More families of Uyghurs missing in the aftermath of ethnic violence in China's Xinjiang region in 2009 have come forward to highlight their cases in the absence of information from the Chinese authorities.
Since RFA's Uyghur service reported last week about the plight of a Uyghur mother who said her missing son was last seen tortured and bundled to hospital three years ago, 36 families have come forward with their own stories of missing loved ones.
Exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer said about 10,000 Uyghurs have been reported missing since the July 5, 2009 violence, when ethnic tensions between the minority group and Han Chinese in Xinjiang erupted into riots that left 200 people dead in the region's capital Urumqi.
Most of them were believed taken into custody by authorities in large-scale sweep operations after the bloody incident.
Nineteen of the 36 families—from Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, Silk Road city Kashgar, and Qaraqash county in Hotan prefecture—provided details, including photos, of their missing siblings or parents to RFA.
They appealed to the international community to help pressure the Chinese authorities to release information about the missing family members.
The 19—comprising three businessmen, 10 services industry workers or salesmen, and six unemployed—were believed detained by Chinese authorities just about a month after the violence, family members said.
The detentions were confirmed by fellow prison cellmates or the police, who did not provide any other details, they said.
Paraded in the streets
The youngest of the missing is 16-year-old Nabi Eli, who was last seen paraded in the streets of Urumqi on Aug. 15 with several other detainees surrounded by about 30 armed police personnel, according to his father, Elijan Rozi.
Astride a motorcycle, he tried to keep pace with a police van that took away his son, who was later forced into another police vehicle.
"They forced him into the vehicle by beating and kicking him," Elijan Rozi said. "When I witnessed that scene and I was helpless, I just asked myself for the first time why was I born into this world."
Later, he attempted to inquire about Nabi Eli's fate from the police but was told that he was not on the list of detainees.
Another missing person, musician and songwriter Eysajan Memet, also disappeared just after the Urumqi violence, leaving a pregnant wife.
“Our son is two years old now and whenever he sees any man on television he often asks me, 'Is that my father?,'" Eysajan Memet's wife Toxtigul said.
Last week, the mother of a missing Uyghur man told RFA that she has been under constant surveillance by authorities bent on dissuading her from continuing the search for her son.
Patigul Eli said her son Imammemet Eli, 25, was taken by police on July 14, 2009 and that she last heard about him nine months later when fellow inmates said he was found severely tortured and sent to a hospital. Since then, there has been no news about him.
"I don’t know where my son is, whether he is alive or dead,” said Patigul, who has been knocking at the doors of various government departments and police stations to seek information about her missing son.
She said that in March of 2011, she confronted Wang Mingshan, the chief of the Urumqi Public Security Department, who told her that he had received 300 requests to track down missing Uyghurs following the July 2009 riots.
"Please understand us, there are more than 300 applications to look for the missing," she quoted Wang as telling her. "We need some time to clarify this issue.”
The Chinese authorities had set up centers at two hotels in Urumqi—the Global Hotel and the Changcheng Hotel—for people to report missing people following the riots, according to Kurbangul, who is looking for her son Alim Helaji.
She said during her visits to the centers, she had never come across Han Chinese looking for missing parents or siblings.
The establishment of the centers shows that there could be a large number of people who were missing, the families said.
Three months after the Urumqi riots, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said that it had documented the "enforced disappearances" of 43 Uyghur men and teenage boys detained by Chinese security forces in the wake of the protests, saying the number was "likely just the tip of the iceberg."
The youngest reported missing following the riots, one of the worst episodes of ethnic violence in China in decades, were 12 and 14 years old, Human Rights Watch said.
Many of the families of the missing who contacted RFA were troubled that they could not get the whereabouts of their children or parents from the Chinese authorities.
They said some of the families of the missing did not highlight their plight, as they could not afford to travel to the various government offices to inquire about their whereabouts.
“There are more than 100 families in Karakash county [in Hotan prefecture] who lost their relatives but have remained silent because of financial difficulties," said Elijan Said, one of whose family members is also missing.
Families looking for their missing loved ones have not given up hope and still remember their parting moments.
One of them, identified as Abdurehim Sidiq, a car mechanic, had been missing since July 5, when he went to buy shoes and never returned, according to his wife Ayse.
“That day, my husband went to Sanshixiangzi [one of the areas worst hit by the violence] to buy shoes. He had called me from the shoe store around 3:00 p.m., but when I called him back around 7:00 p.m. his phone was turned off and since then I have had no information from any officials or the public about him,” his wife Ayse told RFA.
Another missing man was identified as Turghun Obulqasim, a restaurant manager at the Urumqi-based Huaqiao Hotel and among seven of its employees arrested on July 9, 2009. All except him were released six months later.
"I was able to send him 500 yuan (about U.S. $80) on the first week [of his arrest]," said Pakistani businessman Salfurat, who manages the hotel.
"Since then, I could not get any information about him and I stopped looking for him because the police started to watch me with suspicion, wondering why I was involved in a Uyghur case.”
Salfurat said he had been paying Turghun Obulqasim's wife Merhaba, who is unemployed, 700 yuan (U.S. $110) a month on "humanitarian grounds, as she desperately looks for her husband."
According to Salfurat, Chinese police took into custody more than 70 employees from four restaurants, including from his hotel.
Two of the missing 19 people were Kazakhs, who like Uyghurs belong to a Turkic ethnic group. They were identified as Amantay Jumetay, 35, and Aytqazi Hasanbek, 26.
“We paid the price for race. My son was detained just because he looked more like a Uyghur than a Han Chinese,” one family member said.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.