Abdurahman Tohti hasn't seen his family since they got on a plane to Xinjiang, a region where China is harshly cracking down on the Uighur minority.
- China is waging an unprecedented crackdown on the Uighurs, a majority-Muslim ethnic group in the western region of Xinjiang, China.
- Authorities are suspected of detaining up to 2 million people in the region and sending 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 4-year-old son, Abduleziz, in what appeared to be filmed 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 from becoming terrorists. Beijing says 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 the Xinjiang region in western China.
Authorities from Beijing, under the guise of counterterrorism, have in recent years covered the entire region with facial-recognition cameras, and they are accused of placing 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 "reeducation camps" or "free vocational training" that make life "colorful."
Tohti left his village of Besh Tugmen in Aksu prefecture, Xinjiang, in March 2013 and settled in Istanbul that October after studying in Egypt for a few months.
He married his wife, Peride Yasin, in Istanbul 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 supposed 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 activist in Australia at Uyghur Bulletin. (Uyghur is an alternative spelling of Uighur.)
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 he said he is "completely in the dark."
Nadire, his youngest, was 5 months old.
Tohti still doesn't know what his wife's charges are, but he thinks they could be related to 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 has 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.
A familiar sight
Since his family vanished, Tohti has been stuck in limbo in Istanbul, with no idea where his wife or children went.
Tohti's parents are still in Xinjiang, but they cut off contact with him to protect themselves from reprisal, telling him not to contact them and 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 the popular video-sharing platform TikTok, he saw a familiar sight: big, black eyes, and round, rosy cheeks.
It was his 4-year-old son, Abduleziz.
—Alexandra Ma (@AlexandraMa15) February 5, 2019
In the video, Abduleziz can be found answering a series of questions posed 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 rehearsed.
Abduleziz can be heard saying his own name around the two-second mark.
The last time 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."
—Uyghur Bulletin (@UyghurBulletin) February 1, 2019
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, identifies himself simply 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 — asking about a child's name and age offscreen, before moving on to questions about China — is similar to other videos that appear to be recorded in 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, the country has sent Han Chinese people to the region to insert themselves into Uighurs' daily lives — even going as far as sending them to stay in Uighurs' homes.
China has placed thousands of children from 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 reported.
According to the AP, China denies the existence of the internment camps and says the orphanages are to help disadvantaged children by lifting them out of poverty and keeping them away from extremism.
'I lost everything'
Many Uighurs have spoken out 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 criticized China's human-rights record.
But Tohti is speaking on the record because he's "lost everything" already, he said.
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 said he 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 records, but more and more are beginning to speak out.
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 an end to the atrocities in my home country and free millions of Uighurs and their separated children."