Voices from Xinjiang: In the homes of the disappeared

As Gulshan speaks, she grips a crumpled pack of tissues.

Mostly men are taken to the camps. What happens then? The authorities send loyal Chinese families from the coast to live with the women in the homes of the disappeared. A Han Chinese man is sent to Xinjiang and placed in the house where the detained person had lived. Or it could be a couple. Or a family with kids. But sometimes it’s just one man who is sent to live in a house full of women…

They lecture their hosts about the Communist Party. They continue to live among the family even when the detained family member returns. Everyone I know who spent some time in the camp, who was released to their home in China—in every case I know about, they have Chinese families living with them, lecturing them. And the families will report on any misbehavior. If you so much as look at them in a disagreeable way, they might tell the authorities and have you taken away to the camp. My husband’s relatives have such people living with them. As a result, these days their phones are almost always switched off. They’re afraid. I try to reach them to find out about my husband, but they call only when the “visitors” are out of the house.

I grew up speaking Uighur. My family is Uighur. My parents escaped to the Soviet Union in 1969 and settled in Kazakhstan. Back in China they were cattle herders, but in Kazakhstan they became cooks. Later, when I was young, we went to Uzbekistan looking for work. They opened a café there. I’m an Uzbek citizen, actually. I met Aishanjiang and we were married in Tashkent in 1997. He was visiting from China, doing some business there. He worked with textile factories, importing fabric from China into Central Asia. The border was easy at the time: you just crossed it. I came with my husband to Kazakhstan and we opened a shop here. We were just starting our business when he was arrested.

He was going to visit some of our factories in Ürümqi. As soon as he entered China, his passport was taken from him. He was brought to Atush, his birthplace. And from there he wasn’t allowed to leave. At the time, we hadn’t heard anything about the camps. He went into China without any knowledge of them. Such cases of people being taken to camps are rare in Ürümqi, where he did business, so when they told him to come in for questions, he went.

The day he was taken, he had some idea of what was happening. He called me to say he was going to be taken to a camp. I don’t know if I’m going to be back or not, he said. He couldn’t say any more. He couldn’t describe his situation. What are you going to do? I asked. Why are you being sent to a camp? To study, he said. But you’re old, I told him. You’re almost fifty. He said that one of his relatives—almost eighty years old—was already studying in the same camp. Age is irrelevant, he said. That was last October. Since then, he’s vanished. I heard he’s in prison now.

And others—there are many others. My husband’s older brother died in the same camp where my husband was. He was almost sixty years old. The authorities said he had a precondition, an illness of some kind, but he was healthy when I knew him. And my husband’s sister’s son was sentenced to twenty years in prison for making hajj. My sister-in-law’s husband, the imam at Atush, was sentenced to fourteen years. I’ve heard from his wife that he’s in the prison hospital. His condition isn’t good. And there are many other relatives whose fate I don’t know. Probably they’re all in prison but I don’t know. I can’t tell.

Gulshan, 43 (Aishanjiang, husband)

Interviewed May 2019