For most of his life, Dolkun Isa had been a wanted man.
A Uyghur from Xinjiang, a province in northwestern China, Isa is one of the most prominent voices in the international community advocating for Uyghur and Kazakh rights; minority groups that are now being systematically monitored and jailed en masse.
China considers him a terrorist and has been seeking his arrest for decades. Until February of this year, Isa had a red notice put out against him by Interpol, which called for him to be found and extradited to China on terror-related charges, despite being a peaceful dissident.
He is the President of the World Uyghur Congress, and has traveled the world speaking at international forums, parliaments and special committees all in the hopes of drawing awareness to China’s attempts at erasing his history and cultural heritage.
News began surfacing last year that China was detaining Uyghurs and forcing them into detention and re-education centers that are functionally concentration camps. But as Isa’s lived experience shows, China has been trying for decades to tightly control Uyghurs in Xinjiang, attempting the impossible task of disappearing an entire ethnicity.
Isa spoke with Al Bawaba about his upbringing and life on the run from Chinese authorities, and his struggles to reach his family, who are stilled trapped in Xinjiang.
Dolkun Isa’s Life in China
A portrait of Mao Zedong in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution (AFP/FILE)
Dolkun Isa’s birth as a Uyghur doomed him to a life of being watched, interrogated and arrested. From infancy on, he was labeled an enemy of the state.
Isa was born in 1967, a year after Mao Zedong had announced the Cultural Revolution that sought to unify the identity and ideology of all Chinese citizens under the banner of the Chinese Communist Party. Because Uyghurs spoke their own language and largely practiced Islam, they were outliers from the ideal Chinese citizen formulated by Mao, and so they were targeted.
Isa remembers hearing of Uyghur intellectuals being jailed by the thousands, and China preventing Uyghur cultural texts from being published. Imams, as local figureheads whose religious beliefs stood against Mao’s secular project, were publicly humiliated. A paramilitary student group who called themselves Red Guards burned Qurans and vandalized mosques throughout Xinjiang.
“During the 10 years [of the Cultural] Revolution time, all the religious freedom and all the Uyghur language writings [were] forbidden,” Isa says.
After the Revolution subsided in 1976, Uyghurs were targeted less but still faced residual pressures to assimilate into a mainstream Chinese identity. They reforged parts of their culture that were effectively outlawed: namely being able to practice their faith and speak their language.
In the 1980s, Isa enrolled in Xinjiang University to study Physics. In our conversation, he was quick to note that Han Chinese students were able to graduate in four years whereas Uyghurs took five: they were forced to take a year-long language course in Chinese. All their university textbooks were written in Chinese. The professors however, spoke Uyghur when their students were Uyghur.
While studying, Isa grew politically conscious of the two-tiered society in which he lived that privileged Han Chinese over Uyghurs. He also noticed that many Uyghurs were illiterate and were not receiving adequate education from Chinese schools.
“I established a students’ union, a scientist students’ union” organized around educating Uyghurs, Isa says. Members of his student union would spend the Summer and Winter breaks in between their university courses to teach Uyghurs how to read and write.
This was stopped by China in 1988.
Red Guards in China (AFP/FILE)
“In 1988, I had a big discussion with a high-level government officials,” who told him to dissolve his union, which was deemed politically radical. In protest, Isa organized a demonstration against Uyghur discrimination on June 15. The next day, he was placed under house arrest for four months and expelled from Xinjiang University. He was set to graduate just a few months after the demonstration.
Speaking Uyghur and teaching others to do the same, in the eyes of China, was effectively a form of anti-Chinese militancy.
Further convinced that the Uyghur identity was under a serious threat by China’s repressive policies, Isa began an underground publishing firm, printing and distributing important Uyghur cultural texts. “I made [a] small business,” out of the secret publishing firm, because it was one of the only publishers producing texts that explored Uyghur history, he explains.
China had banned such books from being released, so Isa set about finding and re-printing copies of them.
After Chinese authorities found this and shut it down, Isa moved to Beijing and engaged in a different kind of civil resistance: fighting China’s erasure of Uyghur identity by cooking. He opened up a restaurant and served traditional Uyghur cuisine in a popular eating district in Beijing, which he ran for two years.
“A lot of Western students, foreign students came to my restaurant,” apparently unaware there was such a thing as a Uyghur.
“I wanted to practice my English, and I had conversations with them and I explained to them [about Uyghur cuisine], because most of the students and foreign tourists had no idea who the Uyghurs are, you know?” Many came inside expecting to find the typical Chinese dishes, but were surprised to find items on the menu like laghman, naan and yutaza bread, lamb soup called shorpa and dapanji.
In talking with the tourists and students, “I explained to them that we are Uyghur, we are not Chinese and in history, we had an independent country,” Isa says.
“Then slowly, Chinese police began persecuting me.” He was regularly visited by Chinese authorities, who interrogated him.
By this time, Isa sensed his life was in danger. “In 1994 I escaped.”
“In China, corruption is very high,” Isa adds, explaining that he was able to bribe officials to forge him a passport, which he used to fly to Turkey. After this, Isa would never be able to go back to Xinjiang, his home province, or anywhere else in China.
A “Terrorist” Abroad
Police in Xinjiang (AFP/FILE)
Isa spent two years studying politics at Gazi University, and then moved to Germany in 1996, which he has now claimed as his newfound home.
Shortly after arriving in Germany, Isa deepend his involvement in Uyghur activism by helping to establish the World Uyghur Youth Congress and the World Uyghur Congress. He didn’t know that he was considered a terrorist back in China, and that Chinese authorities sent a red notice to Interpol for his arrest, which was approved by the international policing agency.
He only found out in 1999, when he was invited to the United States to speak at a conference in Washington D.C. When he went to the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt to apply for a U.S. Visa, he was taken by U.S. officials and German police when they saw there was a notice for him to be arrested and extradited to China for terrorism charges. “They asked me ‘well, did you kill someone?’”
“Then I was a little bit worried, but I was a political asylum seeker,” Isa recalls. But after a few hours of waiting, Isa was told by German authorities that they would protect him from extradition to China, but that he should not travel to any country with an extradition agreement with China or else he would be at risk of being sent back to China and likely never be heard from again.
Though the red notice made him cautious, he traveled the world speaking at international conferences; sometimes to countries that had extradition agreements with China. Isa said he felt safe for the most part, and traveled to them anyway, but had one close call in South Korea.
In 2009, Isa flew to South Korea to attend the annual World Forum for Democratization in Asia, but was barred from leaving the airport.
“I was detained in South Korea for four nights and four days,” and ultimately, he was denied entry into the country, but according to him, he was almost sent back to China.
He suspects he was about to be flown to China, but at the last minute, representatives from the U.S. state department and German foreign ministry intervened and saved him, flying him out of South Korea and back to Germany, where was a citizen at this point.
“South Korea, I thought was a democratic country. I was invited by one of the international human rights organizations,” Isa says.
He’s faced continual difficulty in speaking at U.N. assemblies.
In addition to being denied entry into India, he was prevented from entering an event for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), without any explanation from the U.N.
He was also barred from entering another UNPFII event at the U.N. headquarters in New York in 2018, again with no explanation but all fingers pointing to Chinese meddling. In a video recorded outside the building, an outraged Isa accused China of trying to monopolize the U.N. and push out vocal minority rights activists like him from speaking out about China’s repressive policies. By this point, the red notice against Isa had been redacted by Interpol and he was no longer an internationally wanted man.
“It is completely wrong. All the democratic nations, democratic countries [should] speak up loudly. Don’t let China continue influenc[ing] the United Nations,” he says in the video.
Where is Dolkun Isa's Family?
Isa holding up images of famous Uyghur artists who have been detained (World Uyghur Congress)
Despite finding relative safety in Europe, the rest of Isa’s family is still trapped in Xinjiang and he has been unable to communicate with them since the crackdown began last year.
This summer, Isa found out that his 78 year-old mother died while inside one of the concentration camps, but only received the news 24 days after she passed. “I had no idea what was happening with her,” he says, noting that the last time they talked was in April 2017.
Investigative journalists with Radio Free Asia told him that she had died, but did not know further details. As a detainee in the camps, China suspected her of supporting terrorism.
So far, almost 40 people have reportedly died in the concentration camps, and up to three million have been detained.
What happens inside the camps is often sealed inside; the little information shedding light on what happens inside is leaked out by former detainees or gleaned from opaquely worded government documents.
Uyghurs are often detained without notice by communist party officials, taken to either a detention or re-education center, and held there indefinitely. Reports of physical abuse, solitary confinement and suicide attempts have begun to surface from within the camps, which are rapidly expanding to meet China’s goals of neutralizing the entire region of its restive minority groups.
Isa notes that after the last conversation with his mother last April, he has lost all contact with the rest of his family, who all live in Xinjiang and may be in the camps.
“I know my younger brother was detained in the beginning of March last year. Since then, I didn’t get any news from him. My older brother is a professor; I hear he’s detained as well.”
Nearly every Uyghur in the world has family members in camps, but the whole region has a blackout imposed on it. Family members outside cannot communicate with loved ones inside and vice versa; all communication is blocked.
Uyghurs are required to install an app on their phone that filters content China considers disruptive or radical. The social scoring system China has introduced to its entire population has been especially punitive for Uyghurs and other Muslim groups. They are routinely barred from renting, traveling outside the country, taking out loans or even buying certain products like knives or particular books.
Isa speaking at a rally for Uyghur and Kazakh rights (World Uyghur Congress)
The entire region of Xinjiang, as Isa sees it, is a jail.
“It’s an open jail. We can completely say it’s an open-air jail.”
What incenses Isa the most is not necessarily that China is escalating its assimilationist policies against the Uyghurs, but that it is doing so in full view of the world with impunity. The international community has been largely silent on the matter, save for a few E.U. parliamentarians and U.S. politicians, who have spoken out against the repression but stopped short of implementing punitive policy measures to deter China.
“Most of the Islamic world, nearly all, [are] just silent,” Isa says, thinking of Muslim-majority countries that have been eerily silent regarding the mass detention of fellow members of the global Muslim community.
Some are even supportive of China. Pakistan appears happy to receive critical development aid from China without raising concerns of the China’s treatment of its own Muslims.
Mr. Isa has pleaded with international Islamic organizations to condemn the systemic violence incurred against Muslims in Xinjiang, but has not received responses from them regarding plans of actions.
Isa's political evolution is a living example of how state projects to forcibly shape and assimilate minority groups can backfire.
Rather than giving up his ethnic roots and cultural traditions to conform, Isa has risked his life to preserve them. In a more general sense, the decades-long project of assimilating Uyghurs into a Han Chinese identity has actually explicated those ethnic differences it has sought to eliminate. By targeting mosques, Qurans and the Uyghur language, they have become as politically strategic as they are culturally precious.
Simply living as a Uyghur is now a form of political resistance, and Isa stands at the vanguard of that resistance.
“We’re talking about the life of around three million people. This is the 21st century. After World War II, world leaders gathered together saying ‘never again.’ But it’s happening again now,” Isa says.
“China has started a war against Islam.”
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