The last time that Dilsar Ablimit, a 21-year-old Uighur college student in Turkey, heard from her father in Xinjiang, China, was in September 2017. In a message on WeChat, a popular messaging app in China, he asked her and her brother, Abdusalam Ablimit, who also lives in Turkey, to take care of themselves and said he looked forward to being reunited with them when the semester was over.
“Soon after that, he stopped responding to my messages and I had a feeling that he may have been arrested,” she says. “While I continued to be able to talk to my mom, every time I asked her where my father was, she would tell me not to worry and say he would be home very soon.”
But for the next three years, she and her brother never heard a word about her father until he suddenly showed up in a film broadcast by China’s state-run English TV channel CGTN in April 2021.
The film, The War in the Shadows: Challenges of Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang, claimed a group of Uighur officials and businessmen in Xinjiang were responsible for the rise of terrorism and radicalism in the autonomous region that is home to millions of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
China has been accused of imprisoning up to a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province and subjecting them to torture, forced labour and sterilisations. Beijing denies human rights abuses and has described its detention facilities in Xinjiang as education camps designed to combat terrorism.
In the CGTN film, a former government official in Xinjiang, Shirzat Bawudun, was accused of being the mastermind of a network of "corrupt officials and businessmen" plotting terrorist activities in Xinjiang and funding young Uighurs to join the Islamic State terror group in Syria.
“To accomplish anything, you need an economic base, so I thought about the Ablimit family and recruited the two brothers,” Bawudun says in the film.
Ablimit's father, Ablimit Ababakri, and uncle Abduehet Ababakri, were accused in the film of being members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which was designated as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations in 2002, and they were accused of financing the growth of local terrorism and extremism in Xinjiang, including contributing more than €1.3 million to the organisation.
Abdusalam Ablimit says the characterisation of his father and uncle in the film is false, because they have never been a part of any political organisation. “After my father quit his job in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, he returned to his hometown Karakax and started his own businesses in real estate, road transportation and gas stations,” he says.
Ablimit’s sister says seeing her father and uncle being accused of financing terrorism left her feeling deeply traumatised. “My heart was broken into millions of pieces and I couldn’t eat or sleep for two to three days,” she says. “I can’t imagine how [her farher] is feeling in jail.”
The Irish Times made several phone calls to the Chinese embassy in Ankara and the Chinese consulate in Istanbul to inquire about the cases of Ablimit's father and Uncle, but no one answered the calls.
Ablimit and his sister are not the only Uighurs in Turkey who have identified their missing family members in Xinjiang through the film broadcast by CGTN. Aykanat Wahitjan, a Uighur student in Turkey, was shocked to find her father featured in the film.
Her father, Wahitjan Osman, is a former senior editor at the government-run Xinjiang Education Publishing House, and he was accused of including content that encourages Uighur separatism in the Uighur textbooks for elementary school and middle school students in 2003 and 2009.
In the CGTN film, Abdurazaq Sayim, a former Uighur president of the Xinjiang Education Publishing House, said he instructed Osman and another Uighur editor to include more content on ethnic oppression in the textbooks and he had invited Osman to be in charge of the textbooks' content because Osman was influential.
Osman’s daughter said she was speechless when her father was described as a terrorist in the film. “Whether he was editing books or publishing articles, my father always needed to gain the approval of the local government before he could publish these materials,” she says. “He has been doing this for years and now they suddenly said he is a separatist. This is unbelievable.”
Some experts in Uighur studies have highlighted some passages in the textbook that contradict the narrative that CGTN presented in the film. The documentary used the story of seven Uighur girls resisting Manchu soldiers during the 18th century as proof that Osman was trying to promote “ethnic hatred against Chinese soldiers”.
However, Dr Timothy Grose, an associate professor of China studies at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, said passages from the Uighur textbook presented in the documentary actually wrote "Manchu" rather than Chinese soldiers.
Even though they have lost contact with family members in Xinjiang for more than four years, Ablimit and Wahitjan decided to speak out about their fathers only after they were able to confirm what had happened to them through the CGTN documentary.
“We didn’t speak out in the beginning because we were worried that it could put the rest of our family members in Xinjiang in danger,” said Dilsar Ablimit. “We were hoping that if we obey the Chinese government, it might help ease our family members’ situation. That’s why we kept silent.”
Since 2017, many Uighurs in Xinjiang have broken off contact with family members abroad, as having a connection with people overseas could be used as the reason to send someone into one of the many internment camps for re-education.
There have been instances where family members in Xinjiang were punished after those abroad continue to speak out about their family members' sufferings. Last year, Nyrola Elima, a Uighur supply chain analyst in Sweden, tweeted about her cousin Mayila Yakufu's release from a local detention centre, and a day after her tweet, Yakufu was taken away by the police. They warned Elima's parents to tell her to stop tweeting about the case.
However, Grose thinks in other cases, speaking out could still put some pressure on the Chinese government. “As the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing approaches, international pressure generated from individual cases may yield positive outcomes,” he says. “In many cases Uighurs and Kazakhs who spoke out about their detained relatives have experienced some success in securing the release of their loved ones.”
Aykanat Wahitjan says she will keep speaking up for her father until Beijing feels the pressure, because she believes he has been wrongfully charged. “I will continue to tell my father’s story to the media and I hope the world will understand that he is innocent,” she says. “As his daughter, I have the obligation to prove that he is not a separatist or terrorist.”