Sunday, July 03, 2022

Cameroonian activist pushed for restitution of deity

A young Cameroonian activist is the force behind a quest to restitute a sacred statue stolen by a German colonialist 120 years ago. Njobati Sylvie believes restitution is integral to confronting Cameroon's past.

Njobati Sylvie's grandfather was the heir apparent of the Nso community

Restitution activist Njobati Sylvie could not hide her joy whenGermany's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation announced that a statue of Ngonnso would be returned to Cameroon.

Ngonnso is a mother deity of the Nso people in northwestern Cameroon. A statue of her was taken by Kurt von Pavel, a German colonial officer in Cameroon, who subsequently donated her to Berlin's Ethnological Museum in 1903.

"I feel super elated, it has been a journey that has culminated to a win for the Nso community, Cameroon and by and large the entire African continent," Njobati told DW.

Ngonnso has a central role for the Nso as she is considered a mother deity

The restitution journey

Njobati started the Twitter campaign #BringBackNgonnso in 2020, which played a large part in raising awareness for the restitution cause.

But her activism actually started before that — when she decided to reconnect with her Nso heritage and trace her roots.

Njobati grew up in Cameroon's Anglophone region with her mother and her grandfather, the heir-apparent to leadership of the Nso community, though he couldn't take up the position because he became a Presbyterian pastor.

"I grew up with my grandfather totally disconnected with my culture and tradition," Njobati said. "I was embedded into Christianity."

The primitivist art movement
Bright, contrasting colors, simplified forms, and a return to a supposedly simple life untouched by industrialization are among the features of primitivism. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Still Life with Flowers and Sculptures" (1912) is a primary example. In Germany, this style was at the height of popularity when imperial Germany was a colonial power.

Sylvie's identity crisis

When she went to university in Yaounde — the French speaking side of Cameroon — she says her Anglophone background made her unwelcome, which led to what she describes as an identity crisis and a sense of emptiness.

"I remember one day at the market someone called me an Anglofool," she said. "This was just the beginning of a backlash I received as a young person."

At this point in her life Njobati realized that she had been "fully covered by cultures that are not hers." "I also remember asking myself: Who am I if I'm stripped of the colonial heritage? Who am I if I'm stripped of the English or French system of education, law or even religion?" she said.

Njobati believes young people should be involved in restitution conversation

But these multiple identity crises emboldened her quest to reconnect with her original heritage.

History unfolds

"Some of my young peers felt like I'm putting up a show," she recalls. "They thought I'm not qualified to have a conversation with myself. They believe only African diasporas do such things."

This journey of reidentification is what resulted in her realization that Ngonnso — "the founder of Nso community" was not in her rightful place.

When she was told the history of what unfolded before the statue was taken from the Nso people, she felt disturbed, before developing her commitment to restoring the statue.

"Ngonnso was stolen from the palace, in a violent expedition," she said. "The palace where it used to sit was razed down by the German colonialists. There is no way it can continue being away from its rightful place."

"I remember promising my grandfather that I will ensure that we bring back Ngonnso. He also wanted to see Ngonnso back. Unfortunately he died before this could happen," she added.

Cameroon: Angele Etoundi Essamba
African artists have long lacked representation at the Venice Biennale; the 2007 fair had only one African pavilion. Fifteen years later there are eight, including the Cameroon pavilion, which features work by photographer Angele Etoundi Essamba, among others. Her mission to "portray womankind" is reflected in her images of women who radiate strength and independence.

Tapping into social media's power

Njobati embarked on a strategic approach that involved rallying masses on social media, through the #BringBackNgonnso campaign she pushed on Twitter and Facebook.

"Some of my peers thought that this was a waste of time and resources. But I asked myself how many people with the desire to see Ngonnso back to Cameroon will die before her restitution happens," she said.

Thanks to the campaign, the statue, which spent decades in the basement of Berlin's Ethnological Museum, was finally brought up for public display.

Watch video 42:36 Stolen Soul — Africa's Looted Art

Youth involvement in restitution

Njobati's resolve shed new light on the conversation about young people's involvement in confronting Cameroon's colonial past. "Young people should be key stakeholders in this conversation," she said.

But restitution is often seens as a complex and uninteresting topic for the average young African, especially in light of the multiple challenges that affect them, such as unemployment.

However, according to Njobati, a true African rebirth will only be realized "when the youth get reconnected with their true heritage."

The statute of the goddess Ngonnso will be returned to the kingdom of Nso in Cameroon

Why restitution now?

Germany has agreed to return a trove of looted African colonial artifacts in recent times.

According to Njobati, the successful quest she led that began the Ngonnso restitution process should encourage other young Africans.

"For us it's Ngonnso, a sacred statue, but there are thousands of stolen African artifacts still being displayed in multiple European museums. We, the youth, should lead the quest of bringing them back," she said. "For me it's about the principle of justice. Africa has suffered colonial crimes for a long time. We must deal with these issues if we want to remain true to confronting colonial past," she added.

According to the 31-year-old, "continued display of the artifacts at European museums is disrespectful and a simple a show of power." "It demonstrates that the colonialists came, conquered African nations, took their integral heritage, some with spiritual significance, and are holding them captive at museums."

What's next for Ngonnso?

The Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation is now set to hold further talks with Nso representatives on how Ngonnso will be returned to Cameroon.

Njobati will take part in these talks, and believes this success has opened possibilities for the return of thousands of other objects being held in European museums.

"The quest that began with the need of bring back Ngonnso will now advance to a quest to take back all the heritage that belongs to the African continent," she said. "My intention is to rally young people, historians, researchers in a bid to have what is rightfully ours brought back. This is our heritage. Let the artifacts be brought back to us."

Speaking to DW, Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation president Hermann Parzinger said that objects that were not necessarily looted "should also be repatriated."

"We are open to restitution and after the due diligence is followed we are obliged to return .... In every restitution process we must get a claim and we access them diligently and independently," Parzinger added.

Stella Gaitano
Born in Sudan in 1979, the author writes mainly about war, escape and displacement, but also about great expectations and hopes for her native country. In early 2022, she fled to Germany with the help of the PEN writers' association. Art is a living thing that needs space to be freely expressed, accepted and supported, Gaitano says.

Edited by: Keith Walker

Germany seeks 'safety first' approach to legalizing cannabis

Germany is on the path to legalizing recreational marijuana use. Safety and public health will be top priorities in the upcoming legislation, the health minister has said.

Germany's government announced plans to introduce a law to legalize marijuana use

Germany's government is moving forward with plans for legislation to legalize cannabis consumption.  Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said on Thursday that a draft law is scheduled to be ready by the end of the year.  

The upcoming legislation is "a long-awaited step for many," Lauterbach said, adding that the government will apply a "safety first" principle to its efforts toward legalizing marijuana use.

"The current, primarily repressive way of dealing with cannabis has failed," Lauterbach said. 

Germany's three-party coalition government of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP) has been on board with cannabis legalization and committed to the "controlled distribution of cannabis to adults for consumption" in its coalition agreement

Lauterbach reverses his stance on cannabis

Lauterbach had previously been against the legalization of cannabis, citing health risks. While the health minister's position has changed over the past two years, he still urged that key details on the matter need to be clarified.  

He said the protection of minors and aspects concerning the criminal code, tax and road traffic law need careful consideration.  

"Cannabis use is not a small thing for young people, and especially for children, and can destroy a life before it has really begun," the minister said. However, he also recognized the need for well-secured, quality access to the drug without criminalization as something that "must be accepted and is a part of a modern society." 

Currently, about 4 million adults in Germany use cannabis, according to the health minister.  

asw/sms (AFP, dpa) 

Denmark's PM 'regrets mistakes' in 2020 mink cull decision

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen apologized to mink breeders following the release of a report critical of government actions. But she maintained her stance on the decision to cull millions of minks during the pandemic.

Denmark culled over 15 million minks early in the COVID-19 pandemic

Danish Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen has responded to criticism following the release of a report into the November 2020 cull of more than 15 million minks saying Friday, "I regret the mistakes that have been made."

The commission tasked with investigating the decision to cull the entire mink population in the country published its report on Thursday.

The commission criticized Frederiksen's office for actions that "led to the gross misleading of mink breeders and the public and the clearly illegal instructions to authorities."

In a statement posted on Facebook, Frederiksen said she took the criticism "very, very seriously." 

What did Frederiksen say?

The Danish prime minister began her statement by apologizing to those affected by the cull and acknowledging there had been mistakes.

"I would like to apologize to the mink farmers and their families. I know it has been hard. And the fact that there have been mistakes in the process has made it all the more painful," Frederiksen said.

However, the prime minister said she stood by the November 2020 decision. "For the sake of the Danes' health and our country's reputation and responsibility to the rest of the world, the only solution was to cull the mink. Unfortunately."

The decision garnered a high degree of controversy largely because legislation had only been put in place a month after the cull began.

Frederiksen said it was a time of great pressure and "in the midst of a major crisis, the legal remedy should of course have been in place."

The prime minister said she was pleased that the commission felt that she had "complied with her duty to tell the truth and that I had neither knowledge of nor any intention to mislead."

Decision decimated Denmark's mink industry

At the time the decision was made, Frederiksen said the cull was necessary due to concerns that the animals had become infected with the coronavirus and that it was beginning to mutate.

Up until November 2020, Denmark had been the largest producer of mink fur, but the decision to kill the animals wiped the industry out and resulted in the country's agriculture minister, Mogens Jensen, resigning after facing intense scrutiny over the handling of the crisis.

Frederiksen said it would now be up to her colleagues to decide on what should happen next but that she hoped there would be a level of understanding "that mistakes can unfortunately occur when a government has to deal with a difficult crisis situation for Denmark."

kb/sms (dpa, Reuters)

Dutch central bank apologizes for role in slave trade

The central bank in the Netherlands admitted that early directors profited from plantations in the Caribbean and South America and advocated against the Dutch abolition of slavery.

The DNB's apology comes after several other Dutch institutions admitted to their role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade

The Dutch central bank (DNB) apologized on Friday for the institution's involvement in the 19th-century slave trade. The apology came at a ceremony marking the Dutch abolishment of slavery.

"On behalf of DNB, I apologize today to all people who by the personal choices of my predecessors were reduced to the color of their skin," Klaas Knot, the central bank governor, said in a speech at the event. 

DNB's apology came after an investigation published in February revealed early private investors of the bank either owned or financed plantations in overseas colonies. Others traded in staple crops produced on plantations in the Caribbean and South America — such as sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco.

The investigation also revealed that bank directors advocated against the abolishment of slavery in the Netherlands. 

The bank acknowledged that it had participated in slavery from 1814 to 1863. In addition, DNB admitted to paying compensation to half of its directors as well as plantation owners when slavery was finally abolished in the country.

Knot announced at the event a series of measures to increase diversity and inclusion in its own ranks. DNB also promised to commit €10 million ($10.4 million) in the next 10 years to projects aimed at mitigating "contemporary negative effects of 19th-century slavery.''

Longstanding Dutch institutions have been on a campaign to grapple with its connection to slaveryand colonization in different parts of the world. Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema apologized last year for the Dutch capital's role in the slave trade. In April, Dutch bank ABN Amro also admitted to the involvement of its predecessors in plantation slavery. 

The Dutch West India Company traded some 600,000 slaves, according to Dutch state data. The Netherlands was involved in slavery from the 17th century until it was abolished in 1863. 

asw/sms (Reuters, AP, DPA)


US adds Bulgarian-German 'cryptoqueen' to most-wanted list over mass fraud

Ruja Ignatova has been on the run for five years after discovering that the FBI was on to her. She has been charged with eight counts of fraud for absconding with some $4 billion.

Ruja Ignatova has not been seen since boarding a plane to Greece five years ago

Ruja Ignatova, a Bulgarian-born woman who now holds German citizenship who disappeared in 2017, has been placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. US officials said she was wanted for defrauding investors, some of them US citizens, out of $4 billion (€3.8 billion) by selling a fake cryptocurrency called OneCoin.

Known as the "cryptoqueen," Ignatova has been charged with eight counts, including wire fraud and securities fraud for running the Bulgaria-based OneCoin Ltd. as a pyramid scheme. Prosecutors say the company offered commissions for members to entice others to buy a worthless cryptocurrency.

"She timed her scheme perfectly, capitalizing on the frenzied speculation of the early days of cryptocurrency," said Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan.

Williams described OneCoin as "one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history."

'Money can buy a lot of friends'

Ignatova, who was born in Bulgaria, has been on the run for five years, when it was discovered she had bugged the apartment belonging to her US boyfriend and realized he was cooperating with the FBI. She boarded a plane from Bulgaria to Greece and has not been seen since.

The FBI is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ignatova's capture, said Michael Driscoll, the FBI's assistant director-in-charge in New York.

"She left with a tremendous amount of cash," Driscoll told a press conference. "Money can buy a lot of friends, and I would imagine she's taking advantage of that."

Ignatova's accomplice, former corporate lawyer Mark Scott, was recently found guilty of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering by a New York City federal court.

es/sms (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

German building workers find suspected Nazi mass grave

Builders made a grim discovery as they worked at a prison site in the German state of Saxony. While digging, they found the bones of several people thought to have been executed by the Nazis.

The site in Torgau, which was a Napoleonic era fortress, is still used as a prison

Police in the German city of Leipzig on Friday said construction workers at a prison near the eastern German town of Torgau had discovered the remains of a number of people buried together.

It is suspected that the bones belong to victims of the Nazi regime, which operated a detention facility at the site.

How was the discovery made?

Builders were working on a wall at the prison in Torgau when they discovered bones belonging to several individuals, Germany's Bild newspaper reported.

Forensic investigators confirmed that the bones belonged to numerous different people and that they likely dated back to the first half of the 20th century.

The office of the public prosecutor has opened an investigation into where the bones came from and the likely circumstances of the individuals' deaths.

Police said the site would be further excavated to seek any more bodies that might be buried there.

Where did the bodies come from?

According to the German news website Tag 24, the remains could belong to the victims of Germany's Nazi regime

Torgau was the hub of the Wehrmacht's penal system, with two of Nazi Germany's eight military prisons. Some 60,000 military prisoners were detained there. From 1943, it was also home to a German military court.

Some 1,400 people were sentenced to death by the court for crimes listed as desertion, "cowardice in the face of the enemy", undermining military strength, or treason during war. About 1,200 executions were carried out, either at Torgau or other sites.

Torgau is also known as the place where US and Soviet soldiers first met

After 1945, the facilities were used by Soviet forces to detain individuals linked to the Nazi party. They were also used to hold political opponents of the communist regime before deportation to gulags in the Soviet Union.

The site where the bones were found was built in 1811 under the orders of Napoleon and was previously known as Fort Zinna. Some of the executions that took place there under the Nazis were at the moat of the old fortress.

The prison was subsequently used to house prisoners of the East German penal system and is now a correctional facility for some 400 inmates.

More generally, Torgau is also known as the place where US and Soviet forces first made contact at the end of World War II, with soldiers from the US First Army meeting those from the Soviet First Ukrainian Front. A photograph of the meeting became an iconic image of the end of the war.

rc/sms (epd, German media)

Berlin mosque flies rainbow flag in support of LGBTQ community

A liberal mosque in Berlin has hoisted the rainbow flag ahead of a series of LGBTQ events in the city. One of the mosque's imams hopes other mosques will follow suit.

The rainbow flag will stay up until the end of July

The Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin said on Friday it was the first German mosque to fly the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride and diversity of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

Located in the central Moabit neighborhood of the German capital, the mosque unfurled its flag in front of a small group of people, including Berlin's Culture Senator Klaus Lederer.

Attendees wore stickers saying "Love is Halal" ahead of a series of LGBTQ events scheduled to take place in the city in July.

Mo el-Ketab, one of the mosque's six imams, said the space was intended to be a "safe place for people who are different, so they too can experience the spiritual side of their lives."

"I hope that many other mosques will also show the flag in this way or set other positive signs for the LGBT community," he added.

The flag will remain up until the end of July, the LGBTQ website reported.

Berlin's pride month just beginning

While most of the world celebrates pride month in June, the German capital will hold two major LGBTQ events in July.

One is the Lesbian and Gay Festival on July 16 and 17, while the other is Christopher Street Day (CSD) on July 23.

According to Berlin-based newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, organizers have planned four weeks of events running from the anniversary of the Stonewall protests on June 28 to Christopher Street Day.

Many people at the mosque wore stickers reading "Love is halal"

CSD board member Marc-Eric Lehmann said the rainbow flag at the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque sent "an incredibly strong sign" and it was "really important" to find a place for religion in LGBTQ communities.

"Queer people can also be religious and believe in God," he said. "We should not just be talking about safe spaces in bars and clubs in Berlin, we also have to talk about safe spaces in the places of worship."

The Berlin mosque is Germany's only self-described liberal mosque where men and women are invited to pray together. It was first founded just five years ago.

ab/sms (AFP, EPD)

State settles SNAP dispute, agrees to spend millions to beef up federal food aid program

Robert Nott, 

The Santa Fe New Mexican

Jul. 1—The state has agreed to invest millions of dollars into improvements to its administration of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as part of a settlement in a long-running U.S. Department of Agriculture claim alleging mismanagement between 2014 and 2016.

The benefits program called SNAP, sometimes known as food stamps, helps about 510,000 low-income New Mexicans — about a quarter of the state's population — buy groceries.

Federal officials accused the state of approving eligibility of some applicants without full verification, improperly paying out retroactive benefits and keeping many SNAP applications pending beyond deadlines. While the initial USDA claim was for more than $163 million, the state submitted an appeal "asserting they are liable for $7,030,914," according to the settlement agreement, dated June 25.

Over the next few years, the state Human Services Department will pay $3.6 million to the Department of Agriculture under the settlement agreement.

New Mexico also must invest more than $15 million to strengthen SNAP services.

The investments, over a three-year period, include $7.1 million for staff hiring and retention, $1.8 million for fraud detection initiatives, $3.2 million to improve call center operations and $3.1 million for SNAP system enhancements.

David Scrase, the state's acting Cabinet secretary of health and human services, wrote in an email Wednesday, "HSD has worked tirelessly these past three and a half years to improve processes and implement procedures to provide timely and accurate benefits to more than 500,000 unique New Mexican SNAP customers."

A recent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report said 67 percent of households in New Mexico receiving SNAP benefits include children.

Verenice Peregrino Pompa, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said Thursday, "New Mexican families need SNAP in order to make sure no one goes hungry. These investments as result of this lawsuit are important. We're facing a real crisis because a lot of people are not getting their SNAP benefits on time and cannot feed their family."

The USDA suit wasn't the first against the state accusing it of poor management of the federal food stamp program or even fraudulent practices.

In past years, officials with the Human Services Department faced allegations of illegal efforts to reduce a backlog of emergency requests for benefits by falsifying information on applications so it would appear families were ineligible for aid. Federal law requires state governments to process emergency SNAP applications within seven days.

The USDA settlement includes a provision allowing the agency to withhold federal funding if the state does not comply with the terms.

Earlier this year, the federal government granted the state's request to automatically continue providing SNAP benefits to recipients for several months to aid those affected by a record year of devastating wildfires.

SNAP recipients can also purchase hot prepared food from authorized businesses, along with groceries, through July 12 to help those who were evacuated or lost their homes in the fires, or who lost electricity due to wildfire damage.

China Destroyed Muslim Culture In This Ancient City — Then Turned It Into Disneyland

Alison Killing
Thu, June 30, 2022

For centuries, the arched entrances and ornate patterned brickwork of Kashgar’s mosques signaled Uyghur culture’s essential place in the ancient city.

Then the mosques fell into the crosshairs of China’s campaign targeting Muslims, including Uyghurs and Kazakhs, in the province of Xinjiang. The government removed minarets and painted over Arabic calligraphy, according to video obtained by BuzzFeed News. Police officers and metal detectors greeted worshippers as they entered. Inside Id Kah, Kashgar’s largest and most revered mosque, cameras spaced 6 meters apart kept watch over the carpet lining the prayer hall. A photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping hung over one of the doors, even though Islam forbids most figurative images.

Now the government is using the mosques that remain as part of another campaign: to draw tourists to Xinjiang. Travelers pose in the mosques’ doorways for Instagram photos to which they append hashtags such as #travel, #streetphotography, #travelblogger, #chill, and #holiday. The city has been optimized for social media, and the mosques fit right into this image. A tree outside one is filled with hanging ornaments, and beneath it sits one of many new rustic-style benches found in the city’s public squares — a perfect view for a holiday snap.

In the span of a few years, China assembled a vast and sophisticated infrastructure to lock up Muslims in Xinjiang and to force them to labor in factories. The government built enough space to detain 1 million people at any given time.

The camps and detention centers form the fulcrum of a campaign that the US and other governments have labeled a genocide. But China has also been systematically hollowing out Uyghur culture in Xinjiang’s towns and cities, degrading Muslim landmarks, and inviting non-Uyghurs to move in — or visit for a vacation.

Journalists and independent observers have been largely unable to see the shape and scale of these changes, because it is nearly impossible for them to travel within the region without police harassment. Earlier reporting has described a lot of the surveillance infrastructure and some of the ways that the city has been transformed for the benefit of tourists, but extensive visual documentation has been lacking, with journalists frequently forced to delete any photographs they take.

But BuzzFeed News has compiled and analyzed a large trove of videos and photos that provide an intimate portrait of recent life in Kashgar, which is Xinjiang’s second most populous city. Much of this documentary evidence was captured by tourists, who are able to move around Xinjiang much more freely.

A series of videos taken by a Russian-speaking tourist who walked around Kashgar in October 2017 shows how, at the same time it was rounding up Muslims by the thousands, the government was suffocating the practice of Uyghur culture in the city. Cameras and police checkpoints are everywhere. Chinese flags are hanging from every market stall and shop front; in one video, a group of police officers stops to check that the flags are hanging correctly.

We analyzed the videos, recording the presence of CCTV cameras as well as police checkpoints, stations, and patrols, then geolocated them from the footage to build a detailed map of the city and its surveillance infrastructure at the height of the crackdown. We then compared later videos and photographs to document how the city changed from 2017 through to the present day.

In mid-2019, after locking up 1 million people in the region according to UN estimates, the government declared victory, saying it had stamped out terrorism — and was turning its focus to tourism. “As the infiltration of religious extremism has been curbed, public order and security have returned to society, where equality, solidarity and harmony among ethnic groups and religions have prevailed,” the government wrote in a white paper. In the same paper, the government touted Xinjiang’s tourism industry.

Around that time, the government began to draw back some of its most menacing surveillance features in Kashgar, according to an analysis of contemporary photos and videos. In the three years since, a very different type of visual began to stand out: visor-wearing tour groups, Uyghurs dressed up in 100-year-old costumes to entertain visitors, and a fleet of Disneyland-like golf buggies to ferry people around.

Many of Xinjiang’s cities now resemble Potemkin villages with carefully manicured facades obscuring massive human trauma, experts said. But nowhere is that more apparent than in Kashgar.

“The city is completely changed,” said Rian Thum, a historian of Islam in China at the University of Manchester. “It’s absolutely Disneyfication. It’s an alien place — a theme park.”

Kashgar sits on the ancient Silk Road and has featured prominently in Uyghur literature for hundreds of years. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, well before the Communist Party came to power in China, Kashgar served as the capital for two states controlled by Turkic cultures. Densely packed with busy markets and home to many sacred tombs and monuments, it was long regarded as the best-preserved example of a central Asian city, Thum said.

But in 2009, as part of a modernization campaign, the Chinese government began demolishing Kashgar’s old city, moving families who had lived there for generations to newly built apartment blocks on the outskirts. The older mud-brick buildings and winding alleyways were replaced by new concrete buildings, albeit in an ornate style. By mid-2015, an enormous city gate was under construction to the southeast of the old city, in addition to city walls, all styled to look as though they had been in place for hundreds of years.

Abduweli Ayup grew up in Kashgar. When the demolitions began, he started seeing bulldozers everywhere. When he ate in street stalls, every mouthful tasted like dust.

Ayup said he was first locked up in 2013 after opening a chain of schools that taught Uyghur children in their own language, instead of Mandarin Chinese. He was detained for 15 months in a suffocatingly crowded prison where there was no flush toilet, he said. For the first six months, he was interrogated every day, he said. After his release, Ayup fled to Turkey.

In late 2016, the government dramatically escalated its repression of Uyghurs and other Muslims, embarking on the campaign that the US and other countries now refer to as a genocide. China has pointed to maintaining social stability as a reason for its policies in Xinjiang. The government began detaining people for infractions that included wearing a beard or downloading a banned app.

Stuck thousands of miles away, Ayup was unable to watch as his hometown descended into a police state. But the Russian-speaking tourist who visited Kashgar in October 2017 and took video of his experiences provides a rare window into a terrifying time for Uyghurs in Kashgar and Xinjiang.

The tourist narrates what he sees as he films it, over what appears to be the course of one single day. The camera often lingers on surveillance cameras, checkpoints, and policing infrastructure in between shots of craftspeople at work or the food on display at market stalls. Some of his observations stand out. “I noticed some people, just this morning I saw a few of them, who walk around and knock at the doors, and check something according to the information in their lists," he says at one point.

The videos are often filmed as a single shot. This enabled BuzzFeed News to record and geolocate the surveillance tools across a wide swath of the old city — and build a detailed picture of Kashgar at the height of the crackdown.

Checkpoints were typically a couple of hundred meters apart — roughly a three-minute walk — but some were as close as 50 meters. Key intersections had heavier controls, with metal detectors, heavy metal barriers across the road, and gazebos to protect the police stationed there. Even at minor junctions, string tied between traffic cones often blocked the road — and police seated at a nearby table checked documents of locals who wished to pass. The entrance to one small street was blocked by barriers similar to ticket gates at the entrance to a subway.

The changes at the mosques were equally dramatic. More than a dozen smaller neighborhood mosques identified by BuzzFeed News were affected. So too was Id Kah. With its grand entrance and exterior walls clad in lemon yellow tiles, it dominates the large square in Kashgar’s old city center and holds special meaning for Muslims. In less tense times, people would gather in the square outside the mosque to celebrate festivals like Eid. Before he fled, Ayup came to Id Kah less for prayer and more to meet up with friends, whom he’d smile at from across the room.

The prayer hall at Id Kah mosqueGuang Niu / Getty Images; Igor Putilov via YouTube

In the tourist’s video of Id Kah, two police officers in helmets and flak jackets sit at a table outside the entrance, and a CCTV camera points back at the doorway to capture everyone coming in. Visitors pass through metal detectors to enter. Inside, the grounds are peppered with cameras, mounted on walls around the compound, as well as on scaffolding-like arches built over pathways.

Police officers guard the entrance to Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in 2017.Igor Putilov via YouTube / Via

Along the length of the prayer hall’s back wall is a row of CCTV cameras at 6-meter intervals, watching people kneel to pray. The photograph of Xi Jinping, which shows him meeting Muslim religious leaders, sits above a door to an enclosed part of the prayer hall. At several other mosques, propaganda signs above or beside the entrance urge people to “love the party, love the country” or remind them of the importance of ethnic unity. Large posters on the walls lay out what constitutes illegal religious activities.

Two views of an intersection in KashgarIgor Putilov via YouTube; Urban Aboveground via YouTube

Starting in 2019, a shift began to happen in Kashgar that has carried through to the present day, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis comparing newer videos, photos, and satellite imagery to the 2017 videos. The heavy metal barriers and fencing topped by barbed wire that had been built at the entrances to schools and police stations were gone by mid-2019. Some of the cameras that had proliferated throughout the city went away, too — and so did several checkpoints.

The police also scaled back their presence. The officers that remained were less obviously obtrusive and had traded their riot helmets for soft caps.

But the surveillance of Uyghurs hasn’t disappeared. Many people released from camps were being monitored through their cellphones and prevented from leaving their towns without a permit.

“The authorities scrutinize and surveil former detainees to check if ‘re-education’ helped them to be transformed into ‘normal human beings,’” said Nury Turkel, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, who interviewed former detainees for a recent book.

Recent photos and videos show that there are still checkpoints at key access points, often partly hidden from view and in places where they might fit more naturally — such as at the main gate to the old city or as part of the imposing new gate at the end of the street where the night market is held.

Cameras are now distributed along roads in a more regular pattern as well as at key access points to the old city, providing more comprehensive coverage of the area and giving authorities a clear overview of who is there. New cameras have often been installed at locations where police were stationed earlier.

The surveillance remains. It’s just less obvious — and less intrusive for holidaymakers.

Abduweli Ayup has not been back to Kashgar since 2015, and his chances of doing so anytime soon seem slim. The Chinese government has canceled his passport, he said.

Sometimes he watches videos on YouTube of his hometown. They do not make him feel better. It feels compulsive, he said, “like eating bad food.”

“You know, you want to keep eating it, but afterward your stomach feels upset,” he added. As he watched one video while speaking with a BuzzFeed News reporter, Ayup pointed to a giant sculpture of a traditional stringed instrument by the gates of the city. “See that, that’s just for tourists,” he said.

The city is now full of these sorts of photogenic additions. There are giant teapots at the main junction near the city gate. Elsewhere, murals show maps of Xinjiang or carry slogans such as “Xinjiang Impressions” where visitors stop to take holiday snaps. A new entrance has been added to the metalwork market, with a large sign featuring silhouetted figures hammering iron. The anvil statue at the corner now comes with projection-mapped fire, as well as sparks and a piped soundtrack of metal being struck. Camel rides are available too.

In the videos he has seen, Ayup has also noticed footage of people dancing while wearing traditional Uyghur dress — costumes that they might have worn more than a century ago. Figures like these can be seen on Chinese state television and at the country’s annual rubber-stamp parliamentary session. “Nobody would wear that clothing anymore unless it was for show,” Ayup said.

Tourism is now booming in Xinjiang. Last year, even as global numbers fell as a consequence of the pandemic, 190 million tourists visited the region — more than a 20% increase from the previous year. Revenue increased by 43%. As part of its “Xinjiang is a wonderful land” campaign, the Chinese government has produced English-language videos and held events to promote a vision of the region as peaceful, newly prosperous, and full of dramatic landscapes and rich culture.

Chinese state media has portrayed this as an economic growth engine for Xinjiang natives, too. One article described how a former camp detainee named Aliye Ablimit had, upon her release, received hospitality training. “After graduation, I became a tour guide for Kashgar Ancient City,” Ablimit said, according to the article. “And later, I turned my home into a Bed and Breakfast. Tourists love my house very much because of its Uygur style. All the rooms are fully booked these days. Now I have a monthly income of about 50,000 yuan," or about $7,475.

The facade holds up less well with Kashgar’s mosques. Many of the smaller neighborhood mosques appear to be out of use, their wooden doors damaged and padlocked shut — and others have been demolished completely or converted to other uses, including cafés and public toilets.

Inside the Id Kah mosque, many of the cameras, including inside the prayer halls, have disappeared. But as might be expected given the past five years, many of the worshippers have disappeared too, down from 4,000–5,000 at Friday prayers in 2011 to just 800 or so today.

The mosque’s imam, Mamat Juma, acknowledged as much in an interview with a vlogger who often produces videos that support Chinese government narratives, posted in April 2021. Speaking through a translator, he is at pains to point out that not all Uyghurs are Muslims and to diminish the role of the religion in Uyghur culture. “I really worry that the number of believers will decrease,” he said, “but that shouldn't be a reason to force them to pray here.” ●

Additional reporting by Irene Benedicto
10,000 hippies and one (illegal) gathering in a remote Colorado forest: Meet the Rainbow Family

Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY
Sat, July 2, 2022

HAYDEN, Colo. – Erik Childress squatted down alongside the hiking trail snaking deep into the forest and tucked a cigarette between his lips.

A steady stream of bare feet trod the path past the tie-dye-clad Childress, 30, and his red wheelbarrow full of onions, water and gasoline. His chest still heaving from the exertion of pushing the supplies up the bumpy trail, Childless looked up at a passing woman, a blanket and tent slung over her shoulders.

“Welcome home,” he said with a smile, flashing a peace sign.

Under the watchful eyes of local residents and officials, as many as 10,000 self-described hippies and counter-culture people like Childress are flocking to this remote area of northern Colorado for the 50th-anniversary gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light held the Fourth of July weekend.

Erik Childress, 30, of Oregon flashes a peace sign while taking a break from hiking to the Rainbow Family gathering on June 26.

Founded in part by veterans struggling with alcoholism, drug dependence and what's now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, the group held its first organized campout in Colorado in 1972. Participants party, pray for world peace and celebrate their collective humanity in an event that shares similarities with Grateful Dead concerts, Woodstock and Burning Man.

The leaderless group meets annually to camp out on public land across the country and for generations, it has clashed with law enforcement over drug use, sanitation and damage to the forests. Previous national campouts, which have been held in Arkansas, Texas, Vermont and Michigan, have drawn up to 20,000 attendees. About 3,400 attendees, including dozens of children, had arrived as of Friday morning, according to federal officials.

Dozens of police officers are monitoring the gathering in the Routt National Forest and have already kicked participants out of a lake where they were bathing, cautioned about open campfires and off-leash dogs, and inspected the vans, buses and dilapidated cars making their way down the long dirt road to the gathering.

Rainbow Family attendees hug in reunion during preparations for the annual campout, this year held in a remote part of Routt National Forest in Colorado on June 26.

Forest rangers typically issue hundreds of tickets at each gathering, which last year was held outside Taos, New Mexico, about 70 miles north of Santa Fe. Normally, the Forest Service requires large groups to get a permit but the Rainbows decline to participate in that process, citing their First Amendment right to gather without government approval.

While the group claims no leaders, participants volunteer to perform necessary work to pull off the gatherings, from tapping mountain springs for drinking water to digging latrines and hauling in communal kitchens. Their camp for the week is more than a mile up the trail from the parking lot, so attendees must carry in everything they need for their stay.

Barry “Plunker” Adams is among the group’s founders and turned 77 days before the event began. Taking a breather in the shade after hiking up to camp, Adams sang a nearly five-minute song about the origins of the group and explained how he needed a new way of coping with modern society after leaving the Navy following the Vietnam War.

“It saved us. Instead of killing people, we were looking after people,” he said. “We tried to heal each other that way.”

Barry "Plunker" Adams is one of the Rainbow Family campout group's founders.

A Rainbow Family member flashes a peace sign as a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement ranger helps carry supplies on June 26. Rangers and Rainbows say they try to build relationships of mutual respect, and the Rainbows, while chafing at the police presence, say they also respect the rangers' orders to enforce the rules.

Adams has attended most of the national gatherings since the first one, although he said some years he’s had to hide on the fringes to avoid law enforcement officers who wrongly believed he’s in charge.

“We do it in peace and try not to harm the Earth, and everyone gets to feel their individual sovereignty,” he said, leaning against his walking stick in the shade as mosquitoes buzzed around. “We’re not perfect. We’re just people.”

Adams dubbed the levels of law enforcement this year "not too bad" in comparison to past experiences.

Forest Service officials say they're working with some members of the Rainbow Family to minimize the group's impacts, but they still consider it an illegal gathering. So far, the Forest Service has issued about 100 tickets for violations ranging from drugs to damaging the land, according to officials. Last year, rangers issued about 600 tickets and made a small number of arrests.

"It's about protecting health and safety, and protecting the forest resources," said Hilary Markin, a U.S Forest Service spokesperson assigned to the 60-person federal team overseeing the gathering.

Markin, who has helped manage several past gatherings, said rangers are concerned about making sure human waste is properly buried, communal kitchens don't pollute streams, and that any temporary structures built for the campout are removed when the Rainbows leave.

"We are asking that forest visitors obey all local, state and federal laws in our enforcement actions," Markin said.

U.S. Forest Service law enforcement rangers walk through a parking area at the Rainbow Family gathering on June 26.

A mailbox filled with marijuana sits outside a camp at the Rainbow Family gathering on June 26. Marijuana is legal in Colorado but is banned on federal forest lands, so campers put the marijuana inside the mailbox because they believe that only postal inspectors can open it without a warrant.

One challenge for this year's gathering: Although marijuana is legal in Colorado, it remains illegal on Forest Service lands, and rangers are handing out tickets if they catch people with it. One enterprising group of campers erected a mailbox and loaded it with marijuana for strangers to use, claiming that only postal inspectors can open mailboxes without a warrant.

Forest Service rangers stress that the vast majority of Rainbow Family members they interact with are respectful and law-abiding. But many Rainbow members chafe at what they see as harassment by law enforcement over minor issues.

Local officials say they're particularly concerned about public safety and health issues, given the rural nature of their county, Routt, which normally only has about 25,000 residents.

Rainbow Family gathering in Colorado's Routt National Forest for 50th anniversary

County Commissioner Beth Melton said the closest ambulance to the Rainbow gathering would have to make a three-hour round-trip drive to evacuate someone – and it's the only ambulance typically available. Recent rains have muddied some of the dirt roads leading to the camping area, making travel even more challenging than usual.

“We have a duty to public health and safety, and this gathering impacts that, so we need to be prepared," Melton said. “This is a significant number of people in a very remote area of our county. God forbid there’s an E. coli outbreak.”

Back in the shade of the fast-growing Kid Village area, longtime attendee Filipe Chavez, 83, said he hoped clashes with law enforcement would be minimal this year. Chavez, a retired trucker, drove to Colorado with his dog Benny from near Gainesville, Florida.

He credits his participation in Rainbow with helping him overcome alcoholism that developed during his Vietnam military service. He said attendees just want to be left alone.

Being surrounded by the forest, among people sharing a unique experience, helps him maintain perspective on the world, he said.

“It’s a statement about how to come together and live together with tolerance and respect," said Chavez, swatting at the bugs. "Even the mosquitoes are here for a reason."

Members of the Kid Village camp at the Rainbow Family gathering set up a shade over their group kitchen in preparation for the annual campout in Routt National Forest on June 26.

The First Rainbow Gathering 1972