Interview: ‘I Cannot Express The Pain And Helplessness I Feel’

uyghur-elenur-eqilahun-crop.jpg Elenur Eqilahun in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of Nurbiye Nurtay

Nurbiye Nurtay, an ethnic Uyghur Muslim from northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), has been living in Malaysia practicing traditional Uyghur medicine for the last three years. She lost contact with her family in Ghulja (Yining) county, in the XUAR's Ili Kazakh (in Chinese, Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, nearly a year ago, and only recently discovered that her 60-year-old mother, Elenur Eqilahun, is being held in one of the many “political re-education camps” throughout Xinjiang, where authorities have been detaining Uyghurs accused of harbouring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” thoughts since April last year. While she is unsure of Eqilahun’s location, Nurtay recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that she believes police detained her mother to force her to return from Malaysia, one of a number of countries that in recent years has forcibly returned Uyghurs to China, in what rights groups say is a violation of international law.

I have lost contact with my family for almost a year now and I haven’t returned home in the last three years. Recently, I asked one of my friends to visit my family to find out how they are, as I have become increasingly worried about their situation. Two or three days ago, my friend went to my family home to find my mother wasn’t in, and she returned several times before hearing from the neighbors that my mother had been placed in a re-education camp, and it is not clear when she will be released. When I heard the news, I was devastated. I cannot express the pain and helplessness I feel at not being able to go back and help her.

She turned 60 years old this year and suffers from severe osteoarthritis. She can hardly walk without assistance, so I cannot imagine what she is going through. I asked my friend if my mother is allowed to return home after her daily “studies,” but the answer was no. She is held in the re-education camp. My friend also said that no one knows which re-education camp she is interned in. All of my family member, friends, former classmates and acquaintances have removed me from their WeChat contacts [for security reasons], so I can say that I have had virtually no contact whatsoever with my people back home.

It is clear that my mother was placed in a re-education camp because of the calls she received from me from Malaysia. The last time I spoke to her, she said, “I was asked to go to the local police station, but I told them I am unable to walk there and I asked them to come see me. I am expecting the police officers’ visit at any moment.” That was in October last year. She said to me, “Call me any time you want, as I want to hear your voice at least once every two or three days. Don’t worry about their warnings, I will take full responsibility.” She asked, “Why can’t I speak to my own daughter when I want to? I have lived my life and if I don’t have this little bit of freedom to talk to you, what is the point of living!” I don’t know if what she said to me was used against her as evidence of her disobedience against their orders.

In our last conversation she told me that they are heavily scrutinizing her telephone calls, especially calls from abroad. But when I said that perhaps I shouldn’t call her to avoid getting her into trouble, she said … “I need to hear your voice, especially now when I am not in good health.” I know my mother cried when I failed to call her for a few days and she was frequently taken in for questioning because she took my calls. They also put pressure on her to ask for my return, and forced her to give them my address. As the situation worsened, she told me not to return. “Stay where you are safe,” she insisted.

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


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