While not exactly an odyssey, the trip from Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek to Kazakhstan’s “southern capital” of Almaty still makes for a day-long hassle. For many, it starts with climbing into a van at Bishkek’s western bus terminal, waiting up to an hour for the car to fill up, and then making a forty-minute drive to the border, where you get out, take all your things, and prepare for potentially grueling and chaotic lines – the depressing, lose-faith-in-humanity kind where people shove and curse, fighting to get inside and escape the weather, some with small children and others with push carts stacked overly high with goods. There, the border control guards – first the Kyrgyz and then, one river later, the Kazakh – check your things and documents and, depending on their mood and personality, decide whether or not to give you a hard time. Making it past them, you wait another thirty minutes to an hour for the van to get through its own inspection channel, after which you get back on and continue another 3-5 hours to Almaty, with a stop at an overpriced rest area in the Kazakh steppes along the way. The same thing, in reverse, awaits you on your return.
For Asyla Alymkulova, a 34-year-old accountant and now single mother, it is a there-and-back that she’s had to make – sometimes with her underage son, Baibolsyn – around 15 times in six months last year, save that unlike their co-voyagers she wasn’t going to visit relatives, to do business, or to renew her visa. Rather, she was going to Almaty to publicize the case of her missing husband Shaiyrbek Dauletkhan, a single victim of the vast system of “re-education camps”, jails, and detention centers that, in recent years, has swallowed up millions in neighboring China’s Xinjiang region. As with many of the victims, there is nothing about Dauletkhan, an acting director of a Chinese energy company, that seems to necessitate “re-education”.
The international response to the situation in Xinjiang has been – put very mildly – unsatisfactory. Between the relative obscurity of the region, the global conflation of terrorism and Islam, China’s information clampdown, and the country’s economic clout, democracies and dictatorships alike have avoided confronting Beijing on the issue. Muslim countries have reportedly gone so far as to actually approve the repressions, European nations have proven their ignorance by deporting or handing the persecuted over, ex-Soviet neighbors have said nary a word, and the United States, despite being the most outspoken on the issue, has been difficult to trust given its hypocritical past, its own Islamophobia, and the anti-China tendencies of the politicians involved. In view of all this, what was happening in Almaty – in the small and unremarkable office that Alymkulova would sacrifice so much time and patience to go to – was nothing short of a miracle.
A beacon of hope
The miracle’s name was “Atajurt”.
Originally known as Atazhurt Zhastary (lit. “the youth of the homeland”), the organization formed informally in 2016 with the coming together of concerned ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who, for the most part, had moved to Kazakhstan decades earlier and were long since Kazakh citizens. Under the leadership of pharmacy owner Qydyrali Oraz, the group’s original ambitions were relatively mild – having received information that things were going to go south in Xinjiang, they set about to helping Kazakh families from China’s northwest relocate to Kazakhstan before it was too late and, according to Oraz, succeeded in getting 67 families out. When, in 2017, the border largely closed and the Kazakhs – like the Uyghurs before them – became subject to mass detentions, the group naturally shifted to the tasks that would define it to the present day: collecting testimonies, publicizing cases, and pressuring the Kazakh authorities to do something for the victims in Xinjiang.
After many months of important small-scale projects and painstaking legwork (the group’s members often left Almaty and traveled to various parts of Kazakhstan to interview relatives of victims), Atajurt’s popularity exploded in the summer of 2018, when it came to prominence as the major driving force in drawing attention to the court case of Sairagul Sauytbai, a refugee “re-education” camp instructor facing deportation to China. With Sauytbai’s release, the group saw people with detained relatives in Xinjiang start to flood its office on a regular basis.
Going hand in hand was the rise of outspoken Atajurt co-leader – and, following Oraz’s departure, leader – Serikzhan Bilash, whose loud, “megaphone” way of doing things made him enemies in Kazakhstan but succeeded in garnering the group even greater, international attention. Organizing numerous conferences, filming multi-language interviews with relatives of victims, and hosting countless international reporters from virtually all the well-known media outlets, Bilash turned Atajurt into a Xinjiang information factory. As the curator of the Xinjiang Victims Database, which has scoured the internet dry for all public information regarding victims’ stories and testimonies, I do not believe that it exaggerates to say that 70-80% of all the open testimony-based evidence about the current Xinjiang crisis in the world has come from Atajurt’s work. This is particularly remarkable when considering that ethnic Kazakhs only represent about 10% of Xinjiang’s ethnic minority population.
In addition to this information service – the benefits of which are enormous but abstract – the group would also accomplish very much for Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. Though not being credited by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the ministry’s claims of diplomatic achievement, it is a fact that many of the thousands of formal appeal letters that came to the MFA’s mailbox, asking it to interfere and help those detained in Xinjiang, did so only because of Atajurt’s work, as without the group’s “village-to-village” and internet campaigns, many in Kazakhstan would have simply remained mute, not knowing – like Muratkhan Kasengazy admitted at an Atajurt conference last year – “whom to address and what that would lead to”. Despite the MFA’s lack of recognition and general government persecution of the (still unregistered) organization, it is also fact that some of the group’s conferences have directly resulted in Kazakhstan’s MFA sending diplomatic notes to their Chinese counterparts.
Finally, though harder to prove and document, there is the momentum that Atajurt generated, as it helped many overcome the fear of appealing – a valid concern given China’s apparent penchant for threats and hostages. Some were moved to act after watching videos on the group’s YouTube channel. For others, the Atajurt office itself became a hub where they could find logistical support, meet the many others in similar situations, share information, and – perhaps most importantly – be reminded that they were not alone. Some of those who originally came to the office to ask for help stayed to become part-timers or volunteers. Many others became active supporters.
In inspiring hundreds and showing the world what a cohesive grassroots push could do, the group became a beacon of hope and an example to follow.
The rise of the Kyrgyz
For Alymkulova, it was both of those things.
Echoing most of the stories told by relatives of victims, her initial reaction to her husband’s disappearance was one of confusion. Dauletkhan, returning to China in late 2016 for a short-term work-related trip, would get stuck there for an entire year before getting locked up in a “re-education center”. According to Alymkulova, not even her husband’s company knew where he was at first, before an employee finally told her that he was “studying”.
“I asked her what kind of studying it was,” Alymkulova recounts, “but they didn’t explain it clearly and I assumed that it was an on-the-job training course. Except that, three months later, they hired someone else to take his place, with that person calling me to his office to say that it turned out that my husband had been taken to a political education camp, and that they had tried to get him out of there but failed.”
For the next few months, Alymkulova would continue to wait, frequently calling her husband’s company and hoping to hear something positive. Nothing positive came, and it was only after going online and learning about the repressions in Xinjiang, watching Atajurt’s YouTube channel, and getting in touch with Bilash that she took action. Thus began her frequent trips to Almaty, where she would tell her story on camera, in interviews with the foreign press, and in conferences.
As 2018 began to wind down, Alymkulova, now having gone two years without her husband, underwent the same shift as many others – she evolved from victim to activist. Uniting with the other Kyrgyz facing similar dilemmas, she helped form the Committee in Support of the Chinese Kyrgyz. With partial guidance from Atajurt, they made further trips to Almaty, organized a press conference in Bishkek, made lists of missing Kyrgyz in Xinjiang, appealed to the Kyrgyz authorities, and visited the local UN human rights representatives. When I visited Bishkek in December 2018, the attitudes of the activists were mixed but still tending towards optimism. Not long after the press conference, the Chinese embassy in Bishkek suddenly started giving the Kyrgyz tourist visas again, a previously interned Kyrgyz citizen by the name of Turdakun Abylet was suddenly reported released, and the same mass releases noted all around Xinjiang began to affect the Kyrgyz also.
Among those who got news of released relatives were Jusup Malik and his wife Bubuazhar Orozobai. Though his brother remains in detention, Malik’s elderly father and sister-in-law were both released. Smiling, Malik told me that he was ready to work until all the Kyrgyz, and not just their own relatives, were free. Their government, he said optimistically, would support them. There were over two thousand ethnic Kyrgyz from China in Kyrgyzstan, he said, and they all had relatives affected.
“Busy with other things”
Despite Malik’s optimism, there were already signs early on that the Kyrgyz authorities were not so keen on the issue. Two of the activists that I met with told me that their group had been advised, in a meeting with the Ombudsman that took place in early December 2018, to not make the issue too public or international. A few weeks later, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov made this stance public, stating in a press conference that the issue would require “the most tactful diplomacy” while discouraging outspoken protest, first with words and then with fines and arrests. What China did with its citizens, he said, were its own “internal affairs”.
Other government officials were more capitulating, with behavior that bordered on kowtowing. Following Kyrgyz MFA head Chingiz Aidarbekov’s visit to Xinjiang, which included a meeting with Shohrat Zakir, the chairman and deputy Party chief of the region, the Kyrgyz MFA went on record as saying that the “the presence of ethnic Kyrgyz in the [political education] centers was not confirmed” (popularly reported by the local press as “there are no Kyrgyz in the camps”). Adil Junus, a member of parliament and brother of detained historian Askar Junus, went so far as to give an interview to Chinese media, in which he praised the Xinjiang policies, saying, among other things, that the “graduates” of the centers weren’t “idle do-nothings anymore”. Mentioning that his niece, Dinara, now had a stable job after passing through one of the centers, he also added that he had no right to interfere in his brother’s case as the latter was a citizen of China.
To be fair, Kazakhstan too had gone through a similar “phase” and rhetoric, where the MFA spent the better part of 2018 explaining the detention of Kazakhstan citizens in China as being due to “dual-citizenship” issues, while dismissing as “internal affairs” the detained Kazakhs who still had Chinese citizenship. For the longest time, the word “camp” did not appear in the MFA’s lexicon at all. By early 2019, however, the same body was claiming that the “number of Kazakhs in the camps had decreased by 80%”, while also announcing that approximately two thousand Kazakhs – Chinese citizens – would be “allowed” to leave China and come to Kazakhstan. Given the sudden explosions in both reported releases and Kazakhs arriving from Xinjiang over the past six months, it would seem that time has justified these claims at least partially.
According to Aina Shormanbayeva, one of the leaders of the International Legal Initiative, a human rights NGO in Almaty that has worked on hundreds of Xinjiang-related cases, the change was due to not only the public pressure but also to improved competency in the MFA’s arguments when addressing the Chinese.
“The argument of non-interference in internal affairs does not hold in the case of human rights violations,” Shormanbayeva underlines, “since China itself is a signatory to international agreements to uphold these rights.”
When asked if people in the Kazakh MFA were genuinely interested in helping the Kazakhs in China, she said that “we had to make them be”.
Sadly, while hundreds in Kazakhstan have been reunited with relatives having spent months or, sometimes, years stuck in Xinjiang – usually in detention or under residential surveillance – a review of the situation in Kyrgyzstan suggests that things there have not progressed past the initial mass releases stage noted at the end of last year, with the released confined to house or neighborhood arrest and those with relatives abroad “encouraged” to call those relatives to “prove” that they are fine and well – a phenomenon reported by Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz in almost eerie unison.
“We don’t know if they’re actually doing well,” Bubuazhar Orozobai says of the video conversations with their allegedly released relatives in Xinjiang, “or if people with relatives abroad are just being taken out of the camps, prettied up in advance, and then shown to us. There’s always two or three policemen present, and we can’t talk freely, can’t ask them about how they’re [really] doing. We don’t decide when to call – instead, Jusup asks and then they [the Chinese authorities] tell him a few days or a week later ‘okay, now’s good, now you can talk’… But they [our relatives] look drained. They don’t look normal.”
Others have not received so much as that. Memetrasul Hesen, a 54-year-old Kyrgyz citizen originally from southern Xinjiang’s Qaghiliq (Yecheng) County, has around thirty relatives who have either been detained or whom he’s been unable to contact or get news of, many of them underage children. Repeated appeals to the Chinese Consul General in Bishkek, he says, have yielded absolutely no results, and he still doesn’t know what’s happened to his family.
For Almambet Osmon – a respected publisher and intellectual – the personal tragedy is centered around his younger brother, Nurmambet. A reporter and cameraman for the Aqchi County TV station, he was among the many – like Sulaiman Orozobai – taken in the early crackdown of 2016, to be sentenced to 13 years in prison on unclear charges and following a rushed trial. At a time when some victims have seen their prison sentences nullified following international pressure, the Kyrgyz do not appear to have benefited from similar concessions.
Perhaps the most natural explanation is the lack of numbers – the 1000s of Chinese Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan is two orders of magnitude less than Kazakhstan’s 100000s of Chinese Kazakhs, leading one to expect that the public pressure would naturally be two orders of magnitude less also. It is also easy to bring up Kyrgyzstan’s economic dependence on China as an excuse for why the authorities have no leverage in negotiating such – comparatively infrequent – cases. Finally, the fact that what should have been a human rights cause was briefly, but loudly, hijacked by Kyrgyzstan’s nationalist vigilante group Kyrk Choro (“Forty Knights”) – known more for its anti-gay and anti-foreign hooliganism than anything Xinjiang related – has only served to hurt and discredit the genuine efforts to stand up to China’s violations.
And yet, there is also reason to believe that “when they want to, they can”. In late March, a Foreign Policy article publicized the case of student Turgunaaly Tursunaaly, a folk performer and mini celebrity in Bishkek who had essentially disappeared in Xinjiang half a year earlier following his forced return there. The article was immediately picked up by local Kyrgyz media and Radio Free Europe, and “proof-of-life” photos of Tursunaaly from Xinjiang were not long in coming. A month later, it was reported that he had returned to Bishkek to continue his studies.
Tursunaaly’s grandfather, Jusup Mamai, was a legendary performer and a Hero of the Kyrgyz Republic – honored in both Kyrgyzstan and China – making his grandson’s case a potential PR scandal for the two countries. The majority of the victims, unfortunately, do not benefit from such visibility, and for them the Kyrgyz authorities’ desire to help seems notably less, if existing at all. At least, such is the message one takes away from Jeenbekov’s most recent “internal affairs” regurgitation just prior to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit – hosted by Kyrgyzstan this year – coupled with the observed lack of effort.
But even if one were to accept the non-interference argument, it is not as if Kyrgyzstan has succeeded in getting its own citizens out either. Despite last December’s news of Turdakun Abylet, a naturalized Kyrgyz citizen, having been released from a Chinese camp, there has still been no apparent progress in getting him out of the country, with the activists involved even claiming that his “release” was staged. A friend of Abylet told me that the latter wasn’t being let out of the country, while Osmon, the publisher, said that it would be difficult for him to return now.
“The government is busy with other things,” Osmon concluded. “There isn’t a single person there concerned about his case.”
The no road ahead
Six months have passed since Alymkulova’s last trip to Almaty, and for now she doesn’t plan to make another. It’s been nearly three years since her husband’s return to China, but still she’s had no news of his current condition. The Kyrgyz authorities haven’t helped, essentially telling her not to worry since her husband was “just studying”. My own two queries to the Ombudsman’s office regarding Dauletkhan’s situation, submitted over a month before the publication of this piece, were read but not answered.
When asked what she plans to do now, Alymkulova says that she doesn’t know.
“There’s nothing left to be done,” she sums it up. “That’s it.”
As a Kyrgyz from Kyrgyzstan, she has little to fear from China in terms of pressure, but others, like Osmon, echo her despair while adding that fear for relatives’ safety back in Xinjiang – coupled with recent rumors of a new wave of arrests – keep them from speaking up as they once did half a year earlier. The Chinese police, according to him, have used a spectrum of tactics – carrot and stick – to make sure that the victims’ relatives abroad stay silent.
Also feeling out of options is Memetrasul Hesen, whose thirty relatives remain missing. With appeals to the Chinese embassy, media interviews, and video appeals having yielded nothing, he does not know what to do next either.
The indecision and inaction appear to have thrown the former activists into a sort of depression. When invited to come to Almaty very recently on two different occasions – both to talk to foreign journalists and to go on video with their stories – not one of the 4-5 individuals invited actually came, despite expressing approval and despite the transport costs being covered. Some said that they were out of town and couldn’t go, others said they were busy with other things, some mentioned that they were worried about speaking out publicly (after initially declining for other reasons). The Kazakhstan government’s crackdown on Atajurt and the arrest of Serikzhan Bilash – who still remains under house arrest four months later – are unlikely to provide much encouragement.
As if to hammer in the final nail, not even Tursunaaly’s story seems to have ended well. After his initial return to Bishkek less than two months ago, both hearsay and a social-media post from his friend seem to suggest that he is set to return to China again in the very near future, or very likely already has. Neither the friend nor Tursunaaly himself could be reached for comment, but the situation bears striking resemblance to what has already been happening to many in Kazakhstan, where some of the relatives returning from Xinjiang have been allowed to do so on the condition that they only stay for two months, with failure to be back within that timeframe resulting in punishment for their “guarantors” (in most cases, relatives). For Tursunaaly, that likely means his parents, wife, numerous siblings, and other relatives – creating a de facto hostage situation that neither Kazakhstan nor Kyrgyzstan has formally acknowledged.
Still, it would be premature to conclude that “all is lost”, since neither the lack of action nor lack of initiative will actually make the aggrieved forget about their friends and family. Nor will it take away the pain and frustration felt by those whose relatives are unjustly imprisoned or held under residential surveillance, in conditions that do little to inspire relief and which have already been seen to psychologically destroy people, to damage their health, or to physically kill them.
Unoriginal as it may sound, what the Chinese Kyrgyz need most now is support and attention. Simple needs that, much to their own dishonor, the Kyrgyzstan authorities have denied them.