An American family determined to keep the plight of Uyghurs in the public eye have set out on a grueling 780-kilometer “Peaceful Protest Pilgrimage” across the Coloradan wilderness to raise awareness of the genocide happening in Xinjiang, and pray for the Uyghur nation.
Taking inspiration from the network of ancient pilgrim routes across Spain, known as the Camino de Santiago, Nathan Duddles, founder of the Silk Road Peace Initiative devised the idea of a “Freedom Trek,” with his wife, son and a family friend, to spread the word of the Uyghur crisis among hundreds of hikers descending on the Colorado Trail this summer.
“What could be more opposite to the Orwellian nightmare of Xinjiang?” asked Duddles, who after living and working among Uyghurs in China and Kazakhstan for nineteen years, has become a tireless advocate for the cause, particularly following the accelerated atrocities and human rights abuses over the past four years. “Wilderness is the ultimate expression of what Uyghurs need right now, freedom,” he said. “It is also the perfect backdrop for a kind of pilgrimage. Time to reflect, intercede and heal, far from the madness of a distracted world.”
Citing the Hebrew’s wilderness experience as a precursor to the end of slavery and oppression, he added his hope that the Freedom Trek would inspire the faith and courage needed “to believe that a new era for Uyghurs is possible.”
Duddles’ activism brings him into firsthand contact with victims of the internment camps and a traumatized diaspora whose only news of relatives and friends has been through a vicious rumor mill bringing tales of torture and disappearance of their loved ones. All funds raised through the hike will be channeled into UHRP (Uyghur Human Rights Project) advocacy and the Uyghur Wellness Initiative, which has been set up to help the exiled diaspora process their trauma and grief. Worrying signs of secondary trauma among exiles has concerned Duddles and fellow activists who set out to address the depression, anger, chronic exhaustion and general feeling of hopelessness manifest among Uyghur communities around the world.
Over their six week back packing odyssey, Duddles and his team will focus on separate areas of the Uyghur plight.
Camping down on night one, they focused on the stark comparison between the youth of the average western child and that of the average Uyghur child, now unable to learn their own language, celebrate their own culture or practice their own religion. Many have been abducted to be raised by the Chinese state in orphanages while their parents languish in camps, forced labor regimes or endure brutal prison terms, for offences such as growing an “unusual beard,” having a Quran in their home, or Arabic script on their mobile phone. “Growing up for me, the word ‘camp’ meant barbecues, watermelons and lots of fun,” said Duddles. “For Uyghur children today, the same word has a completely opposite meaning,” he said, referring to the vast network of internment facilities into which at least 1.8 million Uyghurs have been extra judicially herded since the new governor, Chen Quanguo assumed the helm of Xinjiang in 2016.
Day one of the Freedom Trek, focusing on the plight of Uyghur children.
During a trial run over four days, Duddles was heartened that every trekker on the trail had heard of the Uyghurs. “Compared to a year ago this was very encouraging,” he said. Hoping through this initiative to get the word out to thousands more, he is hoping to build a groundswell of support and activism for the cause. He hopes this will reflect in greater global awareness and pressure for change in Xinjiang. “Time in the wilderness always reminds me of what is true and what will last. This morning I want to remind my Uyghur friends that oppression cannot last. Freedom will finally break forth,” he said, inspired by a dramatic sunrise on day two.
The Freedom Trek progress can be followed on Twitter, or on the Silk Road Peace Project website. Their journey can also be followed in real time.