The road of no return

by Flo Marks

A road through the Taklamakan Desert along the Tarim Basin region. In Uyghur, ‘takla makan’ means ‘you can get into it but can never get out’. CREDIT: Michal Sikorski / Alamy Stock Photo

THE POEM ROSES is dedicated to the Uyghurs arrested and detained in the Chinese Communist Party’s 21st-century concentration camps in what is officially called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Its author, Uyghur poet, writer and academic Aziz Isa Elkun, grew up in Shahyar county, close to the Tarim river, and did not experience the freedom promised in the region’s colonial name.

Now 51, he was first arrested as a 16-year-old schoolboy in 1986 when his activism led to him being informally detained and interrogated. His home was ransacked and his earliest journals taken away. He was released after two days, but his parents’ defence of young naivety was unlikely to save him from a prison sentence in the future.

As the political climate worsened, with increasing government surveillance and censorship, it became increasingly certain that Aziz, as a young adult who favoured freedom of expression and association, would keep getting into trouble.

His commitment to these ideals was cemented when he took part in the student movement in Urumqi.

The frequent investigations, the threats of imprisonment and his unemployment gave him the impetus to flee the mainland, travelling first to Central Asia, in 1999, and then to Germany, before reaching the UK in 2001.

Deciding to become an active member of the diaspora was never free of consequences. Despite living in exile for more than 20 years, Aziz told Index he had never once “stopped worrying” about his friends, family and homeland who he left behind “and remain at the whim of China’s primitive and feudal revenge system”, potentially being punished for his activist work abroad.

In 2017, he learned that his sister and cousins had been imprisoned in the camps. He found the grave of his father, who died of natural causes, on Google Maps – but this was later demolished in a wave of cultural genocide.

With communication cut off, he now has no way of knowing the fate of his mother. But he said: “I am a conscious and free human and British citizen. It’s my basic right to exercise freedom of expression and protest; it’s not up to China.”



It’s a morning bright with sun

Another new day has started

I count, altogether twenty-two autumns

And winters have passed in exile

And I don’t know how many years remain

Before I return to the place where I belong

To the earth that my forefathers made home.

I can feel the sorrow in myself.

My soul shivers; it’s cold

I inherited it all from my father

Whenever the memory of the disappeared homeland

Returns and occupies my mind

It inspires me to be human with dignity

Able to call for the survival of a lost nation

Able to appeal for mercy and love

From the world

Again and again.

The place where I was born

Has turned into a heap of ghostly relics

It only exists amongst the non-existence

In this world full of selfishness.

I am sitting in a garden chair

Trying to enjoy the warm sun for a minute

But it is quickly covered by the rushing clouds

A steaming cup of coffee evaporates my gloom

I am still struggling to feel myself

Believing that better days will come after tomorrow.

One day life will smile on us

Even on the man who writes these lines

Although he lost everything

Travelling on the road of no return

And lived a second life

He is still a hostage to that place

He lives with constant fear

The monster has left countless stains

It has pierced me with needles

But still I call for justice for those

Who have suffered more

But my spirit is still fighting

My hope is still alive

Each time I find new courage

It brings the joy of a smile

Although it’s autumn

My garden leaves are still green

The first rose I planted three years ago

To mark my father’s destroyed grave

The second rose I planted

On Mother’s Day last year

The third rose I planted for the unknown Uyghurs

Who survive inside the camps

My roses are blossoming with hope

Singing a song of freedom

Without waiting for the spring

They remind us

How beautiful it is to be alive

To live in peace in our beautiful world.

10 October 2021, London

Having previously used only a typewriter, learning English and modern technology gave Aziz an unprecedented sense of freedom akin to being “reborn”. Yet it simultaneously brought awareness of the extent of censorship and false information surrounding the Uyghurs.

Feeling it was his calling to debunk the pervasive myth that Uyghurs were a happy minority under the CCP, he has set up 10 websites and platforms and is the director of the Uyghur PEN Revitalisation Project. Written in English and the all-too-rare Uyghur script, these projects aim to share reputable work and information to reach, connect and promote the visibility of the diaspora. This is because, when faced with genocide, he values improving understanding of Uyghur identity, culture, history and current travails as a vital act of resistance and solidarity.

Flo Marks is a researcher at Index on Censorship and a Students for Uyghurs Ambassador at the University of Exeter

Original source published on the Winter Edition of Index of Censorship‘s Winter magazine 2021.

Also published by Los Angeles Review of Books:

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