Exiled Uyghur scholar Abduweli Ayup tells Bitter Winter how his niece died in jail just because of being his relative and cooperating with him.
by Ruth Ingram
“If I die and if I am buried in a grave, may a posy of wild red roses mark my grave.”
This was Mihray Erkin’s final text goodbye to a friend from Tokyo Airport departure lounge, just two hours before she was due to board the plane back to an uncertain fate in her homeland.
She could not know for sure, but the niece of prominent exiled Uyghur scholar Abduweli Ayup, suspected that all might not go well for her as she touched down in her city, which had been rocked by mass arrests and disappearances since the 2016 “Strike hard campaign” against the CCP-dubbed “terrorism, extremism and separatism” in Xinjiang. Her worst forebodings were justified. Within a year, she would be dead.
A talented biotechnology scientist, Mihray had been studying in Japan since 2014, before joining the research team at Japan’s Nara Institute of Science and Technology. She was about to embark on a PhD to further her passion to improve rice yields in the poorest parts of Africa.
Sudden frantic calls from her mother demanding she return home to Xinjiang in June 2019 to care for her aging parents sounded warning bells that she couldn’t ignore. Urged by friends not to go back, but afraid that by not going she would endanger her family, her last text to a friend included a brave injunction not to neglect filial responsibilities. “I was taught from an early age that children should fulfill their duty to parents and be by their side,” she said. “As virtuous daughters we must obey our mother’s wishes.”
She ignored pleadings warning her that if she went back there would be nothing for her. “Faith, halal food, namaz, headscarves; everything has gone,” cautioned a friend who was remaining in Japan. She replied, “we will keep our faith firmly in our heart. We will still perform namaz,” she promised bravely.
Her distraught uncle, writer and activist Abduweli Ayup, now exiled in Norway, has been inconsolable since news of her death in custody was finally confirmed this week. Rumors that she had “gone” circulated in December 2020 but speaking this week to Bitter Winter, Ayup said he refused to believe them. Without official confirmation, he said, “I didn’t know what ‘she has gone’ meant at the time.” When Mihray’s mother began to post messages on WeChat, China’s social media platform, using a childhood picture of her daughter, urging no publicity, Ayup was almost persuaded that she had died, but hoped against hope that it might not be true. Recent confirmation however once Radio Free Asia had spoken to officials in Kashgar region, that she had in fact died have devastated him. “I am in despair. It is so hard to accept the reality,” he sobbed. “I hate myself that I couldn’t save anyone, but lost my niece there.”
According to the RFA report, Mihray had died “while being detained and investigated by members of the Kashgar Public Security Bureau at the Kashgar Yanbulak Detention Center, suggesting that her death may have been the result of interrogation.”
Ayup suspected that his own activism and efforts to promote the Uyghur language by starting a school for Uyghur children and holding a mother-tongue conference in 2013 in Kashgar, were largely to blame for Mihray’s detention. Despite having obtained permission for the popular four-hour seminar to go ahead, he and the two organizers were immediately arrested and sentenced once it was over. After fifteen long and torturous months in prison, Ayup was finally released in 2015 and fled the country.
Five years later however, in 2020, once government measures to sideline the Uyghur language had been in force for several years, the local Kashgar government launched its own campaign to discredit him and mother tongue enthusiasts. This was precipitated, he thought, by his advocacy in the West and his outspoken criticism of the regime. Operation “eradicate the influence of Abduweli” involved rounding up 72 attendees of the 2013 conference and detaining them. Ayup still has no idea what has become of them all. Mihray, he feared, was part of this campaign, due to her own passion for keeping the language alive, and her involvement in his language school.
The black hole of silence from his homeland, from where messages are sent furtively, in code and without context cripples Ayup. “I don’t have any information of how she died,” he said, breaking down with the emotion of trying to explain how his “clever, caring, friendly, helpful” niece, whose love of young children and teaching, could have been snuffed out in this way. “I don’t know what kind of torture she had, what kind of humiliation she had.”
They grew up together in the same household and he remembers fondly the characteristics that marked her out as unique. He was like an elder brother to her. He loved her honesty, her straightforward scientist’s approach to life and her longing to be helpful. “She had such high dreams of making a useful contribution to the world,” he said. “And now she is gone.”
Attempts by officials to explain away her death as from a condition unknown to her family, did not wash with him. His 30 year old, as yet unmarried niece with a zest for life and a longing to improve life for those living in the poorest regions of the world, was healthy and active. “I can’t accept that she is gone. For me she is still alive and I will see her one day.”
Ayup reminded Bitter Winter that every one of the several million Turkic people caught up in the atrocities taking place in Western China, was an individual human being, each with their own story. These should be told, and the statistics made personal. Figures are overwhelming of those arrested and detained in camps or corralled into forced labour, he said. Many exiles are afraid to speak up, but “we need to make this personal,” he urged. “This needs courage and sacrifice.”
He longed for his niece to be remembered as the person she was and her death as the senseless waste it was. Her only crime was to love her language. “We are waging a war against evil forces, which cannot be won without sacrifice,” he said. He wanted the world to see the Uyghur atrocities as those being meted out to individuals like his niece. “These are people, not numbers. We can make it live by telling the world our stories.”
Since the death of his niece in the detention centre was confirmed last week, further investigations by RFA have unearthed more tragedy for Ayup, which have confirmed his suspicions that he is the real target. His sister Sajidgul Ayup has been sentenced to 12 years and his brother Erkin to 14 years.
“If I am the real target, I am ready to be punished instead of them when China wants,” he said, laying down his own gauntlet with, “tell me date and place” writing on his Twitter feed on Friday.