On September 5, 2018, Rushan Abbas participated in a panel discussion named “China’s ‘War on Terrorism’ and the Xinjiang Emergency”. She talked about the fate of her in-laws and conditions of China’s camps. Six days later, Rushan’s sister and aunt were detained by the Chinese government as retaliation for her speech.
“My only sister became the victim for my activism here in America [that I undertook] as an American citizen,” said Abbas. “These two women got picked up on the same day as the Chinese government’s way of sending me a loud and clear message to try to pressure me to be silent.”
In response, she only became more vocal.
Abbas and her family are Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic minority who mostly live in weatern China’s Xinjiang province. For decades, the Chinese government has tried to assimilate Uyghurs by force into the country’s majority Han cultural identity.
This cultural oppression has impacted generations of Uyghurs. Abbas’s grandfather was imprisoned the year she was born because China considered him a “nationalist.”
“The Chinese government has always felt threatened by any Uyghur who can be a voice and lead the people,” said Abbas. “Most Uyghur influencers like my grandpa were taken away and executed or thrown in jail during China’s Great Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. He was in jail for three years.”
Since 2016, the government has sent approximately three million Uyghurs to forced labor camps, prisons, and other detention centers.
Similar to Abbas’ case, Bahram Sintash, a 37-year-old content producer at Radio Free Asia, has been searching for his 70-year-old missing father for almost three years.
Qurban Mamut is a well-known Uyghur journalist and was detained by the Chinese government a couple of months after returning home from a visit with his son in the United States. It was his first time traveling overseas.
“My father is in a camp,” Sintash said. “I don’t know where exactly—he disappeared. I would sell my house to get my father back but this is different. He’s kidnapped by a very powerful government and they don’t need money.”
In 2009, Sintash attended a protest in Washington, DC, in response to the Chinese government’s violent reaction to Uyghurs protesting persecution in Xinjiang. While voicing his dissent, Sintash held the East Turkestan flag, which represents a movement seeking Xinjiang’s independence from China.
“[Later that year] the police came to my parents’ home and told them that they had a picture of me holding up the flag and attending protests,” said Sintash. “They told my parents to tell me never to attend any political things. They threatened my family members to control me.”
After that police interaction, Sintash stopped attending political events to protect his family in Xinjiang. Even so, Sintash paid the price for his one-off activism. Since becoming an American citizen in 2012, the Chinese embassy has refused his Chinese visa application and he has not been able to visit home.
China restricts Uyghurs from communicating with the outside world. After his father disappeared in December 2017, his mother and sister stopped sending Sintash messages and friends blocked him on social media. He hasn’t received any family photos or messages since February 2018. It took Sintash nearly three years to confirm his father’s detention. He’s unable to reveal his source publicly as it could be dangerous for them.
Mamatjan Juma is also well acquainted with silence since it’s all he’s heard from his family in the last few years. He used to stay in regular contact with his parents and brothers in Xinjiang. That changed in 2016 when the Chinese government started sending Uyghurs to detention centers and monitoring their everyday lives.
“My parents all of a sudden said, ‘Don’t talk to your brothers anymore,’” recalled Juma. “‘Just talk to us and we’ll send your greetings to them.’” At the time, he was living in the United States as the deputy director of the Uyghur service at Radio Free Asia.
“Later on, I realized that two of my brothers were taken away by the government in May 2017 and my parents didn’t and couldn’t tell me that,” he said. “They censored themselves because we knew that we could not ask certain questions unless it was about their daily lives.”
Juma’s brothers have been missing since May 2017. Ahmatjan Juma was a high school teacher and writer living in Kashgar. Abdukadir Juma was a poet, translator, and owned a media company before he was taken away from his home in Urumqi. This isn’t the first time his brothers have been abducted by the Chinese government, but it’s been the longest.
“I heard from a mutual friend that both my brothers were tortured the first time they were detained. My other brother, Abdukadir, was almost beaten to death. They never told me this because it could be seen as sensitive information and classified as a state secret. Of course, it’s a state secret because the Chinese government is torturing people.”
Similar to Abbas and Sintash’s experiences, Juma has not been able to communicate with his mother and father out of fear of Chinese retaliation.
“I didn’t know that my father had passed away,” said Juma. “He died with only my mother by his side because at the time two of my brothers were in the camps and I was in the United States—unable to talk with him. Two years later, I got news from a third party that my mother is still alive and I was relieved. I wish no human being to go through this. It’s cruel. It’s harrowing. It’s painful. It’s agonizing.”
Juma is still searching for answers about his brothers, too. The latest news suggests that Ahmatjan may have been sentenced to 15 years while his other brother, once a business owner, has been forced to work in a factory since 2019.
“We don’t know when it’s going to end,” Juma said, “when we will have some information about our family members, and we don’t even know if they’re alive.”
Despite this pain and uncertainty, he has hope for the future. “What I hope for my family is to be able to live without fear of what they say, what they read, and what they believe.”