top of page

Separation and internment: China's Xinjiang crackdown hits families

@Simina Mistreanu/dpa

Thousands of families in China's far west and in neighbouring countries are being separated as part of Beijing's crackdown on ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.

Almaty, Kazakhstan (dpa) – In the past year, Aibulan Bakhitnur has had to grow up fast.

After her mother became stuck in China with her documents confiscated, as part of the government's crackdown on ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang province, the 13-year-old has had to take on some of her duties.

At the weekend, Aibulan does laundry, cooks, cleans and looks after her siblings, 9-year-old Nagiman and 7-year-old Uligman.

Their father, Bakhitnur Zhunis, can hardly leave the house to work as two of the children study in the afternoon and one in the morning. Once, when he left them by themselves, the children forgot a boiling kettle on the stove, which caught fire and almost burned the house down. Uligman still has a burn scar on his forehead from that day.

Some evenings, after the father picks up the children from school, the house's two rooms are cold, and there is no dinner.

"There are so many changes in our lives now," Aibulan said in November, seven months after her mother went to attend a family funeral in China and couldn't return. "It has been very difficult."

The family, who are ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang province, moved to Kazakhstan in 2017, drawn by the country's repatriation policy.

People like them, along with other Muslim minorities including Turkic-speaking Uighurs, Kyrgyz, Tartars and Huis, are being affected by the Chinese government's crackdown in the country’s far west that includes the mass internment of an estimated 1 million people.

This week, as China celebrates the Lunar New Year with intimate family dinners, thousands of families in Xinjiang province and in neighbouring countries remain separated.

Aibulan Bakhitnur has had to take on more responsibilities after her mother became trapped in China. @Simina Mistreanu/dpa

The government says its policies are needed to curb terrorism, separatism and religious extremism following deadly ethnic riots in Xinjiang in 2009 and terrorist attacks elsewhere in the country.

But the crackdown, condemned by human rights organizations, foreign diplomats and the UN, seems to affect ethnic minorities arbitrarily.

Dozens of survivors of Chinese internment camps and family members interviewed by dpa said their loved ones have been detained for acts such as travelling abroad, wearing a headscarf or having WhatsApp - which is banned in China - on their phones.

The Chinese government is trying to assimilate ethnic minorities by changing the way they think, a strategy China has employed in past decades, said James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University. But the trauma inflicted by the policies is alienating families for the foreseeable future.

Mina Baranova, who asked that her real name not be disclosed, remembers the tension-filled day police came for people in her husband's Uighur village in Xinjiang. They rounded up someone from almost every family.

"The streets were empty," she said.

She was forced to move back to her native Kazakhstan after Chinese authorities refused to extend her visa. Her oldest daughter, who is now 6 years old, struggled for months with bouts of crying and screaming, as the children adjusted to life without their father.

Some in the camps have worked for decades as government workers or teachers. Zhapar Zhamaliuli said his wife, a retired Chinese teacher, is being forced to teach Chinese inside the camps. He has lost contact with his 15-year-old daughter, who is trapped in Xinjiang.

Several interviewees said they were asked to foot the hospital bills after their loved ones got sick inside the camps.

Sometimes, what exasperates people is the lack of information.

Halida Akitkhan, who moved years ago with her husband to Kazakhstan, found out her three sons and three daughters-in-law have been taken to the camps in Xinjiang. But she didn’t know what became of her 14 grandchildren, aged between 1 and 17, left without caretakers.

She called the village head to ask about them.

"Why do you care? They’re all studying. They're all taken care of," she recalls him saying before hanging up. As they were seeking information about their children and grandchildren, her husband died, Halida said, of a broken heart.

"I can’t understand why we are suffering," said Bakhitnur, Aibulan’s father. "We haven’t done anything wrong, we don’t have any debt, we don’t owe anything to the government of China."

Uligman Bakhitnur, 7, burned his forehead one night when he and his siblings were left unsupervised at home. His mother is being trapped in China. @Simina Mistreanu/dpa

In December, his wife was allowed to return to Kazakhstan, but only after her sister and brother-in-law guaranteed to police that she would go back to China within three months. If she doesn’t, they will likely be sent to camp. If she does, she will likely be sent to camp.

The family is now trapped in a dilemma with no easy solution. The children, whose lives have been upended during their mother’s absence, know one thing: They don't want to let her go.

bottom of page