Families Of The Disappeared: A Search For Loved Ones Held In China's Xinjiang Region A Kazakh rights organization has collected more than 1,000 testimonies from ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs whose families have disappeared into a network of internment camps in Xinjiang.
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Families Of The Disappeared: A Search For Loved Ones Held In China's Xinjiang Region

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Families Of The Disappeared: A Search For Loved Ones Held In China's Xinjiang Region

Families Of The Disappeared: A Search For Loved Ones Held In China's Xinjiang Region

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Human rights groups are calling it cultural genocide. China has detained hundreds of thousands of people in what it calls re-education camps. The detainees are mostly Muslim ethnic minorities from the country's northwest region. Police there have detained people for everyday activities - attending mosque, praying or just offering a common Muslim greeting. NPR's Rob Schmitz has been in neighboring Kazakhstan talking with some detainees' families who are now speaking out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: A tiny office in the heart of the city of Almaty is filled with weary-eyed visitors clutching photos of their missing mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. They line up behind two desks. Workers enter their information into a database of the disappeared. Sixty-four-year-old Kalida Akytkhan, wearing a white sweater and a headscarf, has come 300 miles hoping people here can find her two sons.

KALIDA AKYTKHAN: (Through interpreter) My daughter-in-law called me. She said my son had been taken. The next day, my other son was taken.

SCHMITZ: Chinese authorities placed them into a re-education camp in April. Their crime - visiting her and her husband here in Kazakhstan, a foreign country.

AKYTKHAN: (Through interpreter) I called the village head, and he told me to mind my own business. After that, my daughters-in-law disappeared.

SCHMITZ: The two sets of parents left behind 14 children between the ages of 3 and 15. Akytkhan has no idea where her grandchildren are or who's taking care of them. She says the stress of not knowing the whereabouts of her family led to her husband falling terribly sick and just days ago succumbing to his illness.

AKYTKHAN: (Through interpreter) He died not knowing where his own children or grandchildren were. He stopped eating and drinking. He got weaker and weaker, and he kept asking where they were.

SCHMITZ: In the past year, this office, run by the rights organization Atazhurt, has collected more than a thousand testimonies from ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs whose families have disappeared into a network of internment camps across the border in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) My brother's been detained leaving his two children at home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) I have three grandchildren who've been taken.

SCHMITZ: NPR spoke to around two dozen family members of those detained. They shared pictures, social media messages, government IDs and stories of their missing loved ones.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) Seventy-seven people from the village have been taken to the camps.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) It's unclear to me why they were taken away.

SCHMITZ: Uighurs and Kazakhs are overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic minorities in China, and they make up less than 1 percent of China's population. In 2016 after several terrorist attacks blamed on Uighur separatists, Chinese leader Xi Jinping appointed a new party secretary of Xinjiang who transformed the region into one of the world's most tightly controlled police states. Cameras captured all corners of Xinjiang cities, and police stations were built every few blocks, officers routinely demanding IDs from passers-by.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHEN QUANGUO: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Last year, Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo addressed 10,000 police officers dressed in black riot gear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHEN: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "The sword is drawn, and we're about to hear the thunder," Chen said to his officers. "Comrades, are you ready?"

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language).

SCHMITZ: Adrian Zenz, an expert on Xinjiang, says police under Chen's command rounded up ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs and detained them in dozens of newly constructed internment camps.

ADRIAN ZENZ: They were really looking for a sort of definitive solution to the problem by believing that you need to change the people. You can't just put a police officer next to every Uighur. You can't have just a camera in every Uighur home, although they're getting close to that. Trying to literally change the population through intensive indoctrination is the next level up.

SCHMITZ: After months of denying the camps existed, China's government suddenly justified them over state-run media last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: In an interview with Xinhua, the governor of Xinjiang said they were there to provide vocational training to Uighurs, making their lives more colorful. He said the campaign to re-educate minorities in China would take many years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: In a report on the camps from communist broadcaster CCTV, a Uighur inmate says, "before coming here, my brain was simple, my ideas impoverished. Now my brain has been enlightened with knowledge."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Rights groups have roundly dismissed these reports as propagandistic nonsense. Adrian Zenz says China's Communist Party, increasingly under pressure from foreign governments and the United Nations for these internment camps, is in an ideological bind.

ZENZ: Communism has always tried to create a new person that's no longer affected by the opium of religion. On some level, therefore, they have to believe that re-education and changing people works - because if they don't, they basically have to admit the possibility that something like a religious belief could be stronger than a communist belief.

SHOHRET HOSHUR: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Across the planet inside a studio in Washington, D.C., Shohret Hoshur is in between broadcasts at Radio Free Asia where he works for the Uighur language service. His team is often the first to break news on what's happening inside Xinjiang. This has come at a price. He and five other colleagues have family who have been detained. When some of his relatives were taken, he called the local police chief in his home village back in Xinjiang.

HOSHUR: (Through interpreter) As soon as he picked up the phone, he recognized my voice. He said don't ever call this number again; if you do, I will destroy your family.

SCHMITZ: Now eight of Hoshur's family members are in the camps or in prison in retaliation for his work, including a 78-year-old mother who he says was told by police she had an ideological problem before being taken in April. Hoshur says he feels an obligation to keep reporting.

HOSHUR: (Through interpreter) For Westerners, it's almost unbelievable that something like this is happening in this day and age. But the power of China's government is rising, and it can exert an enormous amount of pressure on the rest of the world.

SCHMITZ: Back in Almaty, a 15-year-old Uighur girl says her mother was detained in March after authorities discovered she and her father had left China for Kazakhstan. The girl, who doesn't give her name for fear of retaliation against her mother, says she called the local police back in China.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Through interpreter) They only tell me that she's studying and learning Mandarin. It's horrible. I've heard of people in the camps are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol in order to denigrate their religion. They're also forced to give thanks to the Communist Party before every meal. I don't think a humane country would ever force people to do such things.

SCHMITZ: She says her Han Chinese friends back home are sickened by what's happening to their Uighur and Kazakh friends and neighbors. I ask her if she'll ever go back to China.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Through interpreter) I want to go back to yesterday's China, not today's China. I love China very much. It's where I was born and raised. I never expected it would turn into what it has today.

SCHMITZ: She says she used to tell everyone she was proud of being Chinese. Now she doesn't know what to say. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Almaty, Kazakhstan.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE TIRED ROAD TO HOPE AND PEACE")

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