and the brave researcher uncovering their cases one by one
Gene Bunin was in Xinjiang in 2017 when Uyghur friends began to disappear. Since then he has published details of 37,000 victims, aiming to hold China to account
Rahile Dawut disappeared in China in 2017. Her family have heard nothing from her since then. It feels increasingly likely they never will again. But they have no doubt why she vanished: she was a Uyghur.
In fact, Dawut was one of the most respected experts in Uyghur traditions and folklore. Her work made her a prime target five years ago when Beijing’s regime began its merciless oppression – many call it a genocide – of Uyghurs and other minority ethnic communities across Xinjiang in north-west China, where Dawut was a professor at the region’s top university. This has involved incarcerating hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps more than a million. But more than that, the persecution aims to eradicate their cultures and languages, everything Dawut had spent her career trying to promote and protect.
It’s hard to grasp the true scale of an atrocity like this. Individual stories can be lost in the swirl of numbers when they’re so big. But search for Dawut’s name online and soon you’ll find a website that is trying to record this vast crime against humanity person by person: the Xinjiang Victims Database.
Dawut was the very first entry in 2018. Another 37,507 people have been added since then, each with their own page detailing whatever is known about their nightmarish experiences.
More than 10,000 have been included just this year. We have become familiar with satellite shots of the concentration camps that at their peak were terrorising and indoctrinating around a 10th of all adult Uyghurs in Xinjiang – a region seven times larger than the UK – but here we learn about those held inside.
On Dawut’s database page, she stares out of a small photo on what looks like an identity card. Wearing a white blouse over a stripey top, with her long black hair falling behind her shoulders, she has just the smallest hint of a smile. We learn that she is 55 years old, if she is still alive, and that she was living in the Chinese city of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, before she went missing.
“She disappeared while planning to go to Beijing,” says her profile. The alleged reason for her detention? “Separatism”. Fourteen accounts are listed as evidence of what has happened to Dawut – including four from her daughter, Akida, a student in the US who believes her mother is “awaiting a secret trial”.
The page links to the website freemymom.org, where Akida recalls how Rahile vanished: “There was never a day that we didn’t speak on the phone. On December 12, 2017, that changed. I still remember that day vividly. It was a Tuesday afternoon. I couldn’t wait to tell her about my day. But she was in a rush boarding a plane to Beijing. I was waiting for her to call me back… I’m still waiting for that call.”
China’s selection of a Uyghur cross-country skier, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, as one of the torchbearers during Beijing’s Winter Olympics opening ceremony in February was the latest sign of how President Xi Jinping wants to cover up what his dictatorship has been doing in Xinjiang.
There has been huge frustration among campaigners around the world at delays to a report by the United Nations, whose Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, intends to visit Xinjiang in May. And while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine occupies the world’s foreign ministers with fresh accounts of alleged war crimes by Vladimir Putin’s forces every day, the West is unlikely to begin sanctioning a second major economy over its regime’s human rights abuses.
Still, the database is a reminder that Putin does not hold a monopoly on evil.
Dawut’s case has received more attention than most Uyghurs, which is why she was chosen as victim number one. Her story has been reported by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the London Review of Books. A petition for her release has 47,000 signatures.
Another of the more famous cases on the database is Gulbahar Haitiwaji. Her recent book How I Survived A Chinese ‘Re-education’ Camp reveals how she had been living in France for 10 years when she travelled to China to sign some documents but was arrested.
She was held in terrible conditions for two years, being interrogated, brainwashed and psychologically tortured. She was eventually released and is now back in France.
For most of the other people on the database, however, their entries are the only evidence in the outside world of them ever existing, let alone being detained or disappeared.
Click on the homepage and the card for a randomly selected victim shows up. Perhaps it will be Nigare Abdushukur, a young woman jailed for 19 years for sending money abroad while she was a student; maybe it will be 71-year-old education official Sattar Sawut, sentenced to life for “breach of party discipline” and said to have later died in prison.
There are many admirable citizen-journalism projects like this around the world. Bellingcat, a leading investigations website applauded for exposing human rights abuses in Russia, grew from the research of a single blogger in Leicester, Eliot Higgins.
The creation of the Xinjiang Victims Database was also largely the result of tireless dedication by a single person: Gene Bunin, a Russian-American engineer.
Gene Bunin in 2009 with his Uyghur friend Ilham, who was detained in 2017 for having lived in Dubai for a year (Photo: Gene Bunin)
Though he fears the word “genocide” can be too simplistic, Bunin, 36, cautiously describes what has happened as a “slow-motion genocide”.
Speaking to i from Taiwan, he calls it a “horrible, inhuman, incredibly cruel situation, that has no right to exist and cannot be justified”.
He once lived in Xinjiang himself and met Dawut during his travels. It was only for a few minutes but he has a great respect for her. “We have no idea what has happened to her,” he says. “I don’t know why there isn’t a bigger stink about it.”
For some detainees whose disappearances have been publicised, the Chinese authorities have responded by filming “proof of life” videos of them, Bunin explains, “as a way of getting their relatives to shut up and saying that Western coverage is propaganda. But we haven’t had any statement on Rahile, which really worries me”.
A facility believed to be a re-education camp in Xinjiang, photographed in 2019 (Photo: GREG BAKER / AFP)
Explaining why he set up the Xinjiang Victims Database, Bunin has a disturbing tale.
His family emigrated from Russia to the US when he was nine. After leaving university in Boston, he decided to travel to East Asia to teach English and ended up spending two years in China, and while exploring the country in the winter of 2007/8, he arrived in Xinjiang. He immediately found it interesting, he says, because “the people don’t look Chinese at all and Chinese isn’t their mother tongue”.
The place he liked the most was Kashgar, an oasis city full of traditional buildings, with a Middle Eastern flavour and a “Silk Road feel to it”.
Walking through its maze of small lanes between sand-coloured buildings “is like being in ancient Jerusalem”, he explains.
There, he loved being served tea as soon as he sat down in any restaurant, before eating meals of polu (lamb fried with carrots before being steamed with rice and raisins) or laghman (noodles that are boiled and stir fried with meat and vegetables). The Uyghur people were welcoming and keen to speak to a rare foreigner.
Bunin left China in 2009, but after studying a PhD in Switzerland for four years, his desire to write a book about the Uyghur language – along with his love for the delicious food – was luring him back. He returned in 2014 and ended up living in Xinjiang for several years. It was in the spring of 2017 that he started hearing stories about the security crackdown that was underway and began to realise its scale and horror.
Leaving the station at Urumqi, he had to join a huge queue for police to scan his belongings, inspect his passport and ask what he was doing there. The atmosphere felt “dead”, he says. “There wasn’t any spontaneity, people were just mechanically moving from place to place. Something felt off.” In Kashgar, there were security checks with metal detectors every 200 or 300m, even to enter the local night market, and red Chinese flags were appearing everywhere.
“I started noticing that some people weren’t around, but others would say: ‘They’ve just gone on a trip to another town’.” Bunin visited a favourite bookshop but the store was closed. At first people said the owner had simply gone to his mosque to pray, but a couple of months later he learned “the guy had been sentenced to seven years, and his son had been sent to a camp”.
The restored old city area of Kashgar in Xinjiang (Photo: Greg Baker/AFP)
Kashgar dates back more than 2,000 years and was a key part of the Silk Road (Photo: Getty)
When this photo was taken in a Kashgar market in 2019, the authorities had created a parallel universe for tourists and locals – a place where travellers would sightsee just a stone’s throw from internment camps (Photo: Greg Baker/AFP)
“It was becoming very difficult to have conversations with people, because you felt like you potentially could be putting them in danger,” says Bunin.
“I had one friend who I saw on the street and he motioned for me to follow him. He took me aside and explained to me very quickly: ‘My family is fine because I have a Chinese wife, and we’re OK, but I can’t be seen talking to foreigners right now. Sorry, we can’t interact.’ The next times we saw each other, we would nod or exchange glances, but eventually we reached the point where we pretended not to see each other.”
He met another friend for dinner who was afraid to read his restaurant articles in case it looked like he was receiving information from a foreign agent. He remembers asking about a mutual acquaintance, but his friend denied knowing them and said: “Right now, I don’t even know you.”
Bunin adds: “It was a sad, sad meal, we were both on the verge of tears. This was someone I talked to a lot, a good friend, and we couldn’t feel comfortable sitting with each other.”
He spotted “re-education camps” where people were being taken. When he first lived in Xinjiang, he would walk past the Kashgar Finance and Trade School several times a week on the way to his favourite café.
“It used to have regular fences so you could see the campus inside. When I went back there in 2017, it had tall, thick, concrete walls with barbed wire on top. The gate was always closed and there was a police outpost there.” There was also a fortified holding centre just one street away from his accommodation.
The creeping realisation of what was happening to the people around him was like living “inside a horrible pressure cooker,” says Bunin. “
I would sit and stare at the wall for half an hour, just thinking: ‘What the hell is going on?’ I couldn’t make sense of it. By January 2018, I started having panic attacks.”
He left Xinjiang for inner China and in February 2018 he was interrogated by police in Zhejiang province, who thought his restaurants project may have been a ruse for undercover journalism.
“The next day, I woke up and my body was shaking. I said to myself: I can’t stay in this country anymore.”
Uyghurs have long felt under pressure from Chinese security forces, such as these paramilitary police officers seen in Urumqi in 2009 (Photo: Peter Parks/AFP)
Chinese security forces quell a demonstration in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in 2011 (Photo: Getty)
In May 2018 Bunin flew to Kazakhstan, where he began meeting activists and contacting journalists to help spread the word about what was going on in Xinjiang. He was inspired by local researchers working for a human rights group called Atajurt, who were seeking out relatives of Kazakhs who were being targeted across the border alongside Uyghurs. The project had even helped to secure some people’s releases.
While the international media was by now uncovering and publishing Uyghur victims’ testimonies, Bunin was frustrated at how the news cycle meant their accounts were quickly forgotten a few days after publication.
Wanting to collect them in one place, which might eventually become a “powerful tool” to challenge China, he set up his database in September 2018. Like Atajurt, it too would rely on accounts provided by victims’ family, friends and colleagues.
Early on, relatives were worried about sharing these stories in case it led to harsher treatment of their loved ones, but Bunin says the Uyghur diaspora has gradually gained confidence in holding China to account.
Mass leaks of official records, and even brave research from people inside China, have also boosted the site. At times, Bunin has been helped by up to 100 volunteers, but he is usually the only full-time contributor.
Victims in numbers
The Xinjiang Victims Database provides stark statistics on its entries: 4,174 are listed as being in a concentration camp, 524 are in custody, 425 have had their documents withheld and 78 are in an orphanage. By far the biggest reason for detention is “endangering state security” – but 13 were accused of “using superstition to undermine law enforcement”, 13 had “problematic thoughts”, 160 have been “violating birth policies”, 10 had “problematic” literature, and 33 were “two-faced“, a political term commonly used by the Communist party to mean corrupt or ideologically dangerous.
In total, 33,995 of the people identified are Uyghur, but several other ethnicities have also been targeted. There are 2,468 Kazakhs, such as Zhanatbek Beksultan, a 32-year-old farmer whose card says he was sentenced in 2018 to 15 years in jail for “disturbing public order” (he had attended an imam’s birthday party). There are 14 Uzbekhs, including Abliz Tohtihaji, a transport official imprisoned for seven years over a “breach of party discipline”. Even some of China’s Han majority have been detained – among them is a disabled human-rights activist, Jiang Zhilin, who petitioned local officials to improve drinking water but was handed eight years in 2017 for “terrorism”, “spreading lies” and “extortion”.
The entry listed as most in need of updating is Buzehra Imin, who is said to have been sentenced to five and a half years in prison. “She has been allegedly paralysed now and cannot walk, but she is still serving in the camp.” There has been no news of her for more than two years.
Gene Bunin making a video appeal with the wife of detainee Adilgazy Muqai, who is holding his picture (Photo: Gene Bunin)
Bunin knows that Communist officials are paying attention to his site. “We get quite a lot of visits from China – in January, it was one in six of our traffic.”
Because he can see these are from devices that do not use VPN software to disguise their location and identity, he knows “it has to be the government or the police, because the site is blocked in China”.
The Chinese government has sought to disparage the project as “shoddy content”, created using “despicable underhand ploys” such as “inciting, fooling, wooing” Uyghurs living abroad.
The foreign ministry stated in a press conference last year that “certain international anti-China forces fabricated lies” through the Xinjiang Victims Database “to mislead world opinion”.
It even claimed that after “rigorous verification” of Bunin’s database and two others, it had found that 1,342 entries are “fabricated”, and that of 10,708 people who do exist, “6,962 are living a normal life, 3,244 have been convicted and sentenced for crimes of violent terrorism and criminal offences, 238 have died of diseases and other causes and 264 are in foreign countries”.
The government in Beijing may also have used its close relations with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to convince the authorities there to expel Bunin. He was eventually barred from both countries, and local activists he met for dinner in Uzbekistan were interrogated. Feeling a “spiritual” need to be near China, he moved to Taiwan.
However, since speaking to i, Bunin has moved to Australia, where he is volunteering at a Uyghur restaurant run by the family of Mahire Yaqup, a 44-year-old mother of three who has been detained in Xinjiang for transferring money to her family abroad.
Asked if he’s concerned about his safety, he says: “I try to take precautions. I try not to go out at night very much, I try not to put myself into compromised positions.”
He has been harassed online, but if Chinese authorities want to harm him physically, it is likely they would “hire some local thugs to beat me up and make it look like a robbery”.
Hackers have also tried to attack the database, though Bunin is surprised and relieved that they have not caused more harm.
Bunin admits it is “sad” to think how the database dominates “my whole existence”.
“I haven’t had a day off since August 2018,” he says. “That’s when my brother came to visit me in Kazakhstan for five days… I can’t say I have much of a life.”
As for old friends, he says: “It’s kind of painful to hear how people are moving forward with their lives, while I’m stuck doing this.” It is the pain of the unknown Uyghurs whose lives he is documenting every day, however, that keeps him going.
This article was amended on 21 April 2022 to correct some of Gene Bunin’s biographical details
Visit the Xinjiang Victims Database: shahit.biz