Earlier this year, human rights organisation Amnesty International published a report laying out new evidence of “crimes against humanity” perpetrated against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region of China. The report featured testimonies from former detainees at so-called “reeducation camps”, which were established by the Chinese government under the guise of “fighting terrorism” in 2017. Targeting ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tajiks, the detention camps are believed to be the largest mass incarceration of ethnic and religious minorities since the Holocaust.
For over 300 days, friends and family of detainees held in Xinjiang have gathered alongside activists outside the Chinese consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest biggest city. There, they hope to get answers for their arbitrarily incarcerated relatives.
Photographer Ofeliya Zhakayeva has been interviewing families in Almaty who have lost relatives in China’s crackdown for her documentary project Near. She says that for most, any contact with detained family members is “impossible”.
“Apps for communication are commonly blocked [in China],” she says. “Those [in Xinjiang] who try to contact relatives in Kazakhstan are put on a black list, meaning they cannot access SIM cards or social accounts.” Sooner or later, those on the blacklist disappear without a trace. In Zhakayeva’s photos for Near, we see only the possessions that missing family members have left behind in Kazakhstan — shirts, scarves, jackets, photographs.
The protagonists of Zhakayeva’s story are all ethnic Kazakhs. When the government of Kazakhstan started encouraging the country’s overseas diaspora to return after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many Kazakhs born in China decided to relocate. But not all families chose to move back together. The missing persons to whom Near is dedicated chose to stay in Xinjiang for different reasons. Some relocated to Kazakhstan, but returned to China to renew documents, where they were suddenly detained. While researching the story, Zhakayeva heard firsthand accounts of detainees “beaten, raped and tortured with electric shocks” inside the camps.
The Kazakh government is reluctant to comment on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Atajurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) is one human rights organisation raising awareness of the Xinjiang atrocities. Yet the dramatic arrest of its leader, Serikzhan Bilash, in Kazakhstan in 2019, has led to victims’ families losing trust in their government. “Ethnic Kazakhs who flee Xinjiang are not always given refugee status in Kazakhstan,” says Zhakayeva. “Even for those given refugee status, there’s not a guarantee that it will be extended. For example, Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh and one of the first victims to speak publicly about the horrors of the camps in China, was forced to leave Kazakhstan for Sweden after Kazakhstan refused to grant political asylum.”
Below are the stories of family members in Kazakhstan who are looking for their relatives in China.
Gulpiya Kazybek was born and raised in China. In 2019, she moved to Kazakhstan with her husband and children. Kazybek was separated from her mother after she was detained in China.
For more than five years now, I have been separated from my mother. She was identified during a public celebration [in Xinjiang] and told that she needed to be interrogated. My younger brother accompanied her. He waited for seven hours, before being told that there was no reason to wait: his mother would not be able to go home. After that, she disappeared for several months. We searched and searched until, through friends and peers, we found out that she was in a camp.
Then, there was a call: “Mom is in the hospital; she needs treatment. It needs to be paid for.” When I arrived at the hospital, I saw my mother emaciated, with a blindfold and chains on her arms and legs. Besides me, a camera was watching her. She told me she ended up in the hospital after being kicked in the chest during an interrogation, after which she lost consciousness. “Take me out of here, save me,” my mother whispered to me as I left the hospital.
Later, I managed to visit my mother once more. This time, there were two guards next to her. I asked them to remove the chains, but they said that would only invite the inspectors to come — there was no other way out.
Then, mom disappeared again. After eight months of silence, someone from the court paid my brother a visit. They said that my mother has been sentenced to 12 years: seven of those years would be spent in a camp. They let me see her via video: my mother’s long hair had been shaved off and there were chains on her arms and legs; in the background, I saw two women holding machine guns. They hit her across her shoulder and forced her into a chair. I had only five minutes to talk to her. All I could do was cry from what I saw. This was in 2017.
Because mum was convicted, now my siblings are not allowed to study at universities, nor are likely to get good jobs. Moreover, I am very afraid that my younger brothers and sisters in China will soon be taken to these camps. Their lives are in danger.
People are taken to camps under various pretexts, such as keeping a Qur’an at home. I know of people who sleep in their clothes in case they are detained in the night.
When I was getting married, my mother gave me her handkerchief. She told me: “When you take [this handkerchief] in your hands, just know, ‘I am near’. Now, looking at it, all I want to do is cry. It’s the only connection I have with her.”
Kumyskhan Baban was born in China. In 2018, her husband, mother-in-law and two children moved to Kazakhstan. She is looking for her younger brother and his wife.
In 2018, I learned that one of my distant relatives had been detained and sentenced to eight years in a camp. Then, the news came about my younger brother, who was taken away with his wife. They are practicing Muslims. My brother was released after 2 months, and my sister-in-law a year later.
My brother continued to work as a singer, but in March 2019, he sang a song known as “The Sadness of the Kazakhs” — for which he was again detained. Prior to this, he’d released more than 60 songs and participated in many competitions. His popularity did not stop his arrest.
This year, his son will be five-years-old. He is growing up without parental care. It is impossible to contact relatives in China, in case it gets them in trouble. But I can’t sit idly by. Every day, I go out to the Chinese consulate. I’ve been detained and fined several times for protesting. But the next day, I’ll go out again. And I will keep protesting until my relatives are released.
Almakhan Myrzan was born in China. She moved to Kazakhstan in 2003 and later received citizenship. She lost touch with her brother, an imam.
When my parents died, my brother had encouraged me to go to Kazakhstan. Soon after, the police came to our house and detained him — even though he was innocent. He was imprisoned in a camp for nine months, and then sentenced to 14 years. But for what? He was just an imam.
I have been looking for my brother for four years now. But there has been no help. The authorities in Almaty have fined me for participating in an unauthorised protest. [But] our goal is simply to save our loved ones.
Now the news comes that he is in very poor health: high blood pressure, kidney and heart problems. They say he has cancer. On top of this, he is disabled; he doesn’t have one of his hands.
My brother is already 60. When he is released from prison, he will be over 70-years-old. I am afraid that he will not survive there; he will die, and I will never see him again.
I am his only relative. If I don’t look for him, then who will?
Jamilya Maken was born in Urumqi, China. In 2006 she moved to Kazakhstan, and became a Kazakhstani citizen in 2013. She is searching for her husband and brother.
At the beginning of 2017, my husband decided to go to China on business. Once there, they took away all his documents and locked him in prison. Then they transferred him to a camp. Since then, we’ve had no contact.
We have two sons.The youngest was just one-year-old when his dad was imprisoned. They constantly ask where their father is, if he will ever return. They dream of meeting him. But I don’t even know if he’s alive. I hide all the sadness and longing: I do not want to show the children. I say that their father has left on business and will be back soon.
My younger brother has also disappeared: they simply took away his documents upon arrival in China, and in the morning they removed him from his home. Since then, there has been no news from him. I’ve only heard that he is being transferred from one prison to another, from one camp to another.
All that remains from my husband is his headdress. He wore it all the time. Wherever I go, I always take it with me and hang it in a prominent place. I dream that my husband will return and wear it in my company.
Gulbaran Omirali was born in China. She moved to Kazakhstan in 2009, and received citizenship in 2011. She is looking for her nephew.
In 2015, many Kazakhs in Xinjiang began to have their passports taken away. I know this because it happened to my relatives.
When my nephew came to visit me in February 2018, I suggested he stay in Kazakhstan, after hearing rumours of ethnic minorities being targeted in China. He promised to return and bring other relatives.
When he returned to China, I could not contact him. I was eventually told that my nephew had been arrested. For the next three months, I wrote to various human rights organisations, and appealed to the president.
In December 2018, I was told my nephew had been sentenced to 15 years, all because he’d visited the mosque and prayed namāz. The Chinese authorities had been told all of this from a mullah who they had detained previously. Under interrogation, he was forced to reveal the names of everyone who had studied with him.
Tursingu; Nurakay was born and raised in China. She moved to Kazakhstan with her husband in 2017. Her husband has since been detained by the Chinese authorities.
After 34 years as a language teacher in China, I retired in 2015. Three years later, my husband and I decided to move to Kazakhstan, where my children were living.
In May 2017, my husband’s visa expired. He left for China to renew it, but after a month, I couldn’t contact him. I could not travel to China, because I’d had to hand over my passport to apply for oralman status [which allows members of the Kazakh diaspora to resettle in Kazakhstan]. But the children somehow caught wind that my husband had been picked for “political education”.
At first, we thought it was good news. Before that, we had only heard good things about such places: how everyone, even the elderly, were given lessons and fed three times a day. Then the children also lost contact with him, and his phone was constantly disconnected.
Two months later, we learned that he was sentenced to 10 years. For 36 years, he had been a diligent worker and never broke the law. We heard that they had been surveilling everyone who had been to Kazakhstan. We heard that those detained were tortured and forced to sign papers. We also heard [that the Chinese government] were arresting anyone who visited a mosque or prayed.
It’s been four years since our family was split into two states, and my husband’s rights were trampled underfoot. Every day, I stand in front of the Chinese consulate, asking for help. During this time, I have not received a single answer about his future.
Baibolat Kunbolat grew up in China, and moved to Kazakhstan with his parents in 2005. He has lost contact with his brother.
When my brother graduated from high school in Shanghai in 2011, I invited him to study in Kazakhstan. After the first semester at university in Kazakhstan, he went back to China to see his adoptive parents for the winter break. But his parents started having health problems, so he decided to stay.
In 2017, he was visited by the police. I later learned from relatives that he was taken to a camp. First, they said it would be for a month, then for a year. That year passed, but my brother was not released. After another year and a half, I learned that he had been sentenced to 10 years.
When my brother was first detained, I did nothing. I believed that he would be safer if I didn’t kick up a fuss. Maybe he’d even be released earlier. But now, I am so sorry I didn’t get involved.
Since then, I have been doing everything I can: I have written to the Kazakh presidents — first to former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, then to current president Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich Tokayev. I have contacted the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan, the UN, and representatives of the European Union. And I continue to write, but there are still no answers. I tried to speak to the consul at the Chinese consulate, but they didn’t let me in. Now, I go out to picket line every day with a photograph of my brother.
In March 2020, I chained myself to the consulate. I wanted them to understand the severity of our loss. I was warned several times to leave the premises. and in February of this year, I was detained for six hours. I got away with a warning. While I was detained, three women came to the consulate, demanding the release of their relatives in Xinjiang. The next day, a group of 20 people gathered outside the building.
I continue to protest today, but I’ve changed my tactics: I’ve started filming the protests and distributing the material on social media. I am doing this to make our stories heard.
In July of 2021, I was arrested by people in civilian clothes, while visiting my parents. They handcuffed me, forced me into a car, and did not show any documents. My wife and neighbours ran up, tried to help, and filmed what was happening. They kept me at the police station until it was night — not only me, but also my relatives. As it turned out, they had arrested many other regular protesters to stop us gathering at the consulate during the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.