Gulchehra Hoja | Radio Free Asia
As many as 500 children of detained Uyghurs have been placed in a “closed school” in Kashgar prefecture, in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to a source in exile, who said his two younger brothers are among those held.
A young Uyghur man named Jesur left his home in Kashgar’s Yarkand (Shache) county for Turkey in 2014 and shortly afterward, in July of that year, Chinese authorities fired on residents of the county’s Elishku township who were protesting the detention of a dozen Uyghur women for praying overnight at a local mosque, killing what Uyghur exile groups say was as many as 2,000 people.
A crackdown by police in the county following the incident led to mass jailings of Uyghurs and a lockdown on communication in and out of the area, and Jesur lost contact with his family.
Jesur, now 23, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that he recently received a video in which his eight- and 10-year-old brothers tearfully informed him that several members of their family had been jailed or sent to political “re-education camps,” where authorities have detained Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
His brothers said that they had been placed in a “closed school” for children of Uyghur detainees in their home township of Kachung and appealed to him to help free them.
“I learned that my two younger brothers are in a closed school in Kachung township,” he said, adding that there are “approximately 500 children” held in the facility.
“The children are not allowed to have any contact with outside. If relatives want to see them, they must obtain an approval letter from the local police.”
Additionally, Jesur said, his 45-year-old father Mahmut Sayim, 43-year-old mother Buhelchem Tursun, 25-year-old sister Buranem Mahmut, 20-year-old brother Nureli Mahmut, and uncles Qasim Sayim, Hekim Sayim, and Ablimit Sayim, as well as their wives, are among some 30 members of his extended family who have been sent to prison or re-education camps.
Jesur said his father was given a lengthy prison sentence for having two children outside of the allotted family planning allowance of two to each ethnic minority family and failing to pay a fine of 100,000 yuan (U.S. $14,420) for each child over the limit. His uncles also received long jail terms, he said, although it was unclear what they had been sentenced for.
“I learned my father was arrested … after [the Islamic holy month of] Ramadan [which ended on June 14] last year, and my mother was taken away in March of this year, though I don’t know the reason for her arrest,” he said.
“It is not clear if the rest of my family are in prison or not, but our house is padlocked from the outside.”
According to Jesur, his brothers appeared “afraid and longing for their parents,” and he told RFA that he is now haunted by the video.
“I watched the video in which my younger brothers spoke out to me in tears and now the scene constantly appears in my mind,” he said.
“It makes me so sad and distracted that I keep misplacing things all the time … It has come to the point that I can’t even remember what I’ve been doing all day, or what I should be doing next.”
Repeated calls to the police station in Kachung and relevant government departments to verify Jesur’s claims went unanswered, or staff members hung up when informed that they were being contacted by RFA.
But after discovering a fundraising post online by the Kachung Township Party Propaganda Department that sought to raise money for “students facing financial difficulty,” RFA’s reporters were able to contact a Chinese staff member there who confirmed the existence of the school, which he said housed “more than 300 children … [from] Kachung and surrounding areas.”
“We collected all these children and placed them in the school to help them,” the staffer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They are all primary school pupils from years one through six. They are all housed in the school, as their parents are in re-education camps.”
The staff member said that the children need “various forms of support,” including basic educational study kits and second-hand clothing—particularly warm clothing for the winter.
When asked about conditions at the school, the staff member was unable to provide additional information, but said that “there is the possibility that some orphans have been relocated to similar facilities” in other parts of China, due to overcrowding.
Children left behind
While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, the Uyghur chairman of Xinjiang’s provincial government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency last month that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
An Oct. 21 report by the official Global Times promoting the camps as “training centers” also included photos of children in the XUAR’s Hotan (Hetian) prefecture whose parents had been placed in camps, and claimed that they are warmly cared for at special “schools,” where they engage in educational courses and other activities.
But sources have told RFA that Uyghur children whose parents have been sent to camps are regularly sent to orphanages that are seriously overcrowded, calling the conditions “terrible,” with children “locked up like farm animals in a shed.”
Others say that while the orphanages received substantial cash donations from the public, “only a very little is spent on the children,” and that the facilities save money by giving the kids meat only once a week, while the rest of the time they are provided with “rice soup.”
Jesur told RFA that his worst fear is that he may never learn what becomes of his younger brothers.
“I think about my brothers constantly, as they don’t have my parents to look after them and the authorities may send them to eastern China, where they will be brought up like Han Chinese,” he said.
“That is my biggest worry. I know it is impossible for me to return, but I … wish that I was able to take care of them as a big brother should. As my anger towards the Chinese authorities has grown … I decided to tell the world the tragic story of how the government has treated my family.”