in Almas’s store was the last time I saw my friends. A week later, I escaped with my family to America. I didn’t say goodbye to any of them before I left, even over the phone. The journey ahead of me was a one-way trip. If I made it to the United States, I would request political asylum, and in doing so would become an enemy of the Chinese Communist Party, an enemy of the state.

    Experience told me that if the police learned any of my friends had known I would be going abroad or had said a final goodbye to me, they would be in trouble, facing at the very least weeks of interrogation or, if they were less lucky, the camps. Though I longed to bid them farewell before I left, I couldn’t let my friends face that danger on my account.

    Merhaba and I decided not to bring anything that could make the border police suspicious, so we packed only clothing. I put four photo albums in a box—our family’s entire past. I asked my cousin to mail this box to us after we reached our destination. He agreed.

    After arriving in America, we were busy for a couple of months setting up our new lives. In October, I left my cousin a voice message on WeChat, asking him to send us those albums. My heart sank when I heard his response.

    “Almas has left to study and it looks like my turn will come soon,” he said. “This is the last time I will be in touch with you. Take care of yourself.”

    This was how I learned that Almas—the translator, the shopkeeper, the member of the United Line of Defense Against Violent Terrorists, my friend—had been sent to the camps.

    Like innumerable other Uyghurs in the diaspora, I have been cut off from everyone I knew in my homeland. In early 2018, the American researcher Darren Byler traveled to Xinjiang to see with his own eyes the mass internment under way. He had previously lived in Urumqi for a time, during which he was on good terms with Almas and other friends of mine. I asked him to look up a number of people, in particular several friends who had recently disappeared. Among those he tried to find was Almas. I drew a map of the street where Almas had his convenience store, marked the spot where it stood, and texted Darren a photo of the map. He found the place I had designated, but the store was locked. It clearly had not been open for quite some time.

    Part 5

    The Passports

    پاسپورت 护照

    I keep returning to New Year’s Day 2013.

    That evening, I received an unexpected call from Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Central Nationalities University in Beijing. After exchanging pleasantries, Ilham declared: “Xi Jinping has taken power. Things will get better for us now; don’t lose heart. Tell our other friends in Urumqi that now is the time for optimism.”


    Given the lack of transparency in Chinese politics, the political inclinations of new leaders are often a topic of intense speculation. When Xi took power, Uyghur intellectuals noted that his father, a former senior party official, had been responsible for China’s northwest, including Xinjiang, and mused that Xi might be pro-Uyghur. Liberal Han intellectuals wondered if Xi might be a closet liberal. Neither proved true.

    While today it is clear how absurd it was to expect any good to come from Xi’s rise, at the time such hopes were cherished by numerous Uyghur intellectuals. These were hopes born of desperation, a battered community’s daydream of better treatment by its rulers.

    I had met Ilham when I was an undergraduate and Ilham was studying for his master’s in economics. He would go on to become one of the most prominent Uyghur critics of Communist Party policy. In the mid-2000s, he founded a Chinese-language website, where he began publishing articles defending Uyghurs’ legal rights.

    llham was placed under police surveillance, but he always believed that the government would not arrest or imprison him. He was, after all, a professor at a university in the national capital, and considered himself to be operating entirely within the law.

    But things did not turn out as Ilham thought they would. In mid-January 2014, news of Ilham’s arrest at his Beijing apartment reached us in Urumqi. I heard from a friend that he had not been arrested by the Beijing police alone; instead, officers had arrived from Urumqi to take him away. The involvement of the Urumqi police, traveling 1,700 miles to make the arrest, meant that this was a decision made at the highest levels.

    Ilham’s detention affected me profoundly. I had obtained my own passport the year prior, when the opportunity presented itself, but we had not yet gotten passports for Merhaba and our two daughters. To an American or a European, a passport is simply a travel document, a perfunctory booklet that helps one go on vacation or on business trips. To a Uyghur, though, a passport is a precious letter of admission to the outside world. At the time I applied for my passport, most Uyghurs had never even laid eyes on one—for the most part, they were held only by prosperous merchants who did business abroad.

    For Han, the process had been streamlined. All they needed was an application form and a photo. For Uyghurs and other minority citizens, applying remained an arduous process. In addition to all the standard materials, I had to provide a company guarantee. Written in Chinese and stamped with the company’s seal, this document included my name, ID number, responsibilities at work, and monthly salary, as well as the reason I needed a passport, the dates I planned to be abroad, the destination country, my reason for traveling there, the company’s promise that I would return by the specified date, and the company’s name, address, telephone number, and contact person.

    Once I had prepared the guarantee, our neighborhood police officer, Adile, inspected my paperwork. Then, after looking through the police station’s files, she prepared a letter certifying that I had no criminal record, was not prohibited from traveling abroad, had not participated in the violence of 2009, and was eligible for a passport.

    After that, my application had to be approved by both the neighborhood committee and the street office before I could go to the National and Religious Affairs Office, where I had to promise not to make an unauthorized pilgrimage to Mecca. Just gathering everything I needed took two weeks of ferrying around Urumqi on a near-daily basis.


    The street office, also known as the subdistrict office, is the party-state administrative organ directly above the neighborhood committee.

    Armed with all my documents, I headed to the Public Security Bureau office responsible for border control. An officer there took my files and told me that they would call me once the national-security unit had concluded its examination. About six weeks later, I received my passport.

    After Ilham’s arrest, we repeated these steps for the rest of the family. The entire process took months, but by July 2014, we all had our passports.

    Any sense of elation over obtaining the documents was short-lived, though. In September, Ilham was found guilty of separatism and sentenced to life in prison. The Uyghur intellectual world was deeply shaken by the news. This was an early warning that a catastrophe lay ahead.


    The Chinese government regularly accuses Uyghur and Tibetan dissidents of conspiring to “split the motherland”—to separate Xinjiang or Tibet from China. Most of these charges are baseless, as they were in the case of Ilham Tohti, who consistently advocated for Uyghur coexistence with the Han majority within China.

    Soon after, I was at a Central Nationalities University reunion in Beijing. Merhaba, who had never been to Beijing, joined me. She wanted to see the city, and especially the university where I had studied.

    A friend came to see us at our hotel. He asked me to speak with him outside, where he relayed a message from Jüret, a close friend of mine who had moved to the U.S. some years before: Our family must leave for America immediately. Jüret was deeply worried by the rapid deterioration of conditions for Uyghurs in China. Wary of saying any of this over the phone, he had sent the message through this mutual friend, who had recently visited America.

    I resolved then to apply for American visas for all four of us. We weren’t sure if we wanted to leave the country permanently, but it would be good to have the visas in any case.

    We contacted a Beijing travel agent, Li, who had helped a number of other Uyghurs procure visas. He understood the situation in Xinjiang and the circumstances Uyghurs currently faced. I paid the required fees and sent Li the necessary documents, and he got us an appointment at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for the following March.

    When the date of the interview came around, Merhaba and I traveled again to Beijing. The materials Li Yang told us we might need for the interview—our ID cards, household registrations, wedding license, daughters’ birth certificates, company’s registration, apartment registration, a bank statement, my college diploma, and even the book I had published—filled a knapsack.

    It was only in Beijing that Li told us our chances of receiving American visas were quite low. But it was still worth trying, he continued, given that our circumstances—we were doing well financially, I owned a company—were good. And besides, we figured, we had no better option.

    The next day we arrived at the American embassy two hours before our appointment. A line of perhaps a thousand people snaked through four rows, each a hundred meters long. A trickle of people walked past, coming out of the embassy. Some trudged by wearily, white slips of paper in their hands; others grinned triumphantly, ostentatiously clasping blue slips of paper.

    After passing through embassy security and having our fingerprints taken, my wife and I handed our materials to an official, a young blond woman. From among our four passports she selected mine, and compared it with the files on her computer. Then she placed two white slips atop the passports and slid them back along the counter to me. “I’m sorry,” she said in Chinese. “Our visa policy is currently very strict. We are unable to give you visas.”

    Though Merhaba and I had discussed many times the possibility that this could happen, for a moment I was at a loss for words. I tried explaining that our daughters had their hearts set on a trip to America, but I knew how pathetic I sounded. The woman rose from her chair and apologized repeatedly. We were ushered out of the building.

    I called Li and told him we had been rejected. He offered some words of sympathy. Then he told me that if we were intent on getting American visas, we should first visit some other Western countries and then wait a year or so before applying again.

    So we began planning a trip to Europe. Eventually we settled on a Uyghur tour group organized by an Urumqi travel agency. Over 15 days, the group would make the rounds of Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, and Turkey. Although the tour was quite expensive—about $8,000 for Merhaba and myself—it was well worth it for the possibility of obtaining American visas.

    We left for Istanbul in April. This was the first time Merhaba or I had set foot on foreign soil. It was an exciting moment for us both. The trip itself was more of a marathon than a vacation. Our tour bus traveled from Rome to Northern Europe, then west to Paris. In each city we would hurriedly view a couple of the most important tourist sites, take a few photos, and continue on our voyage. Even so, we thoroughly enjoyed it. We were now seeing with our own eyes places we had only read about in books or viewed in films.

    Not long after we returned to Urumqi, I had dinner with some friends. Fresh from my travels, I regaled them with my impressions of Europe. Perhat Tursun, a novelist, suddenly spoke up. “Can’t we talk about something else? It stings every time I hear people talk about traveling abroad, like I’m hearing a conversation about a woman I was in love with but couldn’t marry.” We all cracked up. “You should get a passport too,” I told him. With a pained expression, he explained that the government wouldn’t let him leave the country. We all fell silent.


    Perhat Tursun is one of the most innovative Uyghur writers of the past few decades. He was arrested in early 2018; in late 2019, a former inmate reported having seen Perhat in one of the camps. Early in 2020, word reached the Uyghur diaspora that Perhat had been sentenced to 16 years in prison.

    As Li had advised, we waited a full year before applying again for American visas. In June 2016, Merhaba and I flew to Beijing with our older daughter, Aséna. Having turned 14, she now had to apply for her visa in person.

    Upon landing, we hailed a cab to a neighborhood where the hotels tended to be welcoming of Uyghur guests.


    In most of China, hotels are typically unwilling to rent rooms to people from Xinjiang, especially if they are Uyghur. If a hotel does accept Uyghur guests, the police have to be notified, and sometimes guests are taken to the police station, where officers question them and take their mugshots and fingerprints.

    It was almost 1 a.m. when we arrived. There were no free rooms in the hotel we had stayed at during our last visit, though. It was tourist season, and demand was high; one had to book in advance.

    We walked over to another hotel. Its doors were already locked. Further along, the lobby of the upscale Xinjiang Suites was open, but the guard there waved his hand to indicate that there were no free rooms.

    There wasn’t a soul in sight. With our suitcases clattering behind us, the three of us wandered like ghosts in search of a hotel. A few small inns were open, but at each one, before we could finish asking about vacancies, the employees saw that we were Uyghur and answered us with a curt “No.”

    Our options exhausted, we took a cab back to the first hotel, where we inquired once more about vacancies in the foolish hope that a room might have opened up. The concierge told us some would become available at daybreak.

    There was nothing for us to do now but sit on a stone bench under a copse of trees in front of the building and wait for morning. It was the most humid time of the year in Beijing. The city’s mosquitos were hungry. The cicadas sang incessantly. Merhaba and Aséna, never having experienced this kind of humidity, felt like they were in a greenhouse. Merhaba was breathing heavily. Again and again, I tried to offer words of comfort.

    “Tahir Hamut,” Merhaba said bitterly, “if they don’t give us visas this time, don’t mention the word America in front of me again!”

    “Okay,” I said guiltily.

    In the morning we checked into a hotel room. The next day we went to the American embassy. After standing in line for two hours, we had our fingerprints taken and were directed to a visa official’s window. She was pretty and blond like the official we had met last time, but younger. I handed her our passports. I held the rest of our materials at the ready in case she requested them.

    Getty; Adam Ferriss

    “Why are you planning to go to America?” she asked in Chinese.

    “A family trip,” I responded calmly.

    From the four passports, the woman selected mine. She typed something into the computer. Then she picked up my passport again and opened it to the page with the visa from our European trip. She took a pen-shaped device from a lanyard and pressed it to the visa; the device emitted a blue light. She must be verifying that the visa is authentic, I thought.

    The woman put the passport down. “Is your company based in Urumqi?” she asked. I told her that it was. “Do you live in Urumqi?” she continued. I told her that we did.

    She typed some more on her computer. Then, not lifting her eyes from the computer screen, she reached across the counter for the other three passports.

    Moments later, she looked up at us and smiled. “Congratulations! You have been issued American tourist visas.” I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Aséna squirmed with happiness. Merhaba’s face opened like a flower. After expressing our heartfelt gratitude to the visa official, we headed outside.

    We hailed a taxi back to the hotel. “Dad,” Aséna said, “while that visa official was checking our passports, I could hear your heart pounding.”

    Much as when we had received our passports, however, the moment of happiness was soon darkened by political storm clouds. A month after we received our American visas, a new, hard-line party secretary was appointed to run Xinjiang. When the mass internments commenced the following spring, we made up our minds that leaving for America was our best option. Kamil’s arrest confirmed that this decision was the right one. We purchased round-trip tickets to the U.S., leaving on July 10, 2017, and returning the following month—we needed the return tickets to convince the authorities that we were traveling as tourists.


    The appointment of Chen Quanguo marked a seismic shift in Beijing’s attitude toward Xinjiang. Chen had previously been the top Communist Party official in Tibet, where he implemented a raft of repressive measures. In August 2016, Beijing made Chen secretary of the Uyghur region, where he replicated many of his tactics.

    Leaving would not be easy, though.

    One afternoon about two weeks before we were set to depart, my cellphone rang. It was Adile, our neighborhood police officer, who had approved all of our passports years earlier. She informed us that our family must turn them over to her the next morning. Her tone was adamant.

    All of us were crushed. “Why?” Aséna asked in frustration. She broke down crying.

    “They gave us the passports, so they can take them away whenever they want,” I said, mostly to myself.

    That night I couldn’t sleep. I had to find a way to keep our passports. I eventually decided that traveling to America for medical care would be our most convincing and effective pretext. Still lying in bed, I searched on my phone for information about Chinese citizens seeking medical care in America. Something caught my attention: A significant number of Chinese parents bring their epileptic children to the U.S. for treatment.

    If we told the police that we were traveling to America to have Aséna treated for epilepsy, and that we had already purchased plane tickets, we might be able to keep our passports. We could say that her epilepsy flared up at night. To prevent people from gossiping, we had kept it from everyone, even our relatives, and had arranged for her to be treated privately. In Uyghur society, people tend to keep medical matters private. The authorities might believe us.

    The next morning, I told Merhaba about my plan. She was hesitant.

    “We have to try,” I said emphatically. Otherwise, “we might as well just sit and await our fate.”

    Merhaba and I walked over to meet with Adile. We told her that we planned to go to the U.S. in July to seek treatment for Aséna’s illness, and that we had already purchased plane tickets. We implored her not to take our passports. Adile told us that collecting passports was an order from above. She added, though, that she understood our situation, and that in a few weeks, we could obtain a doctor’s verification and try applying to retrieve our passports. In other words, the light of hope had not yet gone out completely.

    I canceled our original flights to the U.S., and sought out practically everyone I knew who worked in Urumqi’s hospitals. When I couldn’t find people to help me, I spoke with the doctor acquaintances of our close relatives and friends. Of course, if I told them I needed a physician’s confirmation of my daughter’s illness in order to get our passports back, they would be too frightened to help me. Numerous people had been taken to the camps simply for having a passport. Some Uyghurs had been so scared that they had voluntarily turned theirs in to the police or the neighborhood committee without even having been asked. Those who had never applied for passports boasted that they had been right all along, that in permitting Uyghurs to get passports, the government had merely spread its nets to catch more fish. I told people Aséna needed a doctor’s note for school.

    There’s a saying in China: “A problem that money can solve is not a problem.” I eventually found three people willing to help me, for a fee. One was a neurologist, the second was a brain-scan technician, and the third was a hospital administrator. We needed the services of all three. Finally, after spending nearly $10,000, we had the necessary documents.

    In mid-July 2017, I met again with Adile. The police had prepared special forms for people applying to get their passports back. I filled them out and returned them to Adile, along with the medical documentation.

    I grew anxious as time passed with no word from the authorities. In late July, I called Adile to ask her where things stood. It turned out that a directive had been issued: No one with a history of foreign travel could get their passport back.

    I felt sick. There was nothing for us now but to give up.

    About 10 days later, I called Adile to ask about at least getting our application materials back. She told me, “We’ve gotten a new directive. Those with urgent business can now apply to have their passports returned to them.”

    Hope flickered into view once more.

    The next day I went to Adile’s office, and again filled out the forms requesting the return of our passports.

    Merhaba took a trip to her hometown, while my daughters and I stayed in Urumqi and waited. The days felt endless. The three of us ate mostly in restaurants. Aside from meals, Aséna and our younger daughter, Almila, didn’t leave the apartment. Every evening I’d go out walking for an hour or so.

    On August 22, my cellphone rang. It was Merhaba.

    “I got a call,” she said. “They told me we could come get the passports.”

    “Really?”

    My exclamation woke up Aséna and Almila, who had been sleeping on the living-room sofa next to me. They jumped up and down on the couch and yelped with joy.

    Moments later I was on my way to Urumqi’s Administrative Services Building. I walked in and told the policewoman at the counter that I had come for my passport. She directed me to an office, where a middle-aged Han Chinese officer leafed through a register book, searching for our names. She found them on the third page, and then carefully compared the name on my ID card with the one in the register. At her request, I signed my name next to my entry in the register. She then rummaged through a drawer packed with passports until she found ours. She handed them to me. It was a miracle.

    In my excitement, I didn’t even think to put the passports in my bag. Two Uyghur youths, waiting on a bench in the middle of the lobby, stared with undisguised fear in their eyes when they saw what was in my hand.

    I walked out of the building with steps so quick, I couldn’t tell whether my feet touched the ground or not.

    As soon as I got back in the car, I called Li, our travel agent, and asked him to purchase four tickets to America, departing in three days, with return tickets for a month later. He told me there was a flight from Urumqi to Beijing on August 24, and from Beijing to Boston on August 25. I instructed him to buy the tickets on the spot. We had one day to make our preparations. Merhaba returned home that night, and the next day we packed up what we could of our lives.

    I walked out of the building with steps so quick, I couldn’t tell whether my feet touched the ground or not.

    Around noon, we left for the Urumqi airport. The atmosphere there was tense. Armed police scrutinized the people passing through, particularly Uyghurs. After dropping off our luggage, we headed to the security check. I was first in line, and when I emerged from the checkpoint, two Han security officers led me over to a separate room. Inside was a jerry-rigged conveyer belt that orbited a pillar. I was told to stand atop the conveyer belt and hold my hands up high as it carried me around the pillar, which appeared to be scanning my body and sending readouts to a computer nearby. There had been no such inspection at this airport when we’d traveled to Beijing the previous year. While I waited for Merhaba and our daughters to undergo the same check, I watched Han passengers pass through the normal security check and hurry off to their gates. The security officials paid them no mind. This extra inspection was just for Uyghurs, I thought with renewed humiliation.

    Finally, we walked over to the gate and sat by the window. Watching the planes on the runway through the glass, I turned to Merhaba. “Take it all in. These may be our final moments in this land.”

    “Don’t say that.” Her voice was trembling. “God willing, we will return.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she started weeping. “God willing,” I whispered. Tears were rolling down my cheeks as well.

    We would never be free from the guilt of our survival.

    The next day, we were standing in line at border control in Beijing. My turn came first. I handed my passport to an agent. The young uniformed officer opened the document and looked long and hard at me, comparing me with my photo. Then she motioned another officer over, this one wearing civilian clothing. Leaning in close, they looked at the computer screen and spoke briefly. Then the plainclothes officer left. The border-control agent stamped my passport and returned it to me. Merhaba and our daughters likewise moved swiftly through the process. We had been approved to leave China.

    Seventeen hours later, our plane began its descent over Boston. We landed on American soil. Our passage through customs went smoothly.

    We were finally free.

    As we waited in Boston’s Logan Airport for our connecting flight to Washington, D.C., I tried to imagine our new life in America. My thoughts, though, kept returning to our home. The people we cared for most were suffering still, left behind in that tortured land. We would never be free from the guilt of our survival.

    Once I arrived in America, time passed quickly as I busied myself starting a new life. I wrote little. Even in quiet moments, poetry wouldn’t come to me. In my mind’s eye, I would see Almas in the camp, Munire left alone at home, Perhat hurrying away into the night.

    A few months passed. As I lay in bed one night, waiting for sleep and letting my mind wander, suddenly a poem came. I reached over to the nightstand, picked up my phone, and began writing.

    Somewhere Else


    This poem was originally published in Asymptote.

    Besieged by these discolored words
    within all these disordered moments
    the target on my forehead
    could not bring me to my knees
    and also
    night after night
    one after another
    I spoke the names of ants I’ve known


    I thought of staying whole
    by the road or somewhere else
    Even
    cliffs grow tired staring into the distance
    But
    in my thoughts I trimmed your ragged hair
    with two fingers for scissors
    I splashed your chest with a handful of water
    to douse a distant forest fire


    Of course
    I too can only stare
    for a moment into the distance

    Introduction and translation by

    Joshua L. Freeman


    Illustrations by

    Adam Ferriss


    Photograph by

    Stephen Voss


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