Uyghur kids recall physical and mental torment at Chinese boarding schools in Xinjiang
ISTANBUL — In quiet, polite voices, Aysu and Lütfullah Kuçar describe the nearly 20 months they spent in state boarding schools in China's western region of Xinjiang, forcibly separated from their family.
Under the watchful gaze of their father, the two ethnically Uyghur children say that their heads were shaved and that class monitors and teachers frequently hit them, locked them in dark rooms and forced them to hold stress positions as punishment for perceived transgressions.
By the time they were able to return home to Turkey in December 2019, they had become malnourished and traumatized. They had also forgotten how to speak their mother tongues, Uyghur and Turkish. (The children were being raised in Turkey but got forcibly sent to boarding school during a family visit to China.)
"That was the heaviest moment in my life. Standing in front of my two Chinese-speaking children, I felt as if they had killed me," says Abdüllatif Kuçar, their father.
Since 2017, authorities in Xinjiang have rounded up hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority group, and sent them to detention centers where they are taught Mandarin Chinese and Chinese political ideology. Camp detainees have reported being forced to work in factories during their detention or after they are released. The children of those detained or arrested are often sent to state boarding schools, even when relatives are willing to take them in.
Experts say this is part of Chinese authorities' efforts to mold minority children into speaking and acting like the country's dominant Han ethnic group.
"This ideological impulse of trying to assimilate non-Han people corresponded with this punitive approach of putting adults in camps, and therefore lots of young children ended up in boarding kindergartens and boarding schools or orphanages," says James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University who studies Chinese and Central Asian history. "It really is an effort to try to make everyone Chinese and see themselves as Chinese and have a single cultural background."
These family separations have contributed to a slow erasure of the Uyghur language and culture in China, experts say — one of the reasons officials in the U.S., Canada, France, the Netherlands and other countries have declared that China's policies in Xinjiang amount to genocide.
China rejects the widespread accusations of wrongful discrimination against Uyghurs and other minorities in the region — but Uyghurs, rights advocates and reporters have documented numerous accounts of systematic abuse.
The Chinese government closely guards information about Xinjiang's treatment of ethnic minorities by refusing to issue Uyghurs passports, arresting those who leak documents or give interviews to journalists and threatening loved ones who remain in China.
Despite these dangers, the Kuçar family is sharing its story publicly for the first time.
Lütfullah was only 4 years old when he was sent to a boarding school just south of downtown Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in February 2018. His older sister, Aysu, then 6, was sent to a separate school in the same city. When they were reunited with family members the next year, the two children were nearly unrecognizable to their loved ones.
"They were like living corpses," says Neriman Kuçar, their stepmother. "They had become entirely different children."
He was right to have misgivings about going back to China
Abdüllatif Kuçar is originally from Xinjiang but had been living in Turkey for about 30 years. He returned to China with his family for a visit in 2015, with misgivings.
Chinese authorities had been disproportionately arresting Uyghurs for years following deadly ethnic violence between the minority group and Han people in Xinjiang in 2009. Sporadic terrorist attacks in the region also picked up, violence that Beijing blamed on Uyghur separatist fighters and that authorities used to justify tightening scrutiny of Uyghur residents. China also became increasingly concerned that Uyghur separatist fighters were smuggling themselves out of the country to train with militant groups such as al-Qaida.
Still, Kuçar was unable to stay away from China. Despite having moved to Turkey in 1986, he regularly shuttled between Istanbul and Urumqi to visit relatives and keep a lucrative textile and leather business there running.
Kuçar's misgivings proved correct. His Turkish citizenship put him under suspicion, and Chinese authorities seized the family's passports in late 2015, trapping him and his two children in the country. When his documents were finally returned in 2017, Kuçar was deported back to Turkey and barred from reentering China.
That same year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping personally ordered a massive security campaign to extinguish terrorist threats by targeting the entire Uyghur ethnic group.
Xinjiang quickly began constructing a sprawling network of detention camps and started expanding existing prisons. At least hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other historically Muslim ethnic minorities were sent to such "transformation through education" camps to study Chinese political ideology and the Chinese language, despite having no criminal record. In some of these facilities, Uyghurs also reported being mentally and physically tortured and the women sterilized. Uyghurs with a religious background or a history of international travel — people like the Kuçars — were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Because Chinese authorities had not returned his children's passports, Kuçar was forced to leave Aysu and Lütfullah behind with their mother, Meryem Aimati, in Urumqi. Kuçar thought their separation would only be temporary.
But Aimati was growing increasingly fearful. She was soon required to attend a daily flag-raising ceremony to show allegiance to China's ruling Communist Party. Local officials often dropped by her Urumqi apartment unannounced, part of a series of campaigns in which more than 1 million civilians and Communist Party officials were dispatched to live with and educate Uyghur families in their own homes.
"Three officials came by today. I did a lot of talking, and they took pictures of me raising the Chinese flag," Aimati said in a voice message to Kuçar in 2017, which he played for NPR. "I am exhausted."
One night, Kuçar was talking on the phone with Aimati when police started banging on her Urumqi apartment door. Terrified, she told him she was going to let them in, before hanging up on him.
Relatives in Urumqi came to check on Aimati the next morning. They found her apartment turned upside down and the two children in shock — and Aimati was gone.
Aimati's cousins took in the children, but in February 2018, they were arrested as well. There was no news about the children. It was as if they had disappeared.
The kids were sent off to boarding schools and describe tough punishments
Unbeknownst to Kuçar, Aysu and Lütfullah had been sent off to two separate state schools in Urumqi.
Every school day began the same way, as the children describe it to NPR. Kids were roused from the dormitory rooms where they bunked with multiple other Uyghur children of various ages. Teachers came by for a mandatory bed inspection before the children could line up for breakfast, usually corn or rice porridge.
Then came a Chinese flag-raising ceremony for which they were taught to chant Chinese political slogans and sing patriotic songs. Years later, the children would still calm themselves down by singing Chinese songs about "Grandfather" Xi Jinping and "Father" Wang Junzheng. The latter is the former security chief of Xinjiang, who has been sanctioned by numerous governments, including the U.S. government, for human rights abuses.
"My two children spoke Chinese as well as birds sing," says Kuçar.
In interviews from their Istanbul home, both children independently describe routine physical and emotional punishment. An older class monitor assigned to each dorm room was given permission to bully the younger students.
"The 'older sisters' pulled my hair and beat me. All my hair fell out when I was at school," says Aysu, now 10.
"If we cried, the 'older brother' made us stand still facing the wall or hit us," says Lütfullah, now 8.
When children didn't follow orders or learn quickly enough, their teacher would put them into a stress position they call "the motorcycle," the children say. Aysu and Lütfullah demonstrate: two arms stretched out front, knees bent in a half-squat, which they held for several minutes.
But they say the worst punishment was being sent to the school's basement. Lütfullah says the teachers told him ghosts lived there, and children including him were locked there in the dark, alone, for hours at a time.
In class, the children say, they were taught in only Mandarin for six days a week, and students who spoke without permission or spoke in Uyghur were hit with rulers.
After class each day, the children finished their homework in silence before returning to their dormitories and watching television. Terrified to speak to other children, Aysu says she spent much of her waking time alone. "I would just stare at the ceiling in a daze if I could not sleep," she remembers.
China is building out boarding schools
NPR was able to identify the school Lütfullah was sent to. It had been previously called the Urumqi Folk Art School and is located in the densely populated, predominantly Uyghur neighborhood of Sandunbei in the region's capital.
The school is among at least 1,300 boarding schools set up across the Xinjiang region, according to Education Ministry documents. Xinjiang local governments have been scrubbing their websites of all references to the boarding schools, but an official education report from 2017 — the year before the Kuçar children were sent to the schools — says nearly half a million children had already been enrolled by the start of that year.
China has placed more central control over education after regional authorities blamed seditious textbooks and faulty curricula for radicalizing Uyghur students toward violent extremism. Last April, a Xinjiang court sentenced to death one of the region's former top education officials, Sattar Sawut, for allegedly inserting separatist material into Uyghur textbooks. Uyghurs and researchers say the accusation about radicalization in schools is false.
"[The textbooks] were approved at the time. What happened is the standards were changed from the top down, and therefore these people were made scapegoats," says Millward, the Georgetown professor.
China says it is expanding the number of boarding schools to improve educational access, especially in remote rural communities.
"Boarding schools make it easier for students of all ethnic groups to attend school. ... All choices are made by the students and their parents, who can visit anytime they want to see their children," Mierguli Maimaitimin, a Xinjiang boarding school teacher, said at a news conference organized by the Xinjiang regional government last July.
But Uyghur families say such schools are also where children with both parents detained or imprisoned are sent, against family wishes.
"My relatives would rather take care of the children themselves, but they are forced to send the kids to boarding schools," says Mukerrem Mahmud, a Uyghur student in Turkey.
Her four younger siblings were sent to state boarding schools in Hami, an eastern Xinjiang city, after her mother was sentenced to six years in prison for wiring Mahmud money. Their father was given a 15-year sentence for an unknown reason. In 2019, her 15-year-old brother, Abdullah, died of an untreated tumor while living at his school.
"I am quite sure that if my parents had been able to take him to Shanghai [for medical treatment] as they had planned, he would have survived," says Mahmud.
In 2018, a U.N. human rights panel said it had "credible reports" that at least 1 million Uyghur adults had been interned without due process in Xinjiang. As the scale of mass incarcerations picked up across the region, the number of temporarily orphaned children also grew.
A 2018 state-compiled list from Xinjiang's Karakax (Moyu, in Chinese) County lists the names and identification numbers of more than 1,700 Uyghur children receiving welfare payments because both parents were in detention or prison. "No ability to work, mother detained under 'Strike Hard Campaign,' father being trained [in a reeducation camp]," county officials wrote next to the entry for an 8-year-old girl. She received 151 yuan ($24) a month.
The Xinjiang Victims Database, a website run by rights advocates compiling names and personal details of people believed to be held in camps in the region, lists more than 2,400 people under age 18 in detention or separated from their parents in Xinjiang.
Desperate and grasping for answers, some Uyghur parents have turned to Chinese social media to look for their missing children.
One Uyghur shopkeeper in Istanbul has been searching for five of his children back in China. He left China in 2016 to send three of his other kids to Turkish school. Two years later, he found one clue: a picture of his daughter Fatima, then age 7, with her head shaved and hands clasped, celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year with her elementary school class.
The picture had been posted by the government of Yopurga County, in northern Xinjiang, but it had not been taken at the same school where Fatima had been enrolled when the shopkeeper left for Turkey. There was no sign of Fatima's twin brother.
"I am worried that they will forget their culture and language and they will not be able to communicate," says the man, who did not want to be identified because he believes he has been targeted for deportation back to China.
Kuçar managed to reunite with his kids
Meanwhile, anguished and stuck in Turkey, Abdüllatif Kuçar had been petitioning Turkish government ministries and protesting outside the Chinese Embassy for help with extricating Aysu and Lütfullah from China. "I averaged one minister a month," Kuçar remembers.
His activism paid off. In 2019, the Turkish Foreign Ministry informed him it had negotiated with China to allow Kuçar a single-entry visa to enter China and pick up his two children.
Kuçar landed in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, in late November 2019. He described what unfolded in a series of interviews with NPR. He immediately began dialing relatives' phone numbers. Every single one hung up on him, then shut off their phone, he says. Walking the streets of his old neighborhood, Kuçar passed by several acquaintances and former neighbors. They crossed the street to avoid talking to him.
Police booked both hotel rooms adjacent to his. He was not allowed to close his hotel door. Security officers tailed him in two vehicles whenever he stepped out for a meal. Each day, he had to check in at a local government office to debrief the police on his whereabouts. For 10 days, he waited for authorities to bring him Aysu and Lütfullah.
"When the Chinese police brought my two children out, they ran to me as fast as a bullet from a gun," Kuçar remembers. He fainted in the December snow as his children began hugging him.
When he came to, he realized his children no longer seemed to react to Turkish or Uyghur. "Even though they did not understand me, I did not think there was a language barrier. We could communicate with our expressions," says Kuçar. "I kissed them, I held them, and they could not stop smiling at me."
NPR verified that Kuçar traveled from Turkey to China in both 2015 and briefly in 2019 through visa stamps and Chinese and Turkish identification documents. Details of the children's account were corroborated by Turkish medical and education professionals who are treating the children. The Turkish Embassy in Beijing declined to comment on the story and referred all questions back to the Kuçar family.
But what about their mother?
Before leaving China in December 2019, the Kuçars made one last stop. It was to see the children's mother, Meryem Aimati. Kuçar learned she had been sentenced to a 20-year prison term in her hometown of Kucha, but Chinese authorities arranged for her to be transported to a nearby hospital for a last visit with her family.
"She was thin to the bone and had lost all her hair," he remembers. "I grabbed her skeletal hand and saw the dark scars the handcuffs had left on her wrists."
After 15 minutes, Kuçar was told his visit was over. Despite prohibitions on touching her or even crying, he says, he wrapped Aimati in a bear hug, lifting her off the bed. When he set her down, he noticed she was too weak to stand.
"I thought to myself, 'What is the point of living anymore?' " he says. "But I saw Meryem sitting on the bed crying, and our children grabbed my hand. I decided: I must live for the children."
Both China's Foreign Ministry and the Xinjiang regional government did not respond to requests for comment.
The kids are home, but there's a road to recovery
Just over two years after returning to Turkey, the Kuçar children are still in the middle of a long recovery process.
Both lost weight during their time in boarding school. A pediatric doctor in Istanbul diagnosed them with calcium and iron deficiencies, and the family put them on a special diet.
"On her second day back home, I made Aysu laghman, Uyghur-style noodles," says Neriman Kuçar, their stepmother. "Aysu started crying when she saw the dish. They had only been served Uyghur food twice while she was at the school, but older classmates had eaten it all before she got a bite."
For both children, the mental trauma stemming from their time in Urumqi runs far deeper than the physical impact. For months, Aysu and Lütfullah hid whenever guests came over. They asked for permission before going to the bathroom and before eating.
"Lütfullah could not speak or express himself until the end of first grade. I did not have this problem with other Uyghur children from Xinjiang," says the child's Turkish elementary class teacher. The teacher did not want to be named because discussing China's policies in Xinjiang is politically sensitive in Turkey.
The two children also work with a psychiatrist who specializes in treating Uyghur children with art therapy, and they attend Uyghur-language classes after school.
For the first four months the children were back in Turkey, Kuçar says, he sat by their bedside every night because of their frequent and intense nightmares. "The children gnashed their teeth, kicked in bed and would shout, 'No, I will not do that!' in their sleep," Kuçar says.
He still keeps the lights on 24 hours a day inside the house to chase away Lütfullah's memories of being locked in the dark school basement.
Kuçar says what keeps him going is prayer and a sense of duty to keep the family together. He knows that despite their scars, in partially reuniting, they are one of the luckier Uyghur families.
Abduweli Ayup contributed reporting from Istanbul.
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