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“99 bad things”: A man’s 2-year journey through Xinjiang’s complex detention network

Editor’s preface: Three years after the start of the mass incarcerations in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, there are now dozens of eyewitness accounts testifying to the coercive, violent, and often cruel nature of Xinjiang’s “re-education initiative”. Among these, however, few are as informative, comprehensive, and detailed as Erbaqyt Otarbai’s, a Kazakh truck driver who – following a trip to Xinjiang in May 2017 – found himself caught up in the system for two full years, with the majority of the time spent in detention centers, “re-education” camps, a hospital, an improvised factory, and house arrest. His account – independently corroborated various times over by former cellmates, satellite images, and testimonies for victims that he met along the way – offers a rare and invaluable view of not only the system’s many facets but also of their evolution, from the initial beginnings of the incarcerations, to their intensification, and finally to the authorities’ very visible response to outside pressure, with the facilities being transformed and many inmates being released, yet others being given long prison terms. Much of what Erbaqyt talks about corroborates a lot of the previous reporting and writing that has been done on the topic.

What follows is an abridged and edited translation of his first-person account as given in a 2-day, 5-hour interview to the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights organization in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February 2020. At around 6500 words, it offers an insightful journey through the place – often unpleasant – that Xinjiang has become. As expressed by Amanzhan Seiit, a Kazakhstan citizen who spent only 2 months in detention and temporarily shared a room with Erbaqyt: “If I saw 9 bad things, Erbaqyt saw 99 bad things.”

These are some of them. (Gene A. Bunin)

In the beginning, I thought I might keep silent. However, after thinking about how they’ve destroyed my family, I decided to speak up.

I’m from Qaba County in the Altay region and my wife is from Tarbagatai. We got married in 2009, and I also moved my household registration from Altay to Tarbagatai that year, buying a house there. In 2011, we divorced because of some problems with her family. For the sake of our children, we got remarried in 2013.

At the time, I was travelling back and forth between the two countries, working for a Chinese oil company. My salary was over 270000 tenge and the job wasn’t that hard, but the locals got only 40000-80000, depending on the kind of work. Seeing this, I pointed out that it was unfair and was dismissed. That was in November 2014. Then I started doing various odd jobs – things like driving a taxi and petty trading.

In May 2017, my father got sick. I had applied for Kazakhstan citizenship at the end of 2016, and by January 2017 it was ready – the only thing I had left to do was sign some paper. However, I wanted to go back to China to see my father first. When I crossed the Korgas border on May 23, 2017, two Kazakh guys – one of them was named Zharqyn – came and asked me to hand in my Chinese passport and my Kazakhstan green card. When I told them that I wasn’t planning to stay long, they told me that I could fill out an application form and get the documents back when it came time to return to Kazakhstan. They also asked why I was crossing at Korgas, after seeing my passport and seeing that I had crossed at the Bakhty border before.

I then went to Urumqi so as to fly to Altay and get there quicker. There (in Urumqi), the police checked my documents and my mobile phone.

After visiting my father, I called the police again and asked for my passport back. They told me that I could come to the local police office to pick it up. When I got there, however, they said that I could not get my passport back just then, even after my explaining to them that my house was in Kazakhstan and that I didn’t have a house in China. So, I went back to my father’s house in Altay the next morning, and ended up taking a job as a truck driver for an ore mining company.

On August 17, I got a phone call telling me to come to the police station in Koktogai. When I got there, they took away my phone, after which an Uyghur guy came in and starting speaking to me in Chinese. It was an underground room with the walls made of some soft material. There was a tiger chair in the room. They started interrogating me. One of the interrogators was Han and one was Uyghur.

The first question was why I had gone to Kazakhstan. They also asked if I prayed. I told them that I wasn’t a devout Muslim, as I drank and used profanity from time to time. The whole thing lasted about an hour, after which they said that I could go. When I asked for my phone back, they said that they couldn’t return it to me that day, and would contact me the day after.

I then returned to the truck area and started the trip I was supposed to make. It was around ten in the evening, and there were two other trucks. When we were about 20 kilometers from Urumqi City, my truck got a flat tire and we pulled over. While we were changing the tire, a car stopped by, with the person inside telling me that I needed to wait at the yard where the ore was unloaded. When it was my turn to unload the cargo, the guard there told me that a few policemen were looking for me.

They asked me why I had a household registration both in Buryltogai (Altay) and in Tarbagatai. I told them that my hukou had been in Buryltogai before I moved to Tarbagatai. They asked me to file an application to have my Buryltogai registration cancelled, and asked that I come with them. When I said that my phone was still in Koktogai, they told me that they had brought it with them – they had visited Koktogai and then went to Urumqi to look for me.

They took me to Tacheng City, and we got to the New City police station (新城派出所) at around midnight. There was a tiger chair in the room there, too, and this time I’d be seated in it, with my ankles and wrists shackled. A Kazakh guy there told me that, since there were cameras inside, I couldn’t really ask him whatever I wanted to. Then they started the interrogation, saying that I had installed WhatsApp on my phone. I explained that it was normal to have that in Kazakhstan and that it didn’t work in China anyway. They then asked if I had visited other countries and with whom I had been in contact while in Kazakhstan.

After this, I was handcuffed, shackled, and hooded and taken to the Tarbagatai Regional People’s Hospital. It was about two in the morning then. I was taken to a room and had a check-up, which required my going to a number of other rooms. Being hooded, I couldn’t see the places I was taken to. From there, I’d be taken back to the police station, where they told me that I would be taken to a prison. They took my blood sample before transferring me.

When we got to the prison [pre-trial detention center], the armed staff member there said that they couldn’t just receive everyone and that they only took criminals – the two sides then had a quarrel. The Kazakh guy asked me to wait outside while they discussed – I would hear them mention the “political and legal affairs commission” (政法委) and the “national security team” (国保队). Afterwards, they brought me inside.

One of the staff at the prison was a Kyrgyz guy. He asked me if I knew where I was, then said that it was a prison and hit me over the head with a (metal) stick, leading to bleeding and, later, a scar. As my face was covered in blood, they shackled me with 7-kilo fetters. The people in the cell were real criminals of different ethnic groups – Han Chinese, Uyghur, Hui, and a Kazakh. A cruel Han criminal, the “boss”, asked me some questions.

Later, the Kyrgyz guy would take me to the washroom and ask me to wash off my blood stains. A prison doctor sprinkled some powder on the injuries I had suffered. Then, they gave me a steamed bun and fried carrots and transferred me to Cell No. 12 (the one before was No. 15).

Here, there were Uyghurs, Hui, and Kazakhs. Some were shackled – mainly the Hui but also a few Uyghurs. One Uyghur guy, Dilshat, had been imprisoned years earlier for taking drugs, and now found himself here anew. Another Uyghur guy was there for buying a ticket to Turkey. A Kazakh was imprisoned for studying in Kazakhstan. When they heard that I was there for using WhatsApp, they told me that I wouldn’t be released. At that point, I was still thinking that they wouldn’t hold me any longer than three days.

We were given carrot leaves, potato peels, and other grassy stuff as our meals, together with a steamed bun that was only half cooked. I refused to eat it. They saw this through the camera and were ready to punish all of us, but I told them that it was just me who refused.

The next day, I was summoned to an interrogation room. My passport, green card, phone, wallet, and bank card were on the table, and they asked me if they were mine. They asked for the password to the phone. I pleaded with them to let me wire some money to my wife’s account through WeChat and they let me. When I asked about when I would be released, they said that they didn’t know.

At one point, I was so hungry that, at around four in the morning, I shouted and asked for bread, which resulted in the guard calling some other guards and me being beaten with an artificial-leather stick. Those guys were Kazakh. They said that Ma [a guard’s surname] would come soon and I’d be beaten up. I told them I was hungry. One of them, a guy named Zhalyn, said that I should be more submissive. Again I’d be in the washroom, with them using their electric prods to hit the water as I was washing my face, which resulted in me getting electrocuted and being taken back to the cell. The guys in the cell also told me that I should be more submissive and just always say “yes”, or I’d end up hurting myself.

On November 22, 2017, after I had spent 98 days there, they told us during lunchtime that we would have our lunch at a re-education camp. There were 21 of us – Kazakhs and a few Uyghurs. They called our names and we lined up in the hall. We were hooded, handcuffed with our hands behind our backs, and fettered. There were two auxiliary police officers (协警) holding each of us, and you’d have two people put into each police minivan with four auxiliary police officers. One of them was a Kazakh guy whose name I forget (my memory is not good now, as I was given injections twice). He told me that the camp was better than the prison. At the prison, I had been wearing a yellow uniform, the blue uniforms intended for the real criminals.

At the camp, they took off our hoods and unlocked the fetters, then handed out spoons, dishes, and slippers, before bringing us T-shirts and pants. I was taken to Room No. 8 on the second floor. It was warm there, and there were four beds inside. After some time, two Kazakh guys came in, one eating a steamed bun and the other eating something pickled. I was given some steamed buns and some food. I had weighed 97 kilos before being taken to that prison, but, as I learned from a medical exam, was down to 71 when I got to the camp.

For the first ten days, they’d turn the lights off at midnight, switching them on at around 6:30-7 in the morning, at which point you’d get up. Each day, we would study for 4 hours in the morning, 4 hours in the afternoon, and then do another 2 hours of review in the evening. We learned Chinese pinyin and how to count. Some of the people there were in their eighties, with the youngest being nineteen. Ninety percent of them were Kazakh and a few were Uyghur.

I started having classes after about ten days of my arrival there. The women would sit in the middle row of the classroom, while the older male inmates would sit in the front, together with handicapped people who had problems with their hearing or sight, for example. At night, we had some opportunities for idle chatter, and so I’d learn what they were there for. Some had either visited or moved to Kazakhstan, while others had used WhatsApp, had used their ID cards to help their Kazakhstani clients get a Chinese SIM card, had visited mosques, had prayed, had their marriages officiated in a mosque… There was one Kazakh guy – he’s in Kazakhstan now and I don’t want to say his name – who had ended up there for buying a house for his child in Kazakhstan. We couldn’t really look at each other when we talked. Instead, we’d talk while looking at our books.

They told us that the number of people at the “school” would increase, and that we would start [taking turns] guarding each other at night. They told us that there’d be a new wave of inmates – people who had done business in Kazakhstan or with Kazakhstan, in Turkey or with Turkey. They said that all Kazakhs in Tacheng City might be detained.

We were allowed to shower once a week – a hot shower – and the room was clean. However, starting from the end of November and beginning of December 2017, they would bring at least 20 people, all Kazakhs, to the facility each day. We started hearing that the neighboring rooms were being filled with people and, about six days later, they brought six new people to our room, which until then had been shared by four of us. They told us that we would have to share our beds or sleep on the floor. It was tile flooring, but warm since the heating was just underneath. As there were a lot of old people, I ended up sleeping under the bed. (Those old people are in Kazakhstan now.) We didn’t have enough blankets and pillows, though. Later, they changed the beds to bunk beds, and I would sleep on the top bunk. They stopped switching the light off at night, and we started taking turns guarding each other.

At noon, we’d be given two hours to sleep, after which we’d have to make our beds like they do in the army: square-shaped. If you failed to do so, you would be punished. The food there was better than in the prison. Because 10 people would be staying in a room of 20 square meters, they had us get anti-flu shots.

There was one guy named Tursyn, who was sent to the camp for missing a Monday-morning flag raising ceremony. He was in his late forties. He died in the camp. It was said that he died of a heart problem, but I think that he was beaten to death.

In the prison [the detention center prior to the camp, likely], there was a woman who is in Kazakhstan now. She had to wear 3-kilo manacles. There was a woman named Anargul, who is in Kazakhstan now. We were in the same prison [unclear if he means the camp or the detention center]. Anargul Muhtarhan. She lives in Urzhar, East Kazakhstan. She was a Kazakhstan citizen when she was detained. We were in the same class.

There was another woman, Ainur, who was a Kazakhstan citizen as well.

Orynbek Koksebek, with whom I’d share a room, came in December (2017). He said that he had come to China to visit his hometown. He was a Kazakhstan citizen, and would say that he’d be out of there soon, on Monday, because he just needed to get one final stamp (on some document). I also thought he’d be released, being a Kazakhstan citizen, and so told him to get in touch with my family after he was and to tell them what was actually happening. He promised to do so.

They divided us into three different categories. I was put into “puban” (普班, “the standard class”). They gave us vests of three different colors – yellow for the lightest group, red for the strictest. The other one was sky blue.

Let me return to the classroom. The old men and women sat in the front row. There were about 40 people in our class. Most of them were young – those who were educated, including some teachers. There were those who had worked for the government, even the deputy head of the county. They divided us into three levels – the highest, the middle, and the illiterate (文盲). Orynbek was in the illiterate class. There were bars that separated us from the teachers.

On January 1 (2018), I felt a pain on the right side of my stomach, told the teacher, and then went to the doctor on the second floor. There were Kazakh doctors in the camp. I explained to them how I felt, and they gave me pills. However, the next morning, on the way to the classroom, I felt a stabbing pain in that same area and collapsed. They dragged me into the classroom and called the doctor. A Han doctor came and asked me to leave the room, but I couldn’t walk from the pain. He thought that I was faking it. I explained that no, it was real. Two auxiliary police officers then helped me. Again they’d give me some pills and take me back to my room. I wouldn’t have any appetite for lunch that day.

In the evening, it started to hurt again, and I called the guard so that he could summon the doctor. One came, from the county-level hospital, and asked that I be taken to the hospital immediately. As I was walking down the stairs, I again started to feel unbearable pain. Later, in the hospital, they would tell me that my appendix had ruptured.

I was brought to the hospital by ambulance. Actually, when I was electrocuted and had water poured on me on October 12, 2017 [in the detention center], I remember being taken by ambulance also. When I came to (that time), I was already on my fourth infusion bottle, and would learn that I had been brought there in shackles. I just remembered this – that’s why I thought I’d mention it. Anyway, let me continue with the appendicitis thing.

In the hospital, they decided to do an operation immediately. I got an anesthetic, but it didn’t seem to work, and I could feel the pain. There was something like a mirror on the ceiling there, and I could actually see my internal organs while they were operating on me. I’d be there for five days. They were shocked upon seeing that my intestine had become so thin, and said that I wasn’t eating well. I’d then be fed through a tube in my nose.

My sister, who was living in Shanghai, came to visit me. As it turned out, this was her fourth attempt to do so, and she had been refused all previous times. She then signed a document to get permission to look after me at the hospital. Cadres from the neighborhood administration would also take turns guarding me. All in all, my sister would end up staying with me for about ten days. I was in the hospital from January 2 to January 17, 2018.

A woman from the neighborhood administration was charged with taking me back to the camp. It was called the “Tacheng Prefecture Vocational Education Training Center” in Chinese (塔城地区职业教育培训中心). On our way, I was allowed to buy some candy and cookies, as we were taking a taxi to the camp, although these things wouldn’t be allowed inside. The woman was actually surprised, saying that she didn’t know it was so strict there.

After entering, I’d need to place my feet on this special footprint thing on the floor, standing on it while placing my hands on the analogous handprint things on the wall, while the authorities did a body search. Then they ordered to have me taken away (to my room). That’s when I said goodbye to the woman who had brought me over. I could feel that she was confused, not having really understood the kind of place that she was taking me to. I asked her to take those things (candy, cookies) with her. Without letting me finish, the guards took me to my room, and there I’d see Orynbek and the others.

They told me that they had thought I was released. I then lay on the bed, while Orynbek massaged my arms and legs. Then, they would reshuffle us, and I’d be taken to another room. Here, I had Uyghur and Hui roommates.

Because I had undergone the operation, they would bring me soup with pieces of meat in it – really red meat. I didn’t feel comfortable having soup with meat while everyone else was eating vegetables and steamed buns. So, I asked for a bigger portion, intending to share it with the others. Although I was scolded by the auxiliary police for asking, they ultimately agreed to provide a big portion of soup every day.

After a while, we started to attend classes again and I was once more transferred to another room. That’s where I saw Amanzhan Seiit. There were 10 beds and 16 people, and Aman would sleep on the floor under the bed. He wasn’t the only one who slept on the floor. Luckily, they offered me a top bunk because of my operation. The guy who offered it was an Uyghur man named Away, who had been in the same prison [detention center] as I was before the camp. He told me that he had heard a lot about me and had wanted to meet me. He was the designated person in charge for that room.

At the beginning of March 2018, I was told that a few people from State Security and the Political and Legal Affairs Commission had come to question me. So I was handcuffed and taken to a room where two young people – a man and a woman, both ethnic minorities – were waiting for me. The woman was Kazakh. They ordered me to only answer their questions.

“When did you move to Kazakhstan?” the man asked.

“I first came to Kazakhstan in 2009,” I answered.

“When did you *move* to Kazakhstan?” the woman repeated.

“In 2014.”

Then they asked me where my wife and children were, if they had obtained Kazakh citizenship, and other things along that line. How could I know about those things when I wasn’t even allowed to contact them, I asked? To which the man warned me once more to just give exact answers to his questions.

Then two guards came in and were ordered to handcuff me, with the male interrogator telling me that my wife would be sent to camp as well. I said that there were certain questions I had the right to not answer. He said that I didn’t have any such rights and that he was the law there.

The next day, they suddenly read out a list of names that had both me and Aman on it. We were given black bags that we put our belongings into, including the textbooks. Then our hands were handcuffed behind our backs and our legs were fettered, with each person’s leg chained to another’s. We were hooded and made to kneel, with the auxiliary police greatly outnumbering the detainees – two officers for every one of us. From what I was able to see, there were over ten police minivans and some buses. We were then transferred to another place. It was March 17. There were over a hundred people transferred.

It was really cold in the new place, as the construction had not been completed yet. There, there were only two classes. Arman Duman was there – he was our class head (学习委员). He had been living in Astana and was already a Kazakhstan citizen when they detained him. He’s back in Astana now. Arman and I were in the same class but not in the same room.

The room there housed 40 people, and the beds were triple-bunk, the oldest inmates sleeping on the bottom and the youngest on the very top. There were seven sets of bunk beds in total. The toilet was in the room and, since it was open, we could always smell the stink. There was a TV set, and we would watch Xi Jinping propaganda daily. We were given small plastic stools to sit on. Because there were only two classrooms, the classes there weren’t daily and we would take turns attending.

On April 12, we started hearing rumors that the Kazakhstan citizens would be released. That turned out to be true and they were. On April 17, they suddenly asked me if my family was in Kazakhstan, taking me to the room where we usually got water. We were afraid of being taken to that room because there weren’t any cameras there – that’s where the police would beat you.

Another Kazakh guy, Turdybek, whose wife and kids were living in Kazakhstan, was brought to that room as well. He had moved to Kazakhstan with his family after retirement, and would come back to China to sort out some land issues. A Han official who worked in the camp, Pan, asked him if he needed to go back to Kazakhstan. When Turdybek said yes, Pan slapped him and ordered the auxiliary police officers to take him away. Then it was my turn.

I was expecting the same, but instead he said that he had talked to my sister living in Shanghai when she visited me at the hospital, and asked me if my wife and children really were in Kazakhstan. I said yes, and then explained my situation. He let me return to my room, which woke up the people from their lunchtime nap.

After leaving our room (that day), I was ordered to stand facing the wall. Outside, a car arrived, and I was handcuffed and fettered, with both my hands and ankles chained. I counted the links – there were 7 for the (horizontal) chain linking my ankles and 11 for the (vertical) chain linking the handcuffs to the fetters. I was then transferred to another place, where the people with connections to Kazakhstan had all been gathered in the same room. I remember Erkin Qaidarbek and Erkin Qami, who had been living in Kazakhstan. I was in Cell No. 7. Later, I learned that Turdybek was also brought to that facility. There was also a young guy, 19 years old, named Ekibat. The classes we attended there were similar to the ones in the previous facility.

On September 3 (2018), Ekibat told me to look out the window – there were many cars driving into the compound. As we were watching them, my name was called and they gave me a black bag for all my things. I then went to the classroom to get my textbooks and saw Turdybek. Ultimately, about 80 of us were being taken to prison [still a detention center, most likely]. After having been transferred to and from so many places, I was now being taken to the No. 10 prison cell.

That room was full of people who had ended up there for such reasons as being imams, being religious, or having officiated marriages in a mosque. Later, around October (2018), they started to hold court hearings and to give out prison terms. I was called to a court hearing also. Inside, there were desks arranged in a U shape, with two representatives from the neighborhood administration and police station on the left, two representatives from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission and from State Security in the middle, and with the court representatives on the right. The inmate, handcuffed, would sit on the stool in the middle. And then the process began.

They started by turning on the camera. Then, the neighborhood-administration representative stood up and said: “Erbaqyt Otarbai is from the such-and-such neighborhood and, according to the IJOP platform (一体化系统), has been confirmed to have used WhatsApp, and is thus given a 7-year sentence.” After that, a person sitting in the middle section said that, thanks to the Party, the punishment given was a relatively light one, and then asked me to sign a document. I signed without even looking at what I was signing. They even asked me to have a look, but I just told them it was pointless (“看了有撒用?”). Then, the representative from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission stood up and read the verdict out loud, before informing me that one copy of the document would be sent to my family.

While being taken back to my room by two auxiliary police officers, I was suddenly called by one of the cadres, who told me that my family had come to see me. They had called my parents for the court hearing. My mom wasn’t wearing a headscarf – she told me that she wasn’t allowed to. She was crying, and I calmed her down, saying that 7 years would pass as if they were 7 days. I told her to bring things like socks and clothes next time. Everything would continue without change, however, up until November 23.

On that day, all of the people in our room were taken back to the camp again. Again we were handcuffed and had black hoods put over our heads while they transferred us. This time, I would see major changes in the camp.

There were two new buildings – a three-story teaching building and a 4-story dormitory. The main gate was now at the back of the compound. The rooms were new, with eight people per room. The bunk beds, enough for the eight, were new too. However, the toilet was inside the room and open.

One of my roommates was a guy named Dauren. He had studied in Astana. Another guy’s name was Ertis – he had travelled to Kazakhstan. An older guy, Erzhan, who might have been in his sixties, had been a teacher at a Party school. There was a Hui guy as well. Eight of us in total.

Again we’d have to take turns guarding each other in two-hour shifts every night. For sitting, they gave us small square-shaped plastic stools – red, blue, and yellow in color. There was a TV set that would play Xi Jinping’s speeches. The food was really different this time around, as it wasn’t just the daily congee from before. Now there would sometimes be pilau (抓饭) and other better dishes. We were given (real) clothes. There wasn’t really any Hui there anymore – the majority was Kazakh, with some Uyghurs.

At one point, a tall and skinny Han man introduced himself to us, saying that he was our teacher and telling us to listen to him carefully, so that he wouldn’t have to repeat himself. He then said that they had started six different training courses: in bread baking, pastry making, hairdressing, electrode welding, clothes making, and singing and dancing. We would have to sing Communist songs too, which is something I was quite good at. I applied for the clothes making ones since I figured that it’d be freer there, as it was in a factory.

We were divided into these training classes at the end of November 2018. In my class, there were many women, and the maximum age was capped at 45 (all the classes had certain age restrictions). I couldn’t count all of the equipment, but I think there were about 300 sewing machines, if I’m not mistaken. They were made in Japan and had been brought over from factories that had gone bankrupt. The hall we worked in was very big (about 100 meters by 200 meters), and had been erected really quickly, as evidenced by the metal structuring. The machines were arranged in four long rows. The materials we used were cheap ones.

There were two teachers, one young and one middle-aged. Both Han. They showed us how to sew, which for me was difficult as I was a truck driver and as the instructions on the machine were written in Japanese. One day, the teacher told us that journalists might come to visit soon, and that we needed to tell them that we had come there voluntarily. First, we sewed laces for pants and later were assigned to sew different components of pants for school uniforms.

Sometime later, we were again told that there’d be a “yanpan” (严判, “strict sentencing”). As I had already been given 7 years, that made me really scared. There were rumors that those who hadn’t been called to attend that court hearing for the “yanpan” would be taken to prison, and so I was worried, since I hadn’t been called to attend one.

One day, however, I was suddenly released, together with 11 other people. Among them was a guy whose nickname was “Ding Dan”. His real name was Lü Jian – he was an ethnic Russian and a Chinese citizen. His wife was a Kazakhstani, named Gulnar. There was also Qozharqan, who’s in East Kazakhstan now, and a guy named Erbol. We all had to write a pledge (保证书) that day, promising that we wouldn’t disclose any information (about our experiences). They usually released 20 people a day, though on some days that number could get as high as 100.

It was on December 23, at 3 in the morning, that I was brought to the neighborhood administration for the neighborhood where I used to own an apartment. They took me to a room on the third floor. The head of the administration office showed me which bed to sleep in and told me that they’d bring me other necessities the following day. There weren’t any bars on the windows, and there wasn’t anyone caring when I went to the toilet or anything like that. There were two guards at the gate of the administration building. I couldn’t believe that I had been freed. I couldn’t sleep, thinking about it.

The next day, a Han woman named Wang Yixiang, who was in charge of several neighborhood-administration offices, had a meeting with us. I’d see many other Kazakhs who had been released there also. She said we needed to thank the Communist Party. She also mentioned that we would go back to Kazakhstan as that’s where our families were, but that it could take months to a year, and that we would be free during this time. In reality, however, a cadre from the neighborhood administration would (usually) accompany us.

On the same day, I learned from others that they were being allowed to stay at their relatives’ homes in Tacheng. I then asked the deputy head of the neighborhood administration why I had to stay in the administration dormitory, to which she said that they had tried to convince my parents-in-law to take me in – trying some “ideological work” (思想工作) on them – but that my parents-in-law refused. She even showed me a video of them criticizing me for having violated the law. In the video, they said that I was a criminal who had deceived their daughter, making her leave her job and taking her to Kazakhstan.

So I would stay alone in that room. One room over was the work brigade (工作队), who would monitor around the clock all the cameras installed from the city to the border. My parents helped me financially during this time, sending money whenever I needed it. My phone had been delivered to my parents after I was first taken to prison [detention center], and my dad destroyed it soon after receiving it. And actually, the reason why I ultimately didn’t get a real 7-year prison term was because they couldn’t find that phone, in order to prove that I had sermons stored on there, as well as in my WhatsApp.

After my release, I wouldn’t be allowed to have a phone for the first three months. I also had to prepare food for the five people in the work brigade, as I was ordered to do so. In the beginning, I just helped the cook who was there, but later he left and the cook was now me. After three months, I told the neighborhood administration that I needed a job in order to support myself, and found one as a driver, delivering thin dried noodles (挂面) to different places.

I drove a minivan and the salary was supposed to be 3000RMB per month, though in the end I’d only get 1500RMB. They justified the cut by saying that what I collected from the clients was less than what I should have received, with the losses totaling 1500. Although, at the same time, they also found that it hadn’t been my mistake – they just hadn’t considered that some clients had special discounts.

One day when I needed to enter a park, I learned that my ID card had been blacklisted, but the neighborhood-administration cadres would get it sorted out for me when I explained the issue. I had my status changed from “untrustworthy” (不放心人员) to “trustworthy” (放心人员).

I quit the delivery job. Wanting to go to Kazakhstan, I went to the Bakhty border crossing, about 15 kilometers from Tacheng, having learned that there was a company importing sunflower seeds from Kazakhstan who needed a driver. So I went to meet the employer, whose nickname was “big-headed fish” (大头鱼), and he hired me for 6000RMB. I then got acquainted with a driver from Kazakhstan and asked if it was possible to sneak across the border in their truck. He told me that a Russian named Dima had tried something like that and had been found by border control – actually, that guy had been in the same prison as me.

I worked for a few days, got the pay, and quit, and then finally decided to go to Buryltogai – to my parents’ house – after the neighborhood-administration cadres finally gave me permission. I flew there, with the help of my sister. After spending a night at the parents’, I got a phone call from the Tacheng neighborhood administration at lunchtime the next day. They asked me if I wanted to go back to Kazakhstan, saying that they had received the documents that would allow me to do so. I flew back to Tacheng, this time staying at my friend’s house. I ended up staying for a few days – another stressful experience – with the neighborhood administration requiring me to stay at a hotel on the last day.

The next morning, I was brought to the border with Saltanat and Baqyt – elderly ladies who had also been in camp. They used to be teachers at the No. 2 middle school. After we crossed the border on the Kazakh side and were about to get on the bus there, the Han authorities again warned us not to say anything (about our experiences). As we entered Kazakhstan territory, we saw a crowd welcoming us with flowers. These were relatives of the other inmates.

After a stop at Urzhar, I finally went home. My son Nurtal didn’t recognize me. “Who’s this uncle who’s come to our house?” he asked my wife. I told him that I was his dad.

A human rights organization in Almaty is helping me with getting my health examined now. The doctors said that they found microbes in my blood.


His Dictionaries Taught Chinese To The Uyghur World. Then He Was Taken Away

Hüsenjan was a Chinese state employee — and member of the Chinese Communist Party — tasked with creating dictionaries for the Uyghur language. His work couldn’t save him.

The Chinese-Uyghur finance dictionary was huge. It must have been made out of A3-size paper, almost 11 inches by 17 inches. When she held it in her hands, Gulruy Asqer remembers it feeling like two big bricks. It was a lot to carry. Her brother had given it to her as a farewell gift before she moved to the United States.

“I complained that it was so heavy,” she said. “I just left it in the center of the living room rug with all of the other things that I thought were too big to carry.” She had the rug, which was a wedding gift, shipped to the U.S. She left the dictionary behind.

“I can imagine how disappointed he must have been to see me abandoning that dictionary,” she said, thinking back. “I didn’t value it at all.” Her brother, Hüsenjan, who has published more than 40 dictionaries, was particularly proud of it since Gulruy’s major was finance. He thought she would really find it useful in her new life in America.

Reminiscing over the choices she made, deciding which things to pack, which things to ship, which things to leave behind, Gulruy is ashamed. “Now I value Uyghur dictionaries so much,” she said. “Today the government is burning them.”

That massive dictionary, funded by the banking system, offered Uyghurs a promise of commensurability. A way of entering the mainstream Chinese economy, one word at a time. Words like zhīpiào 支票, the Chinese word for “check,” or huípiào 回票, the Chinese word for “rebate,” were unknown to Uyghurs. “There was so much need for this kind of knowledge,” Gulruy said.

Indeed, in 2014 Kudret Yakup, the Harvard-educated founder of the Ürümchi-based Uyghur investment firm Erqal Capital, estimated that there were likely only 1,500 active registered companies owned by ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Out of that number, only around 500 were commercially viable — meaning there was approximately one viable company for every 30,000 Muslims in the region. Since 2014, Erqal Capital and hundreds of other Uyghur-owned companies have been closed. Like the dictionary that would have given them the lexicon to do business in Chinese, they have vanished.

In 2019, Gulruy’s brother, Hüsenjan Esker (玉山江·艾斯卡尔), Vice Chair of Terminology and Senior Translator of the Ethnic Languages Committee Office (语言委员会名词术语办公室 yǔyán wěiyuánhuì míngcí shùyǔ bàngōngshì) of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, disappeared.

A bilingual dictionary written in the 1070s was one of the first literary works that Uyghurs claim as their own. The Compendium of the Turkic Languages, written by Mahmud Kashgari, placed Turkic languages — what would later become Uyghur, Uzkbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz, among others — in conversation with complex Arabic linguistics. It showed that Turkic languages had been codified as a distinct form in opposition to other contemporaneous languages and knowledge systems. Kashgari notes that the Uyghur dialect was one of the purest because it was the least mixed with Persian. In the dictionary, Chinese appears to be a distant language far on the horizon.

Nearly 1,000 years later, leading translators like Hüsenjan, employed by the Chinese state, still leaned on Mahmud Kashgari’s dictionary as an original source for Uyghur terms. For instance, in an episode of the Uyghur-language Xinjiang TV show Cultural Oasis (Uy: Medeniyet Bostani), embedded below, Hüsenjan’s boss at the Xinjiang Ethnic Languages Committee, Alim Kheseni, notes that the Chinese term for “coffin,” guāncai 棺材, had no equivalent in 20th-century Uyghur. Because coffins were associated with non-Islamic traditions, Uyghurs had stopped using it. But by going back to Mahmud Kashgari’s dictionary, authors like Hüsenjan were able to find that in the 11th century, just two centuries after Islam arrived in the Uyghur homeland, Turkic peoples had a word for coffin, üke. By excavating this 1,000-year tradition, they were able to bring Uyghur traditions in conversation with the contemporary language environment.

Dictionary writers are responsible for the living edge of language. In Northwest China, the rapid establishment of Chinese state education systems and publishing houses meant that Hüsenjan had to invent new words to help the new world make sense for Uyghurs. He had to set standards for how to refer to things that became ubiquitous in Uyghur life. For instance, he invented the Uyghur term for “ID card” (Uy: kimlik), which literally means “who one is,” to replace the much more awkward “qualifications certificate” (Uy: salahiyet guwahnamisi). In the 2000s, he combined the Uyghur word for “pocket” (Uy: yan) with the Russian loan word for telephone (Uy: tılıfon) to form the word “yanfon” — the word every Uyghur uses to refer to their cellphone today. And he created the word “tizginek,” which means “remote control,” by combining “tizgin” — or “control” — with the suffix “nek,” which means “a small thing.”

Hüsenjan was a state employee. His task was to introduce the broader contemporary world to Uyghur society through the Chinese language. In the 2000s, as Xinjiang’s education system shifted from Uyghur to Chinese, his mandate was to provide Uyghur students with tools to learn Chinese. As he said on a TV show (see below), “With regards to Uyghur dictionaries, the government has really been supporting this effort and has done a lot of work to support our organization (the Ethnic Language Committee).”

Excerpts from Hüsenjan Esker’s appearance on the Xinjiang regional TV show Cultural Oasis (with English subtitles).

He acted with a lot of care to show his loyalty to the state, and to the project of bringing Uyghurs into Chinese mainstream society. After the mass violence of July 5, 2009, he appeared on state TV and made a statement about how the government was doing a good job in “stopping the separatists.” In the following years, when he was asked to go to Southern Xinjiang to teach Uyghurs political ideology, he went without complaint as a volunteer. “He tried to do everything right,” Gulruy said.

In fact, Hüsenjan’s support for the state became a source of tension in their family. Gulruy recalls, “My father was never satisfied with my brother. My father was very charismatic. He could order people to do things and they did it. He was never satisfied with Hüsenjan; he was so quiet and studious, and then he became a Party member.”

This attitude was not unique to her father. Lots of Uyghurs did not see the value in Hüsenjan’s project, including Gulruy. Instead, they saw someone working for the government and toeing the Party line. “For a long time I wasn’t proud of my brother when I lived over there (in Xinjiang). I didn’t know why he was so dedicated to such tedious work,” Gulruy said. “Then I began to realize how important his work is in preserving language.”

She remembers the first moment she realized how important her brother was to the future of Uyghur society. It was at a Xinhua bookstore near Yan’an Street, the largest bookstore at the center of Uyghur urban life in Ürümchi:

“I went there to buy some books for my daughters. We went to the second floor and in the middle aisle, where they had all the reference books, my husband said, ‘Oh look, here is your brother’s name.’ It was his dictionary. So then we started looking at other dictionaries. His name was everywhere. Hüsenjan Esker. We opened the dictionaries one after another and we saw his name in all of them. I was so proud. The next time I saw him, I told him we counted more than 30 of them. I said I wanted to scream in the bookstore, ‘My brother’s name is everywhere!’ He didn’t say anything, he just gave me a quiet smile. He was so proud. And I was proud of how humble he was. My father had already passed away. I wish he could have seen this.”

Gulruy and Hüsenjan with their father in an undated photo.

Remembering this in 2020 made Gulruy think about all of the time she spent with Hüsenjan helping him with his work when she was young and still living at home with her parents.

“He liked to drink very red dark tea, a kind of ‘brick tea’ (Uy: hish chay). It is old people’s tea, really. It has stems in it, too. It comes with paper wrapped around it. You have to get a knife to break it apart. My father and mother used to do it. Hüsenjan would stay up. He made me make tea for him all night. He said he would pay me 5 yuan, and I would say, ‘No, 10 yuan.’ He would pay me to make the tea and help him search for words. I was his little research assistant. We drank the tea out of little bowls (Uy: piyale). I still remember them, they had Uyghur flowers inside. The tea had to be hot. If it would cool down too much he would say, ‘Heat it again.’”

Hüsenjan taught Gulruy to take herself seriously. Their work was important, and to do it right, they needed to look and act the part. She remembers,

“Back then he liked striped shirts and light-colored pants. He really liked to dress up. My father was like this too. If I came to his office a little bit messy he would yell at me. He felt like appearances really mattered. My father always wore a tie. I think now that this was probably him trying to live up to my father’s expectations.”

Hüsenjan took Gulruy under his wing. He pushed her to study hard and to achieve things that even he had not been able to. “He would buy me English dictionaries. He said, ‘It is impossible to sing in English like a nightingale overnight.’ He told me, ‘When your friends play around, you study.’”

Over time, all of his coaxing began to rub off, and Gulruy began to succeed academically. She even started to resemble her older brother. “When I took the high school entrance exam, his classmate — the proctor of the test — recognized me, asking, ‘Are you as smart as your brother?’ A man who was a total stranger said this to me. I was so surprised. He said, ‘You look exactly like him. Kichik Hüsenjan’ (little Hüsenjan), he called me this.”

Gulruy first learned that her brother had been taken in 2019, when she saw his name on a list of intellectuals who had been seized by the state. She started to have nightmares about him. In her dreams, he was given the long coat reserved for the most honored members of Uyghur society; then, in the midst of the ceremony, police dressed in black and carrying machine guns came and took him away. Because her relatives had stopped communicating with her directly in 2017, she had no way of finding out what was happening.

“I sent my relatives WeChat invitations hundreds of times. Eventually one of my relatives responded. She said Hüsenjan was taken. There were no men left in the family, since my nephews were taken as well. In January 2019, he returned to his house with the police. He told his wife to prepare his clothes and medication. Then he just disappeared.”

Gulruy could tell that her relatives were terrified to speak with her. They stop answering her calls. The only tie that connected her to her home in Ürümchi was an occasional conversation with her mother once every several months. At the other end, her mother often made her eight-year-old nephew answer the phone. Gulruy’s mother would tell him to say, “Tell her grandma is not at home.” Gulruy said, “She knew that I could hear this. It made me sad, but it also made me smile. She was trying to communicate with me in the only way she knew how.”

From Gulruy’s perspective, what has happened to her family is an indication of how widespread state violence has become in the Uyghur region. She said, “We are religious, sure. We are Muslim. But that just means that we pray and follow the basic rules of Islam. We are all college-educated, but we pray at home. My oldest sister did teach the children to pray and they listened to the Qur’an on an mp3. This is why my nephew was taken. Hüsenjan didn’t pray at all, he was a Party member. But still, they thought he was protecting our ethnicity.”

Gulruy believes that Hüsenjan was detained because of his work on a dictionary of Uyghur place names. Because the Uyghur names for places carry a claim to native sovereignty, his effort to collect them and pair them with their Chinese equivalents may have been deemed to have been a “separatist” activity. Unlike Mahmud Kashgari, who wrote the first Turkic dictionary nearly 1,000 years ago, Uyghurs are no longer allowed to write their own history. Hüsenjan’s audacity to systematically document how Uyghurs refer to their homeland outweighed decades of Party loyalty, decades of service to the regional government.

Gulruy with an image of Hüsenjan. In 2020, his relatives confirmed that he had been released after more than one year in detention.

It is difficult to erase a knowledge system. Hüsenjan’s dictionaries taught a generation how to think about their world in the Chinese language, but it also showed them that their social world was equal to a Chinese social world. “Hüsenjan and the other translators started from nothing, to build this,” Gulruy said. “They wanted us to be just like other nationalities. We needed language for all of the modern professions, and they gave it to us.”

Gulruy understands now why Hüsenjan worked so obsessively through the night cataloguing the Uyghur language. “He was working beyond his job. No one gave him orders. He was motivated by himself.” She knows that some people recognized this in him. One of his colleagues, the sociologist Zulpikar Barat, who also reportedly disappeared during the purge of intellectuals, told her, “We didn’t need to edit his work. When I got his manuscript, the boss would say, ‘If it came from him you don’t have to edit it.’ if it came from him it was ‘spotless’ (Uy: pakiz).”

When she thinks about him now, she remembers how they used to watch Tom and Jerry cartoons during breaks in their late-night dictionary writing sessions. She watches it now when she thinks of him. “It hurts me so much to watch it. I miss him so much. He doesn’t laugh and smile a lot. Watching Tom and Jerry was the one time when he laughed a lot. He liked it more than me. Most of the time he is very calm. He is that kind of man.”

In April 2020, Gulruy learned that Hüsenjan had been returned to his home and was now under house arrest. According to news that was relayed to Gulruy, “He looks fine, but he looks like a patient who has just been released from the hospital: a little thinner, his voice a bit weaker.” Judging by the process used in a number of other detainee-rehabilitations, it is likely that Hüsenjan will be on probation for at least six months. He may be placed in some form of state-approved employment during that time. The Ethnic Languages Committee Office where he worked has been replaced by a more generic title: the Translation Bureau (Ch:翻译局 fānyì jú ). It is unclear if he will be allowed to return to his dictionaries.

This article first appeared in SupChina May 6, 2020

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.

‘Heaviness In The Stomach’: A Uyghur Daughter Alone In America On Her Birthday During A Pandemic

When my Chinese friends see her as a human, as a mother, if they start there, then it makes me feel as though there is hope. But to be honest, among my Chinese friends, this is really rare, just one or two or three.

Last month, Akida Pulat celebrated her birthday alone. It was her third birthday since her mother, Uyghur anthropologist Rahile Dawut, had disappeared in Northwest China. Thinking about this in a café in Seattle two weeks before the city began to shut down due to COVID-19, Akida said, “When I was little my mom would ask me what I would want for my birthday. She would make my favorite food, hand-pulled noodles or Hui-style lamb fried with garlic (蒜苔炒羊肉 suàntái chǎo yángròu), and served with rice. She would invite her friends to bring their kids to my party. They always showed me that they really loved me and showered me with attention.

“She would always tell me, ‘I love you my daughter, I hope you have a wonderful year.’ She would always be the first person to give me a birthday wish. So no matter where she is now, whether in a camp or in prison, I know that today she is thinking, ‘This is my daughter’s birthday.’”

Akida worried that during the pandemic, her birthday would be especially hard for her mother. She said:

“In China, the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is in the news all the time. All of my Chinese friends’ parents are calling them every day making sure they are OK. My grandmother is so worried about me. She is always telling me ‘don’t go out.’ So that makes me think that my mom must also be really worried about me, too. She must be losing sleep, afraid that I will get coronavirus. I’m also worried about her because I can’t get any information about how it might spread where she is at. I don’t even know if she is being protected from it or not. I’m afraid that my grandma doesn’t know either. She always just tells me, ‘Don’t worry, she is well.’ She has been telling me the same thing for almost three years. When you don’t have real information about the people you love, anything feels possible.”

Akida, speaking to the New York Times, along with two other young Uyghurs who have a parent who has been disappeared.

As I have written elsewhere, the news of Rahile’s disappearance began circulating around the world on December 12, 2017. Administrators had told her to pack her bags for an urgent conference in Beijing. She has not been seen in public since that time. Akida said that when she didn’t hear from her mom for a few days, her first thought was that maybe there had been a plane crash.

But then she had a video chat with her relatives not long after. “My father’s expression seemed to indicate that it was not that serious,” she said. “They were reassuring. They just told me it was complicated. Her work ‘in Beijing’ was being extended.” Akida felt as though they were trying to protect her, since she was all alone in the United States, finishing her degree at the University of Washington.

“When you told me during the summer of 2017 that something had happened to Yalqun Rozi and that some professors were missing from Xinjiang University, I began to worry about her safety,” Akida told me. “Now other people here were telling me she was under investigation. I was devastated, but other people were telling me that other people had been arrested and then they were released after just  three months. So I was just waiting for February. Then I would wait for one more month. Then I thought, maybe after six months they would let her out.”

She said that over this period, the expressions on her relatives’ faces did not really change during their regular WeChat video calls. She said, “They didn’t look as devastated as I thought they should be. But then I started to see a sadness in their eyes. They had become sad. They didn’t know what to do, so they just accepted it.”

During the summer of 2018, Akida said that she began to hear more and more about what was happening to other Uyghurs. For her, and many other Uyghurs, a story about life inside the reeducation camps by Gerry Shih, a Washington Post reporter who was recently expelled from China along with other American journalists, made her feel a sense of desperation. “I started to think about how this was connected to her. What if she was being treated like that?”

When Akida thinks about her mom it is hard for her not to idolize her. “To be honest, she is nearly perfect,” she said. “Some professors are workaholics, but she did everything. She is an expert in her field, but she also did the housework, cooked food for us, and supported us in every way.”

The way she poured herself into their family made them always want to please her, Akida said.

“She looks happy most of the time. But when she is angry, she looks like she is mad. When I was a teenager and I would lie about something to her, she would look so mad. Or if I was impolite to elders, if I wasn’t warm and hospitable. If I wasn’t polite to my cousins from the countryside when they came to visit, she would get really mad. In this way she is a bit like my grandmother, who is also very energetic and could handle a job and three kids. But they are also different. My grandmother was really good at her job, but my mother was really strong and driven. My mom would let me know when she was upset with me right away. My grandmother also gets angry, but it builds more slowly with her.”

It isn’t her anger that Akida remembers most, though; it’s the way her mother cared for her. The emotional labor that made her life path possible came from her.

One of Akida’s earliest memories was of when her mom left for Beijing to study for her Ph.D. in Uyghur folklore. She was only two or three at the time, but she said she still remembers it.

“I felt so sad. I missed her so much. I could feel how attached I was to her already at that time. The happiest memory from my childhood was when I went to attend her graduation ceremony. I stayed with her for two months. It was one of the closest times we had together. We could talk to each other. When she left I was just two, so I could only say ‘mom.’ She taught me to respond to the question ‘Can you speak English?’ with the answer, in English, ‘Yes, I can.’”

“She always said, ‘Why don’t you enjoy life? Chocolate is the best thing in the world.’ In Seattle, she especially fell in love with the snacks from the Fred Meyers grocery store. She thought they had the best chicken wings.”

At first, Akida didn’t realize how significant her mother’s accomplishments were, as one of the first Uyghur women to earn a Ph.D., or how those early language lessons would shape her life course. Back in Ürümchi, she started to realize some of this because suddenly it seemed like everyone was saying, “Rahile is a doctor, Rahile is a doctor.” Akida remembers repeating this in school to her classmates. “They were like, what?”

When Akida started school, like many Uyghur parents who wanted the best for their children, her mother insisted on sending her to a Chinese kindergarten. Akida remembers this as being really hard.

“I could not understand a single word, because up to that point I had never spoken Chinese or heard Chinese. I never finished my homework. At first my mother blamed me for not doing my homework. She told me, ‘Do your homework.’ As if I was just lazy. But I didn’t know what this was.”

Akida soon began to understand her Chinese lessons, and when she started to study English, she realized that she might have a gift for languages. “I was the smallest person in the class at the English training center. My mom was so proud of me. She told me, ‘If you study hard you can go abroad, go to Harvard, be a doctor and see the world.’”

Rahile wanted Akida to know everything and do everything, but she especially wanted her to understand her Uyghur heritage. As Akida remembers it,

“Unlike other parents, she encouraged me to travel. She always pushed me to explore life. She would tell me, ‘Go live with your relatives for the summer.’ She would give me 30 yuan ($4.20), pack some clothes, and a tin of biscuits. She made it seem like it wasn’t hard. Like it was fun. We had been living a cozy life in the city. But on the farm in the countryside, the toilet was outside, there were no showers. Someone had to hold a hollowed-out gourd filled with water and pour it over you. In the countryside there were no supermarkets and the kids had a different kind of life. In the city, girls and boys were treated more equally, but in the countryside, the women were treated differently. For instance, young women would be married to young men without meeting each other. Girls had to get up early and clean the house. The girls were super, super good at cleaning. There were also some cultural traditions. The children should not talk freely with elders. We should avoid being impolite. I learned by watching the other children, but I made a lot of mistakes. They were very patient with me. They would tell me over and over again, ‘Akida, you are a girl.’ In the countryside, even a 10-year-old girl could make hand-pulled noodles and all kinds of food. I couldn’t do any of those things.”

One of Akida’s fondest memories of her mom came from the intense periods of time when Akida was studying for the middle school and college entrance exams. Rahile incorporated Akida’s work into her own approach to academic work. Her habit was to work for one hour and then take a five-minute break to listen to some Uyghur folk music and to dance. Akida said, “She would always invite me to dance with her, so I always had a five-minute break, too. Our favorite song to sing and dance to was a song by the Uyghur singer Mominjan called “There is Beauty in You” (Uy: Güzelik Sende).

Akida was in high school when the violence of July 5, 2009 happened. Looking out from their 10th-floor apartment at Xinjiang University, she saw fires burning in the streets.

“My mom and I took a walk to the front gates to look out. We didn’t know what was happening. Our education was all from the state-run media. I felt terrified. No one wants chaos. I didn’t know what would happen next. One of the things I remember is that people were saying that their daughter or their son was  missing. In high school they told us that all of the ethnicities were in solidarity with each other. But everyone saw that students were missing.”

Her mom encouraged her to go to Beijing for college, since it would give her better chances to find a good job. Akida remembers this as one of the difficult times in her life.

“It was really hard. When I was in college and feeling upset, she would always give me encouragement. She would say, ‘As long as you are making progress you are doing better.’ I never got any awards in college. She would have been happy if I did, but she just encouraged me anyway. She said, ‘The other students are native Chinese speakers.’ Usually I would call her in the evening after class. I would tell her all the gossip about my roommates and my friends. I would tell her what I ate for dinner. She would try to call me in the morning on the weekends so that I would get up and study. I would always pretend that I was already awake. I would say, ‘I’ve been up for an hour already.’ Whenever I went to Beijing she would pack my bag with snacks and bedding. She would pack some dried meat for me in a jar. She would tell me to eat in class in school when I am hungry. I would think of her for several weeks as I ate what she sent.”

When the stress of college life drove Akida close to developing an eating disorder, Rahile intervened as gently as she could. Akida said, “She always did it in a humorous way. When I didn’t eat enough before I left for school, she used to say, ‘You will faint if you don’t eat.’ During video chats after I came to the U.S., she used to repeat the Uyghur proverb: ‘If you don’t eat well, the wind will take you away’” (Uy: Tamakni yaxshi yemisigiz, shamal uqurtiwitidu).

After she came to visit Akida in Seattle as a Chinese state-sponsored visiting scholar at the University of Washington in 2016, Rahile always tried to ply Akida with snacks like chocolate. Akida said, “I would never eat it because I was dieting. She always said, ‘Why don’t you enjoy life? Chocolate is the best thing in the world.’ In Seattle, she especially fell in love with the snacks from the Fred Meyers grocery store. She thought they had the best chicken wings.”

For Akida, Seattle is haunted by the memory of her mother. She said, “When she came to visit me here, I had no idea that this would be the last time we would stay together for a long time. I didn’t know the meaning of her visit. I thought it seemed so familiar, like when she had visited me in Beijing. I didn’t know the meaning of having her here.”

As she goes about her daily routine, little things Akida encounters makes her think about her mother.

“My exercise clothes always remind me of her. She has a lot of tennis shoes and sports outfits. She had a gray hoodie that she wore for 10 years, I often imagine her in that. Not many Uyghur women her age would wear this sort of thing in public, so they always reminded me of how different she is, how confident she is as a woman. I used to always borrow her clothes or steal them from her. She would always complain, ‘Why did you take my clothes again?’ But secretly I could tell that she was pleased. We used to walk together around the Red Lake in the center of Xinjiang University. She would tell me, ‘You will ruin your eyes, if you just look at your computer.’ When she was a visiting scholar here in Seattle we walked down by the lake near our apartment. I think of her when I go back to where we used to walk. When I see the apartment where we used to live, I remember that she lived there with me. This always brings tears to my eyes.

“There is a Value Village thrift store near that apartment. Once when I was passing it, I went in to have a look. She used to go there almost every day. She liked saving money, but she also liked nice clothes. She liked to go there to see if she could find some nice clothes or good shoes. Then she would brag to me about what she found. This is one of the things that really made her happy.”

“Most Chinese people cannot comprehend it when I say that my mother is missing. When I say she is missing, their first response is why? Did she commit some sort of crime?”

Mostly, Akida says she misses having someone to talk to.

“I miss her so much. I used to stay in the same room with her, so now I miss her scent. I could just talk to her for hours every day. I told her about all of the small things. Even after she left, we kept talking like this, right until the day she disappeared. She had just bought a new TV and a dishwasher so she could do less housework and watch more movies. She told me that her future plan was to move to a house in the mountains outside of Ürümchi. After she retired she wanted to live in the countryside and write and read. She wanted to smell the fresh air and write about the countryside. She told me to get married and give her grandchildren. She told me that if I lived and worked in the U.S. she would take care of my children. This is what makes me so sad. This life no longer seems possible. She wanted to enjoy her life. Knowing this is what makes her disappearance so hard.”

Akida said that much of the past three years have felt like a waking dream, a nightmare that never ends.

“I have dreams about her returning home and that I am in the same room with her. Or I am talking with her over the phone. But then when I wake up, I know it is just a dream. I often have nightmares that something happened to her. When this happens it takes me days for me to recover. In the dream she just looks weak. Her hair has turned white. She has a hard time walking. I say, ‘Mom!’ to her but she cannot respond. It’s like she doesn’t recognize me. She just stares at me blankly. It is like a really weird, horrible movie. I often wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep. I go to work feeling heavy inside. It is hard to pretend that things are normal. Lots of people have trauma, but it is not like this. This never ends. I don’t have the energy to even scream or cry. I can’t scream at work. I wash my face, make breakfast, and commute to work. I just feel this heaviness all the time. It is a physical feeling inside me, like a monster is inside me weighing me down. I feel it in my stomach. At the same time, my head doesn’t stop thinking about it and these two things combine together. Sometimes I feel so tired that I might end up not doing anything. I crawl into bed and try to sleep to forget these things, but it is hard to sleep sometimes. Sometimes I just think about what has happened to my mom for hours at a time. It is so contradictory. It is hard to sleep, but it is also hard to get out of bed. Sometimes I spend days in bed.

What makes her memory of dancing with her mother to the song “There is Beauty in You” more painful is that, in her nightmares, her mom can barely walk. “I’m afraid that it is impossible for her to dance now, that I’ll never relive this again.”

“The saddest time was reading that the president of Xinjiang University, Tashpolat Tiyip, had been allegedly sentenced to death (with a two-year reprieve). I saw him all the time on campus. He was a family friend. I thought about it for weeks. The only time I feel a little bit better is when I see that another Uyghur has testified for their family member and the government has released them as a result. For example, when I heard Halmurat Harri had gotten his mother out. At that time, I hadn’t even started speaking. But then I thought, ‘Now I have no choice but to speak.’ You know the Chinese government lies are being unveiled through leaked documents. There is clear proof. This, and the ability to tell our stories, gives me energy. Together we can show that this is happening.”

It is often hard for Akida to remain optimistic. As someone who has spent decades of her life in the Chinese education system, she knows how powerful the Chinese state is in revising history. She fears that most of her Chinese friends will simply act as though what is happening to the Uyghurs is not true and wait for the story to go away.

“Sometimes I tell my Chinese friends that my mother is missing and it feels like they don’t believe me. When I post testimony videos or interviews many Han people tell me that I am telling lies. They say, ‘Your mom must be a terrorist.’ I believe that many people have humanity at their core. They just don’t know what is actually happening in Northwest China. I don’t think most Chinese people know that it is happening. You can’t hear anything about it from the media they are used to. If they hear it is happening from the Western media, they think it is just them trying to humiliate China. If they knew, they would say this is wrong. I hope that this is true. First they have to understand that this is happening. They are detaining innocent Uyghurs. I tell my Han friends they don’t need to say something for my mother. But it is true that innocent people are being detained. I would stand up for anyone who is innocent. This is what I believe in.”

Over time, Akida says she has stopped talking directly to her Chinese friends, since they often just shut down when she brings  up her mother’s situation. It makes them uncomfortable, so she has started to develop more non-Chinese friendships.

“Most Chinese people cannot comprehend it when I say that my mother is missing. When I say she is missing, their first response is why? Did she commit some sort of crime? They cannot digest it. So most of the time I don’t mention it.”

But it still means a lot if one of her Chinese friends sees her and her mother as fellow humans and relates to them on that level.

“One of my Chinese friends, when I began to post about this, sent me a message saying she was so sorry and said, ‘I hope you can see your mother soon.’ She told me to keep staying strong. Her first response was to feel sorry for me. She identified with me as a daughter. I will remember this forever. It means so much if someone from her background has empathy like this. If they say something like this, I feel a little bit lighter. That heaviness in my stomach goes away just for a little bit. When my Chinese friends see her as a human, as a mother, if they start there, then it makes me feel as though there is hope. But to be honest, among my Chinese friends, this is really rare, just one or two or three.

Akida buried her head in her hands. She shook her head sadly and tried to smile.

For ways to can support Akida’s efforts to help her mom, visit This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on April 1, 2020.