Kazakhs fight for news of relatives detained in Xinjiang: ‘We have to speak up’

Photos of Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang, China, provided by the group Talpyn Zhastar, which helps families in Kazakhstan whose relatives are missing.
Photos of Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang, China, provided by the group Talpyn Zhastar, which helps families in Kazakhstan whose relatives are missing.

As China continues to detain Uighurs and other minorities in internment camps in the western region of Xinjiang, a group of volunteers in Kazakhstan is collecting thousands of accounts from families whose relatives are being held in hopes of shedding additional light on the vast human rights abuses.

Members of the Almaty-based group Talpyn Zhastar help Kazakh families document the missing and film videos appealing for information about relatives who have been swept up into the camps along with Uighurs.

Gulzira Auelhan, 39, a former detainee, recounts her experience in a Xinjiang internment camp to Talpyn Zhastar director Gaukar Kurmanaliyeva. "We had to learn Mandarin Chinese, Chinese political history and Xi Jinping thought," Auelhan says in the video. Detainees were given injections and Auelhan now suffers from headaches and kidney pain and is no longer able to have children, she added. (Video provided by Talpyn Zhastar)

The group helps families write letters to the Kazakh authorities urging them to locate those who have disappeared in China. Volunteers also accompany former detainees who have been released to medical examinations.

Talpyn Zhastar, or Motivated Youth, says it has collected around 2,000 reports of missing ethnic Kazakhs since April. The documents are added to a database of around 10,000 testimonies and videos compiled by Atajurt, a predecessor grassroots organisation formerly led by the prominent activist Serikzhan Bilash.

The camps, where detainees are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and Communist Party history, have drawn international condemnation. China has sought to defend the camps, claiming they are vocational training centres aimed at rooting out terrorism.

An estimated one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been sent to the detention centres. Ethnic Kazakhs are believed to be the second largest group being held. There are around 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs and 12 million Uighurs living in the Xinjiang region.

“People are worried about repercussions from China”

Gaukar Kurmanaliyeva, director of Talpyn Zhastar, said she and other volunteers frequently travel around Kazakhstan to gather family accounts.

We connect with people whose relatives have been detained in Xinjiang. We publish their testimonies and sometimes we take a video of their appeals. We ask them to fill out forms to document the arrests.

Some families are scared that they will be arrested in Kazakhstan. Sometimes their relatives in China ask them not to talk about the situation, because they’re worried about the repercussions they could face there. We explain that the forms are not to hurt them or their relatives, but will help them and will allow human rights organisations to help.

In some families, the main breadwinner has been arrested and not allowed to return to Kazakhstan, so the remaining relatives here no longer have an income. Sometimes we don’t know how to help.

Then there are former detainees who have been released and arrive in Kazakhstan in poor health. Some were sent to work in “black factories", where they made clothes, with long hours and very low wages. Many of the men are infertile and the women no longer have their periods because they were forcibly given injections in the camps. Many of them suffer from kidney pain or arthritis. We try to help them get medical exams and go with them to the hospital. There are also children whose parents have been detained in China, and we help them find shelter and clothing.

“I don’t want other people to go through this”

Yerke Yerjan, 20, a Xinjiang-born volunteer who worked in a textile factory in the region before immigrating to Kazakhstan in 2017, said she joined Talpyn Zhastar earlier this year to help others like her whose rights had been abused.

I had access to foreign news once I arrived in Kazakhstan, and I saw reports about the camps and arrests based on accounts by former detainees. I gradually realised the detention centres were real. Personal freedoms in China are being trampled on and violated.

I had to work in a black factory making clothes. The workers were mainly Kazakhs, and we worked for around 14 hours a day, with no regular salary, standing in a very dirty environment. It has left me with kidney pain and I can no longer stand for more than 30 minutes. But I can’t imagine the state of mind of people detained in the camps. So I won’t stop fighting for human rights, because I don’t want other people to go through this.

"Authorities harass us when we travel to collect testimonies”

Talpyn Zhastar, which was officially registered in Almaty in April, hopes to continue the work of Atajurt and its former leader, Bilash, while avoiding tangles with authorities.

Bilash has been under house arrest since March. Kazakh officials accused him of “inciting racial hatred", citing a video in which he appeared to call for “jihad” against Chinese people. Kurmanaliyeva said Bilash had called for an information campaign, not an armed struggle, and that the full video had been edited by authorities.

Talpyn Zhastar said volunteers are frequently harassed when they collect testimonies. “They harassed us when we traveled to various towns and told us that the work we were doing was illegal,” Kurmanaliyeva said. “We had to show them our registration to prove that our group’s activities are legal.”

A family in East Kazakhstan whose relative is missing in Xinjiang. The France 24 Observers team has blurred the family's faces to protect their privacy. (Photo: Talpyn Zhastar)

Kurmanaliyeva, whose father immigrated to Kazakhstan from Xinjiang in the 1950s, is also hoping for news of a relative of her own. Her cousin, Azkar Azatbek, a Xinjiang native who later become a Kazakh citizen, was arrested in December 2017 in Khorgos, a free-trade zone. Kurmanaliyeva said Chinese officials accused Azatbek of being a dual citizen and has not had contact with him since. She said she was prepared to “pay a lot” in her fight for human rights with Atajurt, and now with Talpyn Zhastar.

Our goal is to give the relatives’ and victims’ testimonies to international human rights organisations, so they can put pressure on China to put an end to the detention camps. People are living in terror in Xinjiang, wondering if they might be arrested the next day. Those released from the camps say they were told by Chinese police, “No one still stand up for you. We can ignore international law and do whatever we want.” So we have to speak up.

This story was written by Jenny Che.