Family Disappears Amid China's Detention Of Mostly Ethnic UyghursMarch 03, 2021
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: I first met Akikat Kaliolla (ph) in the fall of 2019 in his Almaty studio . . . He married the woman of his dreams, a fellow musician. And they’d moved to Kazakhstan together. But he was carrying a heavy burden. He was looking for his family across the border in the neighboring Chinese region of Xinjiang. Both his parents and his two brothers had been detained the year before. His father’s situation was especially alarming.
FENG: Kaliolla wrote letters to the Kazakh foreign ministry, filmed protest videos. And his advocacy appeared to work. In January 2019, authorities let his mother and his brothers go, though they remained under house arrest. But they were allowed to call Kaliolla in Kazakhstan. Kaliolla recorded that call and uploaded it to social media shortly after. In the call, you can hear the relief in his voice. It’s the first time he was able to talk to his family in 10 months.
FENG: But as the call goes on, the tone quickly changes.
FENG: “Yes. All right. We can speak in Chinese,” his mother says a few seconds in to someone who seems to be in the room with her, likely a government official monitoring the call. But Kaliolla keeps asking her, are you out of detention? Did they beat my brothers?
FENG: “I’m home now. I’m OK. And your brothers are all right” is all his mother will say. Dozens of other Uyghur and Kazakh people who fled China have told me similar stories of how their family, who remained in China, were forced to contact them and give false reassurances. Kaliolla soon becomes furious.
FENG: “I know my father is in prison,” he shouts. “The world knows how China detained you unjustly.” His mother and brother plead with him, don’t say such things. But Kaliolla won’t stop.
FENG: Kaliolla steps up his advocacy. He meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and United Nations officials and protests outside the Chinese Embassy in Almaty. Then, a year and a half passes before Kaliolla’s family reaches out to him again, but apparently with certain conditions attached. Here’s his mother, Venera Muqutay (ph).
MUQUTAY: (Through interpreter) Internet regulators came to our house with an official notice that allowed us to use the Internet and call you again. The official also gave us three scripts to read from.
FENG: One script for her, the other two for Kaliolla’s brothers. But Kaliolla’s mother broke those conditions and called Kaliolla on her own. That’s how he knows about the scripts.
MUQUTAY: (Through interpreter) I was very scared and under pressure. I was supposed to say, my child, you’re very worried about us, but no matter what you do, think twice. If you have a complaint, take it up with China. You must trust the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party.
FENG: Advocacy outside China about detentions - that’s exactly what Beijing does not like and wants to stop. But Muqutay told Kaliolla everything about her detention and his father’s imprisonment and the beatings she heard from her holding cell before they were officially detained.
MUQUTAY: (Through interpreter) They ferociously beat your father until he screamed. I yelled, don’t hit him, while your older brother shouted, stop, you’re going to kill my father.
FENG: Her account corroborated what Kaliolla shared with me in 2019 and information smuggled out of Xinjiang by Kaliolla’s friends, relatives and other detainees. Kaliolla’s elder brother, Muqyiat Kaliolla (ph), also made a request.
MUQYIAT KALIOLLA: (Through interpreter) If you cannot contact us, fear the worst. The authorities have threatened us so much recently. They let us talk to you today, but they are likely to finish us off tomorrow. If that happens, know it was not suicide. Don’t stop your advocacy. Our lives and the fate of our family are in your hands.
FENG: A few weeks after these calls, neighbors told Kaliolla the house his mother and two brothers live in was empty, his calls and texts to them unanswered.
A KALIOLLA: (Through interpreter) Friends walking past their house tell me the snow outside has been untrammelled the entire winter. There is no one at home to shovel.
FENG: Then, a few months later, he heard that his father was dead, aged 73. Some relatives had been able to attend the funeral. To the best of Kaliolla’s knowledge, his father had been in prison for the past three years. Kaliolla still does not know how his father died or when. China’s embassy told him to come back to Xinjiang if he wanted answers, but Kaliolla has no plans to return because he fears for his safety there.