Memoir of a genocide | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Memoir of a genocide

BOOKS | A Uyghur recounts the experience of repression in China

Illustration by Jan Feindt

Memoir of a genocide
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

The Chinese government has sent an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities to detention camps since 2017. A 2022 UN Human Rights Office report said China’s discriminatory campaign in the northwest region of Xinjiang may constitute “crimes against humanity,” and the United States is among several countries that have accused China of genocide.

If Tahir Hamut Izgil had not left Xinjiang in 2017 to resettle in the United States, he likely would’ve ­disappeared into a reeducation camp. In his memoir Waiting To Be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide (Penguin Press 2023), Izgil recounts in clear prose how the persecution against his people progressed.

Born in 1969 to dairy farmers, Izgil grew up in a village in Xinjiang. After studying at a university in Beijing, he worked as a film director in Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital, while continuing to write poetry.

Izgil recalls hearing about Xinjiang authorities requiring Uyghur Muslim mosques to display Chinese national flags, starting in 2011. Officials then banned names that were overtly ethnic or religious, forcing residents with common names including Muhammad and Fatimah to refer to themselves in other ways. It wasn’t long until authorities ordered Uyghurs to purge all ­religious items from their homes, including copies of the Quran, prayer rugs, and prayer beads.

The author also describes the time police officers collected blood samples, voice prints, and face scans from him, his wife, and other Uyghurs.

When the mass arrests began, fear spread. According to Izgil, authorities first targeted people who were religiously devout, had traveled abroad, or had “livelihoods outside the state ­system.” But they gradually arrested others as well, often without telling them the crime they committed.

Izgil began hearing accounts of people he knew who were detained, and there was no way of knowing if or when he’d be next. “We all lived within this frightening uncertainty,” he writes.

Despite the chilling experiences, Izgil maintains a relatively calm, matter-of-fact tone. He mentions on several occasions it was after the “2009 violence in Urumchi” that China adopted increasingly repressive measures toward Uyghurs. The book’s translator helpfully explains in the introduction that this refers to deadly clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

While Izgil does not elaborate on the abuses and torture Uyghurs suffer in detention, he provides insight into the discrimination they face from Han Chinese, the fear residents experience, and the myriad obstacles one would need to overcome to make an unlikely escape.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...