The Disappeared: Relatives of Vanished Uyghurs Tell Their Sad Stories

The Disappeared: Relatives of Vanished Uyghurs Tell Their Sad Stories

August 30 was the International Day of the Disappeared. Bitter Winter interviewed exiled Uyghurs who are in the vain search of their loved ones.

by Ruth Ingram

Uyghurs and their supporters from Tibet and Hong Kong
Uyghurs and their supporters from Tibet and Hong Kong gathering to protest outside the Chinese Embassy in London to commemorate International Day of the Disappeared.

The story of Dilnaz

For three years, teenager Dilnaz and her relatives have carried a glimmer of hope in their heart that all might be well with their family back in the homeland. This week, their hopes were dashed with reports via Turkish TV, that every one of her uncles and several cousins are languishing in a Chinese prison.

The news was a bombshell. Only recently, their London MP had been contacted by the Chinese consulate. Apparently Dilnaz’s family members were alive and living normal, happy lives in their village. But this was a catalogue of lies, according to a relative in Istanbul, who unable to bear the truth he has harbored for two years, has spoken out for the world to hear.

Dilnaz holding up a photo of her uncles
Dilnaz, holding up a photo of her uncles, all of whom have been imprisoned by the CCP.

In front of the Chinese Embassy in London on International Day of the Disappeared on August 30, they gathered with other exiled Uyghurs to shout, cry, and tell their stories of heartbreak and broken dreams, in the hope that somebody somewhere in that microcosm of China on the other side of the street might be listening, and that somehow, one day, their Uyghur people’s suffering and grief might come to an end. Dilnaz’s father, broken by the news that his brothers and nephews had in fact been sentenced to draconian custodial terms of between 5-15 years, could not bear to stay. He left weeping. His wife Hadiqe, who comes tirelessly to every protest, waves a flag while her children hold home-made posters and hand out leaflets. She is usually remarkably composed but this week the tears flowed without restraint. “This is all so meaningless,” she sobbed. “There were no crimes. They had done nothing wrong.”

Dilnaz pointing to each member of her family
Dilnaz, pointing to each member of her family and speaking of the news that has just reached them of their fate.

Many others suffer

Dilnaz’s family is not alone in bearing the anguish that befalls families who wait. Tens of thousands of Uyghur families torn from loved ones, live with the burden of unknowing and longing. Those in the diaspora are charged with moving on in their exile, while at the same time unable to shake off the permanent scars of grief that keep them rooted to their homeland and families whose fate they might never know.

“We want to know the truth, but again we don’t,” said Patigul (not her real name) who lives painfully with the silence and the dread that relatives who have all cut her off might be suffering. “Sometimes it is better to live with a glimmer of hope that all might be well than be faced with an awful reality and lose everything,” she said. “This fragile hope keeps me going.”

With the Uyghur plight hitting the headlines recently, US legislation to sanction Chinese officials gaining momentum, and advocacy groups successful in raising awareness among international clothing brands for signs of slavery in their supply chains, more Uyghur exiles are coming forward with their stories.

Some feel that keeping silent has born no fruit, and have started speaking out in the hope that publicity might keep their relatives safe, and even that Beijing might be shamed into letting their relatives go.

The mysterious death of Amatjan Sayim

Amatjan Sayim
Amatjan Sayim, who died in a transformation through education camp.

Salman Uyghur, now exiled in Turkey shares the devastating news that also reached him secondhand and a year after the event, that not only was one of his brothers sentenced to 14 years, for no crime that has ever been notified, but his 43 year old, happy-go-lucky brother and a friend of everyone, Amatjan Sayim, died in May 2018 in a transformation through education camp. From a small town in the south of Xinjiang, he had moved with his wife and five children to Kashgar to make a living washing cars. After ten years, with deteriorating health and three years of medical treatment that just seemed to be bearing fruit, suddenly and inexplicably he was rounded up and taken for “re-education”. He survived a mere few months. “His broken body couldn’t stand the regime,” said Salman. “The CCP killed him in that camp.” The family were not notified until many months after his death, and Salman has only just heard.

The tragedy is multiplied by news that, following Amatjan’s death, his wife Patigul was sentenced to fourteen years in jail. The five orphaned children were taken by the State to a government orphanage. “I have no idea where or how they are,” says Salman. My heart is breaking.”

Tursungul Sayim
Tursungul Sayim also vanished in a CCP camp.

Salman’s elder sister of 41, Tursungul Sayim, is also in a camp. She has a young family of five children. “We all loved her,” says Salman. “She never had a bad word for anyone, and went around smiling and making our lives happy.” There is no news of her husband or children, but Salman has no reason to expect good news. Often, family members are grouped together as “suspect,” and if one falls from grace, all suffer. Identity cards of detainees are black marked, and it is usually not long before everyone in their circle is tarred with the same brush.

Since Salman heard the news of his brother’s death, he has been unable to sleep and his own health is breaking. He lives in the free world, but his heart is bound up in the tragic unfurling of his family’s fate. Not a minute goes by without wondering how they are.

The stories of the disappeared are endless and appalling. The world remembers them once a year, but for the Uyghurs who wait and hope every day is a commemoration of their disappeared.