For many Uyghur families, a new search tool has allowed them to find vital pieces of information – but many urge the international community to do more, reports Tasnim Nazeer

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For the first time, Uyghurs around the world have been able to find answers about their missing family in Xinjiang through an unprecedented new search portal.

The Xinjiang Person Search Tool came to light through the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC), a US-based non-profit, after Chinese police files were anonymously hacked.

The tool – which holds 700,000 personnel files – has provided the Uyghur diaspora an opportunity to find evidence of missing family members, including their charge sheets, sentencing, detention status and whereabouts.

The persecution of the Muslim minority in China has increased in recent years, with Chinese Government policies including arbitrary detention of the population in ‘re-education’ internment camps, forced labour, political indoctrination, forced sterilisation, sexual assault and the suppression of their religious practices.

The tool uses internal Chinese Government documents, including images and data from 48 Xinjiang counties, and draws on more than 11,000 spreadsheets and thousands of photographs, which are continually updated as new information comes in. 

Mahmud Tohti, an 81-year-old Uyghur based in Istanbul, is desperate to find his family, who he was forced to leave behind in Xinjiang in 2017.

His stepson, Abdul Azez, helped him use the search tool to find his loved ones and translated the Chinese Government’s data into the Uyghur language, allowing Tohti to find out exactly what happened to his family members who were listed in the system.

“When I came to Turkey, my wife and children could not come with me as the authorities would not allow them to come,” Tohti told Byline Times. “At that time, I had six children but my oldest daughter died. After 2017, I lost contact with all of them and do not know what happened to them or how many of my family members are still alive or dead.”

Tohti not only discovered information about two of his sons but also found out that he now has 17 grandchildren, with one listed on the search tool. 

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“I found out that my older son was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment and my second son sentenced to seven years,” he said. “My older son is located in a jail where the Chinese Construction Army is but I was unable to get any details about what happened to my wife or daughters.” 

The Chinese police imprisoned Tohti’s sons exclusively because of their devotion to the Islamic faith, according to the documents. “They are innocent,” according to Tohti, who said his oldest son used to hold a position in a Chinese Government agency but that this did not save him from arrest and incarceration. 

“I cannot imagine ever uniting with them but all I hope is that I can at least one day hear their voices before I die,” he added. That’s all I dream of just to be given the chance to hear their voice.”

Abduweli Ayup, a human rights activist and Uyghur exile based in Norway, was a former linguist and teacher in the province of Kashgar, China, but was arrested by Chinese police for writing about the plight of Uyghurs.

He fled Xinjiang in 2015, after being detained tortured by Xinjiang authorities, leaving his family and friends behind. But he has never stopped standing up for the rights of the Uyghur community. He has found some information on a few of his missing family members.

“I searched their names on the search tool and learned that my older brother has been sentenced for 14 years in prison, my younger sister Sajide has been sentenced for 11 years and my niece has been listed as a fugitive in September 2018, but at that time she was actually in Japan in a Science and Technology Institute,” Ayup told Byline Times

Ayup discovered that his sister had been blacklisted under false allegations of being a “double-faced Government official”, according to the documents listed on the search tool.

“I just hope this can provide evidence and raise more awareness of what is happening,” he said. “There needs to be an official discussion at the United Nations about this, as it seems like this is not a problem that can be solved easily. Due to Chinese Government pressure, there are many countries neglecting what is happening here.”

Islamjan, a 46-year-old father of three exiled in Turkey, said that he has not known the whereabouts of his family members for the past six years.

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“I came to Turkey on 5 May 2015 with my wife, two sons and one daughter,” he told Byline Times. “One of my sons returned back to Urumqi [Xinjiang] but has been stuck there ever since. I did not know what happened to him since 2017.”

Islamjan’s son Umut Tursun, 26, was working in a barber’s shop in Urumqi in 2017, the year the Chinese Government began making large scale arrests against Uyghurs.

“I found my son finally through the search tool and found out exactly when he was arrested and even that he was released once in August 2017 but was unable to have contact with us as he was tortured and was hospitalised,” he said. “Once he came out of the hospital towards the end of 2017 he was arrested again by the Chinese authorities.”

He said the data showed his son was initially taken to a camp and then, following hospitalisation, he was re-arrested on unknown charges. Like so many Uyghurs, Islamjan has held on to the only thing he has left of his son – his photograph. 

“Me and my wife always cry thinking about what happened to him and wanting to hear his voice but we could not have any contact,” Islamjan said. “We also were unable to reach any of our relatives. We have suffered a lot and think about our missing son every day, every hour of the day.”

For many Uyghur families around the world, the search tool has allowed them to find vital pieces of information they were so desperately looking for but many urge the international community to do more.

A UN portal has also been set up by VOC to allow victims and their families to submit grievances to the UN’s Special Procedures Office, following the release of the tool.


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