Voices from Xinjiang: Ordinary people weren’t being detained yet

The photograph: a young man, head shaved, leaning on the bars of a hospital bed. He is wearing an Adidas jersey and has an intravenous cannula in his left arm, held in place by medical tape. Two women, one young and one old, are helping him stand. His gaze is urgent.

I’ve been complaining since last January. A year and a half. But I’m sharing this picture of my son in the hospital for the first time. I’ve been afraid they would find out who sent it. There are many, many Kazakhs who haven’t complained yet, who haven’t told their story. They’re afraid. I had to make a decision for myself. What do I have left to be afraid of?

The living conditions in Kure village, when I was still living there, were free at the time, but there were rumors. We heard they were detaining mullahs. Our village had two mullahs, and one day both disappeared. Word got around. Then we heard that Uighurs were being detained. Then they started sending police officers to our ceremonies. At a wedding, there would be policemen at the door checking guests’ citizenship. I didn’t think much about it at the time. Ordinary people weren’t being detained; not yet.

I moved to Kazakhstan, and in 2016 my youngest son joined me. He bought land and built a house in a village called Batashtuu. His intention was to move here for good. After he built his home, he and his wife went to China. They owned a barbershop there and wanted to sell it. They left their son in my care. It was supposed to be only a short trip. When they got to China, their transit visas were taken away.

The day they crossed, he called me at the border. I’m being interrogated, he said. Please send my son’s photos. I need proof he’s in kindergarten. I sent the photos by phone, but I’m not sure he got them. Two hours later, the phone was switched off. Two days later, my daughter-in-law wrote to my eldest son, who lives in Kazakhstan. Your brother was taken to study, she told him.

That was it for six months. Until June 2018, we heard nothing from him or anyone else. The first news we heard came in June, and it was this photo from the hospital. His wife had been called there to visit him. He’d had an operation. I don’t know what the operation was, or even what organ was operated on. We don’t know anything and our daughter-in-law can’t tell us. I don’t even want to tell you who sent me this photo.

After twenty days in the hospital, he was taken back to the camp. More silence. Months passed. Then, in November, he was released. Now he’s out of the camp, but we have no direct communication with them. Since November, my son has called us only twice, both times from a police officer’s phone. It’s the only way I can communicate with you, he told me. Don’t worry about us. We are OK, he says. Everything is OK.

But it seems he can’t get back his passport. It’s been almost two years now. My grandson is five and I’m still taking care of him. I need help. I want my youngest son back in Kazakhstan. He was supposed to take care of us, his parents. That’s the custom. Now my husband and I are alone in this big house and working odd jobs. Our son built this house for all of us. It’s ready; it’s a lovely house. But now it’s empty.

Madengul, 52 (Uljan, son)

Interviewed April 2019