Like a withered tree
Thoughts of an exiled Uyghur (2018)
Put into words by Ingrid Widiarto

 In recent times, my dreams are different. I do not know what they are about but they scare me. It's as if these dreams are draining the ground from under my feet, and when I wake up in the morning, I feel like a stray phantom with no roots.

   In my homeland East Turkestan (Xinjiang), on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, there grows a tree that can survive and grow very old with extremely little water: the Euphrates Poplar. We Uyghurs call it Toghrak. The roots of this tree reach so deep into the earth that even in the desert they still find groundwater. But at some point, even a Toghrak will stand like a skeleton faded by the sun, stretching its bare, barren branches helplessly into the sky.
I feel like a Toghrak tree.

Although I have found a new home, a home where I can live in peace and freedom, for some time now this freedom has been clouded. It ravages my heart. It threatens to become a burden that I can hardly bear.

   I left my country because Europe opened up new ways of art for me, and my dream was to become a bridge between my own and western culture. I hoped to bring my Uyghur colleagues closer to the modern developments of painting and to arouse interest and understanding for the art and traditions of my people. It started promisingly: Artists from Xinjiang came to Berlin for an exhibition and visited the big museums in European cities. We shared our insights and experiences via the internet and we met with more and more interest.

   But then they broke off contact with me because internet communication with foreign countries had become dangerous for Uyghurs.

Soon after, my brother also asked me not to call anymore. Everybody was fine, he assured me, but please: Do not call again. For almost two years now, I have had no contact with my family. I do not know how my parents, siblings and friends are doing. I do not know if they have to endure interrogation, re-education or even prison sentences - just because their son or brother lives abroad. I have not had any news from them since.

This uncertainty ravages my soul.

The fear for my people’s future does so too.


In Xinjiang, new prisons and re-education camps are being built, because the existing ones are overcrowded. Now, about ten percent of Xinjiang's Uyghur population (a million or more) is being held in detention centers, and this can happen to anyone. Just anyone! The slightest suspicion is enough. Everyone is called to spy on everyone else: neighbors, colleagues, friends, relatives. It is said that some cities have even set up special hotlines which can be used to report any suspicion. Nobody asks for proof.

  Sometime it’s a beard not shaved or a Koran in the bookshelf, a prayer in the wrong place or fasting during Ramadan that arouses the suspicion of religious extremism. A kitchen knife that was not properly registered, a link in the cell phone, the absence at political meetings or the raising of the Chinese flag, a trip abroad years ago or the letter from an exiled Uyghur can be reason enough for detainment. The slightest hint of alleged religious or political activities. Anything. People disappear into the camps without a trial and for an indefinite period of time and often their families do not know what has happened to them, or not until much later.  

   Some Uyghurs who have survived "re-education" and dare talk about it, report sheer incredible things. A very important component of the re-education program is the daily reciting of slogans like:

"Xi Jinping is great! The Communist Party is great! I deserved punishment because I did not understand that President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party can help me."
"There is no god. I do not believe in god. I believe in the Communist Party."
"I'm so stupid that I did not show any gratitude to President Xi Jinping."
"Long live Xi Jinping! May he live ten thousand years!"


The Toghrak tree has been able to survive in my desert homeland for millions of years, but whether we Uyghurs will survive seems questionable at the moment. If the Communist Party is not stopped by someone, our culture at least will soon be extinguished. The Chinese government is trying to take our identity away from us, with violence and without reason.

   Maybe in my troubled nights, I dream that I am a Toghrak tree whose roots have been cut so that it is beginning to wither into a gray-white skeleton with bare, barren branches stretching helplessly into the sky.