The small bedroom is frozen in time. The two little girls who used to sleep here left two years ago with their mother and now can’t come home. Their backpacks and school notebooks sit waiting for their return. A toy bear lies on the bed. Their clothes hang neatly in the closet. The girls’ grandmother says she can’t bring herself to change it. “The clothes still smell like them,” she says, her words barely audible through heavy sobs. Ansila Esten and Nursila Esten, ages 8 and 7, left their home in Almaty, Kazakhstan, with their mother, Adiba Hayrat, in 2017. The three traveled to China where Adiba Hayrat planned to take a course in makeup application and visit her parents in the western border region of Xinjiang, leaving her husband, Esten Erbol, and then 9-month-old son Nurmeken behind in Kazakhstan, Esten told CNN. Not long after she arrived, however, her husband says she was detained. He hasn’t heard from her for more than two years. “My son wasn’t even 1 when she left,” Esten Erbol said. “When he sees young women in the neighborhood, he calls them mama. He doesn’t know what his own mother looks like.” Adbia Hayrat’s two daughters, Ansila Esten and Nursila Esten, in a family photo kept by their father. Adiba Hayrat and her two daughters are Chinese citizens, of Kazakh minority descent. She grew up in China, as did their daughters. Their young son was born in Almaty.
The family was in the process of becoming citizens of Kazakstan when Esten Erbol says Adiba Hayrat was taken by Chinese authorities.
Her family in Kazakhstan says she was held in a detention camp in Xinjiang for more than a year, while her children were sent to live with distant relatives. She has since been released, according to her family. But they say Adiba Hayrat is now living with her parents and working in a forced labor facility, earning pitiful wages, unable to contact her family in Kazakhstan for fear of being sent back into detention.
According to the US State Department, up to 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been held against their will in massive camps in Xinjiang. An unknown number are working in what rights groups have described as forced labor facilities, and like Adiba, they are unable to leave China. Activists and former detainees allege the Xinjiang internment camps were built rapidly over the last three years, the latest stage in an ongoing and widespread crackdown against ethnic minorities in the region.
Allegations of torture inside the camps are rampant, including in accounts given to CNN by former detainees. The Chinese government has faced a rising tide of international criticism over its Xinjiang policies, including from the United States.
Critics claim the camps are Beijing’s attempt to eliminate the region’s Islamic cultural and religious traditions — a process of sinicization, by which ethnic minorities are forcibly assimilated into wider majority Han Chinese culture.
Beijing denies any allegations of torture or political indoctrination, and says the camps are “vocational training centers” designed to fight terrorism.
Even if you buy that explanation, Esten Erbol said, it wouldn’t apply to his wife. “My wife is not a terrorist,” he said.