In Xinjiang under repression, Uyghur villages keep their secrets secret

Padlocked or abandoned houses and residents chasing away AFP journalists: in Xinjiang, a once lively Uyghur village bears the scars of Beijing's repression against the region's main Muslim ethnic group

In Xinjiang under repression, Uyghur villages keep their secrets secret

Padlocked or abandoned houses and residents chasing away AFP journalists: in Xinjiang, a once lively Uyghur village bears the scars of Beijing's repression against the region's main Muslim ethnic group.

The authorities have been imposing draconian measures in the name of anti-terrorism in Xinjiang (northwest China) for more than a decade, after a series of bloody attacks attributed by the government to certain Uighurs.

These measures became tougher from 2017 in this vast border territory of Central Asia.

Western studies, based on interpretations of official Chinese documents, testimonies of alleged victims and statistical extrapolations, accuse the authorities of repression against the Uighurs, one of the indigenous minorities of Xinjiang.

These reports accuse Beijing of having arbitrarily interned at least a million people in political re-education “camps”.

The United States describes this program as "genocide" and the United Nations considers that it may have constituted crimes against humanity.

The authorities, who initially denied the existence of such structures, ended up admitting the existence of "vocational training centers", intended to keep "trainees" away from radicalization.

Since 2019, all are now "graduated" and therefore free in theory, while these facilities have been closed, according to Beijing.

But in the heart of the Uyghur country, many people are still missing.

AFP visited four predominantly Uyghur villages in Xinjiang in July to try to understand what had happened.

China has never publicly revealed the identities of most of those detained.

According to official data disclosed by German academic Adrian Zenz, targeted by Beijing sanctions, detention rates of the local population are particularly high: up to half of adult residents may have been incarcerated at the height of the program. .

In these documents, one of those identified is Abduqahar Ebeydulla, nearly 40 years old, imam and father of four children.

He disappeared several years after being in police custody in 2016 and his relatives told AFP they only recently learned that the imam had been convicted and imprisoned.

His case has been publicized by Amnesty International and Uighurs living outside China.

His village, Bostan, is located near the town of Yarkant, on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.

During a visit by AFP, high metal gates prevented access to the family farm.

Clucks of chickens and piles of fresh straw were the only palpable signs of life.

The AFP journalists present did not attempt to knock on the door or speak to the neighbors, in order to avoid possible reprisals.

Suddenly, a group of Uyghurs, some of whom were brandishing agricultural tools, ordered the reporters to leave the scene immediately.

These same men, who refused any dialogue, then prevented the AFP from approaching local authorities to directly obtain information on Abduqahar's case.

According to relatives who now live abroad, Abduqahar was ordered in late 2016 to return to Yarkant for what appeared to be a routine interrogation.

Those around him have since lost contact with him as the crackdown in Xinjiang intensified.

Relatives who testified to AFP say they later learned that Abduqahar had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for offenses of a “religious” nature, without receiving an official explanation from the authorities.

AFP was unable to independently verify these claims.

When contacted, local authorities in Xinjiang did not respond. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for its part, indicates that it has no information to communicate on “individual cases”.

“He has never done anything wrong, and certainly not anything illegal,” assure those close to Abduqahar, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals.

"He is very easy going and respectful of others, he has never hurt anyone," they insist.

According to them, so many men were arrested in Bostan that after the death of Abduqahar's mother, the latter had to be buried in her garden, due to lack of sufficient arms to carry the coffin to the cemetery.

After Abduqahar's disappearance, his wife was arrested and his four children taken into care by the state, according to the testimony of his relatives.

His wife, since released, was recently allowed to visit him in prison, some 1,000 kilometers from the family home.

AFP visited three other villages around Yarkant where suspected rates of detention of the local population are particularly high, according to Adrian Zenz.

In each village, many houses were locked. Some seemed abandoned or neglected.

As with the address of a three-generation family which has seven members and half of whom are detained, according to official data. Their fate remains unknown to this day.

During this stay in Xinjiang, five unmarked cars and a group of a dozen unidentified Uighurs permanently obstructed the work of the AFP.

These men ordered the villagers to return home, or even locked them in their homes, to prevent any contact with journalists.

In Aral Mehelle, where some 80 adults were arrested out of a few hundred residents, the head of the village committee was among those to obstruct.

Approached by AFP for a comment, the latter quickly left the scene on a scooter. Then contacted by telephone, he hung up on me.

The Chinese authorities, who regularly complain about the coverage of China by the foreign press, assure that the media are welcome in Xinjiang.

But journalists there are regularly followed and can be intimidated for their reporting.

Questioned on this subject, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main contact for the international press, indicated that it "does not" know about it.

The development of Xinjiang is the main argument that Beijing insists on when it discusses its policy in the region, long isolated geographically and kept away from transformations in the rest of the country.

The question of employment is also a recurring theme.

Most of the detainees have found “stable employment, improved their quality of life, and are now leading a normal life,” insists Chinese diplomacy.

But AFP journalists saw sites in Xinjiang identified by researchers as detention camps and which appeared to still be operational.

Several of them had watchtowers, security cameras and high walls topped with barbed wire.

Researchers abroad believe that the authorities have evolved their repression, in particular with heavy sentences or through forced labor.

Beijing's policy aims to "make Xinjiang Chinese" and "erase the cultural autonomy of the Uyghur people", believes historian James Millward, of Georgetown University in the United States, and an expert on the region.

"Everything changed very quickly, I did not expect it," abounds from abroad a relative of Abduqahar, who says he feels "guilty" for not having helped him flee China.

08/09/2023 12:36:14 -         Yarkant (Chine) (AFP) -         © 2023 AFP