Fatimah Abdulghafur hasn’t heard her father’s voice since he left an alarming message asking her to call him “urgently”.
That was more than four years ago.
But just last month, she received word of him, terrible in its brevity and finality: “He died of severe pneumonia and tuberculosis on November 3, 2018.”
A Uyghur student, activist and poet, Ms Abdulghafur has been living in Sydney since 2017.
She was devastated to learn of her disappeared father’s death in China, almost two years after it occurred.
“You don’t know how he died; you don’t know when he died. And you can’t even kiss him for one last time.”
News of such a personal tragedy might normally be conveyed through a family member or loved one.
In her case, it came in the stark form of a United Nations document, with information supplied by the Chinese state.
The internments have been condemned by international human rights groups, but China has justified the “vocational training centres” as necessary to combat “extremism”, with President Xi Jinping recently calling the Xinjiang policy “completely correct”.
Chinese authorities also reported Ms Abdulghafur’s mother, Rushangul Abdurehim, who lives in Xinjiang “is currently leading a normal life in society”.
While she has received some scant news of her family through the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID), other Uyghurs living in Australia are still seeking answers.
The unresolved grief when a loved one ‘disappears’
Mamutjan Abdurehim, a Uyghur also living in Sydney, is still desperate for news about his wife and two children stuck in Xinjiang.
A father’s plea for his family
Sydney Uyghur Mamutjan Abdurehim has never spoken about his family’s ordeal publicly before, hoping his silence might lead to a quiet reunion. But now he feels compelled to speak out against human rights abuses in China.
In the months since he went public with his story for the first time, he’s had few updates.
A friend was able to send him a couple of photos and videos of his son, but his contact is cautious and brief.
“That was wonderful to see the photos because it’s been a long time,” he said.
But he suspects his wife has been detained and Chinese authorities have not responded to his pleas for information about her whereabouts.
In March, he applied with the UN Working Group for Arbitrary Detention but is yet to receive any new information due to the volume of cases.
For many Uyghurs, “disappeared” won’t quite fit the definition, though the severed contact from family members can foster the same agonising uncertainty.
In November last year, the UNWGEID “expressed concern at the very high number of enforced disappearances of Uyghurs, which escalated with the introduction of ‘re-education facilities’.”
“It is alleged that the whereabouts of half a million individuals remain unknown to date.
The working group told the ABC they have “repeatedly emphasised the extreme anguish and ongoing sorrow faced by families of forcibly disappeared persons across the world who do not know the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones”.
“This suffering may constitute a violation of the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said enforced disappearances were considered such a serious violation under international law “precisely because of the trauma that it inflicts”.
“Members of the Uyghur diaspora around the world, not just in Australia, are getting out of bed every day facing the trauma of not knowing where their loved ones are, whether they’re being held … whether they might see them again, or, horrifically, whether their family members are alive or dead,” she said.
She called on the Australian Government and others to vote against China’s bid for a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council this week.
Last week, Australia was one of 39 countries to air grave concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang at the UN.
“Widespread surveillance disproportionately continues to target Uyghurs and other minorities and more reports are emerging of forced labour and forced birth control including sterilisation,” the statement said.
In a lengthy email in response to the ABC’s questions, China’s embassy in Australia accused Human Rights Watch of “entrenched bias against China” and accused Western countries of distorting the facts.
“They maliciously slandered China and pepped up anti-China separatists in an attempt to turn Xinjiang into instability and insecurity and deny the right of local people to peaceful and happy life,” the embassy said.
“Xinjiang has been plagued by ethnic separatism, violent terrorism, and religious extremism,” they added, saying Beijing’s policies had lifted millions out of poverty and directing the ABC to a “true or false” document on China’s human rights record.
Preserving memories of her father
In the circumstances, few traditional Uyghur burial rites are available to Ms Abdulghafur.
The body is normally washed and wrapped in white cloth, prayed over in a mosque and carried to a gravesite for burial on the same day.
For her, there have been no family gatherings or the sharing of memories over plates of food.
Instead, she mourned in a way she hoped would honour her father and his “open-minded” outlook on life.
She dyed her hair, wore her best clothes, listened to his favourite music and enjoyed his favourite food.
Ms Abdulghafur remains deeply distrustful of China’s narrative and has doubts about whether tuberculosis is the true cause of her father’s death.
Her father had diabetes, but looked after his health and took medications on time, she said.
She recalls he had TB vaccinations but added it was possible he could have contracted the disease if he was detained — which China has not confirmed.
There have been some reports of tuberculosis spreading within the detention centres in Xinjiang.
Ms Abdulghafur said her father encouraged his daughters to study and fostered a love of education and travel.
“He encouraged us to see the world and accept different cultures and different people,” she said.
“He just told us to be independent and make our own decisions.
“He was just a very loving person.”
She also penned a poem to him, rich with Uyghur imagery and interwoven with scenes from nature.
She said for Uyghurs like her, facing what has been described as cultural genocide, it was important to “survive and thrive”.
“I’m just going to live like my father told me and taught me to live. I’m not going to lose myself,” she said.
“I’m going to live for him … I’m his legacy.”