“He will be 17 when his mother is back”

Ershidin Osman with his wife and children.

A Swedish Uyghur suffering with her nephews in China

Read this article in: Bahasa Indonesia, 中文

Unable to get in touch with her relatives, Aminem Osman doesn’t know if her sister is still alive. What she knows is that she got a 15-year prison sentence, and that her four children are now growing up without their parents. The same for her brother’s children, whose father has been sentenced to 20. Stories of family members given lengthy prison terms, combined with difficulties contacting relatives at home, have been among the most common experiences shared by large parts of the Uyghur diaspora today.

Aminem, 48, is originally from Aksu’s Kelpin County, but has been living with her family in Sweden since 2003. She comes from a big family – her father used to be a bank clerk and her mother a housewife, who gave birth to and raised 12 children.

”My family has always valued a life of both faith and science, and strived to be good human beings and citizens,” Aminem recalls. ”We are proud of our culture, but we never engaged in politics. We always felt that the authorities kept an eye on us, but at the same time we felt appreciated and could contribute to society. For example, my father was requested to keep his job at the bank for a few years after his retirement.”

At the time when she first arrived in Sweden, Skype calls were becoming a standard and staying in touch with her family back in Aksu was both cheap and easy. Aminem would call almost daily, talking for hours with everyone in her family. Then things changed.

Like many other Uyghurs in exile, Aminem found herself subjected to the strange and painful experience of relatives suddenly telling her to cease contact.

”From 2016 onwards, it was only my mother who’d answer the phone. According to her, the others were all busy – attending mandatory political meetings and flag raising ceremonies. It was at this time that I also started to hear things like my sister having to cut her skirts short and them being obliged to burn the Quran, as well as any other Uyghur books and clothes that could be interpreted as Muslim, such as long skirts and veils.”

In 2017, Aminem learned that her younger sister, Hawahan Osman, 37, had been detained. Asking her mother about what happened, Aminem was bluntly told to drop the topic.

”’Don’t say anything else,’” Aminem recalls her mother begging. ”’Just take care of yourself and don’t call us anymore. We’re doing fine.’”

Afterwards, it was Aminem’s brother who took the phone to shout at her, demanding why she was calling. Calling again two weeks later, she couldn’t get through. She called other relatives, but they didn’t answer her calls either.

”It was such a painful experience. I was so stressed that I couldn’t sleep, and had to take medicine for my psychological condition. But I knew that I had to get well again, for my children’s sake.”

A likely camp facility in Kelpin County, and the one where Hawahan Osman is believed to have been held. (image date: August 2018)

Some time later, she indirectly learned that both her younger and older brothers, Ibrahim and Ershidin, had been detained as well, being sent to re-education camps. When she asked about Ibrahim, Aminem was told that he was ”away working”, which she understood as a euphemism for camp – one of the many adopted by the Uyghur population inside China.

For over two years, Aminem would be disconnected from her family altogether, before she suddenly managed to contact one of her sisters in February 2020, using an old number found in the contact list of her husband’s old phone. The news was terrible: the family’s home in Kelpin, once a big household shared by several siblings and their families, was now deserted.

”She told me that my mother and younger brother were living with her in Urumqi, from which I understood that my brother Ibrahim got out of camp. But I get the feeling that he is not fully released, and from the indirect answers I get suspect that he is doing some kind of forced labor.”

Empty homes, sometimes a direct result of the entire family being detained, have also been a consequence of a state-promoted relocation campaign, lauded by state media as an important part of ”poverty alleviation” but criticized by overseas groups as another means of control and indoctrination. The consistent demolition of traditional Uyghur homes and neighborhoods as a general phenomenon has also been documented.

The abandoned home of Nursiman Abdureshit’s family in Konasheher County, following the entire family being sentenced to prison.

The news about Aminem’s other siblings was worse.

”We were video calling, and when I asked about my sister Hawahan, she showed me a photo and pointed at Hawahan’s youngest son, who was around six years old at the time. ’He will be 17 when his mother is back,’ she said. Then she pointed at my brother Ershidin’s youngest child, who was also six years old in the picture, and said: ’And he will be 21 when his father is back’. That was how I figured out that my sister must have been sentenced to around 15 years and my brother to around 19 years in prison, since they were already detained some years ago.

”My brother has seven children, and I don’t know where they are right now. My brother’s wife also got a lengthy prison sentence, and I believe the reason to be that they violated the family planning policy, because they have four children more than allowed.”

Once a matter generally settled by fines, having more children than prescribed by the quotas has in recent years become one of the many reasons for internment. This is also what Aminem suspects may have been the reason for Hawahan’s arrest, in addition to her husband having travelled abroad.

”But these are all excuses,” she says. ”Basically, they are targeted because they are Uyghur. They didn’t do anything to deserve this kind of punishment. Hawahan has four children and I heard that the authorities have placed two of them at a boarding school.”

The other two children now live with Aminem Osman’s mother and younger sister. Last April, Aminem got another heartbreaking message from them.

A WeChat post from Aminem’s sister, about how Hawahan’s son, Muhemmed, wanted to bring a pen and notebook to write down his mother’s words.

”My sister sent me a picture of Hawahan’s son and wrote me that he had said: ’I want to bring a pen and a notebook so that I can write down my mother’s words,’ together with a broken heart emoji. In China, it is common for prisoners to get a family visit once a year, so I thought that Hawahan’s children might have visited her. ’Did they see her?’ I texted back, but my sister just sent me three crying emojis in return. This scared me, and I asked ’Is she alive? Tell me the truth!’ She replied with another pair of crying emojis. I don’t know if this means that my sister is already dead? Or perhaps that she is alive, but that they couldn’t see her? I don’t know, and I feel terrible for her children.”

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