Interview: 'I Recognized Her Straight Away'

uyghur-ayshe-crop.jpg Kalbinur Tursun's daughter, Ayshe (2nd from L), appears in a still frame from a video about Uyghur children in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Courtesy of Kalbinur Tursun

Kalbinur Tursun is an ethnic Uyghur mother who fled oppressive policies in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for Turkey in April 2016 while seven months pregnant and with one of her six other children in tow. She planned to return to the XUAR after giving birth to bring her remaining children to Turkey with her, but was unable to do so after her husband was arrested back home for “attempting to travel abroad” and “suspected terrorism.”

Since then, dozens of members of her extended family have been detained and she is unsure of what became of her children. Her family members are believed to be among the estimated 1.1 million Uyghurs held in “political re-education camps” throughout the XUAR since April 2017 after being accused by authorities of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas. The children of detained parents are regularly brought for care to schools, nurseries or orphanages, where sources say the facilities are seriously overcrowded and in terrible condition.

In December last year, a video portraying Uyghur children in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture surfaced on social media and, upon viewing it, Tursun immediately recognized her daughter Ayshe among those filmed. She recently spoke to RFA’s Uyghur Service about the difficulties she has endured living in exile without knowing what has become of her family.

RFA: What makes you so certain that you recognized your daughter?

Tursun: From the way she moved her head side to side, I recognized her straight away. Also the way she looked and acted made my heart jump upon seeing her.

RFA: Of course, a mother’s heart can recognize these things. When did you travel to Turkey?

Tursun: We arrived in Turkey on April 12, 2016.

RFA: Did you leave all your children behind when you left?

Tursun: Only one of my children had a passport, but the remaining five did not, and I was seven months pregnant when I left. I wanted to return after giving birth to bring them to Turkey, but I was unable to return. I think it was Dec. 24 last year when someone posted the video to the Uyghur Brothers and Sister’s Group on WhatsApp. I am a member of that group and when I played the video, I saw my daughter among the group of children.

I watched it over and over again to check that it was really her and I knew it was, from the way she looked and acted … I am 100 percent certain that it was my daughter. I called the man who shared the video … [and] he told me the video was taken in Hotan.

RFA: How old was Ayshe when you left her?

Tursun: She was three.

RFA: How did you feel when you saw her in the video? You must have felt sad!

Tursun: I was happy and overjoyed knowing that at least one of my children is alive. I have never stopped searching for my children since arriving in Turkey, but I have been unable to obtain any information regarding them. My husband didn’t make it to Turkey. I learned that he received a 10-year prison sentence.

Family targeted

RFA: What is your husband’s name?

Tursun: Abdurehim Rozi. We had a business which is closed down now.

RFA: Who did you leave your children with?

Tursun: My husband’s younger brother, who was in business with him, came to our house with his wife to help in looking after our children. My husband was in [XUAR capital] Urumqi, where he was arrested and taken to Hotan.

RFA: Did they take the children away after arresting your husband?

Tursun: My husband was in Urumqi on business with his two younger brothers when they were all arrested. We were a large family made up of 11 branches. There are at least five or six people from each family branch that have been taken away, so in total there are 70 or 80 people who have disappeared, and we don’t know where they are.

My husband was arrested after being accused of ‘attempting to travel abroad’ and ‘suspected terrorism.’ My youngest child was eight months old when I left, he is now three years old. The eldest is Abduhaliq Abdurehim, 14 years old, then Subinur Abdurehim, 12 years old, Abdusalam Abdurehim, eight years old, Ayeshe, six years old, and Abdullah Abdurehim, three years old.

RFA: You don’t have any information regarding any of your children?

Tursun: No. The video was taken in Hotan, but I am originally from Yupurgha village in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture. My children were living in Urumqi. They were initially taken to my village. The last time I communicated with my elder sister was on July 27, 2017, so I knew up until then that my children were in Kashgar.

It was hard before if I didn’t see them for even one day, but now we are separated and I don’t know their whereabouts. I think about them all the time and I must find a way to fix this situation. I would exchange everything, including my life, for my children’s freedom. My greatest concern is that they must be very angry with me, thinking that I abandoned them by not taking them with me to Turkey.

As they are so young, it is impossible for them to understand the reality of the situation and how things had changed. It makes me extremely helpless and sad when I think that … they might develop animosity towards me. I think about my children constantly and how they are coping, and what they are going through each day.

Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service.

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