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Her Biggest Worry Now is that Her Children Might be Taken Away From Her

The following is an eyewitness account from Hanna Burdorf, a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, who visited the victim while in Ürümchi and spent around two hours with her. The visit took place about three months after Horiyet and her children were taken from the Belgian embassy in Beijing and forced to return to Ürümchi, following an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a family-reunification visa to reunite with the father in Belgium. Her husband has lost contact since 3 Dec 2019. Earlier this year a journalist was able to visit her and learned that she and her children are together at home.

In the early afternoon of September 11, 2019, I went to the address that Ablimit Tursun had given to me, in order to visit his wife Horiyet Abdulla and the couple’s four children. They live in Ürümchi, near the Grand Bazar.

The entrance to the residential complex (小区) in which they live was accessible from the main road, although blocked by gates. The entrance gate for pedestrians was on the left – a big turnstile where you had to swipe your ID card to get in. To its right was a boom gate that would only be raised when cars wanted to get in or out of the complex. To the very right was the exit for pedestrians – a grille door that would be unlocked when you pushed a button from the side of the complex interior. It was through this exit that I entered, together with two or three Uyghur men, as the door was open because of several people leaving the complex at that moment.

The security guard was smoking and chatting with someone, and had turned his back to me, so I quickly crossed the road and entered the building where Horiyet’s apartment was, on the top floor. At that point, nobody seemed to have noticed me. There were no cameras at the entrance door downstairs and no cameras in the corridor.

After reaching the top floor, I saw two doors. The one on the left had a hole drilled out in the middle, about 7cm in diameter. This must have been her neighbors’ apartment – the one that had been occupied by the police when the Belgian diplomats came to Ürümchi and tried to visit Horiyet previously. The door on the right was open, allowing me to peek into the apartment. However, the entrance was blocked by a second door, made of thin metal bars, letting air into the apartment and keeping visitors out. I tried to knock on this door, while doing my best to keep out of the sight of the other door’s peephole. I softly called Horiyet’s name.

She came out of the living room, crawling on all fours, and looked at me.

“I am your husband’s friend,” I told her.

Horiyet then opened the grille door and let me into the apartment, closing the outer (original) door behind me. She looked somehow concerned, so I told her that, as far as I could tell, nobody had followed me. I said that I was sorry to intrude and that her husband had sent me.

She then led me into the living room and reheated some of their lunch for me.
I don’t remember the exact order of our conversation, nor the exact wording, since we spoke for about two hours. However, I believe my rendering of the events and dialogue to be fairly accurate, albeit possibly not complete.

Rather early in the visit, I told her that I had come to pick up some of her husband’s documents, such as his work and university diplomas, since he needed them for his job in Belgium. Getting a big folder full of documents from another room, she and her oldest daughter started going through them, putting those that they thought were important in a separate folder, which they would then give to me after they were done.

Horiyet started talking about divorcing her husband. She said that it had been quite a while already since she had last seen him, and that he was a man – she would understand if he wanted to divorce and start a new life. She said that she would be ready to sign divorce papers, if he so wished. I told her that her husband missed her very much and had sent me to come see her and the children, and that I could not imagine that he wanted to divorce her, because if that were the case he wouldn’t have asked me to visit her. I told her that as long as her husband did not tell her directly himself that he wanted to divorce her, she should not believe this to be the case, regardless of what she may hear.

Her oldest daughter was in the living room for the majority of our conversation. After helping find her father’s documents, she called him on WeChat and told him about my arrival. I waved to the camera. Their conversation did not last very long, but she would go on chatting with her father while I spoke with Horiyet.

Horiyet’s Chinese was perfect, making me think that she was a minkaohan (民考汉, a person from an ethnic minority group who had gone through the Chinese-language education system and thus spoke Chinese like a native). She told me that many people mistook her for a minkaohan, but that she had only started learning Chinese as a foreign language from the third year of elementary school (at age 8 or 9).

Later on, her daughter told me that she had been going to school and was preparing to take the gaokao (高考, university entrance exam) the following year. These days, she was at home taking care of her mother, who was sick. However, she wouldn’t miss any classes since the people at school were currently occupied with a sports event that would last several days.

Horiyet told me that she did not feel well. I asked her if she had a cold, as she did not look very healthy and I suspected that she might have caught one. She told me that she hadn’t, but did feel as if she had a fever. Her youngest daughter came into the room and crawled onto her lap. She also looked a little tired. Her mother explained that her youngest daughter was also a little sick, and probably because of her.

I asked her what this fever was, to which she said that she thought it was a reaction to her current situation. She said that she knew where this “disease” had come from – it was a reaction to her being under a lot of pressure. She said that even simple things, such as cooking for her children, looking after them, making sure they did their homework, and taking care of the household chores, were making her very weak and very tired. She said that nobody in the outside world could understand or imagine what they were going through.

“We are like the Jews in Nazi Germany,” she said, then started to cry.

She would start crying many times during our two-hour conversation.

When I asked what had happened to her after she was taken back from Beijing to Ürümchi, she did not give an answer, simply telling me that nobody could imagine how bad the situation was and what “they” had done to her. She explained that the police had confiscated her husband’s personal computer after she was taken back, claiming to have found documents/writings on it that “endangered national security”. Although Horiyet explained to them that this was her husband’s personal computer and that she did not have access to it, not knowing the password, the police did not care, saying that this was the family’s computer and therefore her computer as well.

The police also tried to force her to sign documents admitting that she had “endangered national security”, but she did not give in to the pressure and refused. She had also demanded to see the documents that the police were basing the “endangering national security” accusation on, but they never showed anything to her.

I told her that I had wanted to take her to the police station to ask for her passport, but that given the situation she was in this would probably not be a good idea. Horiyet said that going to the police station would be of no use – she had argued with the police many times and they would not listen. She said that she had given up on reasoning with them.

There were several times when someone knocked on the door while we were talking, always prompting us to fall silent as the atmosphere grew very tense. Each time, Horiyet would tiptoe over to the door and have a look. However, it was always just one of her children coming home from school, or some other school-age children whom she was tutoring coming to her home to see her.

She explained that she had volunteered at a school before, but stopped because the school environment had gotten very strict. Nobody was allowed to do anything anymore, and she would not be able to interact with the children freely. Everyone was obligated to only follow the textbooks.

At one point, when all her kids had left the room, I asked her what she wanted. She was crying again, and said that she was willing to stay behind as long as her children were allowed to join their father in Belgium. She said that her biggest worry now was that her children might be taken away from her. At some point, someone – someone surveilling her, maybe the police or someone from the neighborhood administration, I’m not sure – had told her that they were still “being nice to her”, but could also choose to treat her “differently”.

I said that her husband was hoping very much to see all of them, and that she should never agree to anything that would result in her being separated from her children. She was still crying, as she stood in front of me and nodded. I then hugged her and said that she had been doing such a good job already taking care of the kids, and that she should keep on doing this. I said that she should not listen to what anyone might tell her, and that we would send someone else to visit her soon. She nodded and smiled a little – the first and only smile I would see on her face.

I then said goodbye to her and her children, and walked down the stairs while they waved at me from the door frame. Not seeing anyone around, I quickly slipped out the main entrance door and out of the apartment complex, onto the street.

This account first appeared in the Xinjiang Victims Database.

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