For more than a year, *Farkhad, 39, has lived with the uncertainty that his wife Mariam may be dead. *Mariam, 31, was visiting her hometown of Artush in Xinjiang, northwest China, in March 2017 when she sent a frantic message to Farkhad that police were taking her away.
Over the next month, she messaged sporadically on WeChat from inside what appeared to be a detention centre. In April she said she was being transferred to another facility. Farkhad, who calls his wife Jenim (My soul), wrote back: “My soul, what can I do?”
“Don’t do anything. Don’t come to China. Don’t look for me,” she said. Their last conversation was in June 2017, when Mariam messaged from a hospital. She had fainted twice in the new detention centre. Farkhad, now the sole carer of the couple’s three children, is desperate for news of her.
Mariam, an ethnic Uighur from China, is one of an estimated 1 million Muslim minorities – Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hui, Uzbeks and others – detained in a network of internment camps in the north-western Chinese territory of Xinjiang.
The camps are part of China’s “strike hard” campaign that is alleged to use extrajudicial detentions, surveillance, political indoctrination or “re-education”, torture and abuse to root out extremist elements, according to a growing body of evidence that includes witness accounts, media reports, government documents and satellite images. A US congressional commission on China called it the “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today”.
Beijing’s restrictive policies in Xinjiang, which began after a series of ethnic riots in 2009 and have increased since 2016, are coming under global scrutiny. The UN has called on China to release all those detained on the “pretext of countering terrorism”. The US is reportedly considering sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the campaign, while the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim, has called for formal talks with China over the issue.
China denies allegations of persecution and claims all measures are to improve stability and solidarity in the country’s far west, home to about 12 million Muslim minorities. “China protects the religious freedoms of its people. All ethnic groups in China enjoy full religious freedom, according to the law,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said at a press briefing on Wednesday.
Outside of Xinjiang, the effects of the crackdown are felt most keenly in neighbouring Kazakhstan, home to large Uighur and Kazakh communities who have for years travelled back and forth between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan.
Here, families are reeling as they search for scraps of information about their loved ones missing in China. Others express a mixture of guilt and helplessness as they learn, from what little information comes out of Xinjiang, of the grim reality just across the border.
The Chinese communist party wants to create ‘One people, one country, where there are no Uighurs, Kazakhs, or Uzbeks … just Chinese