Wearing a traditional headscarf, her young daughter being led out of screenshot, Nursiman Abdureshid sits down in her apartment in Turkey and recalls the day “when the communication with my family was cut off”.
Sent to vast camps built to “re-educate” millions of China’s Uyghur minority, her family received mysterious and lengthy prison sentences for “terrorism”. Her father got 16 years, her mother 13 years, one brother 15 years and her other brother seven years.
Nursiman, who came to Turkey in 2015 to study for a master’s degree, has neither seen nor heard from them for 43 months. Despite repeated requests, she has not been told where they are being held, or if they are still alive.
“It was 18 June 2017 when communication cut off,” she recalls in a soft voice, eyes lowering. “The Chinese government often cuts communications, but then I started to hear about concentration camps and people being arrested and I began to worry.”
She called everyone she knew and was eventually told that her brother and father were being questioned but that her mother was still at home. “They said, ‘Don’t call, she’s afraid, the local official told her not to take calls from abroad.’ That was the beginning.”
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Petite and speaking word-perfect English, Shanghai-educated Nursiman, 32, knew of “political study” mornings at the village hall, after which Uyghurs would work, and assumed her father and brother were attending them.
“I thought that must be it,” she says. “But then I heard more and more about the camps and I couldn’t get any information. My friends stopped replying, then they blocked me on social media group chats. Finally, I got a simple message: ‘There is no one in your home.’ It meant my mum had also been taken.”
Her mother is a housewife, her father retired, her brothers businessmen, she says. “We are a normal family. At first, I kept silent, thinking ‘there is no reason to arrest them, it must be wrong information’. But in 2018 I got the same message – your family is arrested, there is nobody in your home.”
For three years she asked Chinese embassies for information. In June this year was she told the sentences her relatives had been given. “I asked why, they said ‘terrorism’. I asked if there was any evidence, they said ‘no’. That was it.
“My family is not religious. They have nothing to do with terrorism. It is a fake accusation, like with all the Uyghurs. It is what the Chinese government says because it knows the world suffers from terrorism. They want to erase the Uyghurs.”
Nursiman’s nieces may be missing too. “I have no idea where they are. It has been more than three years. I do not know if they are still alive.
“I listen to the testimony of those who were in the camps and my big fear is for my family’s physical and mental health. Sometimes I dream that we lost them.”
Her last contact was in June 2017, but three months earlier Nursiman’s friends’ parents began calling their sons and daughters studying abroad. “They were saying ‘come back or stop calling, the situation is getting serious’. So, I offered this to my father when we spoke.
“He said ‘nobody told us not to take calls from abroad, but keep the calls short and don’t call every day.’ The police had already blocked one number because of long calls. Shortly after this, we lost contact.”
I listen to the testimony of those who were in the camps and my big fear is for my family’s physical and mental health. Sometimes I dream that we lost them
I ask how old her family members are. “My father was 54 years old. My mother was 51. My elder brother is 34. My younger brother is 30.”
I ask whether when she says ‘was’ she means they were 54 and 51 in 2017. She quickly apologises. “No, now, they are 54 and 51 now, sorry, I just used the wrong word.” Her head bows and, for the first time, her voice breaks.
In common with other Uyghur witnesses who speak out, Nursiman is being pressured to “come back” (she says by whom, but would prefer it not to be printed). Only one person she knows with senior connections to the Chinese state felt secure enough to tell her the truth: “Don’t go back, it’s not safe.”
She knows about the Holocaust, and that it occurred in part because the Nazis successfully dehumanised Jews in the eyes of others. “I blamed the Han Chinese for not standing up to the Chinese Communist Party for abusing and discriminating against the Uyghurs,” she says.
“But then I realised, little by little, government propaganda was showing the Uyghurs as bad people, as criminals, as sub-human. That is why normal Han Chinese people support their crimes.
I blamed the Han Chinese for not standing up to the Chinese Communist Party for abusing and discriminating against the Uyghurs
“When I was a child, I hardly saw any Chinese [in Kashgar]. From 2008, I saw more and more. They treated the Uyghurs badly, like filth. In the minds of the Han Chinese, Uyghurs are very low, second-class citizens. The government gave them that message.”
Asked whether there is hope for the Uyghurs, Nursiman replies: “It’s difficult. The world relies on China. For Covid-19, most countries begged China for masks. My big fear is that we become the 21st century’s genocide just because people want Chinese goods.
“The Chinese know the power of money and think they can do anything. I tried to read about what happened to the Jewish people, but I cannot read more than a page before I get upset.
“It’s stupid to compare the two, you cannot compare the suffering. But if you think about the technology available to the Chinese today, they can do much more evil to the Uyghurs.”
Nursiman asks – pleads – with Jewish News readers to help stop the horror in Xinjiang. “I know it is hard, but if anyone understands our feelings, it is the Jewish people. I need to believe the Uyghurs can survive,. If I don’t, I give a death sentence to my parents.”
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