The Mother Of the Uighur Movement

July 9, 2009

Author: David Montgomery

Source: The Washington Post

The translators kept bursting into tears.

That was a problem for Rebiya Kadeer, the tiny and fiery matriarch of the Uighur diaspora, who lives in Fairfax County and who was leading a protest march on the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Tuesday.

She was speaking Uighur, the Turkic language of her people. Unlike her younger translators who spelled one another at the bullhorn, Kadeer, 63, scarcely betrayed weakness in the fierce planes and furrows of her face. Although the Chinese Embassy said she "instigated" the bloody rioting in her homeland in far western China, she looked almost serene.

Her problem: How do you get the message to the wider world, via the assembled television cameras, if the message comes out soused and doused in sobs and wailing?

Or maybe that is the message.

The violence this week leaves many Uighurs in a state of pure, helpless emotion. Some say loved ones have been killed. Others can't reach friends and fear the worst.

The riots and the crackdown in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, are proving to be a perverse opportunity. For much of their history, the Uighurs -- pronounced "wee-gers" -- have been a relatively obscure, Muslim ethnic minority. This week they have been elevated closer to the Tibetans in terms of publicity for civil rights struggles in China.