VANCOUVER—The two Canadians were walking down a sidewalk in their neighbourhood in Turpan, a city in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, when everyone seemed to freeze.

A Uyghur man had accidentally tripped over a police officer’s foot.

The man, who was in his 30s, grimaced and looked stricken about the misstep. The officer flew into a rage and grabbed the man around his neck with two hands, dragging him to one of the many police stations at every major intersection.

No one dared look.

All around the street, everyone averted their eyes, and some even plastered a smile on their faces.

“People were pretending not to see. Everyone acted calm, because nobody wanted to be noticed by police, too,” Andrea Dyck recalled of the 2017 incident.

Andrea and her husband Gary, who are both from small towns in Manitoba, had lived in Xinjiang for almost 10 years by that point. They were fluent in Uyghur and Mandarin, and their social group was made up of mostly Uyghur families and “ordinary office workers.”

After stints with poverty alleviation NGOs in Central Asia, the couple had set up a social enterprise in Turpan that processed agricultural waste and sold compost to local farmers.

They are now speaking out about the horrors they witnessed, when around them, an estimated million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were forcibly taken to internment camps for “re-education.”

Pressure has been mounting on the Chinese Communist Party over what some governments, including the United States, have declared an ongoing genocide of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In February, Canada’s House of Commons passed a motion recognizing genocide is taking place there; the motion passed 266-0 with the Liberal cabinet abstaining.

Now the Dycks have decided to speak about their 10 years in Xinjiang and how a massive clampdown on the Uyghur population eventually drove them to leave.

When the roadblocks and extra security measures first appeared, some of the Dycks’ acquaintances believed the Chinese government was genuinely trying to root out terrorists, and that the heightened security checkpoints at every major road would protect Uyghurs, too.

After all, the Canadian family was living in the capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, in 2009 when violent riots broke out on the streets between Uyghurs and people of China’s majority ethnic group, Han Chinese.

Out of a 16th-storey apartment window, they looked down as clouds of dust swept up from crowds below, and an American friend rushed in to warn the family not to go outside. People were attacking each other with makeshift weapons and knives.

A photo taken by Gary Dyck of a Uyghur boy being carried by his father in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Dyck and his wife Andrea left the region after a decade due to increasing security measures.

Authorities blocked international media from verifying the numbers of victims of the clashes, and Chinese officials said nearly 200 people died, mostly Han Chinese. Many Uyghurs disappeared in police sweeps following the riots, and seemingly overnight, the Dycks watched the security presence ramp up around the remote western region of China to scarcely believable proportions.

“Every restaurant had a scanning machine. We had to walk by police guards just to buy tomatoes,” Gary said.

The couple were speaking to the Star ahead of a public virtual event on Thursday hosted by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

“We noticed racial tensions before, but after the (riots), it just exploded. Hans and Uyghurs did not trust each other, and police acted like a terrorist attack was going to happen at any moment,” he said, recalling an incident where a police officer berated his colleague for sneaking away from his post to grab a cold Pepsi on a hot day.

Police vans soon seemed to circle city blocks non-stop.

Andrea said they started seeing less of their friends because of daily flag-raising ceremonies which every Uyghur in their community had to attend, where Muslim women had to take off their head scarves.

“They had never been in public with their hair exposed before, and were covering their faces in shame,” she said.

“There were also daily propaganda meetings at workplaces, and our friends were very tired and had no energy to respond to what was happening.”

One of their friends who worked at a government office was forced to sleep in her office each night. She wasn’t allowed to leave to cook dinner for her son who had returned from boarding school on a holiday.

Then came hushed whispers of people disappearing, being taken to internment camps. The Dycks were the only resident foreigners in the area, and because they were such outsiders, Uyghur friends trusted them with their stories.

“One woman I know had a sister who was taken to a camp because of an international trip she did as a tourist years before. She was the primary caregiver for her elderly parents and sibling’s children. When she was gone, the whole family structure fell apart,” Andrea said.

“We could see one camp from the road we lived on … just 10 minutes down our street.”

The compound was surrounded by walls at least 15 feet high, with security cameras and a single entrance with multiple gates. Razor wire could be seen along the wall surrounding the courtyard.

They estimate that in Turpan’s surrounding farming villages, around a third of farmers were either taken to the camps, or forced to take jobs in other parts of China far away from their families, by mid-2018. Uyghur farmers had made up their customer base for compost sales.

The couple decided to be part of Thursday’s panel following increased pressure on the Chinese government about Xinjiang and more accounts of what has been happening inside the region coming to light.

On Monday, the NGO Human Rights Watch released a report into events in Xinjiang titled “Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots,” the title taken from a religious affairs official quoted on a social media page belonging to China’s state-run news outlet, Xinhua.

The report, and other accounts, have estimated in recent years more than one million Uyghurs and other Turkic people have been sent to up to 400 facilities after being arbitrarily detained. Once there they are subject to torture, forced labour and other abusive treatment, the report says.

“The oppression continues outside the detention facilities,” it reads. “The Chinese authorities impose on Turkic Muslims a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance, cultural and religious erasure, and family separation.”

Written by: Joanna Chiu, Jeremy Nuttall
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