China Cannot Silence MeDecember 21, 2021
My mother received a call from the Domestic Security Bureau in August, 2019, after Mayila’s second arrest. The police instructed her to wait for them at home. They would not tell her the reason for their visit. My mother worried that they were coming to take her away, too. She left me a sobbing farewell message and then put on seven pairs of underwear, two bras, and two long trousers. The officers entered without knocking, as usual. They walked straight through the courtyard, seized my mother, placed her in their car, and drove away. Minutes later, I woke up in Sweden and heard her anguished farewell. I excoriated myself for not waking up earlier, though I knew I could not have done anything. She was thousands of miles away, but it seemed as if only a thick pane of glass separated us so that I could constantly see my parents suffer just beyond my reach. Since that morning, I have always kept my phone beside me, in the bathroom, the kitchen, my garden, beside me while I work. I set it to the maximum volume, and I keep checking whether I have missed a call.
Two hours after she was taken away, I received a video call from her. Her face was sweaty, and she spoke breathlessly: “My dear, I’m fine, don’t worry. But I think I am about to have a heat stroke. I need to take off some of these clothes.” When she put the phone aside, the camera faced upward, and I recognized the patterns on the ceiling of my parents’ home. I remembered sleepless nights before holidays when I would lie awake as a child, tracing the outline of those designs with my eyes. My mother reappeared and told me that the police had interrogated her about my cousin. “Same questions that relatives ask me every time,” she said, referring to the cadres. “Once they were done, they let me go.”
We both laughed about her putting on so many clothes. “Once they took Mayila away, for the first few months, she never had the chance to change her clothes, and she wasn’t allowed to shower,” my mother explained. “She had told me, ‘The hardest thing to endure in there was being hungry and without clean underwear.’ ”
I have never been certain of the details of my cousin’s captivity. After her first release, Mayila called me on WeChat. She told me that they had starved her in the detention camp, where she was held for ten months, and that she had been diagnosed with liver damage. On the night that she was released for a second time, she called me and asked me to tell her parents that she was alive. It was a video call, and I could clearly see her ribs. Nearly seventeen months of being deprived of food had reduced her to a skeleton. The following morning, police detained her again. They put my parents under house arrest and confiscated Mayila’s life savings.