Voices from Xinjiang: Then I’ll ask, how is the weather?

Magira is the oldest of three children. Her mother died a month before the family immigrated to Kazakhstan. Her father later remarried, but the stepmother is afraid to look for him. The task falls to Magira.

We don’t have anything left in China. We gave up our land, our animals, everything to come to Kazakhstan. We came legally, thanks to the migration legislation passed after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was 1992. I was ten years old. Eventually I became a citizen, and so did the rest of my family, with one exception. My father remained a Chinese citizen, a requirement for receiving his pension.

In 2000, my father got sick. They couldn’t diagnose his sickness here. They even said he would die soon, that it was hopeless, and they discharged him from the hospital. But he went to a hospital in Ghulja, in China, and in three days they diagnosed him. He was treated there for a month. He got well. Afterward, he traveled to China twice a year, in the spring and fall, for continuing treatments. He felt it was keeping him alive. Each year, he spent his whole pension on these treatments.

The last time he crossed the border was on October 22, 2017. A week later, he called me. They’ve taken away my passport, he said. Please don’t call. I’ll call you myself. At the time, he said they promised to give his documents back in a week or two, but they didn’t. Still, he called every month to update us. Then, in March, he broke his leg. He became crippled. He still couldn’t get a response from the local police. We couldn’t talk openly on the phone. Let’s not discuss it, he said. We pleaded with him. Why don’t you tell them you don’t want the pension anymore? Tell them you just want to come home. Please, he says, not on the phone.

He now lives in his brother’s place in Shegirbulak. It’s a hard place, the security is strict, and his leg isn’t getting better. It’s so hard to communicate—we worry that everything is being listened to. We can’t talk with him directly. I call my cousin’s sister in Ürümqi on WeChat. She calls her parents. They talk to him. That’s how he gets news to us. For almost a year, we haven’t heard his voice. Communication with her is easier, more frequent, because Ürümqi is a more liberal city.

Just to be safe, though, we always use codes to talk to each other. I might ask my cousin’s sister, Do you have any news? Meaning about my father. Then I’ll ask, How is the weather? This is how I ask about my father’s condition. If the weather is calm and good, so is he. If it’s cold or hot, windy or rainy, his condition is poor. We’re careful. We never say the word China. We never say Allah kalasa1. We don’t use any religious phrases. But we can communicate events using this code. It’s how all of us talk with our relatives in China. Everyone knows about it. For example, I know that my father went to the police two months ago. He told them he needed to treat his leg. He needed his passport back. They couldn’t help him. They sent him away.

Last week my cousin’s sister visited Shegirbulak for a friend’s wedding. While she was there, she made a video call to us on WeChat. It was the first time we’d actually seen him since he went to China last year. I took a screenshot. Look at how old he is. See those crutches leaning against the wall? He needs them to walk. His leg has gotten worse. I want him to visit the consulate in Ürümqi, but he can’t walk. No one will help him. Everyone in the village is for himself. They’re afraid. If you help someone with connections to Kazakhstan, you can get in trouble. So nothing is happening. I spoke with my cousin’s sister just the other day. The last report went like this: No news, no change in the weather—it’s calm.

Magira , 36 (Toktar , father)

Interviewed August 2018