As Beijing Olympics begin, exiled Uyghurs fight for families oppressed in ChinaFebruary 02, 2022
Surely his son would know his voice, Abdurahman Tohti thought.
But the answer that came over the phone nearly crushed him.
“I have no father,” the boy replied in Mandarin, not in Uyghur, his mother tongue.
“The Chinese government trained him like that,” said Tohti. “It’s a feeling I cannot describe.”
The boy was only 2 in 2016, when he left Turkey with his mother and grandmother to visit their homeland in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Mass arrests began while the child was there. More than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim minorities were forced into indoctrination camps. Tohti, who had been living and working in Istanbul since he left China years earlier, lost contact with his entire family.
He cannot bear that his boy, Abdulaziz, has lost the language of his people. He first learned of it in 2019 when he spotted Abdulaziz in an online video on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. The child was shouting patriotic answers in Mandarin to questions posed by a stranger: What was the name of his homeland? The People’s Republic of China! What was the homeland’s flag? Red flag with five stars!
The boy appeared to be in a state-run institution, one of the many “orphanages” and boarding schools where thousands of children have been sent for Chinese education after their parents are detained. Tohti called it a “children’s camp” for “brainwashing.”
A year later, a Uyghur who often works with the Chinese government told Tohti that he could help him arrange a call with his son. It was then that Tohti listened as Abdulaziz said — in the language of his oppressor — that he had no father.