“We had the impression of living in a huge penitentiary”: a Canadian couple who spent ten years in Xinjiang recounted the repression against the Uyghur minority which they witnessed in this region of China.
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After working for NGOs in Asia, Gary and Andrea Dyck moved to Xinjiang in 2007, where the treatment of the Uyghur minority by the Chinese authorities in recent years has been denounced as “genocide” by several Western countries.
The couple, who learned Mandarin and the Uyghur language, had set up a composting business in Tourfan, eastern Xinjiang.
“We value our life there and we felt accepted by the Uyghur people. It was a very special time … until it wasn’t at all anymore, ”said Andrea Dyck.
“There were so many restrictions. We had the impression of living in a huge penitentiary, ”adds her husband, referring to the departure of the couple in 2018, at a time when many foreigners have left the region.
Andrea and Gary Dyck say they found that after the riots of 2009, “traditional Uyghur neighborhoods began to be dismantled and their inhabitants increasingly relocated to apartment buildings, far from their communities.”
In 2016, as the crackdown intensified, the couple noted an increase in police presence with checkpoints at major intersections and an increase in security cameras.
“All of a sudden you had to go through security checks like an airport to enter a grocery store,” recalls Andrea.
The couple took part in a virtual discussion on the plight of the Uyghurs on Thursday at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. The next day he granted an interview at his home in Manitoba.
For Gary Dyck, the repression of Uyghurs and their culture is “very methodical” and the importance of the repressive apparatus is such that it prevents any reaction from the population.
“We have witnessed an increasing destruction of their culture,” starting with Islamic traditions and also affecting food, clothing and language, says Andrea.
Uyghurs have been prohibited from “killing sheep on their doorstep” for religious holidays, and even “from having prayer rugs in their homes,” she said.
According to the couple, some versions of the Quran were banned and eventually books in the Uyghur language.
Andrea and Gary also reported that a detention camp with walls over 4 meters high crowned with barbed wire, monitored by cameras and patrolling security guards, had been built near their home.
According to foreign experts, more than a million Uyghurs, the main ethnic group in Xinjiang, are detained in re-education camps and some are subjected to “forced labor”.
China firmly denies and claims that these are training centers, intended to distance their occupants from terrorism and separatism, after attacks attributed to Uyghurs.
Ms Dyck referred to the case of the sister of a woman she knew who was transferred to a camp for having been abroad years earlier. “She was the primary support for her elderly parents and the young children of the extended family. And with his departure, the family structure collapsed, ”she says.
Gary Dyck also notes that friends of the couple’s teenage son were anxiously awaiting their eighteenth birthday, wondering if they would not be interned in camps once they came of age.
“In what other region of the world is a young person afraid of turning 18,” says Mr. Dyck, indicating that young men had started to photograph themselves on social networks smoking or drinking “for not to appear Muslim ”.
The decision to leave Xinjiang was “difficult, but we felt we had no other choice,” Dyck concluded, noting that the couple also feared that their relationship with their Uyghur friends could put them at risk.