Family Disappears Amid China's Detention Of Mostly Ethnic Uyghurs

Mar 3, 2021
Originally published on March 3, 2021 7:21 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

China is believed to have detained hundreds of thousands of people, mostly ethnic Uyghurs, in the far western part of the country. When they are criticized, as they often are, Chinese officials say these mass detentions and arrests are part of their fight against terrorism. For years, NPR's Emily Feng has been reporting on people who've been targeted. And one of the families she's followed has now, apparently, disappeared. Here's Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: I first met Akikat Kaliolla (ph) in the fall of 2019 in his Almaty studio. He looked every inch the music producer - wavy, slicked hair, dimpled smile, tight black pants. And he'd had a charmed life. He married the woman of his dreams, a fellow musician. And they'd moved to Kazakhstan together. But he was carrying a heavy burden. He was looking for his family across the border in the neighboring Chinese region of Xinjiang. Both his parents and his two brothers had been detained the year before. His father's situation was especially alarming.

AKIKAT KALIOLLA: (Through interpreter) Two people in the same jail as my father who made it to Kazakhstan told me that the guards would beat my father until he fainted.

FENG: He believes his family was targeted because his father, as a retired government official, had lodged a complaint about the abuse and ensuing death of another Chinese Kazakh.

A KALIOLLA: (Through interpreter) My father spoke the truth, and our family lost their freedom. Is this the Qing dynasty, where one person falls out of political favor and so their entire family is extinguished?

FENG: Kaliolla wrote letters to the Kazakh foreign ministry, filmed protest videos. And his advocacy appeared to work. In January 2019, authorities let his mother and his brothers go, though they remained under house arrest. But they were allowed to call Kaliolla in Kazakhstan. Kaliolla recorded that call and uploaded it to social media shortly after. In the call, you can hear the relief in his voice. It's the first time he was able to talk to his family in 10 months.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VENERA MUQUTAY: (Non-English language spoken).

A KALIOLLA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: But as the call goes on, the tone quickly changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUQUTAY: (Non-English language spoken).

A KALIOLLA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Yes. All right. We can speak in Chinese," his mother says a few seconds in to someone who seems to be in the room with her, likely a government official monitoring the call. But Kaliolla keeps asking her, are you out of detention? Did they beat my brothers?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUQUTAY: (Non-English language spoken).

A KALIOLLA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "I'm home now. I'm OK. And your brothers are all right" is all his mother will say. Dozens of other Uyghur and Kazakh people who fled China have told me similar stories of how their family, who remained in China, were forced to contact them and give false reassurances. Kaliolla soon becomes furious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A KALIOLLA: (Non-English language spoken).

MUQUTAY: (Non-English language spoken).

A KALIOLLA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "I know my father is in prison," he shouts. "The world knows how China detained you unjustly." His mother and brother plead with him, don't say such things. But Kaliolla won't stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A KALIOLLA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Kaliolla steps up his advocacy. He meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and United Nations officials and protests outside the Chinese Embassy in Almaty. Then, a year and a half passes before Kaliolla's family reaches out to him again, but apparently with certain conditions attached. Here's his mother, Venera Muqutay (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUQUTAY: (Through interpreter) Internet regulators came to our house with an official notice that allowed us to use the Internet and call you again. The official also gave us three scripts to read from.

FENG: One script for her, the other two for Kaliolla's brothers. But Kaliolla's mother broke those conditions and called Kaliolla on her own. That's how he knows about the scripts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUQUTAY: (Through interpreter) I was very scared and under pressure. I was supposed to say, my child, you're very worried about us, but no matter what you do, think twice. If you have a complaint, take it up with China. You must trust the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party.

FENG: Advocacy outside China about detentions - that's exactly what Beijing does not like and wants to stop. But Muqutay told Kaliolla everything about her detention and his father's imprisonment and the beatings she heard from her holding cell before they were officially detained.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUQUTAY: (Through interpreter) They ferociously beat your father until he screamed. I yelled, don't hit him, while your older brother shouted, stop, you're going to kill my father.

FENG: Her account corroborated what Kaliolla shared with me in 2019 and information smuggled out of Xinjiang by Kaliolla's friends, relatives and other detainees. Kaliolla's elder brother, Muqyiat Kaliolla (ph), also made a request.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUQYIAT KALIOLLA: (Through interpreter) If you cannot contact us, fear the worst. The authorities have threatened us so much recently. They let us talk to you today, but they are likely to finish us off tomorrow. If that happens, know it was not suicide. Don't stop your advocacy. Our lives and the fate of our family are in your hands.

FENG: A few weeks after these calls, neighbors told Kaliolla the house his mother and two brothers live in was empty, his calls and texts to them unanswered.

A KALIOLLA: (Through interpreter) Friends walking past their house tell me the snow outside has been untrammelled the entire winter. There is no one at home to shovel.

FENG: Then, a few months later, he heard that his father was dead, aged 73. Some relatives had been able to attend the funeral. To the best of Kaliolla's knowledge, his father had been in prison for the past three years. Kaliolla still does not know how his father died or when. China's embassy told him to come back to Xinjiang if he wanted answers, but Kaliolla has no plans to return because he fears for his safety there.

A KALIOLLA: (Through interpreter) My greatest regret is I was born in China. My soul came into this human world. Why was I not born a beast of burden or a dog? Even that would've been better.

FENG: But he cannot change the circumstances of his birth. And he says that fact alone means he will never stop petitioning.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNE MULLER'S "AARHUS/REMINISCENCES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.