For Uyghur exiles in Turkey, the fate of their missing relatives in China is a constant preoccupation.
In early 2017, the Chinese government began accelerating a decades-long campaign against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, resulting in the arbitrary detention of at least one million men and women in internment camps, described by the state as “vocational education centres”.
The children of many detainees have been taken from the care of extended family and placed in state-run orphanages, where they are taught Mandarin and Chinese political ideology.
In recent years, family separation has become a grave and urgent issue among Uyghur diaspora communities, taking an agonising toll on those deprived of their loved ones, without knowing if, or when, they will be reunited.
Kalbinur Tursun fled Xinjiang in April 2016 with her husband Abdurehim Rozi and son Mohammed, wearing a tight corset to conceal her sixth-month pregnancy. Fearing she would be subjected to a forced abortion if the authorities discovered her pregnancy, Tursun boarded a flight to Istanbul, entrusting her five remaining children, who had not yet been issued passports, to the care of relatives. Ten days later, Tursun's husband returned to China to arrange for their other children to be brought to Turkey, but was arrested by the Chinese authorities and sentenced to 15 years in prison for having travelled and sent money overseas.
Tursun believed her children remained with relatives until one day in December 2018, when scrolling through a WhatsApp group for Uyghur exiles, she recognised her daughter Ayse in a video depicting Uyghur children speaking Mandarin, in what appears to be a Chinese state-run orphanage.
Mahmut Tohti Amin, 81, left Xinjiang in search of his paternal relatives in Kyrgyzstan, before settling in Turkey in 1991. Amin would often return to his hometown Konasheher to visit his children and grandchildren, until his last stay in 2017, during which he was placed under house arrest and ordered to leave the country.
After five years without knowing the fate of his relatives in China, Amin discovered in May 2022 that the names of two of his sons and his granddaughter were on a leaked list of Uyghur detainees. His sons Pulat and Abdugapar had been charged with “religious extremism” and “supporting terrorism” and were sentenced to 11 and 7 years imprisonment respectively, while his granddaughter Arzugul was allegedly detained for wearing a long dress.
According to leaked data, the county of Konasheher has the highest known incarceration rate in the world, with nearly one in twenty-five residents serving prison sentences on terrorism-related charges.