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Uighur Family Spends More Than A Year Imprisoned In Own Home In China


A Uighur family has been imprisoned in their own home for the last year. They're in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. NPR's Emily Feng managed to make a rare visit to the family before the coronavirus pandemic.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Ablimit Tursun is looking for his wife. They lost contact in November after nearly 18 years of marriage. He's from Urumqi, Xinjiang, where he and his wife Horiyet Abdullah made a life together despite opposition from Tursun's family.

ABLIMIT TURSUN: (Through interpreter) I can't tell why I fell in love with her. Emotions are really complex. We just could talk about anything.

FENG: Their life together ended in 2017 when China began an ongoing campaign detaining and imprisoning historically Muslim ethnic minorities, particularly the 11 million or so Uighurs who call Xinjiang their homeland. Last week, the U.S. sanctioned senior Chinese officials responsible for the arbitrary mass detentions. Today, China said it would bar a handful of American lawmakers in retaliation. Well before then, Tursun already had noticed harsher policing, particularly of young Uighur men like himself.

TURSUN: (Through interpreter) The atmosphere was really tense, and I'd already thought about leaving Xinjiang.

FENG: Ultimately, the decision to leave was made for him. Tursun was on a business trip in Turkey in April 2017 when he got a call from Abdullah. Police were looking for him, and his brother had disappeared. His wife told him, stay in Turkey, don't come back ever. Tursun was crushed.

TURSUN: (Through interpreter) I didn't think at the time that I was leaving forever. All I said to my family was see you in a week.

FENG: Tursun stayed out his Turkish visa, then received refugee status in Belgium in 2018. And he urged his wife to join him. So last May, Abdullah and their children made a secret trip to Belgium's embassy in Beijing. She was told to wait for a Belgian visa back in Xinjiang even though returning meant certain detention.

TURSUN: (Through interpreter) They tried to stay in the embassy for protection. Finally, the embassy called the Beijing police, and at 4 a.m. in the morning, the police drove into the embassy courtyard and forced them into the car.

FENG: Tursun's family was spirited back to Urumqi where they were put under virtual house arrest just for trying to leave the country. For a while, Tursun called them every few days, though everything they said was monitored. And then in November - silence. Tursun suddenly could not reach his wife. Her phone was off, her WeChat account later deleted. Tursun feared the worst. What if she had been imprisoned, their four children sent to state orphanages like thousands of others?

TURSUN: (Through interpreter) I felt terror. I thought they were going to throw her out of her building and then tell the world that she had committed suicide.

FENG: In January, just two weeks before the new coronavirus would paralyze the rest of the country, I decided to visit Tursun's old apartment in Urumqi. It was in a jumble of concrete buildings with peeling paint - in other words, normal except for the three guards, police van and a facial recognition turnstile in front. Someone helped swipe me in.

So I'm walking in now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Immediately, a man tried to stop me, but I kept walking to the fifth floor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: And then, unexpectedly, I saw them, Horiyet Abdullah and her eldest son in their home. Unlike everyone else's door, they had a grate of metal bars shutting them in.

(Speaking Chinese).

HORIYET ABDULLAH: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: (Speaking Chinese).

I told Abdullah that Tursun sent me because he was worried about her, that he loves his family very much. Tursun's teenaged son nodded and began crying. Abdullah silently wept behind bars in her own home. They didn't dare say anything, though. Two Uighur woman followed me, and they glared intently at Abdullah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) We're part of the protection division of this compound. We watch this building.

FENG: Soon, I was forced to go to the police station to register my passport before I could talk to Abdullah. And when I returned more than an hour later, she was locked in the bedroom arguing with her minders in Uighur. Abdullah's four children sat calmly in front of me while propaganda officials tried to convince me Abdullah was too upset to talk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) You've had her unhappiness by coming.

FENG: I ask them then why Abdullah's children have not been able to talk to their father. One of the propaganda officials scoffed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) How could her children not be able to talk to their father? They video chat every day.

FENG: But Tursun's eldest daughter, still in her high school uniform, suddenly piped up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: No, we haven't talked to our father in weeks, she said, contradicting the propaganda officer. That irritated her, and I was told to wait in the hallway, where I could hear arguing, attempts to get Abdullah to say something to me. She refused. At one point, Abdullah tried to open the front door. She was wrestled away, and the door slammed shut. Eventually, Abdullah was forced to tearfully read a prepared statement from behind the locked door.

ABDULLAH: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: "Our lives here are very good," Abdullah recited, "but we all really miss Dad."

FENG: (Speaking Chinese).

Then can you open the door and call your husband, I asked her. Ablimit Tursun is waiting on the line for you.

ABDULLAH: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: She says she cannot and tells me goodbye. Back in Belgium, Tursun listens to this with sadness.

TURSUN: (Through interpreter) Horiyet must be suffering. Even her right to speak has been taken away.

FENG: China does appear to be releasing some of its detainees, but some detention camps NPR tried to visit in January remained heavily guarded and secured, suggesting they're still in use. And NPR has reported that thousands of former detainees have been sentenced in hasty trials over the last year to prison terms of decades at a time. Access to information within Xinjiang has become even more restricted during the pandemic. Travel there is nearly impossible. Relatives with loved ones stuck in Xinjiang feared the virus would tear through the region's detention camps and growing prisons. Tursun still cannot contact his family. He only knows that they're still in their home trapped but alive with no promise they'll ever be allowed to leave freely.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Urumqi, Xinjiang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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