The imprisonment of the ‘model villagers’: Two Uyghur sisters on what it means to lose their family and way of life

Society & Culture

For the family of sisters Nursiman and Nur’iman, a local work brigade placed a small red plaque with five stars on it to the front gate of their house. The stars stood for “patriotism, honesty, education, hygiene, and harmony.” But in the end, that didn't stop the sisters' parents and brother from being sent to jail for reasons that remain murky to this day.

Darren Byler Xinjiang Column two sisters speak their story

The phone call from the Chinese Embassy in Ankara came on June 15, 2020. It was 4:31 in the afternoon, Istanbul time. After she picked up and realized who was calling, Nursiman caught her breath. She held a second phone up to the speaker on her smartphone and hit record.

【大使馆工作人员】哎,我们这个接到的上面写的很清楚,因为,说实话来,咱们国内也是咱们是法制国家,那么,它这个也肯定是有依据的,这个里面它是说的2017年12月13号因为准备实施恐怖主义活动罪,判处,被判处13年有期徒刑,

Embassy: It is written clearly in the file we received. Our country is ruled by law so they must have a reason. It is written that she was sentenced to a 13-year prison term on December 13, 2017, for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.

哎,13年的是妈妈吗?

Nursiman: The one who was sentenced to 13 years is my mother?

【大使馆工作人员】对

Embassy: Yes.

就2017年12月13号,爸爸呢?

Nursiman: December 13, 2017, how about my father?

【大使馆工作人员】爸爸呢,因,是在是哪个,因犯举动扰乱社会秩序罪,准备实施恐怖主义活动罪,被以打判处有期徒刑16年11月,现在还在在监狱

Embassy: Your father was sentenced to 16 years, 11 months in prison for the crime of disturbing the social order and preparing to commit terrorist activities. Now he is in prison.

是是是,不好意思,因为心情不好,能不能再说一遍,

Nursiman: Is what? I am sorry, because I am feeling very sad, I couldn’t hear you, can you repeat that one more time?

【大使馆工作人员】我能理解,我能理解,实际上,我也给你打个招呼,我也心里很清楚。对,但是有些事情我们必须得面对.

Embassy: Yes, I can understand your feeling…I also feel for you. This is also clear for me. But we should face the reality.

就,爸爸,能不能再说一遍,什么时候就发生了这种事情,判了多长时间?

Nursiman: Can you tell me again what happened to my father? And when this happened? How many years was he sentenced to?

【大使馆工作人员】2017年12月13日,因犯举动扰乱社会秩序罪,准备实施恐怖主义活动罪,被以大判处16年11个月,16年11个月,对,在监狱服刑

Embassy: On December 13, 2017, he was sentenced to 16 years and 11 months in prison for disturbing social order and preparing to commit terrorist activities. Now he is in prison.

然后,弟弟

Nursiman: Then, how about my younger brother?

【大使馆工作人员】你弟弟是麦麦提艾力,对吧?

Embassy: Is your brother’s name Memetali?

就是

Nursiman: Yes.

【大使馆工作人员】 他是2017年8月20号,因犯刑事罪并准备实施恐怖主义活动罪被判处15年11月。

Embassy: He was sentenced 15 years and 11 months in prison for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.

 

 

Every autumn, before Nursiman and her older sister Nur’iman left for college, they went to their grandmother’s house to say goodbye. Each time it felt like their whole small village, a dozen kilometers outside of Kashgar, would show up to send them off. It became a kind of community ritual.

“All of my relatives were so supportive,” Nursiman said. “Our neighbors always supported us. They sent their children to our home to study math and English. Everyone looked up to us. My sister and I were the first people in our village who studied in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing.”

Each year at those tearful farewells, the two sisters felt the responsibility they carried as the pride of their village. “We always told our parents, Don’t tell them we are leaving, because we didn’t want them to sacrifice,” Nursiman said. “But we couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to our grandmother. And she always told everyone. So they always came. If they missed the farewell, (the other villagers) would call us and ask, ‘Why didn’t you tell us when you were leaving?’”

The sisters also understood that this event was as much for their parents as it was for them. In the days leading up to their departure, their mother, Tajigul, would often cry. The village and her children were her entire world. Having a big party, with the whole village, helped her feel less alone. “It was a really emotional time,” Nursiman said. “My mom would cry, so everyone really wanted to support her. It made her less sad. This is the love we received from our village.”

After a big meal, the neighbors and relatives would hug them and quietly stick money in their pockets. Often they would apologize as they did this. “I know it is not enough for you, but maybe it will help you with your studies.” Sometimes they would tuck it secretly under a bunch of grapes or in a bag of naan that they said the sisters should eat on the long three-day journey across the country. Sometimes they gave them nice clothes. It made them happy to know that someone from the village would wear nice clothes in the city. They would say, “Here is something special for you, please take it.”

There was one gift that Nursiman will never forget. When she thinks about it now, more than 10 years later, it still makes her cry. “As I was leaving, my cousin, my uncle’s 19-year-old son, gave me 20 yuan. He said, ‘I know it isn’t much, but maybe you can buy something to eat.’”

The image of this young man handing her the crumpled bill reminds Nursiman of all the sweetness and love that she felt growing up in a Uyghur village. “When people look at each other, you could feel that they cared for each other,” she said. “Now I don’t know what is happening to all those lovely people.”

She and her sister fear that they may never see their village again. First in 2016, their brother, Ametjan, was imprisoned. Then in 2017, their mother, father, and younger brother were taken to reeducation camps, along with many others from their village. Sometime later, they were given prison sentences of more than 10 years.

One of the less discussed aspects of the reeducation system in northwest China is the way that more than 300,000 inhabitants of Xinjiang have been given long prison sentences since 2017. In an effort to hide the extreme abuse of the camp system and cover it with a patina of legality, in 2018 and 2019 many former camp detainees (perhaps the majority of former detainees) were also given long prison sentences as well. Many of these convicts, such as the sisters’ parents and brother, were found guilty of “thought crimes” or “pre-crimes” as a system of immense cruelty descended on their villages.

Nursiman and her sister fear that the reason their family members were imprisoned is because they moved to Turkey in 2015. Maybe during long interrogations their relatives had been forced to confess that someday they would like to visit them. Simply desiring to travel to a Muslim-majority country could be construed as the pre-crime of intending to hijrat (伊吉拉特 yījílātè), the action of immigrating to a space where Islamic piety is permitted. This action is now defined by the Chinese state as an act of terrorism. Accepting money from a family member who lives in a Muslim-majority country or attempting to learn Turkish, Arabic, or Urdu is now viewed as a terrorism-related crime. It is likely for these reasons that the sisters’ relatives, the model family of their village, have had their lives taken away from them. The social fabric of the sisters’ village has been deeply damaged.

WhatsApp Image 2020 06 17 at 5.56.56 PM
Ametjan, Abdureshid, Tajigul, and Mohamedali with their children and grandchildren in the courtyard of their village house near Kashgar during Nursiman’s last visit in 2015.

The sisters’ uncle and father were well known in their village. Since their uncle owned the only taxi, everyone depended on him for trips to the bazaar in Kashgar city. Their father was famous because he had completed a two-year degree in agronomy at Kashgar College and become a Communist Party member. When he returned to the village he was given a job organizing agricultural work for the village work brigade. He taught the village children how to read in the elementary school — a role that trained a generation of future teachers. He designed and mobilized work teams to build many of the structures in the village. He arbitrated marriage proposals between village families. Perhaps most importantly, around 1993, he opened a flour mill which allowed villagers to grind their own wheat.

The village was small, and next to the flour mill was a small kebab stand where they showed movies on a grainy TV. During the day it was a place where their father would meet other men and drink tea; at night it became a place of bustling fun. Village life moved at the pace of bicycles and donkey carts. It was almost entirely a Uyghur world.

In the mid-2000s this began to change. The sisters’ father, Abdureshid, was at the center of this change. He pushed his children to dream big, to learn Chinese, to go out and explore the world, and make a better life for themselves. “My father always encouraged me to study Chinese,” Nursiman remembers. “But although I studied hard, I was the only one my age that spoke Chinese. So I didn’t learn that quickly.”

When she was 10 years old she was thrilled to speak to a Han person for the first time. She recalled:

“As a child, the only Han I saw in the village were people who would come to collect things they could recycle. I never saw Han people otherwise. I still remember the first time I spoke to one of them. I asked, ‘How are you? How do you feel about our village? How old are you?’ It was like talking to a foreigner. I knew only a little. But each time I did it I felt so thrilled, and they were so excited to meet someone who could speak Chinese. When they came to our houses they would use some basic Uyghur to ask if we had any plastic or if we had saved any hair to give them. They asked, ‘chachi bar mo?’ (Uy: do you have hair?). In exchange for these things they would give us porcelain bowls which we used to drink tea. We always just exchanged things, not money, back then.”

Recalling her first memories of Han people, Nur’iman said:

“We called them shopilay, a Uyghur version of shōupòlàn 收破烂 (literally, ‘garbage collector’). Or sometimes mángliú 盲流, a term that refers to the ‘floating population’ of migrants. They were poor and uneducated. They wandered the markets. But we welcomed them into our villages and homes. If we saw them in the Sunday bazaar in town, our parents and neighbors were nice to them. They didn’t look down on them. They said, they are poor, don’t bother them.”

Around the time the sisters started going to high school in the mid-2000s, they began to sense a change in the power differential. Suddenly it felt like they were the ones who could be looked down on. As they immersed themselves in a Chinese world, they began to understand that Uyghurs were treated differently than other people in China. Nursiman said:

“At first I thought it was just because we were not that well educated. My father told me, ‘The policies will not change, but if you are well educated they will give you a chance.’ I always encouraged other village kids to study because I believed this. If they could learn, then they could make a good life for themselves.”

Most of the villagers she knew had never gone beyond Kashgar, so it was hard for them to imagine all of the possibilities that were out there in the world. Nursiman tried to make an effort to convince them to imagine a better life.

“In the village, very few of them could dream about things beyond Kashgar. So I tried to tell them about the beauty of other places. I told them about Uyghurs I knew who had found jobs at the best hospitals, or had achieved great things in sports, or as famous scientists at universities. I told them about the wonderful people I met in Shanghai. I truly thought we could overcome everything with education. Most of the people in the village didn’t want to send their daughters to schools that are far away, they want to protect them. But my father always told me, I believe in you. Just believe in yourself and follow what you know is true.”

Her father impressed on her that it was important that she model a way for other villagers to build better lives for themselves.

“He told me, ‘You are now an important person (in the village). You need to come back here as the same person, so that they will have the idea that college is a nice place.’ So whenever I came back, I wore traditional dresses. I always talked to everyone. I tried very hard not to represent myself as better than them. I was the daughter of Abdureshid and Tajigul, so I had to live up to that. I was so proud of my family, and I needed to continue to earn respect from the neighbors. When I went back to the village, I did farm work with them and helped them clean the street. I never let myself think, I am educated, and you are not.

“When you work on the farm you have a guaranteed life, but you can’t be rich. You can’t have extra money to do what you like. But because there were so few jobs available, many villagers heard that high school would not help them find a job. I was shocked by this. When I was young, this never even occurred to me. When I heard these conversations from my friends, my father told me, ‘I am not sending you to the university to find a job. Even if you don’t find one, your value for life will be changed.’ He joked, ‘Actually, you have no other choice. There is no space for you on the farm.’”

Very soon after Nursiman returned to Kashgar with her bachelor’s degree, she realized that she had been a bit naïve about how easy it would be to succeed.

“When I came back I started a new job as a bank teller in Kashgar. I learned quickly that all of my Uyghur coworkers had four-year degrees like me from prestigious schools in eastern China, and that almost all of my Han colleagues had two-year degrees from technical schools that no one had ever heard of. Yet in less than a year, almost all of those Han coworkers were promoted to administrative positions while we remained in entry-level jobs as cashiers. I felt the inequality all the time. Yet even then, I still felt that if I worked really hard, and I spoke the truth, and did the right thing, I could still achieve something with my life.”

Nur’iman felt a similar change. In college, she studied the legal system. She saw very quickly that the ideals that were presented in her courses were not reflected in the reality she saw in Kashgar.

“I saw really quickly that Uyghurs were charged much more heavily than Han people for the same crime. In hospitals and in the court we often do not receive the same treatment as Han people. Often they cheated us, and made us pay more. So we always tried to avoid those places. Everyone knew this. The legal system and the health care system were not made for us. We just accept this.”

In order to maintain autonomy over their lives, some villagers tried to stay away from state institutions. Nur’iman continued:

“(The farmers understand) that this is our ancestors’ land, so they feel as though they are safe there. The land is yours, so you are not dependent. You don’t have to listen to anyone else’s orders. If you give it up, you lose your freedom. If you grow up in the village, people feel this kind of freedom. They have their own opinions, to some extent they live according to their own rules.”

The sisters were also buoyed by their brothers’ success in following their own path outside of state institutions. Back in 1997, their father Abdureshid was also the first villager to buy a motorcycle. Soon after he bought it, their eldest brother Ametjan began to drive it secretly. “He was only 10 years old,” Nursiman said. “He was so small he could hardly see where he was going. He had a love for these kinds of things from a young age.”

When he finished middle school, her brother decided to drop out of school and become a mechanic. Their uncle introduced him to a “master” (Uy: ustaz) mechanic who lived in a nearby town. For several summers he rode his bicycle one hour each morning and evening to serve as an unpaid apprentice. When he turned 18 he started his own auto repair shop. Seemingly overnight, his business took off.

Over the next few years he built up a business repairing cars and selling car parts in Kashgar city. Eventually, the sisters’ youngest brother joined him in the business and they opened a second branch in the Chinese part of the city, repairing and maintaining luxury cars. “Everyone was so impressed by him,” Nursiman remembers. “He had plans to make his own race car. He wanted to compete in the rally across the Taklamakan desert which is held every year. I told him that after I finished graduate school, I would help him do this.”

 

 

Soon after the sisters graduated from college, they started applying to colleges in Europe and North America, but though they were accepted into several graduate programs, they couldn’t afford the tuition and living expenses in those places. So they decided on the next best thing: Turkey. They knew from friends they met in college that tuition was affordable there, and that there was a Uyghur community which would make life there more comfortable. They could speak the language well enough to get by, and the food was similar to what they were used to. They thought it would be the perfect stopping-off point before they moved on to their “dream” destinations in Europe or the United States.

Initially, everything seemed fine. After all, in the political study sessions that local authorities started conducting in their village in 2014, they were always described as a “5-Star Model Civilized Family” (五星级文明户 wǔxīngjí wénmíng hù). The local work brigade placed a small red plaque with five stars on it to the front gate of their house. The stars stood for “patriotism, honesty, education, hygiene, and harmony.” This also meant that the family was “trustworthy” (放心 fàngxīn) and had nothing to worry about.

Then, all of the sudden, it seemed like they had done something wrong. Nursiman recalls:

“Up until 2016 we didn’t have any trouble with the government. We were not too religious. My mom hadn’t even gone to school beyond middle school. My father is a Party member. We didn’t know that much about our traditions. My father went to college in Kashgar. He did agricultural work. I didn’t even know Uyghurs used to have a country called East Turkestan until I came to Turkey. My father didn’t tell me about it, either, because he didn’t know or he didn’t want me to know. My parents couldn’t read the Quran. We practiced Islam just like everyone else did. We just did what the older generations passed on to us.

“Then all of the sudden, in March 2016, my elder brother was arrested. On the phone, my father told me there were so many things he couldn’t tell us about it. He said, ‘Please don’t ask any questions on the phone.’ He was sentenced to seven years. Eventually we learned that he told our father that he was ‘forced to sign papers admitting to a crime because he wanted to protect my sisters abroad.’ Our father told us, ‘Please study well. They threatened him because of you.’ That was when I realized that the Chinese government didn’t want us to stay in Turkey. I realized that (the authorities) were sure we were some kind of threat. We still don’t know why exactly he was sentenced. His new shop was in a Chinese area. He actually had lots Chinese friends, because he repaired luxury cars. He wasn’t religious. In fact, sometimes my father told him that he should pray more often, because he had three kids.”

Although Nursiman and Nur’iman realized that their presence in Turkey was becoming a problem for their family, they also knew they couldn’t go back. They had started to hear reports of students who had studied in Turkey being detained when they arrived at the airport. Nursiman said:

“In April 2017, we started to hear it might be a problem if we called our relatives. I asked my father if I should stop calling. Up to that point my sister had called them every day and I called them two or three times per week. My father said that he didn’t think it was a problem. June 18, 2017, was our last call. After five days of calls without an answer we asked a friend to call our family. Then we learned that our dad and younger brother had been taken to the village center to study. Our friend told us not to call. We started to panic. We were hearing that lots of people were being detained. We thought maybe the village center asked them to just study during the day. Back in 2014 they had started having political study sessions once a week. We thought maybe it was something like this. But after that time, no one was at home. I kept waiting, hoping for some information. Eventually we learned that they were taken to the camps.”

 

 

For years, the sisters stayed silent, hoping that their family members would be released. They thought that speaking publicly might make things worse for them. Then in 2019 they started to hear of other Uyghurs whose parents were being released. They hoped that the same might happen to their parents and brothers. Nursiman said that now she feels like she was naive to hope for something like this.

“I feel like I am a bit stupid. I thought I would hear some good news. I used warm words, pleading with the Chinese government to give me some information. They commented on one of my video testimonies. I wrote a tweet and asked Turkish friends to write an email to the Chinese embassy. Then on Monday, June 15, they called me and told me they had been sentenced in December 2017. My mother was given a 13-year prison sentence, my father given 16 years and 11 months, my younger brother 15 years and 11 months.

When she received the phone call she felt:

“I have a Chinese passport, it is the country where I grew up. This is the end point of that relationship. I feel so angry. I have the feeling that I should go out to the street and scream, Why have you done this, China? (The embassy workers) live in another country. They can read the real news. How can they be so evil? How can they pretend to be nice when they are killing us behind their backs. A normal person could not act this way. I was expecting good news. I thought they would release them. I had such hope. For three years I didn’t know if I was living or not. Now I can’t speak. I can’t sleep. I am really afraid to sleep. I don’t like the night. I don’t like it. I don’t want to sleep. Now I think my family and neighbors hate me, because I have caused so much trouble for them. I can’t live with this in this world. This is too much of a burden. I can’t think about this. I think they are starting to blame me.”

Nur’iman often thinks about how they encouraged their family to visit them in Turkey back in 2015. She said:

“I sent them money to apply for passports. I told them they should try for it. So my dad and young brother applied, but were rejected. I told them to keep trying, the government bureaus asked for so much stuff as proof of their intentions. Eventually they gave up. Later, one of my father’s friends told him it is really good you never went (since travel to Turkey later became a sign of extremism). I tried to teach my younger brother Turkish on WeChat. I sent him an e-book of how to learn Turkish. Maybe this is why he has suffered so much. This is not a sin, everyone should be able to learn Turkish. They just wanted to see the ocean and see another county. They would have just visited us and then gone back to the village.”

Nur’iman says she imagines the day their parents were sentenced. She thinks it is exactly the reverse image of the type of care the village used to show them when they left for college each year.

“I imagine the day in court when my mom was being sentenced. No children, no one she knows, by her side. Totally alone. Her husband sentenced to 16 years and 11 months. She only cared about us. This makes me crazy. Her whole world was just her family and the village. That day must have been the hardest day of her life. She had never even left our village except to visit me two times in Ürümchi, and once she had traveled to Turpan. She would always say if I go somewhere who will take care of your dad. I’m sure she is being ordered to do things she doesn’t want to do in the camp. She is so shy. All of this is so cruel.

The sisters are mourning the loss of their way of life, their parents, and the dozens of people who have been taken from their village. They hope that people will say their names — Abdurshid, Tajigul, Ametjan, and Mohamedali — and see them as people, not just numbers in camps.

Nur’iman says:

“Every person in the village knows the traditions. They know how to care for each other. They have all been taught how to support each other. Actually, the villagers seem to have more moral quality than urban people who care more about their jobs and themselves than others. I used to love taking public transportation from my village and watching how the villagers shared their food with each other and talked about their lives as they went to the bazaar. Over that 30-minute ride everything would be shared. I loved that feeling. That kindness and their love for life and each other. Now they can’t do this. This is the ultimate heartbreak. How many people have been destroyed? I hope our story can help to stop this inhumanity. What has happened to our village is a crime against humanity.”


Darren Byler’s Xinjiang Column is published on the first Wednesday of every month. Previously:

‘Uyghurs are so bad’: Chinese dinner table politics in Xinjiang