This traumatically moving article is published on NPR. A portion will be posted here, so please visit NPR for the remainder of the story as well as viewing the photos that accompany the story. You can also listen to the story as it was heard on All Things Considered. Please know that by sharing their stories publicly, the family in the article is risking their lives.
Uyghur kids recall physical and mental torment at Chinese boarding schools in Xinjiang
February 3, 2022
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.