Speaking of the crimes committed against my family and other Uyghurs in Xinjiang has sparked a surprising reaction.
By Nyrola Elimä
December 21, 2021
Illustration by Jialun Deng
Each morning, when I wake up, in Helsingborg, Sweden, three thousand miles from my native Xinjiang, I think of my mother, back home. Before my eyes have adjusted to the light, my hand has usually reached for my phone. Since the Chinese government began imprisoning an estimated million people, most of them Uyghurs, in mass-internment camps in the region, in 2017, the need to know that my mother is safe controls me.
The days when no WeChat message from her appears are the most terrifying. Her silence means that she is being visited by the people we call her “relatives.” When my mother is with them, she answers their questions cautiously, as if she were a contestant in a sadistic game show. Each time they visit, my mother painstakingly prepares food for the uninvited visitors, fretting over each meal, making sure it’s neither too Uyghur (which could brand the family as “suspected extremists”) nor too Chinese (which could seem too ingratiating). As they eat, my parents remain quiet as the relatives drone on about their political beliefs and their warm feelings about the government.
In 2009, peaceful street protests in Xinjiang over the deaths of two Uyghur migrant workers in southern China devolved into riots that left an estimated two hundred people dead. Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has deployed relentless propaganda stigmatizing Uyghurs and persuading much of the country’s Han Chinese majority that all members of the ethnic group are potential terrorists. In 2011, I left Xinjiang to study abroad. Since 2016, more than 1.1 million cadres have visited the homes of 1.6 million people of various ethnic groups in the region, according to state-run Chinese media. These visitors drop in without warning and stay as long as they see fit. Their task is to scrutinize the behavior of Uyghurs and note any signs of “extremism.” Some sure markers, according to the government, are Uyghur people speaking their native language, contacting family abroad, and praying.
Before going to bed, the relatives carefully inspect every room of the house, and then they sleep with my parents in their small bedroom. As my mother and father lie in their bed, the relatives sleep on a carpet on the floor a few feet away. My mother’s mind races in the eerie quiet; it is too tense and uncomfortable to sleep. When the sun rises, she is already up preparing the relatives’ breakfast. When the visitors finally leave, my mother escorts them to the gate with all the cordiality she can muster. She fears that her fate depends on it. As they walk away, she stands at the edge of our courtyard, waving with feigned gratitude, until they vanish. Once she’s certain that they are gone, she rushes inside, picks up the phone, and sends a message to me in Sweden: “We are fine, we are safe. Don’t worry.”
“We” includes my cousin’s three children—a girl of nineteen and two boys, sixteen and fourteen. My cousin, Mayila Yakufu, is an insurance saleswoman and a Mandarin tutor. She is forty-four years old, and she has languished in various forms of detention for three and a half years. In March, 2018, government cadres took her to a camp without warning. Then she was moved to a pretrial detention center. I kept silent to protect my parents and my cousin’s three children. That was a mistake; my silence made no difference. Mayila was released twice and then rearrested. On December 12, 2020, the government sentenced her to six and a half years in prison. Her mistake, we finally learned, was sending her parents money to help them purchase a house in Australia, in 2013. The government called it “financing terrorist activities.”
Under Chinese government policy in Xinjiang, the children of Uyghurs and other Indigenous people who have been detained are normally sent to Han-run orphanages or residential schools. None of Mayila’s next of kin, including her ex-husband, dared to provoke the anger of government officials by trying to take custody of her children. But, when cadres came to take the kids away, their pleas prompted my parents to defy them. “They haven’t had a father since they were toddlers, and now their mother is gone,” my mother said. “Let them stay with us.”
My parents, after taking oaths of loyalty to the Chinese government, were given temporary custody. Since then, my parents’ hearts race whenever a cadre knocks on the door, or a government organization calls, or a policeman arrives unannounced. Any official, it seems, has the authority to take Uyghur children away from their relatives. My father clings to the belief that Mayila will be freed soon. On many nights, he sits on a stool in the yard until midnight, waiting to open the door for Mayila. In the early days, my mother tried to persuade him to come to bed, but he continues to wait.
My mother received a call from the Domestic Security Bureau in August, 2019, after Mayila’s second arrest. The police instructed her to wait for them at home. They would not tell her the reason for their visit. My mother worried that they were coming to take her away, too. She left me a sobbing farewell message and then put on seven pairs of underwear, two bras, and two long trousers. The officers entered without knocking, as usual. They walked straight through the courtyard, seized my mother, placed her in their car, and drove away. Minutes later, I woke up in Sweden and heard her anguished farewell. I excoriated myself for not waking up earlier, though I knew I could not have done anything. She was thousands of miles away, but it seemed as if only a thick pane of glass separated us so that I could constantly see my parents suffer just beyond my reach. Since that morning, I have always kept my phone beside me, in the bathroom, the kitchen, my garden, beside me while I work. I set it to the maximum volume, and I keep checking whether I have missed a call.
Two hours after she was taken away, I received a video call from her. Her face was sweaty, and she spoke breathlessly: “My dear, I’m fine, don’t worry. But I think I am about to have a heat stroke. I need to take off some of these clothes.” When she put the phone aside, the camera faced upward, and I recognized the patterns on the ceiling of my parents’ home. I remembered sleepless nights before holidays when I would lie awake as a child, tracing the outline of those designs with my eyes. My mother reappeared and told me that the police had interrogated her about my cousin. “Same questions that relatives ask me every time,” she said, referring to the cadres. “Once they were done, they let me go.”
We both laughed about her putting on so many clothes. “Once they took Mayila away, for the first few months, she never had the chance to change her clothes, and she wasn’t allowed to shower,” my mother explained. “She had told me, ‘The hardest thing to endure in there was being hungry and without clean underwear.’ ”
I have never been certain of the details of my cousin’s captivity. After her first release, Mayila called me on WeChat. She told me that they had starved her in the detention camp, where she was held for ten months, and that she had been diagnosed with liver damage. On the night that she was released for a second time, she called me and asked me to tell her parents that she was alive. It was a video call, and I could clearly see her ribs. Nearly seventeen months of being deprived of food had reduced her to a skeleton. The following morning, police detained her again. They put my parents under house arrest and confiscated Mayila’s life savings.
I began tweeting about Mayila’s case and did interviews with the Washington Post, CNN, and other international news organizations. I hoped that the Chinese government would release her to avoid negative press coverage. For the past year and a half, those outside China have engaged in endless debate about whether China is committing genocide against the Uyghur community as its women endure forced birth control and sterilization policies and its culture fades from existence. Last year, the International Criminal Court declined to open an investigation into China’s crackdown against Uyghurs, claiming a lack of jurisdiction. An unofficial, independent tribunal in the United Kingdom, made up of academics, lawyers, and businesspeople, became the focus of the hopes of the Uyghur diaspora. A British lawyer named Geoffrey Nice, who led the prosecution of the former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević at a U.N. war-crimes tribunal, presided over the proceedings with other experts. The Chinese government dismissed the inquiry from the outset.
This past spring, I was called as one of roughly thirty witnesses to appear before the tribunal. Before my appearance, in June, others testified about being tortured, raped, or sterilized in detention. I feared that the torments they described might have already been inflicted on Mayila and, if I testified, that they could be unleashed on my parents and Mayila’s children. Just before my testimony, I panicked and called a friend crying and screaming: “With one order, they can lock up my parents, they can take her children away, they can punish all of us by adding years to Mayila’s sentence. So many Uyghurs are keeping silent. Why can’t I?”
But the Chinese government already knew that I planned to testify; it was too late for me to bow to fear. I am a Swedish citizen now and have less to fear than so many other Uyghurs.
The Chinese government’s reaction to the tribunal was also not what I expected. After two days of testimony by other witnesses, a cadre summoned my mother to their office and allowed her to have a forty-second video chat with Mayila. Mayila’s hair was shaved, her face was mottled with dark spots, and she was flanked by two guards. She said to my mother: “Please take care of my kids. I am so sorry that I’ve burdened you with this.” When the video meeting ended, the cadre said to my mother: “Tell your daughter that Mayila is alive.”
My mother called to tell me about what had happened. I pictured Mayila’s hair falling onto her shoulders as a guard shaved her head. My fear vanished. I testified at the hearing on June 7th. I knew that the Chinese government was watching it live online. Trying to speak as calmly as I could, I described how my cousin had transferred money to her parents in Australia to help them buy a home and had then disappeared in a labyrinth of detention camps. “China has succeeded in destroying my family, and they are doing the same with hundreds of thousands of other families across the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” I said, feeling oddly free of fear. “This is a systematic program bent on destroying the Uyghur community, its people, and its culture. I beg you: call it genocide.” Thirty hours later, Mayila’s sister, who lived in Australia, was informed of her sibling’s whereabouts for the first time in two years. Chinese officials notified Australian diplomats that Mayila was being held in a women’s prison in Ghulja.
The Uyghur Tribunal issued its ruling on December 9th. It found that the Chinese government had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghur community. It said that the government’s use of forced birth control and sterilization was “intended to destroy a significant part” of the Uyghur population and met the definition of genocide under international law. After the ruling, I poured a glass of wine in my kitchen in Helsingborg and wished that I could tell Mayila the verdict. It felt cruel to celebrate a verdict of genocide.
In London, the Chinese Embassy mocked the panel and its findings. “The ‘Tribunal’ and its so-called ‘conclusions’ are mere clumsy shows staged by anti-China elements for their self-entertainment,” the Embassy claimed. “Anyone with conscience and reason will not be deceived or fooled.” Most nations remain silent about China’s atrocities against the Uyghur people. My parents are still under house arrest. Mayila’s three children continue to live with them. My father still waits until midnight in the yard, afraid that, if he doesn’t, Mayila will finally knock on the door and no one will hear her.