This man's family vanished in China's most oppressed region. Last month he saw his son for the first time in 2 years, in a Chinese propaganda video.

uighur xinjiang abdurahman and sonAbdurahman Tohti (right) lost contact with his wife and children in August 2016 after they visited Xinjiang, one of the most surveilled states in China. He suddenly found his four-year-old son, Abduleziz, in a video inside what looked like a state orphanage in January 2019.Abdurahman Tohti via Uyghur Bulletin/Twitter

  • China is waging an unprecedented crackdown on the Uighurs, a majority-Muslim ethnic group in the western region of Xinjiang.
  • Authorities are suspected to have detained up to 2 million people in the region, and send their children to state-run orphanages.
  • Abdurahman Tohti, a 30-year-old Uighur man living in Turkey, hasn't heard from his wife and kids since they disappeared after a visit to Xinjiang in 2016.
  • Last month he saw a video of his four-year-old son, Abduleziz, in what appeared to be a video taken inside a state-run Chinese orphanage.
  • He has taken the unusual step of discussing his missing family with INSIDER because he's "ready for any consequences ... I lost everything."
  • China justifies the orphanages as a way to lift children from poverty and stop them becoming terrorists. Beijing argues that its treatment of Uighurs is an anti-extremism strategy.

Abdurahman Tohti hasn't seen or heard from his wife, his son, or his daughter for almost three years, for reasons entirely out of his control.

He and his family are Uighurs, the majority-Muslim ethnic minority based in Xinjiang, western China.

Authorities from Beijing, under the guise of counter-terrorism, have in recent years covered the entire region with facial recognition cameras and locked up to 2 million residents in prison-like camps.

Chinese authorities are reported to have physically tortured Uighurs, turned them into forced laborers, and compelled them to sing pro-Chinese songs in order to be fed. The region - known to Uighurs as East Turkestan - has been described as a "21st-century police state."

China has routinely denied inflicting physical or psychological damage on Uighurs in these camps. Instead it has referred to them as "re-education camps" or "free vocational training" that make life "colorful."

Tohti left his village of Besh Tugmen in Aksu prefecture, western Xinjiang, in March 2013 and settled in Istanbul, Turkey, that October after studying in Egypt for a few months.

xinjiang camp yingye'erFootage purportedly of a re-education camp in Yingye'er, Xinjiang, taken by Bitter Winter magazine in August 2018.Bitter Winter/YouTube

He married his wife, Peride Yasin, in Istanbul, Turkey, in February 2014. They had two children - a boy, Abduleziz,  and a girl, Nadire.

In August 2016, Yasin and the children traveled to Xinjiang to visit family. Tohti hasn't heard from any of them since.

He and his wife were meant to speak after she landed, but she mysteriously deleted him from WeChat - China's most popular messaging platform - almost immediately after she arrived in China, he told INSIDER.

INSIDER's conversation with Tohti was translated from the Uighur language to English by Alip Erkin, an Australia-based activist at Uyghur Bulletin. (Uyghur is an alternative spelling.)

Tohti later heard from people on the ground that his wife was arrested upon arrival, and sentenced to ten years in prison. He has never heard anything official about their fate, and said he is "completely in the dark."

Nadire, his youngest, was five months old.

abdurahman wifeAbdurahman Tohti (right) and his wife Peride Yasin, left, in an undated photo.Courtesy of Abdurahman Tohti

Tohti still doesn't know his wife's charges, but thinks it could be to do with her spending time in Turkey, an act for which China has been known to punish Uighurs.

The Turkish government has long offered a space for Uighurs to seek refuge and stage protests against China. Beijing's response has been to threaten to tank economic relations between the two countries.

China's grip on Uighurs have worsened since Yasin disappeared, with authorities using increasingly flimsy reasons to lock the people up - including having a beard, wearing long skirts, or setting their clocks to two hours after Beijing time.

Read more: China is using flimsy excuses to lock up its Muslim minority on a huge scale - here are some of the bizarre reasons people are in jail

uighur protest turkeyUighurs in Turkey hold up photos and signs demanding the whereabouts of their missing relatives in China at a protest in Istanbul in November 2018.Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

A familiar sight

Since his family vanished, Tohti has been stuck in limbo in Istanbul, with no idea where his wife or children went.

His parents are still in Xinjiang, but they cut off contact to protect themselves from reprisal, telling him not to contact them, then changing their phone number.

Uighurs in Xinjiang are often punished for communicating with people in foreign countries.

Tohti also tried to call his parents-in-law in Xinjiang, but the only number he had for them was out of service.

Then about three weeks ago, while scrolling through Douyin - the Chinese version of popular video-sharing platform TikTok - he saw a familiar sight: Big, black eyes, and round, rosy cheeks.

It was his four-year-old son, Abduleziz.

In the video, Abduleziz can be found answering a series of questions posted by a man off-camera in Mandarin Chinese - What's your name? How old are you? What is the name of the fatherland? What is on the fatherland's flag? - and answering in a way that seems pre-rehearsed.

Abduleziz can be heard saying his own name around the 2-second mark.

The last time Abdurahman Tohti saw his son, he couldn't even speak Uighur yet - let alone Chinese, he told INSIDER.

Tohti and Erkin, the Uighur rights activist in Australia, both think the video was taken in a state orphanage.

"I wasn't expecting this," Tohti told INSIDER. "I was devastated seeing him being brainwashed in an orphanage."

It is difficult to know when or where exactly the video was recorded - the person who posted the video on Douyin, a Han Chinese man, simply identifies himself as "Person in Xinjiang."

He posts videos of himself with young Uighur children, with captions that suggest he is their schoolteacher.

But certain markers in the video of Abduleziz indicate that this was taken in a state-run orphanage, Erkin told INSIDER.

The formula of the rapid-fire questions - asked off-screen of a child's name and age, before moving onto questions about China - is similar to other videos that have emerged of what appeared to be orphanages.

Erkin added: "I would say [Abduleziz was in an] orphanage because he doesn't have both parents with him. Normal schools are only for those who have guardians."

As part of China's crackdown on Xinjiang it has sent Han Chinese people to the region to embed themselves into Uighurs' daily lives - even going as far as sending them to lodge in their homes.

abduleziz tohtiAbdulrahman Tohti's son Abduleziz as a baby (left), and as a four-year-old in a video, likely taken in a state orphanage in Xinjiang, found on Douyin in January 2019.Courtesy of Abdulrahman Tohti; Douyin

China has placed thousands of children in Xinjiang in de facto orphanages after detaining their parents, the Financial Times reported last year.

In such centers - sometimes referred to as "welfare centers" and "protection centers" - Uighur children are required to speak only in Mandarin, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

According to the AP, China denies the existence of the internment camps, and says the orphanages are to help disadvantaged children, and lift them out of poverty and away from extremism.

XinjiangAn ethnic Uyghur woman holds her child in a local shop on June 28, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

'I lost everything'

Many Uighurs have spoken about Xinjiang's crackdown, but they tend to do so anonymously, out of fear that China will punish their relatives still in the region

Rushan Abbas, an activist living in Virginia, heard that her aunt and sister disappeared in Xinjiang six days after she publicly criticised China's human rights record.

But Tohti is speaking on the record, because he says he's "lost everything" already.

XinjiangUnder a poster showing Chinese leaders including the late Mao Zedong and the present President Xi Jinping, ethnic Uyghur men make bread at a local bakery on July 1, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

He told INSIDER: "I don't fear any retaliation at this point of my life. I lost everything."

"I'm ready for any consequences," he said.

Tohti hopes that his story will inspire governments outside China to stand up to Beijing. Many countries in the Muslim world have largely avoided confronting Beijing in the past - likely fearing Beijing's economic retaliation, or exposing their own human rights record - but more and more are beginning to speak out.

Read more: A wall of silence around China's oppression of its Muslim minority is starting to crumble

International activists this week called on the UN Human Rights Council to dispatch an independent fact-finding mission into Xinjiang.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN's human rights chief, has appealed for access into the region for months, but Beijing has continually told her to back off.

Tohti said: "I hope the international community, especially influential countries, will help put and end to the atrocities in my home country and free millions of Uighurs and their separated children."

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