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‘I asked them to remove Mom’s chains. They refused’ In their own words, ethnic Kazakhs whose loved ones disappeared into Xinjiang’s internment camps describe their fight for answers
Since 2014, the world has gradually been learning about the horrors that occur in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Media reports have described how Uyghurs are put in “vocational training camps,” which are effectively concentration camps. People can be put there for the smallest expression of religiosity, and any hope of getting out requires undergoing a “reeducation” process, though some never escape at all. Members of Xinjiang’s other ethnic groups are put in the camps, too — primarily Kazakhs. Since February 2021, the relatives and loved ones of Kazakh people currently being held in the Xinjiang camps have held daily protests outside of the Chinese Consulate in Almaty. Meduza is publishing photographer Ofeliya Zhakaeva’s project “Nearby,” which focuses on Chinese Kazakhs whose relatives have disappeared into the Xinjiang internment system. She photographed protest participants outside of the Consulate with objects that remind them of their loved ones and recorded their stories.
‘Get me out of here — save me’
It’s been over five years since I’ve seen my mother. At a banquet for my cousin in the village of Karasu, in the Yining district, they arrested her and took her away for questioning. My younger brother waited outside for her for seven hours, but nobody told him his mom wouldn’t be able to come home that day. After that, she disappeared for several months. We searched and searched, and finally we learned through some friends and coworkers that she was in a camp.
After that, I received a call and was told that she was in the hospital and needed treatment; they said it needed to be paid for. When I went to the Yining District People’s Hospital, there were iron doors and bars on the windows. After they searched me, they let me into the ward where Mom was, and I saw her: emaciated, with a blindfold over her eyes and chains on her arms and legs. There was a security camera focused on her. Mom told me she had ended up in the hospital after she was kicked in the chest during an interrogation and lost consciousness.
“Get me out of here. Save me,” she whispered as I was leaving the ward. Some time later, I managed to see her again. I asked the guards to take her chains off, but they refused.
After that, Mom disappeared again. After eight months of silence, some court officials came to my brother and said Mom had been sentenced to 12 years: five years in prison and seven years in a camp.
They take people [to camps] for all kinds of reasons. If you keep the Quran at home, they’ll take you. [Going to the mosque] is also banned. They won’t bring charges until later. For five years already, since 2017 [when they arrested my mom], my relatives haven’t known peace; they sleep in their clothes, because they could come at any time and practically pull you out of your bed.
One time, they let me look at my mom through a video camera. Her long hair had been shaved, there were chains on her arms and legs, and there were two women with machine guns behind her. They shoved her down onto the chair and gave her five minutes to talk with me. Seeing that, all I could do was cry.
Now people are saying she can no longer walk. Even before she was arrested, she had health problems; they found a tumor.
At a certain point, I just didn’t know what to do or who to contact. But one woman called me and told me they were gathering in front of the Chinese Consulate [in Almaty] and invited me to join them. That’s how I started going to the protests. That was in February 2021.
After I started attending protests and talking to the media, I got a call from an international human rights organization. They added my mother’s photo to a database of about two thousand other missing people. But after that, my relatives from China told me that people started visiting my dad and threatening my family. Local government officials told them that I had joined foreign terrorist organizations. My dad became upset with me, and so did my brothers — they believed it. They’ve asked me to stop going to protests. But I still go.
I’m very scared that my younger brothers and sisters will end up in a camp just like my mom. Their lives are in danger. When my mom was convicted, my siblings’ children lost the right to go to college and to get good jobs. If they want to work at all, they have to get the government’s permission. They’re just children, but they already have no future.
Back when I got married, my mom gave me her scarf. I remember her telling me, “Keep this safe. Whenever you see it, when you hold it in your hands, I want you to feel that I’m with you.” When I see it now, I want to cry and never stop. When I’m holding her scarf, I can still smell her.
‘I thought things would turn out better if I laid low’
In 2011, when my brother graduated from high school in Shanghai, I invited him to Kazakhstan. He came and enrolled in university here. After the first semester, during his winter break, he went back to China to see his adoptive family — he was adopted by our paternal aunt who didn’t have any children of her own. But he wasn’t able to come back to Kazakhstan, because our parents started to have health problems, so he decided to stay.
In 2017, he got a job as a police officer. Later on, though, I learned from our relatives that he’d been taken to a camp. At first they said it would be for a month, then for a year. A year passed, and they still didn’t let him out. A year and a half later, I learned that he’d been sentenced to 10 years.
When he was first arrested, I didn’t do anything. I thought things would be better if I laid low; I thought they wouldn’t harm him and would release him quickly, and that they wouldn’t touch the rest of our family. Now I really regret that decision.
Eventually, I decided to act. Since November 2019, I’ve written to the president [of Kazakhstan] — both the previous one and the current one; I’ve written to the Interior Ministry, to the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan, to the UN, and to EU representatives. And I keep writing, though I’ve gotten no answers and no results [Editor’s note: Baibolat said in an interview with the Kazakhstani outlet Vlast that after one rally in Astana, a PRC representative agreed to meet with him. He said his brother had immediately been sent to prison. The official reason was an article his brother had posted on the social network Baidu, which, according to the embassy official, had “sown ethnic discord”].
After that, I wanted to go to the Chinese Consulate, but they wouldn’t let me in. Now, I go to protests every day with a photograph of my brother.
In March 2020, I put chains on my body and went to the consulate. I wanted them to understand what state my brother is in. Several people warned me not to, but it was a one-man protest — I wasn’t violating any laws. But in February 2021, I was detained for six hours. They gave me an official warning.
At the same time, three women went to the consulate and demanded their loved ones in Xinjiang be freed. The next day, there were 20 people outside of the consulate. After that, the police came to my house. They arrested me for 10 days. But the other people continued to protest.
And so did I. I just decided to change my strategy: I started recording the protesters on video and spreading the clips around social media. I did everything I could to get these people’s stories out there. All year, we’ve been trying to get the akim [a local leader analogous to the mayor] to allow us to protest legally, with city approval. We’ve written constant statements. But they refused, telling us that consulates and embassies are specially-protected zones, and that protests there were prohibited.
In July of this year, when I was going to visit my parents, some people in civilian clothes suddenly grabbed me. At first, I thought they were Chinese agents, and it scared me — I thought they’ve take me away and kill me. They forced me into a car, not showing me any documents; they just dragged me, twisted my arm, and put handcuffs on me. They handled me very roughly and painfully. I couldn’t break free no matter what I did. My wife and my neighbors ran out and tried to help — they caught it on video. When some more people came up to us, the men said they were police officers, and they brought me to the police precinct. They held me there until nightfall, and my relatives, too. The officers had gone for my wife, too, but not until they’d arrested me. They said if she came right then, they would release me. That’s how my wife, my children, and my mother were tricked into going to the police station for an entire day. It turned out they had arrested a lot of people who protest regularly that day. In China, it was a holiday — they were celebrated the centennial of the Communist Party.
After that, I wrote a statement to the prosecutor, and they forwarded it to the security department. That’s when I finally got an answer: no violations had been committed by the police. They never explained what me and my family had been arrested for.
No answers from China, either. It’s been four years since we lost contact with my brother. My dad has started ailing as a result: his heart’s gotten weaker, and one of his eyes has stopped working. My mom has constant blood pressure problems and headaches. We’re in a lot of pain.
‘All my grandson wants is to see his parents’
In March 2017, my daughter and her two children came here to Kazakhstan to visit us. Back in China, they started threatening her husband, demanding she go home. When she finally returned to China, they demanded she give them her documents and asked why she had gone to Kazakhstan, why she’d married a mullah, and why she prays namaz.
They arrested my son-in-law in August of that year, then my daughter. My son-in-law was sentenced to 25 years and my daughter was given 18. We don’t know why it happened, where they are, or what’s happening to them. My son-in-law was an imam from Mongolküre. The Chinese authorities were the ones who trained him for the job; they sent him there to study, and he even graduated with honors, and then they arrested him. Five years went by — five years of sadness and of not knowing. And we can’t meet with our relatives in China about it, just like we can’t meet with the ones who are no longer with us.
At first, I was going to the protest rallies, but now I’ve gotten sick, and so has my husband. All because of this tragedy. We’re constantly sick now. Other than our family, we have no support.
Three years ago, I managed to get in touch with my grandson [in Xinjiang]. It was his birthday. He couldn’t stop crying; he said the only thing he wanted was to see his parents. After that, they blacklisted his number and blocked it. Now we have no way of communicating.
‘My five-year-old daughter doesn’t know what a father is’
In 2016, my husband quit his job in China and started collecting disability benefits due to a lumbar hernia. It was the result of years of hard work in an oil company, where he’d injected steam into oil wells to mine the oil.
That same year, we decided to move to Kazakhstan. We got all of our documents and permits and had no trouble crossing the border. In August, we got to Astana, then to Almaty — there was very little work, but my husband’s pension helped. We’d already decided we would apply for citizenship. In December, our second daughter was born.
In May 2017, my husband got a call from his old workplace in China; they said there was going to be some kind of meeting, and that if he didn’t attend, he would stop receiving his pension. He believed them, and he decided to go, not suspecting anything for even a moment; after all, he’s no criminal.
I waited to hear from him. Our relatives [in Xinjiang] said he hadn’t come home. I started to worry. After three days, my husband’s sister called and said they still hadn’t seen him. I immediately called the driver of the bus he had traveled on. He said he remembered my husband — as soon as the bus crossed the border, the police had taken him away to answer a few questions. When my husband still hadn’t come back after 20 minutes, the driver left. While I was finding out about that, officers from the Karamay city police came to my sister’s home. They brought her a bag of my husband’s things and told her he was in jail, but they didn’t say what for.
It turned out they had arrested him immediately after interrogating him, though they still hadn’t given a reason. That was almost five years ago. At first, they let my husband’s relatives see him two or three times, then it turned into video chats, but now even those have stopped. Until March 2021, they were keeping him in a prison in Karamay; after that, as far as I’ve heard, they transferred him to a prison in east Xinjiang.
When we got married in 2013, we had a Neke, a traditional Kazakh ceremony. It was conducted by a mullah, as it should be. When they were searching my husband, they found a video of our wedding and charged him with inviting a mullah to our wedding and keeping the Quran at home. But at that time, you could easily get a Quran from the library or buy it in a bookstore — a lot of people had them. They also charged him with going to Kazakhstan. Our former neighbors told me about it. I got in touch with them because I couldn’t talk to our relatives in China anymore; they were too afraid of being arrested.
[When we were still in touch,] my relatives asked me to stop; they took offense to the fact that I was searching for my husband and that I kept going around and writing statements. The Chinese authorities learned I had submitted reports to Ata-Jurt, and they had started threatening even more forcefully to arrest my relatives. As a result, they’re no longer allowed to talk to my husband. Before, they were at least allowed that much.
Life is difficult right now. I’m only surviving thanks to my friends, my compatriots, my neighbors, and the charity foundation. My two girls have been growing up with no father for five years now. They constantly ask when he’ll come home — especially the older one, because she can remember him. I tell them he’ll come home soon. And I believe it myself; I have hope. But the constant stress has changed me; I’ve started lashing out at the kids. They’ve been deprived of a father — our family is broken. When my husband was put in jail, our younger daughter was just four months old. Now she’s five, and she doesn’t know what a father is.
‘If I don’t search for him, who will?’
In the early 1990s, my brother [in China] studied to be an imam. The authorities didn’t oppose it at all — they were the ones who gave him his diploma. In 2004, a year after me, he came with his family to Kazakhstan. Soon after, my dad developed a disability, so my brother went back to China. In 2012, my dad died. My mother died a few years later. After losing our parents, my brother was practically alone in China. He and his wife decided to return to Kazakhstan and apply for citizenship.
But they had trouble: three police officers came, one of them a Kazakh, and arrested my brother right in his home. They said they had a few questions for him. First they took him and put him in a camp, then they sentenced him to 14 years for working as an imam. As far as I know, he’s in a prison in Urumqi.
He has two children, a wife, and grandchildren. His older son is working. The younger one has graduated, but he can’t enroll in universities and no workplace will take him — all because his dad is in prison.
I’ve been searching for my brother for four years now. At first, I gave interviews to Ata-Jurt, but then they closed the office [in Almaty]. I didn’t get any results, so I decided to go to the protests in front of the Chinese Consulate. I’ve been doing that for a year now.
We haven’t gotten any help [from the Kazakh authorities]. They sometimes detain us for several days, fine us, and say we went to unauthorized rallies, but that’s not true. All we want is to save our relatives. And only our relatives support us.
Lately, I’ve been hearing that my brother’s health has deteriorated: he has high blood pressure and his kidneys and heart are failing. They say he has cancer. He’s also missing one of his arms. He’s 60 years old, and when he gets out of prison, he’ll be over 70. I’m afraid that he won’t make it, and that I’ll never see him again. I don’t sleep, I don’t laugh, my blood pressure is soaring, and my heart aches. I’m losing my mind with worry. He’s my only family. If I don’t search for him, who will?
‘Before this, I’d only heard good things about those places’
In 2015, after 34 years working as a Chinese language teacher, I retired. Three years later, my husband and I decided to move to Kazakhstan to be with our children, who had their own business here.
In May 2017, my husband’s visa expired. He went back to China to get a new one, but after a month, he suddenly vanished. I couldn’t go search for him because I’d had to send in my passport to apply for repatriation status. My children somehow managed to find out that he’d been taken away for “political re-education.”
We actually thought it might be a good thing. Before that, I’d only heard good things about those places. I knew they took everyone, including very old people, and that they trained them and fed them three times a day. But soon my children lost touch with him too; his phone was constantly turned off. After two months, we learned he’d been sentenced to 10 years. But what for? He hadn’t done anything. He worked for 36 years and then started collecting a well-deserved pension; he’s never broken the law.
Then we heard they were tracking down everyone who had ever gone or was planning to go to Kazakhstan. There were rumors that people were tortured and forced to sign statements incriminating themselves. They even got people for going to the mosque or for praying namaz.
I’ve been searching for my husband for four years now. I stand in front of the Chinese Consulate and ask various agencies for help. This entire time, I’ve never gotten a single serious answer. Our family is divided between two countries for no reason at all. My husband’s rights have been trampled on.
‘I can’t communicate with my family — it would get them in trouble’
In 2018, I learned from my brother’s friends in Kazakhstan, which he has a lot of, that he and his wife had been arrested. They’re believers — they were praying namaz, and for that, they were arrested. They released my brother after two months, and my sister-in-law after a year.
My brother continued working as a singer. In March 2019, he was arrested again. All because of the song “Sadness of a Kazakh,” which he recorded in 2010. It spread widely on the Internet. My brother was a popular singer: he released more than 60 songs and took part in competitions. As far as I know, he’s currently in a prison in the city of Kuytun.
This year, his son will turn five. He’s growing up without parental care. It’s impossible for me to communicate with my family — they would get in trouble. My relatives are under surveillance, and their phones are checked constantly; it’s impossible for them to speak openly. [The authorities] intimidate them by saying that if they say anything, they’ll be put in jail. So all we can do is greet each other.
I can’t just sit and do nothing. Every day since February 8 , I’ve gone to the Chinese Consulate. Afterwards, they arrest us and fine us. We always warn them ahead of time that we’re going to be there, but the local government doesn’t accept our applications. And these aren’t even rallies — we’re just waiting for answers.
Our own police had forbidden us from coming here. Some of them feel sorry for us, but they say they’ve gotten an order from above, and that they have their own families and children to think about, so they can’t disobey. And they’re not all that kind — some of them are very cruel. But when tomorrow comes, I’ll go there again. And I’ll keep going until they free our loved ones.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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