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Uighur Detention Camps: Finding Out One Missing Family Member is Alive

Fatimah Abdulghafur
Fatimah Abdulghafur

“After a couple of days of the publishing of that report, I got a picture of my brother Abdusami with his son, and I got the news that he’s still alive.”

In a previous report by Citizen Truth, we spoke with three Uighur women affected by the Uighur detention camps in the Xingjian province of China. One of the women featured in the report was Fatimah Abdulghafur, a 39-year-old Uighur woman who lost contact with her family in 2017 after their detention in a camp. Since our report published, Citizen Truth received the good news from Fatimah that she received proof her brother is still alive. But she and other Uighurs are desperate for more news about their families.

One Family Member is Alive

On May 13 Fatima shared the news of her brother’s appearance with Citizen Truth and on her Twitter account. She posted a recent-appearing picture of her brother with his son, which she said she received from her sister-in-law in Xinjiang. It is still not certain yet whether he is free from the detention camp or not.

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The photo of Fatimah’s brother, with his son, sent to Fatimah by her sister-in-law.

For Fatimah, her brother Abdusami, a 33-year-old airport express deliverer had been missing for three years. He was held in one of the detention camps in Kashgar where he was arrested, according to Fatimah. Fatimah says that her father, mother and young sister are still in those camps.

She told Citizen Truth that Chinese authorities took her father at Korla city in Xinjiang province at the end of 2016. Months later, they took her brother and then came back to take her mother and younger sister Meryem Abdulghafur.

Fatimah keeps hoping that by raising awareness of the plight of Uighurs in China she can compel China to release the rest of her family and the hundreds of thousands to millions of other Uighurs detained in China, as well. Like Fatimah, they all are hoping to hear any news or see pictures of their loved ones and learn that they are still alive.

According to Chinese authorities, some Uighurs are released for weekends to visit their families, after which they return to the camp for continued training.

What is Happening to Uighurs in China?

Since 2016 multiple reports have revealed that Uighurs, a Muslim sect in China and other countries, are in concentration-like camps in Eastern Turkestan, which is the modern-day Xinjiang province in northwestern China.

Uighurs say that China wants to convert them forcefully to Han Chinese. They aren’t allowed to practice their religion (Islam) or speak their own language and preserve their ethnic identity and customs.

Uighur activists say the Chinese are forcing those in detention camps to eat pork and drink alcohol, which are against their religious doctrines, and learn Mandarin, Chinese culture and history to assimilate them and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang such as Kazakh, Kyrghyz and Tajik.

U.S. State Department official Scott Buzby estimated the number of Uighur detainees is anywhere from 800,000 to more than 2 million, while Dr. Adrian Zenz, a Columbia University researcher specializing in Chinese ethnic policies, assessed that 1.5 million Uighurs are detained.

An investigation by ABC News featured new research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which identified 28 new detention camps. The research showed that since the beginning of 2017, the 28 camps have expanded their footprint by more than 2 million square meters. The same study published satellite “before and after” pictures of many existing camps. The pictures unfold how camps are expanding in many of Xinjiang’s cities, such as Kashgar, Urumqi and Hotan.

One of the prefectures in Kashgar increased in size from 3,700min 2016 to 122,000m2 in 2018; another in Hotan went from 37,900min 2016 to 102,000m2, based on satellite pictures, and in Urumqi, new facilities have been built such as one that appears in pictures that spans 526,500 m2.

Life in the Uighur Detention Camps

The vast international criticism and denouncement has led Chinese authorities to organize trips for international journalists to some of Xinjiang camps in an attempt to prove the camps are merely vocational camps where Uighurs receive job training.

Rob Schmitz, NPR Shanghai correspondent, attended one of the government led trips to a Kashgar city vocational education and training center in April. He said he saw students taking classes in tourism, online retail, clothes making, electrician training and culture. All students told him they had “serious extremist thoughts,” and needed to be at the center to prevent further “poisoning.”

CNN has reported lately about a former Xinjiang teacher Sayragul Sauytbay from the Kazakh minority who claimed to witness horror inside concentrated camps. She fled her job in a Xinjiang camp in 2018, escaping to Kazakhstan.

“China has lied to the international community when it said these are not concentration camps, not prisons, and that they are teaching Muslims skills and trades, that’s not true at all because I saw it with my own eyes,” she told CNN.

She told CNN about life inside the schools, “Those who cannot learn fast enough or meet daily goals are deprived of food. The food itself is so bad. For three meals they give rice porridge, one ladle of it, and one piece of bread…. They are also subject to sleep deprivation.” Sayragul also talked about the health conditions inside, telling CNN, “A bucket with a lid is used as toilet. When the bucket is full, that’s it.”

Sayragul suspected sexual abuses were taking place inside the concentration camps. “The guards take away girls from there and after some prolonged time they bring them back, sometimes in the middle of the night. When they bring them, any normal person can see that what kind of torture they have been through,”  she expressed.

“When they come back, they turn into a different person. I think they do all kinds of torture to them and sexually abuse them.“ According to Sayragul the women who were taken and suspected of being sexually abused were all around 20 and unmarried.

Gulbahar Jalilova, another Uighur woman who was held in one of the camps, told France 24 that Chinese authorities are sterilizing Uighur women inside camps, she herself said that she was injected and stopped getting her period a month after her detention.

She claimed they had to stick their arms through a small opening in a door once a week to be injected. Gulbahar said they never thought about their relatives anymore; they never felt cold or hunger. “It’s like we were just piece of meat,” she added.

Though Fatimah received the good news that her brother is alive, she is still worried about the rest of her family. Her mother, father and one of her sisters are also missing. Her father is also a diabetic, and she is concerned his health may be suffering.

Like Fatimah, many Uighur families are desperate to hear news of their detained relatives, wondering if they even are alive, while China keeps denying the allegations of torture and ethnic cleansing.

Amina Elidrissy

Amina Elidrissy is a freelance writer who was a former local journalist and photojournalist in Algeria. She is passionate about sharing people's stories and making their voices heard through her work.

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