January 11, 2018. That was the last time that Jevlan Shirmemmet, a young Uighur studying in Turkey, spoke with his mother, Suriye Tursun, in China’s Xinjiang region. Although until then he called almost every day, he sensed problems because the contact had been growing apart. That day, his mother sent him her last voicemail: «Study hard, graduate with good grades and take care of yourself. Use moisturizer for your face because it is drying out and you look older. I always want to see your shiny face because I miss you so much, my son… ». Under this affectionate message, apparently trivial, a farewell was hidden. Two days later, his mother and the rest of family and friends deleted him as a contact on WeChat, the Chinese WhatsApp.
“The same thing happened to other friends here in Istanbul. Almost all Uighur students in Turkey have a relative detained or missing in Xinjiang», Jevlan explains to ABC by video call. At 30, and residing in Istanbul since he emigrated a decade ago to study at the University of Commerce, he is one of many Uighurs in exile who claims to have lost contact with his family in Xinjiang.
In this northwestern province of China, the most convulsed along with Tibet due to its desire for independence, human rights groups calculate that up to a million Uyghurs and members of other minorities such as Kazakhs have been confined to re-education camps just for being Muslims. Beijing, which at first denied the existence of such centers, replies that they are vocational schools to prevent Islamist terrorism and last year admitted that 1.3 million people had passed through them between 2014 and 2019.
Even though I couldn’t believe it, I found out that my whole family had been confined to a re-education camp because I was studying abroad. My father, Xudayar, and my brother, Irfan, were released in December 2019, but my mother had been sentenced to five years in prison for visiting me in Turkey, ”says Jevlan.
For him, the Chinese regime’s repression of his family is doubly incomprehensible because both his parents and his brother were civil servants and they worked for the government in their Korgas county, on the border with Kazakhstan. “I have asked the Chinese consulate in Istanbul and the Foreign Ministry for information, but I have only received a threatening call from a diplomat, who told me that my father and sister refused to speak to me because I had gone to Egypt and had contacts with organizations. anti-Chinese. That is totally a lie! I have never been to Egypt and I have no contacts there, ”Jevlan denies. In addition, he relates that they offered him help for his family “if he confessed with which people and organizations he had contacted.”
For the first time since they lost contact his father called him in June of last year. “After more than two years without speaking, I expected a friendly conversation. But the first thing he did was ask me what I was doing and ask me to leave the campaign to free my mother. Since he wasn’t calling from my home phone, I think he was calling from a police number, ”Jevlan suspects. “I asked him why he could not contact them and he replied that he had not obeyed him and that what he was doing was against the Government”, reels the young man, very active for the Uighur cause on social networks.
Without hearing from her mother yet, the latest news she has received from Xinjiang is that her father, who had worked for the Environment Department for more than thirty years, has been fired. In his opinion, the repression hardened in Xinjiang between 2016 and 2017, with the arrival from Tibet of the new provincial secretary of the Communist Party, Chen Quanguo. Until then, Jevlan returned every summer after leaving to study in Turkey and had no problem. Even his mother visited him in Istanbul with a group of Chinese tourists, including the majority “Han” ethnic group, as well as Uighurs and Kazakhs. But in 2016, during his vacations in Xinjiang, he was approached by two Public Security agents who, amicably and between toasts in a restaurant, asked him all kinds of information about his Uighur friends in Turkey. «They reminded me that I owed loyalty and gratitude to the Communist Party and, to gain my trust, they told me that they did not want the police to take me to a re-education camp, ”says Jevlan, who considers himself a moderate Muslim and denies that his march to Turkey was for political reasons. «I only came here to study. If traveling to Turkey is a crime, why aren’t the millions of “Han” Chinese who have come for tourism persecuted? “Asks Jevlan, who will continue to fight until he finds his mother.
Omer Faruh fights for his two young daughters
He is doing the same, but for two of his daughters, Omer Faruh, who went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2012. After his 70-year-old father died there of a brain tumor and was buried in Saudi Arabia, Faruh studied Arabic for four years. “I was going to a public school and I never thought it was dangerous, but the Chinese police started in 2016 to take away Uighurs’ passports and I left the country with my wife and two older daughters in September of that year,” recalls Faruh.
Her mother-in-law was going to send her two young daughters, ages 5 and 4, but was unable to They did it because “they started arresting people and taking away their passports,” Faruh denounces. Since 2017, he has not heard from his family, who had a restaurant in Korla, and he does not know where his mother is, who is in a wheelchair.
Like Jevlan Shirmemmet, Omer Faruh often protests at the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, where he recently got Turkish citizenship and works selling cars. Like the many Uighurs in exile in Turkey, he is not resigned to his family disappearing in Xinjiang.