I wasn’t planning to meet with a newly released Guantanamo Bay prisoner, whom I’ll refer to as Mehmet. It was more of an accident, a lucky encounter. The restaurant owner of one of Istanbul’s Uyghur restaurants, a friend of my father, had invited my brother and I for dinner. During the dinner, he had casually introduced his younger brother who was sitting on the other end of the restaurant. He told us that his brother had spent time in the Guantanamo prison. Mehmet was one of 22 Uyghur Guantanamo Bay prisoners who were wrongly convicted of being involved in 9/11. They were captured in eastern Afghanistan, where they had escaped to in order to flee Chinese persecution. According to a number of reports, the US had detained these Uyghurs at a time when it was heavily dependent on Afghan proxies who accepted monetary incentives for captives.
Mehmet came over to meet us, and said he knew our father. I told him about my project and then asked him if I could interview him. Mehmet laughed lightly and said that 1) I wouldn’t be able to handle it. There was a lady who listened to his experiences of him in the prison and she busted out crying in the middle, 2) He’s had bad experiences with translators who poorly translated what he said, resulting in humiliation, and 3) He and his fellow Uyghur inmates made a promise upon release that they would not agree to tell media about their experiences.
For the past seven weeks, it never really bothered me when the Uyghurs I asked to be interviewed refused. I would tell myself that it was no big deal, and that I would continue asking people until someone said yes. But I wanted to interview Mehmet so badly – I wanted to know specifically how, from his own words, he ended up in one of the world’s most notorious prisons because he happened to escape China and be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I wanted to know the prison conditions, even though I knew that the CIA had already released torture reports that I could read online if I wanted to. I knew I was being quite selfish – not only because I’d wanted to incorporate him into my film, but also because I was so disappointed about the rejection afterwards.
To cope with this rejection, I had to remind myself that the information I’ve attained in the past two months is enough to shed light on what’s been going on in East Turkistan. I’ve gathered over 25 hours of footage—coming from men, women, and children who recounted the horrors that they’ve lived through. Each interview has new and unheard information. I’m already overwhelmed at how I’m going to have to choose the “most important” portions of their interviews to include in the documentary.
Part of my plan for this fellowship was to also interview the diaspora population living in Turkey’s city of Kayseri, where I was told that thousands of Uyghurs have newly arrived. But I realized that it takes a long time to find people who’d be willing to speak – I was pretty lucky with recruiting interviewees in Istanbul due to family connections; however, even with these connections, I still needed a full two months to focus on Istanbul. If I were to go to Kayseri, I would’ve needed an ample amount of time to recruit potential interviewees.
Overall, I am grateful for these past two months. I feel like I have come back to the States as a completely different person, someone who’s been able to briefly immerse herself in some of the world’s unknown injustices. I feel like I have come back to the States with a different and reformed world view and have realized how incredibly lucky I am to be living in the US. I have come back to the States with bigger plans, to hopefully make this documentary into something that can be seen by millions. I hope this project will be the first step into creating something bigger and better—something that will finally serve as a voice for the silenced 35 million Uyghurs trapped in their homeland.