Documenting the Tragedy in Xinjiang: An Insider’s View of Atajurt

Facing mon­u­men­tal chal­lenges, the vol­un­teers of Atajurt have ded­i­cat­ed them­selves to advo­cat­ing for those detained in Xinjiang.

In this Dec. 7, 2018, image made from video, rel­a­tives of peo­ple miss­ing in China’s far west­ern region of Xinjiang hold up pho­tos in Almaty, Kazakhstan.Credit: AP Photo/Dake Kang

It was a cold February day in Kazakhstan. Outside a small vil­lage house in Qarabulaq, a vil­lage near Taldykorgan in Almaty province, as many as a hun­dred peo­ple gath­ered, wait­ing since the ear­ly morn­ing to enter. Inside the house, vol­un­teers with Atajurt — myself includ­ed — record­ed close to 60 video tes­ti­monies from peo­ple whose loved ones had been detained in Chinese pris­ons, con­cen­tra­tion camps, and forced labor fac­to­ries. After per­son­al­ly con­duct­ing about 40 of the inter­views (it was my per­son­al record with Atajurt), trans­lat­ing from Kazakh into English and Turkish, I col­lapsed with exhaus­tion at the end of the day. There were still peo­ple wait­ing out­side to tell their stories. 

The day before we were in the town of Tekeli, where we worked from a rel­a­tive­ly large and com­fort­able restau­rant. We had three cam­eras pur­chased through donat­ed funds raised by gen­er­ous Kazakhs con­cerned for those in Xinjiang. Three of us from Atajurt, includ­ing Serikjan Bilash him­self, trans­lat­ed video tes­ti­monies into English, Chinese, and Turkish while oth­er Atajurt vol­un­teers helped peo­ple pre­pare writ­ten petitions. 

A month lat­er, Serikjan was detained. His deten­tion was wide­ly cov­ered by the inter­na­tion­al press. International human rights orga­ni­za­tions cam­paigned for his release. 

The Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights Organization has pro­vid­ed enor­mous amount of infor­ma­tion about the Chinese con­cen­tra­tion camps and the dystopi­an regime in Xinjiang. We have host­ed jour­nal­ists from all around the world includ­ing Hong Kong, Japan, Russia, the United States, Canada, Britain, France, and Germany, among oth­ers. Serikjan played such a cru­cial role in doc­u­ment­ing the tragedy in Xinjiang that his arrest trig­gered a wave of inter­na­tion­al out­pour­ings of sup­port. Leading media out­lets includ­ing CNN, the BBC and the New York Times had all vis­it­ed Atajurt’s office in Almaty; jour­nal­ists and human rights activists were aware of how valu­able a source of infor­ma­tion Atajurt was. 

Nevertheless, Atajurt’s role, efforts, and scope of activ­i­ties have rarely been tru­ly acknowl­edged. So much so that, in a recent arti­cle by a Western jour­nal­ist pub­lished under the title “How The World Learned Of China’s Mass Internment Camps,” Atajurt is not men­tioned. In fact, cred­it is most­ly giv­en to Western jour­nal­ists, aca­d­e­mics, and human rights activists. 

People are usu­al­ly not aware of how much effort Atajurt vol­un­teers are putting into this work. When for­eign jour­nal­ists vis­it our office, time and again they express their sur­prise to see so many peo­ple wait­ing for hours to talk to them; and only a small por­tion of them live in Almaty. It is easy to assume that Atajurt just makes an announce­ment and 50 peo­ple rush into our office. If only things were so easy. On an aver­age day before Serikjan’s deten­tion, we would orga­nize inter­views for for­eign jour­nal­ists, pre­pare writ­ten peti­tions for each and every vic­tim, and record our own video inter­views. On a busy day, like the day before Serikjan’s deten­tion, more than a hun­dred peo­ple rushed into our office to ask for help from us and from for­eign jour­nal­ists. When we worked at full capac­i­ty from October 2018 to Serikjan’s deten­tion on March 10, 2019, around two dozen vol­un­teers ded­i­cat­ed their lives to the cause. As Gene Bunin, the cura­tor of Xinjiang Victims Databasehas said there would prob­a­bly not be a Xinjiang vic­tims data­base with­out Atajurt’s tire­less work. 

The major­i­ty of those who gave tes­ti­monies are une­d­u­cat­ed or old; many hadn’t even known they could peti­tion the author­i­ties in the first place or ask for help from inter­na­tion­al human rights orga­ni­za­tions. Atajurt vol­un­teers have tire­less­ly and uncom­plain­ing­ly taught these peo­ple how to write peti­tions, how to address author­i­ties, and how to attract inter­na­tion­al atten­tion. When I watch oth­er Atajurt vol­un­teers speak­ing to peo­ple, I am sur­prised to see how patient and hum­ble they are. Serikjan knew each and every victim’s sto­ry; he had a tal­ent for it. But oth­er mem­bers too, includ­ing our cur­rent leader Bekzat, talk to each per­son who comes to us, one by one, and they nev­er run out of patience. Guljan, one of our female vol­un­teers who con­tacts peo­ple dai­ly and is respon­si­ble for writ­ten peti­tions, told me that she has 67 WhatsApp groups relat­ed to Atajurt’s work. On 67 dif­fer­ent groups, she responds to each and every mes­sage, keeps peo­ple informed about Atajurt’s activ­i­ties, and encour­ages them to speak up.

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Ignorance has not been the only chal­lenge. It is now wide­ly known that many peo­ple abroad have been afraid to speak up about their loved ones in Xinjiang. Many peo­ple also report­ed that at first they kept silent because they expect­ed their rel­a­tives to be released soon. For these rea­sons, a major­i­ty of Uyghurs are still silent. Although the Kazakh pop­u­la­tion in Xinjiang is much small­er than the Uyghur pop­u­la­tion, I would esti­mate that almost 70–80 per­cent of the infor­ma­tion about the con­cen­tra­tion camps in Xinjiang came from Atajurt, espe­cial­ly in the ear­ly days of the strug­gle. Yet Kazakhs, too, were silent at the begin­ning due to both fear and igno­rance. It took an enor­mous effort from Atajurt vol­un­teers to encour­age peo­ple to speak up. 

Our trip to Taldykorgan and towns in the area last February was only one of Atajurt’s many trips to provinces and rur­al areas to col­lect tes­ti­monies. Taldykorgan (and Almaty province) has a large com­mu­ni­ty of Kazakhs who immi­grat­ed from Xinjiang. Since 2017 Atajurt has also made two trips to Astana, three to Oskemen and Eastern Kazakhstan province, and one to Shymkent. In addi­tion, indi­vid­ual Atajurt vol­un­teers have trav­eled to rur­al areas to find peo­ple on many oth­er occa­sions. It was large­ly thanks to these trips and Atajurt vol­un­teers’ tire­less efforts to encour­age peo­ple to speak up that we have col­lect­ed thou­sands of video tes­ti­monies and writ­ten peti­tions. Atajurt even cov­ered the trav­el expens­es of many tes­ti­fiers since they did not have the means to come to Almaty. We now have writ­ten peti­tions and video tes­ti­monies for close to 3,000 indi­vid­u­als and around 5,000 tes­ti­monies in total. All the peti­tions we assist peo­ple in writ­ing are sent to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations. Following our peti­tions, thou­sands of peo­ple have been released and some have even made it back to Kazakhstan. More impor­tant­ly, it was large­ly thanks to Atajurt that inter­na­tion­al media began to cov­er the Xinjiang tragedy more intense­ly in late 2018. 

At first, Atajurt only col­lect­ed writ­ten peti­tions. But Serikjan under­stood the pow­er of media and in the sum­mer of 2018 began col­lect­ing video tes­ti­monies. By September, he was trans­lat­ing tes­ti­monies into English and Chinese. Later a Turkish Kazakh start­ed trans­lat­ing videos into Turkish and a Kazakhstani Uyghur into Arabic. Until Serikjan’s deten­tion, we also reg­u­lar­ly had tes­ti­monies in Russian and from time to time we had tes­ti­monies in German and French, too. In total, we have pro­vid­ed video tes­ti­monies in eight lan­guages: Kazakh, Chinese, English, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, French, and German. Before his deten­tion, Serikjan was plan­ning to find peo­ple to trans­late tes­ti­monies into Korean and Japanese. We cre­at­ed a “wall of sor­row” in our office and pro­vid­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty for jour­nal­ists to visu­al­ize the tragedy. We orga­nized numer­ous con­fer­ences ded­i­cat­ed to vic­tims of par­tic­u­lar coun­ties in Xinjiang or to spe­cial top­ics such as detained imams. Thanks to these efforts, inter­na­tion­al media has been able to cov­er the sto­ries of our des­per­ate testifiers. 

Atajurt now not only col­lects tes­ti­monies but has worked in oth­er ways to help and sup­port those whose rel­a­tives are detained in Xinjiang. We have finan­cial­ly sup­port­ed fam­i­lies as well as Kazakh stu­dents from China who did not want to return to Xinjiang for fear of being detained. We have orga­nized numer­ous char­i­ty events, espe­cial­ly to assist chil­dren. While the bulk of our work has been in col­lect­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing tes­ti­monies, that does not encom­pass all that we do.

On November 18, we were again on our way to Taldykorgan. This was our first trip out of Almaty after Serikjan’s deten­tion in March. While we, the vol­un­teers of the main office in Almaty, were trav­el­ing to col­lect more tes­ti­monies, our office in the cap­i­tal, estab­lished by our cur­rent leader Bekzat, orga­nized a press con­fer­ence at the National Press Club with the sup­port of a few inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists. Fifteen of our long-time tes­ti­fiers were there to talk to the author­i­ties. Even though offi­cials did not attend the con­fer­ence as our tes­ti­fiers expect­ed, their sto­ries were cov­ered by main­stream Kazakh media in a rare instance; for the most part, Kazakh media have ignored our work. One week lat­er, they orga­nized an even larg­er press con­fer­ence with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of more than 20 Atajurt tes­ti­fiers. Related to these activ­i­ties, Kapar Akhat, one of our vol­un­teers in Nur-Sultan, was arrest­ed on December 10 and impris­oned for 10 days. That same week, Sayragul Sauytbay, whose case was pub­li­cized and inter­na­tion­al­ized by Atajurt and who now lives in Sweden, went to the European Parliament togeth­er with an Atajurt sup­port­er in Germany. Meanwhile, Bekzat and our vol­un­teers con­tin­ued to fol­low the cas­es of Kaster Musakhan and Murager Alimuly — two Chinese Kazakhs who escaped China and are now detained and apply­ing for asy­lum in Kazakhstan.

Kazakh author­i­ties declared at one point that they would return the two men to China. In addi­tion, President Tokayev in December sup­port­ed China’s poli­cies in Xinjiang in an excep­tion­al­ly pro-China state­ment. Atajurt con­tin­ues its work, despite these mon­u­men­tal chal­lenges. Serikjan Bilash’s charis­mat­ic lead­er­ship made Atajurt a sig­nif­i­cant orga­ni­za­tion; we have kept fight­ing for those detained and deprived of their rights in Xinjiang. 

Serikjan was released in August, but he has been for­bid­den from engag­ing in any polit­i­cal or social activ­i­ty for sev­en years. In addi­tion, Atajurt expe­ri­enced a split in September when two of our mem­bers did not rec­og­nize Bekzat’s lead­er­ship. After refus­ing for years to reg­is­ter Atajurt, the Kazakh author­i­ties reg­is­tered the splin­ter group under our name — the bulk of our vol­un­teers kept work­ing, unreg­is­tered, under Bekzat’s lead­er­ship. This was lit­tle more than an attempt by the Kazakh author­i­ties to tame Atajurt.

The reg­is­tered splin­ter group has done noth­ing but attack us and gov­ern­ment pres­sure con­tin­ues, too. We lost our for­mer office in Almaty and some sup­plies and were sub­se­quent­ly expelled from two more loca­tions. We have expe­ri­enced seri­ous finan­cial difficulties. 

But we con­tin­ue in our impor­tant work under a new name: “Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri” (Real Atajurt Volunteers).

What I like most about Atajurt is how open it is to all eth­nic groups, even though it is run by Kazakhs. The major­i­ty of our tes­ti­fiers are Kazakh, but we have had a few dozen Uyghur (and many more tes­ti­monies for Uyghurs by Kazakhs), a dozen Kyrgyz, and a few Tatar tes­ti­fiers. We have also had tes­ti­monies for Dungans by Kazakhs. Our tes­ti­fiers include cit­i­zens of Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and from time to time even for­eign aca­d­e­mics. Recently, we had a Turkish tes­ti­fi­er who could not get any response from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and came to us for help. Atajurt pro­vides hope for not only Kazakhs and this is all thanks to our vol­un­teers’ tire­less strug­gle. What makes Atajurt dif­fer­ent from many oth­er orga­ni­za­tions is its vol­un­teers’ enthu­si­asm and ener­gy to fight against 21st cen­tu­ry fas­cism while con­tin­u­ous­ly fac­ing chal­lenges with­in Kazakhstan. 

Mehmet Volkan Kaşıkçı is a Ph.D. can­di­date in Soviet his­to­ry at Arizona State University. His research cov­ers the social and cul­tur­al his­to­ry of Kazakhstan in the 1930s and 1940s. He has been vol­un­teer­ing for Atajurt for a year now and he has per­son­al­ly done approx­i­mate­ly 600 video inter­views for Atajurt. He is the only for­eign vol­un­teer in the group.

The Diplomat by Mehmet Volkan Kaşıkçı

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