A Uyghur Turkish national and his wife who were detained by Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in 2017 spent two years in an internment camp and are no longer able to return to their adopted nation, they revealed to their children in a police-monitored video chat.
Yahya Kurban, an ethnic Uyghur from Kargilik (in Chinese, Yecheng) county, in the XUAR’s Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture, emigrated to Turkey in 1979 with his family at age 13 and later became a Turkish citizen.
On Sept. 10, 2017, he and his wife Amine Kurban, who is also from Kargilik, were detained in the regional capital Urumqi, where they ran a shop, and taken to their hometown. The couple’s four children in Turkey have been able to hold brief phone calls with their parents every two to three months since the end of 2019, but have received no substantial information about their current condition.
The Turkish government has also been unable to obtain any updates about their parents’ legal status.
However, on May 13—the first day of Eid al-Fitr, or the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan—the couple called their children in a nearly 30-minute video chat—the first time they had seen each other in four years—under police supervision and told them that they are currently “free” after spending two years in an internment camp in the XUAR.
Beginning in 2017, authorities launched a campaign of mass incarceration in the XUAR that has since seen an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities locked up in a vast network of internment camps.
After denying the camps' existence initially, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the facilities as residential training centers that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.
Former detainees have also described being subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses while in custody.
Parliaments in Canada, The Netherlands, and the U.K., and the U.S. State Department, have described China's actions in the region as "genocide," while the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says they constitute crimes against humanity.
First video chat in four years
In a recording of the video chat provided to RFA, Kurban’s eldest daughter, Hankiz, pressed her father on whether they were serving prison sentences or had ever been sentenced, and he responded that they had been held in an internment camp and released in October 2019.
“We’re not in detention, we’re on the outside,” Kurban says. “That’s enough. Let’s not keep talking about this.”
When Hankiz questions why they were held in a camp for two years, Kurban says he needs to “ask” before he can give her an answer, although he does not respond.
Hankiz presses him further, asking why he did not agree to return to Turkey when she warned him about the tightening of restrictions in the XUAR in 2017.
“Yes, we brought your sister and brother here to teach them the Chinese language, in order to let them lead our business in the future,” Kurban answers, suggesting that the family had been loyal to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“Don’t listen to what other people say, my child … There’s nothing we did to end up in this situation,” he adds.
Kurban was unable to explain to his daughter why he and his wife are still living under heavy restrictions after leaving the camp, and why they are unable to obtain permission even to travel to Urumqi, let alone Turkey.
Hankiz said her father could only promise to “apply” for a telephone number or the right to set up an appointment to speak with her again.
She said that after asking to see their apartment, her mother held up the phone, revealing “two people sitting there” who she believes were security personnel.
“They were wearing blue pants and tops, and just sitting there,” she said.
“They didn’t once interfere. But two different times, my dad, when I said I’d heard that [the authorities] had revoked their Turkish citizenship and asked whether they’d given them identification cards … looked over to someone on his left [as if expecting an answer].”
Hankiz said her parents told her that they are living in an apartment complex called “Karlik,” which they insisted was not an internment camp, noting that “there are families here” and telling her to “be at ease.”
When asked whether his Turkish citizenship was still valid, Kurban said he could not give her a certain answer, noting that his passport had been confiscated in 2017 and does not possess any form of Chinese national identification.
“Given that I was born here [in Kargilik], it would be wrong for me to say that I’m not from here,” he said, clearly looking at someone off camera.
Discussion under duress
Throughout the conversation, Yahya and Amine Kurban attempted to comfort their children, changing the topic of conversation and avoiding giving direct answers to some questions. They also regularly interjected words of praise for CCP, much like other Uyghurs who know they are being monitored have done during phone conversations.
Last year RFA reported about a “residential camp” by the name of the “14th Neighborhood Committee” in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture’s Makit (Maigaiti) county. Formerly interned individuals were sent to the housing compound, where they had the right to live with their immediate family members but still were not allowed to visit freely with extended family or to participate freely in normal social life.
RFA was unable to independently verify whether Yahya and Amine Kurban are being held in a similar situation.
Hankiz told RFA that after having received little in the way of information about her parents for four years, she finally decided to go public with her story last month.
“I told them that I didn’t say much [about their situation before], that I could have gone anywhere in the world to speak [about it], but I didn’t want to cause trouble for them, so I stayed quiet and didn’t say anything, and that there has been no reward for my sitting in silence,” she said.
However, she said that a simple video chat is not enough to fix her family’s problems or heal their wounds and vowed to continue telling their story to the world until they are reunited, no matter the cost.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.