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“My whole family is being sent to concentration camps because I left in exile”

Interview with Aziz Isa Elkun. This Story belongs to the Uyghur Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

Pune, 27th September 2018

Aziz Isa Elkun is a Uyghur writer born in Uyghuristan (East Turkistan – China). He has published articles, stories and poems in Uyghur and English. He lives in London since 2001, where he is an active member of the exile Uyghur Community. He has founded the London Uyghur Ensemble, a music group, and serves as Secretary of the Uyghur PEN Centre since 2017.

G.A. When did you first hear about PEN and why did you join?

A.I.E. I have been living in London for 18 years now. I had been publishing my poems and short stories. I joined the Uygur PEN Centre in 2010. In 2011, I designed and build Uyghur PEN website, and at the same year I became a Board Member of the Uyghur PEN.  Since then, I have been working with Uyghur PEN’s Boad Members and members. We have had several conferences and we worked together with the Ural-Altaic PEN Centres: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Kirgizstan, Mongolia, etc. We promote links and translations between people who live in this region. Most of these people suffered attacks to linguistic rights during the Soviet Union, with threats to their mother tongues and limitations to their publications.

G.A. What is your current role in Uyghur PEN?

A.I.E. I was accepted to become the Uyghur PEN Centre Secretary at the Malmö Conference 2017. As I am based in London, I am taking care of the communication and the website of our PEN Centre. Since 2011, I am a Board Member and a Chair Member of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee.

G.A. Who are the Uyghur people?

A.I.E. Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group, with about 20 million population. We are very close to the Uzbeks. In China, there are five major distinctive nations: The ethnic Chinese – named the Han (Mainland China), they make 92% of the P.R. China. Except the majority of Han Chinese population, the rest of 8% China’s population makes up by none – Han Chinese five nations and ethnic groups, they are Uyghur, Tibet, Mongol, Hui (Chinese Muslims) and Zhuang. We prefer to call Uyghur historical homeland as Uyghuristan (also use the term East Turkistan), but the Chinese official name is Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Uyghur believe in Islam and they have a very unique cultural and linguistic heritage. We speak the Uyghur language (Turkic) and use the Arabic alphabet based Uyghurto script to write. Lots of my publications are in Uyghur, but there are English versions as well.

There was a war against Manchu Qing Dynasty in China in 1759, when they tried to conquer part of our territory (Uyghuristan’s territory is around 1.8 million square kilometres), which they claimed as one of the six portions of China. We were twice established as an independent state. The first was in 1933 as East Turkistan Republic, and the second one was in 1944 as Second East Turkistan Republic. We were occupied by Communist China in 1949. Russia and China divided all Central Asia in the twentieth century, and the Uyghur were amongst the ones who suffered the most under the Chinese occupation. You know what they say: ‘divide and rule’. They primarily tried to occupy the Uyghur land that not belong to them; but Chinese occupation and Uyghur nation’s survival resistance and brutal wars we were continued for over three centuries which resulted todays China’s Uyghur Genocide. Uyghurs are ethnically and culturally very distinctive and different people in China. After Chinese Communists illegal occupation of Uyghuristan in 1949, they announced the establishment of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955, but in reality, there were nothing changed. Then, we once again, started living under Chinese Communists new era colonization.

There are at least more than three million Uyghurs kept in re-education camps, amongst them many writers: we are facing a national tragedy. I made a presentation at the 84th PEN International Congress (2018) in Pune about it.  People talk a lot about Tibetan rights, but no one hears about the Uyghur.  We are 20 million innocent human beings and we have rights to live in this world with our dignity but we were left out by the world into the hands of Chinese CCP’s inhuman persecution. The Uyghurs situation are now in a similar situation to the people who were victims of the Holocaust in 1941. 

G.A. How does your PEN Centre work?

A.I.E. We used to be very active because we received financial support from the US Congress NED Fund. That allowed us to properly run our organisation, to hold conferences and to work with different PEN local Centres of the region through partnership. We joined the Ural-Altai PEN Centres, a group of 30 Centres working together from Estonia to Japan. We used that grant for up to four years, but we struggled to run our organisation from 2014, when the funding was not available anymore. Then we had to start taking care of the expenses by ourselves.

G.A. How does being a PEN Centre in exile affect your work?

A.I.E. Being in exile is a big problem: since 2017, we have a very little or no connection with our country. For example, I have not been able to call anyone for two years now, not even my parents. My whole family is being sent to concentration camps because I left in exile. And anyone from Uyghuristan (East Turkistan) receiving international calls is immediately arrested. It is a very basic human rights by international standards but it’s a crime China. There are about two million Uyghurs in exile; most of them are in Kazakhstan, Europe or Turkey. There are no PEN members in China, where PEN activities are completely banned.

G.A. How many members does your Centre have?

A.I.E. We don’t have a lot of members. Today we have 44 active PEN members, all in exile. It is very difficult to run an organisation like this: from organising meetings to run all necessary communications.

G.A. Do you work with other PEN Centres?

A.I.E. Yes, we do. Tienchi Liao, from Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC), is based in Germany. We met last year in Malmö (Sweden). We wanted to open a dialogue, because there is so much hate among Chinese ethnicities. As PEN members, we have to educate our people, and we have campaign for our freedom, along promoting our literature. As writers, we have to promote peace and mutual understanding, and protect imprisoned writers’ rights. Last year, four PEN Centres held a conference for the peaceful movement in China: Uygur PEN Centre, Tibet PEN Centre, Mongol PEN Centre and ICPC, assisted by the Swedish PEN Centre. It was quite a successful three-day conference. We tried to hold it again this year, but we couldn’t because of the PEN International Congress in India (October 2018). We have the ambition to try to come together, although the Mongol PEN is not a very an active organisation.

G.A. How does your Centre do for the Uyghur writers?

A.I.E. To the best of our knowledge, there are at least more than 200 arrested writers. We cannot even learn about some of the writers’ situation, because there is no way to contact them. We promote their cases through the media, social media, or via the relatives of the writers. PEN does one resolution per country every year, so we have to collaborate with regional PEN Centres to share part of a resolution.

I believe that the Uyghur case should be a priority for PEN and other NGOs, since the Uyghurs are facing a worse Genocide in China and the world must urgently act to stop it.