Uyghur kids recall physical and mental torment at Chinese boarding schools in XinjiangFebruary 03, 2022
In quiet, polite voices, Aysu and Lütfullah Kuçar describe the nearly 20 months they spent in state boarding schools in China’s western region of Xinjiang, forcibly separated from their family.
Under the watchful gaze of their father, the two ethnically Uyghur children say that their heads were shaved and that class monitors and teachers frequently hit them, locked them in dark rooms and forced them to hold stress positions as punishment for perceived transgressions.
By the time they were able to return home to Turkey in December 2019, they had become malnourished and traumatized. They had also forgotten how to speak their mother tongues, Uyghur and Turkish. (The children were being raised in Turkey but got forcibly sent to boarding school during a family visit to China.)
“That was the heaviest moment in my life. Standing in front of my two Chinese-speaking children, I felt as if they had killed me,” says Abdüllatif Kuçar, their father.
Lütfullah was only 4 years old when he was sent to a boarding school just south of downtown Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in February 2018. His older sister, Aysu, then 6, was sent to a separate school in the same city. When they were reunited with family members the next year, the two children were nearly unrecognizable to their loved ones.
“They were like living corpses,” says Neriman Kuçar, their stepmother. “They had become entirely different children.”
Abdüllatif Kuçar is originally from Xinjiang but had been living in Turkey for about 30 years. He returned to China with his family for a visit in 2015, with misgivings . . . Kuçar’s misgivings proved correct. His Turkish citizenship put him under suspicion, and Chinese authorities seized the family’s passports in late 2015, trapping him and his two children in the country. When his documents were finally returned in 2017, Kuçar was deported back to Turkey and barred from reentering China.
Every school day began the same way, as the children describe it to NPR. Kids were roused from the dormitory rooms where they bunked with multiple other Uyghur children of various ages. Teachers came by for a mandatory bed inspection before the children could line up for breakfast, usually corn or rice porridge.
Then came a Chinese flag-raising ceremony for which they were taught to chant Chinese political slogans and sing patriotic songs. Years later, the children would still calm themselves down by singing Chinese songs about “Grandfather” Xi Jinping and “Father” Wang Junzheng. The latter is the former security chief of Xinjiang, who has been sanctioned by numerous governments, including the U.S. government, for human rights abuses.
“My two children spoke Chinese as well as birds sing,” says Kuçar.
In interviews from their Istanbul home, both children independently describe routine physical and emotional punishment. An older class monitor assigned to each dorm room was given permission to bully the younger students.
“The ‘older sisters’ pulled my hair and beat me. All my hair fell out when I was at school,” says Aysu, now 10.
“If we cried, the ‘older brother’ made us stand still facing the wall or hit us,” says Lütfullah, now 8.
When children didn’t follow orders or learn quickly enough, their teacher would put them into a stress position they call “the motorcycle,” the children say. Aysu and Lütfullah demonstrate: two arms stretched out front, knees bent in a half-squat, which they held for several minutes.
But they say the worst punishment was being sent to the school’s basement. Lütfullah says the teachers told him ghosts lived there, and children including him were locked there in the dark, alone, for hours at a time.
In class, the children say, they were taught in only Mandarin for six days a week, and students who spoke without permission or spoke in Uyghur were hit with rulers.
After class each day, the children finished their homework in silence before returning to their dormitories and watching television. Terrified to speak to other children, Aysu says she spent much of her waking time alone. “I would just stare at the ceiling in a daze if I could not sleep,” she remembers.
In 2019, the Turkish Foreign Ministry informed him it had negotiated with China to allow Kuçar a single-entry visa to enter China and pick up his two children.
“When the Chinese police brought my two children out, they ran to me as fast as a bullet from a gun,” Kuçar remembers. He fainted in the December snow as his children began hugging him.
When he came to, he realized his children no longer seemed to react to Turkish or Uyghur. “Even though they did not understand me, I did not think there was a language barrier. We could communicate with our expressions,” says Kuçar. “I kissed them, I held them, and they could not stop smiling at me.”
NPR verified that Kuçar traveled from Turkey to China in both 2015 and briefly in 2019 through visa stamps and Chinese and Turkish identification documents. Details of the children’s account were corroborated by Turkish medical and education professionals who are treating the children.
Just over two years after returning to Turkey, the Kuçar children are still in the middle of a long recovery process.
Both lost weight during their time in boarding school. A pediatric doctor in Istanbul diagnosed them with calcium and iron deficiencies, and the family put them on a special diet.
“On her second day back home, I made Aysu laghman, Uyghur-style noodles,” says Neriman Kuçar, their stepmother. “Aysu started crying when she saw the dish. They had only been served Uyghur food twice while she was at the school, but older classmates had eaten it all before she got a bite.”
For both children, the mental trauma stemming from their time in Urumqi runs far deeper than the physical impact. For months, Aysu and Lütfullah hid whenever guests came over. They asked for permission before going to the bathroom and before eating.
“Lütfullah could not speak or express himself until the end of first grade. I did not have this problem with other Uyghur children from Xinjiang,” says the child’s Turkish elementary class teacher. The teacher did not want to be named because discussing China’s policies in Xinjiang is politically sensitive in Turkey.
The two children also work with a psychiatrist who specializes in treating Uyghur children with art therapy, and they attend Uyghur-language classes after school.
For the first four months the children were back in Turkey, Kuçar says, he sat by their bedside every night because of their frequent and intense nightmares. “The children gnashed their teeth, kicked in bed and would shout, ‘No, I will not do that!’ in their sleep,” Kuçar says.
He still keeps the lights on 24 hours a day inside the house to chase away Lütfullah’s memories of being locked in the dark school basement.