Abdurahman is an ethnic Uyghur father of three who fled oppressive policies in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for Turkey in October 2013, followed by his wife, Helime, four months later. After Helime gave birth to the couple’s third child, she returned with all three to her home in the XUAR’s Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture in August 2016, seeking help with childcare from her parents. After losing touch with his family members, he learned that authorities had sentenced Helime to prison.
Since then, dozens of members of his extended family have been detained and he is unsure of what became of his children. His 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.
Recently, a video portraying a Uyghur child being quizzed on propaganda points about the Chinese “fatherland” in Mandarin Chinese surfaced on social media and, upon viewing it, Abdurahman immediately recognized the boy as his four-year-old son Abduleziz. He recently spoke to RFA’s Uyghur Service about the difficulties he has endured living in exile without knowing what has become of his family.
RFA: How did you recognise him? What is the source of the video?
Abdurahman: There is a video sharing platform called Douyin—I saw the video of my son posted there. When I saw him my heart jumped. I recognized him, but I wasn’t too sure, so I compared his earlier photos that I had and it was very clear that he was my son. I couldn’t control my tears.
He was born from two Uyghurs, but I fear that he cannot speak our language and is being fed pork, against our Muslim traditions … My biggest fear is that if I ever meet him again in my lifetime, he will have been assimilated as Chinese, and the Chinese government will have taught him that I am his enemy. Will I ever have an opportunity to meet him again in our homeland and hear him call me dad?
Since the day he was born, he was very energetic and happy. He never cried much, even at an early age. Among my three children, he was the only one born when I was present. When he stopped breastfeeding, I looked after him for 15 days, isolating him from his mother to wean him. I was very close to him and it has been extremely difficult for me to cope with being separated from my children. When I saw him in the video, my emotions were too overwhelming and painful. I have never cried so much in my life, even when I faced extreme difficulties in the past.
RFA: Did you recognise him immediately?
Abdurahman: Yes. I have a lot of his photos. He has an older sister and a younger sister, but I haven’t heard any news about them.
RFA: And what about your wife?
Abdurahman: I learned that my wife was given a 10-year prison sentence. After my wife gave birth to our youngest daughter, her parents asked them to return home so they could help her look after the children, especially the newborn. They travelled to our hometown in Aksu in August 2016. Later I heard that they arrested my wife in November [that year].
RFA: Don’t you have any contact with your parents or your wife’s family?
Abdurahman: No. I don’t know if they are in prison or a re-education camp, or whether they are dead or alive.
RFA: You only know about your wife being imprisoned, is that right?
Abdurahman: Yes, but I am also aware that my younger sister and my elder sister’s husband were imprisoned.
Other family members
RFA: Who else is living at your home in Aksu?
Abdurahman: My father Tohti Emet, my mother Aynurhan Qasim, and my sisters. My elder brothers had their own houses and shared the same gardens and orchard, so they were often at the house.
RFA: There are none of them left there though, is that right?
Abdurahman: No, no one.
RFA: How many grandchildren were living in that house?
Abdurahman: My youngest sister had three children. My two brothers had two children. Including my three children, there were eight of them.
RFA: And there is no news about all eight children, is that right?
Abdurahman: Yes. The eldest is 12 and the youngest is two. I don’t know where they have been taken, and there is no news about whether they are dead or alive.
My wife was arrested immediately after arriving in the country. I learned that she was released two months later. She had been beaten severely. It cost the family more than 200,000 yuan (U.S. $29,820) to get her out of detention. She received medical treatment immediately after being released, but as soon as her health improved, she was once more taken away, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. I learned this from her cousin in November 2016.
My younger sister was married in July 2016. Two months after her marriage, in September, she was detained and sentenced to three years in prison because she had visited Turkey.
I fear that they have locked up my father as well. The reason I say this is because my family is a very devoted religious family. My father prayed five times a day and never missed his religious duty. Also, he is a very knowledgeable and educated man. In 2013 and 2014 he helped many young people in our town to travel abroad. For all these reasons, I worry whether they have harmed him.
I have tried to contact members of my family, but all the numbers I have rung connect to an automated message that says the numbers do not exist. We are five siblings, the oldest aged 35 and the youngest aged 24, but none of us are able to be with our parents … My wish is to return to my country and see them at least once while they are still alive. I am in complete shock and confused. I don’t know where to seek help and support. There are too many people here suffering like me in limbo—helpless and not knowing what to do.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service.