Rebiya Kadeer, a nominee for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, is working to spread awareness about the Uyghur people of the Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Region. This region was once East Turkestan, before China annexed it in 1949. She visited MIT in early May to speak at an event sponsored by Amnesty International and the MIT Muslim Students' Association, as well as several other groups.
I interviewed Kadeer in her hotel room, with the help of her translator, Alim Seytoff. The soft-spoken, unexpectedly cheerful woman greeted me with a kiss on both cheeks before telling me her story. Here, she sheds tears over memories of her childhood and talks about her political career and arrest.
The Tech: Tell me about your childhood.
Rebiya Kadeer: When I was a child, you know, I always loved the mountains because we lived in a very mountainous area. So the neighborhood kids, we'd just take the cows to the mountains. And on the way back we'd always pick nice, beautiful flowers.
Then [one day] they began to gather the Uyghurs together in a certain area to have these political meetings. Then they started cutting the women's hair and cut my mother's hair as well. Then they leveled all the flowers in front of our houses … They painted the trees white … Then they began to shoot all the dogs. I'm going to talk to you about what happened in 1962. The Chinese authorities brought their trucks, load everything we have, including my parents and five of my sisters and brothers. Then they banished us to the south.
The Chinese government's propaganda is always like, stability, stability, unity of nationalities. But ... China took our land. China has also taken our natural resources. China has transferred millions of Chinese people in our country. And the Chinese immigrants got all the power and all the privileges, although China gave us so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. According to China's autonomous law, the Uyghur people have the right to run the Autonomous Region. And the Uyghur peoples' cultural language will be respected and the authorities will not transfer people.
So in the past ten years … the Chinese government has taken everything from us. And as a result, some people of course were not happy with the government. The only thing left for us is our language today. We don't have our economy, we don't have our culture. And the government is viciously attacking the language.
RK: Since 2003 if you're a Uyghur teacher or professor, you have to teach your students in the Chinese language. Another Chinese policy is, they're taking away young kids to the [mainland] provinces to be educated completely in Chinese. Since last June, the Chinese government began to transfer young and unmarried Uyghur girls from the southern part of East Turkestan to mainland Chinese provinces. This is just another form of, we look at it as sort of like an ethnic cleansing, genocide basically. It's not like, go kill with guns, but once you transfer them, they are no longer them. Genocide, things happening in Sudan and other places — at least the world knows and cares … but our situation, nobody knows and few care, because China, everybody wants a piece of that market.
I don't like wars. My hope is to let the international community know our suffering and hopefully through peaceful means we can find some solution.
I don't hate the Chinese people and I am not the enemy of the Chinese people. But we have the right to preserve our own ethnic identity.
TT: You were a member of the Chinese parliament. Why would you want to be part of the Chinese government?
RK: I was very rich once. I made a lot of money doing business. The Chinese government allowed me to become rich because [they] wanted to showcase its sunshine policies to the minorities. When I became rich, I helped my people. Then later I was promoted as the vice president of the Autonomous Regional Trade Enterprise committee. Then the Chinese government promoted me even further … to become a member of the Chinese national parliament. Then I had this idea. I thought, if I go to my homeland and find out people's real situation … then the central authorities will pay attention, resolve everything peacefully, respect the rights of my people. I had this naïve idea. So I wrote reports regarding the Uyghur people's situation and presented at the National Parliament.
TT: What was the situation?
RK: At that time the Chinese government didn't attack our ethnic identity yet. But in Feb. 1997, there was a massacre that took place when the young Uyghurs … took to the streets to protest discrimination against them. Then the authorities sent in military, just killed hundreds of them, or thousands of them, many of them are still in jail today. [I] went there, documented a lot of things, then a month later [I] presented everything to the Chinese parliament.
Then after that I was put under house arrest by the authorities.
TT: What did the authorities say to you when you presented your findings?
RK: Everyone said, you have done a wonderful job for the stability and unity of nationalities in Xinjiang … then I was put under house arrest and my passport was taken away.
TT: You ended up in jail. What sequence of events led from house arrest to jail?
RK: When I was under house arrest situation, I was allowed to do little social things, but they monitored my activities. I prepared another report, writing the real situation of the Uyghur people so that I could give it to a Congressional delegation [that] was visiting. At that time, I was hoping to give [the report to] them, with a lot of prisoners names, detailed information. Then while I was on my way to go to the hotel just like couple minutes before the hotel, I was arrested by Chinese national security agents.
At that time I didn't possess any kind of national security in my hand, but the Chinese government sentenced me for revealing state secrets. It was just the terrible situation of the Uyghur people.
TT: That report was never received by the Congressional delegation?
Alim Seytoff (translator): At that time, I was working at Radio Free Asia. I called the lady who was supposed to meet with [Kadeer]. She said, "She didn't show up … I just thought she didn't come." I said, "Do you know that she was arrested by the authorities?" She was shocked.
RK: In prison, I was in solitary confinement for two years, in a small cage without windows. And after international concern — U.S., European, and human rights groups like Amnesty — then I was transferred to a cell with a window.
For two years, they shackled me with 12 kilos … so I slept even with my shackles and handcuffs on. And once they tortured two men like them [gesturing to two MIT undergraduate male students in the room] in front of me … At the end I think there is justice and there are people who care about human rights and because of U.S. government's concern and European and international human rights community's concern.
Right before my release, the Chinese high level officials warned me, saying that "If you do anything against our interests overseas, we're going to destroy your family, your children, your business, your money, everything." Think about it, after coming out … should I just shut up? No, I know their suffering, so how can I keep quiet.
TT: But it had to be a hard decision — it's your family.
RK: The thing is, whatever is happening to my family is happening to my entire people. There must be one family or one person who dares to pay the price … whether it is the family or it is other areas like finance.
TT: How many children do you have?
RK: Eleven. Five of them in the U.S. They are the younger ones. One in Australia. Five in East Turkestan. Two of them have been sentenced by the Chinese. And the other three are living their lives.
TT: What's the situation like now?
RK: Just in 2005, the Chinese government announced in one year … they arrested more than 18,000 Uyghurs, from terrorists, they call it, whatever that means, to some Uyghurs who talked to a foreign reporter. … And the Chinese government, in spite of international concern and condemnation, sentenced my two sons, without fear. But I'm going to do what I'm going to do, I'm going to raise the awareness in the world.
TT: What can people in the U.S. who are just hearing about this, what can they do to help?
RK: With regard to universities and schools, my hope is that student activists can set up something like Uyghur support groups … they can collect signature from fellow students, professors. Also another thing that would be great is if young students like you visit East Turkestan to see firsthand what's happening there and hopefully write research papers, issue policy papers to let the world know what is happening. Then they can just send it to the U.S. Congress so that the U.S. Congress can pass a legislation to protect the Uyghur culture, identity. And even condemn the Chinese government's human rights violations.