‘To Save The Uyghurs Is to Save The World’: Interview

Nathan Duddles and his family are hiking the Colorado Trail in the US to raise awareness about the situation in Xinjiang.
2021.08.18
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{From L to R) Carole Duddles, Nathan Duddles, Aaron Needles, and Justin Duddles set off on a Freedom Trek along the Colorado Trail in the US state of Colorado to raise awareness of the plight of the Uyghurs in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Jul. 12, 2021.
Photo courtesy of Bitter Winter/Freedom Trek

Nathan Duddles is an American scholar whose family has been hiking a nearly 500-mile-long trail in Colorado since July 12 to raise awareness of the human rights crisis involving Muslim Uyghurs in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Duddles lived and taught in the XUAR and in neighboring Kazakhstan for nearly two decades, learning both Mandarin Chinese and the Uyghur language. His U.S.-based NGO, the Silk Road Peace Project, advocates for Uyghurs and raises awareness about the situation in XUAR, which several Western governments and legislatures have determined to constitute genocide or crimes against humanity. Duddles spoke with reporter Adile Ablet of RFA’s Uyghur Service on Aug. 13 about his seven-week “Freedom Trek” to inform fellow hikers about the rights abuses being committed by China against the Uyghurs. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: How did you learn about the Uyghur issue?

Duddles: My family and I lived in the region starting a long time ago. We first went to Urumqi in 1988 [when] the region was just starting to open up to foreigners. We went there as language students to learn Mandarin, and then I started teaching. My background was in agricultural science, so I taught graduate students in the agronomy department at what was then the August 1st Agricultural College, which later became a university We were content to just continue teaching and studying, but then another opening for teaching came up in Ghulja in the western part [of Xinjiang]. We were there for five years, and that’s where we learned the Uyghur language.

From being in the region we had lots of friends, and we also spent time in the Uyghur region of Kazakhstan too, involved in humanitarian work. We all knew there were tensions and problems for a long time, but about four and a half years ago when things started becoming really serious, we were some of the first people to hear about it because we had so many friends who began telling us about it. We had one friend who suddenly disappeared, and that had never happened before. So, that’s when we realized that this was very serious, and then since then, we’ve watched the situation get worse and worse.

RFA: Why did you undertake a hike to raise awareness about the Uyghurs?

Duddles: We formed a small NGO called the Silk Road Peace Project to try and do our part to get more [support] at the grassroots level. The current project that we’re involved in is this trek. We’ve done lots of different things over the last few years, but we thought, why not do something a little more unusual and a little more creative? There are hundreds of people in D.C. doing lobbying and all the wonderful things that need to happen. But why not do something that would impact a completely different segment of society — the outdoor community? Colorado is where we live, and one of the main things that goes on here is outdoor recreation. We thought that this would be a great place because people have time, and as we were walking down the trail, we could impact many people. So, that was the idea, and that’s what we’re doing.

When we hike every day along the nearly 500-mile-long trail, we have laminated signs on the backs of our backpacks that say, “Stop the Uyghur Genocide Freedom Trek.” Every person who hikes along with us or comes from behind us usually sees the signs and asks what the freedom trek is about. We ask them if they have heard about the situation that’s going on with the Uyghurs. Right now, the Uyghurs are facing a genocide, and actually most people have at least heard of it, which is amazing. But then we give them a lot more information on small business cards that have a QR code for our website. We’ve handed out many cards as we’re hiking. We also have a banner. It’s like a flag on heavy plastic, and at famous sites along the way, such as big scenic places with overlooks or passes, we pose with the banner and have a picture taken. We’re putting it on social media as well … so the word is getting out there.

RFA: What are you doing to change perceptions based on accusations by the Chinese government that Uyghurs are terrorists?

Duddles: Every few days when we get to our camp, we often talk about what we want to focus on. We felt that we should focus on Uyghur intellectuals who have been disappearing, because my son was contacted by somebody recently about a particular person who just finished his Ph.D., went back [to Xinjiang], and then disappeared. We put out some tweets on the intellectuals and cultural leaders disappearing and made some statements about it. That [Chinese authorities] target intellectuals and cultural leaders shows that it’s not about terrorism at all. It just shows that they are trying to eradicate a whole culture, and you start with the leaders to do that. We’re believers, and we think that there is a God who does care about what’s going on, so we take some time to pray about that. The most recent [issue] that we focused on was the generational disconnect with [authorities] putting children in state orphanages and separating families purposely to stop the continuation of culture and language.

I know hundreds of Uyghur people. Many of them are intellectuals and leaders in different capacities, and every single one of them just wants to preserve the culture, preserve the language, and be left alone. About 20 years ago, there was a little bit more tolerance and a little bit of permission to develop the Uyghur culture and language. If that had continued, then there wouldn’t be the problems that are occurring right now. This was a state-imposed crisis. The crisis did not come from the Uyghur people. The crisis came from the Chinese government.

What’s happening to the Uyghur people right now is the beginning of what China wants to do to the world, so if we don't wake up, we’re all going to be in a really difficult situation. We have to face the facts now and not wait for it to get worse and worse. To save the Uyghurs is to save the world, in my opinion.

RFA: Has the Freedom Trek been effective so far in raising awareness about the Uyghur issue?

Duddles: It’s like a wilderness trek, and there is a reason that we’re here in the United States. One of the greatest expressions of freedom that we have is so much wide open space — wilderness. You can go hike anywhere you want, you can explore, [and] you can see nature. It’s such a beautiful expression of freedom, and that’s a perfect contrast to the lack of freedom that the Uyghurs are experiencing. We want to highlight that contrast and make sure that [the Uyghurs] will have a chance to experience that kind of freedom and that we do not lose that kind of freedom here either, because freedom is really under threat right now worldwide — not only with the worst case, the Uyghur situation. It’s one of the textbook examples of a complete zero freedom for a people. That’s what we’re trying to highlight here. If you like this freedom that we have — these mountains, rivers, and lakes — then you’d better take action right now or it could all be threatened.

Reported by Adile Ablet for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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