PUBLISHED 25 OCT. 2021 at 03:42
Her friends in Japan, where she studies, have warned her against returning to China. They think it’s too dangerous for her in Xinjiang.
Maybe that’s exactly why Mihriay has been waiting to tell them about her departure?
They beg her to turn around, but are not allowed to stop her. She’s already at the airport. A few minutes before she gets on board, she calls her uncle. He also asks her to turn around, to no avail.
Mihriay sends him a short message:
“I’m so scared. I wish I could be killed with a simple bullet. ”That will be the last time he hears from her.
This will be the last time he hears from her.
Two years later, NRK travels to the province of Xinjiang in the far west of China, to unravel the mystery of Mihriay.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of her fate, we have spoken to Mihriay Erkins’ uncle, Abduweli Ayup, her best friend in Japan, Asanu Nuru, and sources who will not be identified. Reports from Radio Free Asia are also the basis for this case.
Mihriay’s story begins one winter evening in 1990.
The family experienced it almost as a miracle when she came into the world and the moon shone in through the window.
Suddenly the grandmother got the strength to get up from the hospital bed, to which she had been chained for half a year. At the sight of the little child she became healthier.
“We must call her the moon of love, Mihriay,” said the uncle.
“Everyone agreed, and her grandfather whispered the name into her ear three times, fixing his gaze on the moon.
From that day on, Mihriay Erkin was the eyeball of the extended family.
Sixteen-year-old Abduweli Ayup was thrilled from the start. Because her parents were busy, it was he, the uncle, who looked after Mihriay after school.
He became her best friend. He taught her to walk and to talk.
When she grew up, he taught her English. They had a close relationship and felt like siblings. In many ways, she would end up following in his footsteps.
For many years the sun shone on the family, which belongs to the Muslim minority uiguir. The father worked for the local authorities and climbed the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, while the mother ran a pharmacy.
Mihriay was good at school, and had a life many envied her. Just like her uncle, she embarked on studies at home and abroad.
She entered one of China’s twenty best universities, and went on to Japan.
A short visit
The joy was great when Mihriay in 2017 was able to adorn himself with a Master in Biology.
She wanted to save the world, or preferably Africa, and applied for doctoral studies. She wanted to research how rice people eat can be made more nutritious.
She also dreamed of becoming a great teacher for the children in her hometown of Kashgar, Xinjiang. She proudly traveled home to her childhood home in Kashgar to celebrate the future with her family.
It was a short visit.
As soon as she entered the door, her father insisted that she turn around and return to Japan.
She did as he said, but first took the time to stop by a place that only she and her uncle knew about.
Later, she tells her uncle that she set fire to all his papers.
It is at this time that the eyes of the world are seriously focused on Xinjiang.
The region is known for huge cotton fields, tomatoes, oil and gas.
The Muslim minority uiguir numbers 12 million people in Xinjiang and makes up almost half of the region’s population.
Both linguistically and religiously, the ethnic group is related to Turkey and Central Asia.
Now more and more family members abroad are reporting that they are not getting in touch with their loved ones in Xinjiang.
They’re just gone.
During Mihriay’s brief visit to his parents, his father said that he, as a government employee, not only saw but also had to take part in what happened to the Uighurs. Still, he feared becoming the next man on the list.
It seemed impossible, completely unthinkable, but still real.
When Mihriay stopped at the airport in Chengdu, she was interrogated, but was allowed to leave China.
Back in Japan, she and her father exchanged emojis. Mihriay’s close relationship with her father meant that she often talked about him to her friends in Japan, says her friend Asanu Nuru.
As long as she got emojis, she knew he was fine. It was their code language so that they would not worry about each other.
Suddenly the messages came to an end. Mihriay cried a lot and became restless, says Asanu Nuru.
It took time for Mihriay to find out what had happened to his father.
In Japan, she read about reports from international human rights organizations claiming that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs were placed in retraining camps and prisons.
China rejects allegations of abuse of the Uighurs, and denies the existence of camps.
The authorities claim that there are only vocational schools that will ensure people a better life, and save them from extremism.
Of course, the region has seen unrest. Some believe this has happened because the Han Chinese, who are the majority of the country, have increased greatly in number in this region, and the Muslim population has been marginalized.
Other forces are adamant that the area is occupied and that it should never have been Chinese.
There are several, relatively small, militant groups.
One of the biggest attacks took place in May 2014, when two cars drove at full speed towards a market in the regional capital Urumqi.
Several bombs were thrown out of the car windows. 31 people died and 94 were injured. The attack was carried out by Uighurs, and was aimed at Han Chinese.
After this, President Xi Jinping called the region China’s front line against terrorism, and in 2016, the infamous Chen Quanguo was put on the job of creating order.
With experience from Tibet, it must have been he who got the job of establishing the camps.
The purpose of the retraining camps, or schools, is apparently to get Uighurs to become loyal Chinese.
Stability is crucial for the regime in Beijing, which wants to ensure “the Chinese dream”, namely welfare for all.
Integration and sacrifice are part of the recipe. Religion, language and ethnicity must give way to a common Chinese nation, where people are more alike than different.
Mihriay finally received the shocking news of what had happened to his father.
He had been arrested. She received no explanation, and did not understand why.
Mihriay was devastated, says one of her friends. The aunt, who is a teacher, had also been arrested.
Along with other Uighurs in Tokyo, Mihriay lamented his plight and demonstrated in public. What should the family members have done to deserve such a punishment?
They had been respected members of society. What were their crimes?
Mihriay had her doctoral application rejected and the teacher recommended that she take a break from her studies and gain work experience.
During her years in Japan, Mihriay taught at various schools, but now she tried to seek further out into the world, also to educational institutions in the United States.
Her mother called her daily. Her friends do not know what the conversations were about, other than that she begged Mihriay to come home. Again and again.
The friends experienced that Mihriay now slept little, and that they were more often rejected. They thought she was isolating herself too much at the boarding house she lived in, and wanted to take her out, but she said she had to concentrate on applications and did not have time.
When she took her two trolley cases with her and left Tokyo, she had already put a large amount of money in the mailbox of a friend who needed money for studies.
She wrote that she would also send her mobile in the mail, but this did not happen.
How she got money for a plane ticket, no one knows.
In the summer of 2021, we jump over a fence and into an abandoned storage area in Kashgar, the city of Mihriay comes from.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see that a guard at a block of flats further up the street is watching us, but we take the chance that no one will follow, and dump heavily into a pile of scrap lying on the ground.
We try to find traces of Mihriay, but experience an intense monitoring of people who follow us in Kashgar.
Now we try to prevent unauthorized ears and eyes from witnessing our secret conversations.
We are fully aware that telephone calls are also tracked, but you have to start somewhere. Deep down, we call the number of a relative who may lead us to Mihriay’s mother.
The answering machine says that the number is disconnected, due to non-payment.
I’m calling another number, to a police officer in charge of the family. He answers, but when I introduce myself he claims that I called wrong, and hangs up.
A new call to the police officer only gives a busy signal.
A blind spot.
The mother is the key to the mystery of Mihriay, and we go to find her. NRK has received the address of a pharmacy, which is the mother’s workplace.
We are on our way to the suburbs by taxi when my colleague and I see that we are being followed by several cars.
At a roadblock we hold our breath.
–Where are you going? Who is she? Get out of the car and show identification, police say.
We finally get to move on, but still have a tail. Several different cars, some with signs, some without, follow us.
We carefully look for the mother’s workplace. First by car, then on foot.
We find a pharmacy that is closed, and call a number on the door. It turns out to be the wrong pharmacy.
Eventually we find out that the mother’s workplace is just around the corner, but the doors are closed.
We learn that the pharmacy has been closed for a year already and the building has become a center for covid-19 testing.
I look in, but no one is present. The room looks deserted.
We want to inquire about the mother. Maybe someone knows where she may have gone, but a policewoman comes up to us, asks questions, and refuses to film us. We have to go.
The monitoring we experience along the way, and the lack of people who want to talk to us, indicate that sources are at risk of being approached.
The authorities’ fear of rebellion seems to have been reflected in a suspicion of everything and everyone in Kashgar.
Many mosques have been closed or have had their domes removed. Arab signs over the doors have been replaced with slogans in favor of the Chinese Communist Party.
At the butcher’s, the work tool is stuck in wires and chains, and we experience quieter in action.
At one point, the mother’s sister is called on my behalf, but without her knowing that I’m a journalist, because I do not want her to have problems.
The sister says she does not know where Mihriay’s mother is, or what phone number she can be reached at.
I do not know what to believe. Has the mother also disappeared? Or is the family just reluctant or afraid to talk to outsiders?
Her friends in Japan have not spoken to Mihriay since she left Japan.
They refuse to call people in Xinjiang, in case calls from a foreign number should cause problems.
There are still some clues.
When Mihriay left Tokyo in 2019, she did not fly to Kashgar, but to Shanghai, on the opposite side of the country.
In her homeland, a painful truth awaited: Her father had been sentenced to fourteen years in prison.
The aunt was also behind the walls now. She had been sentenced to twelve years in prison.
There are no direct flights from Tokyo to Xinjiang, but Mihriay did not travel further in that direction either.
Instead, she went to Guangzhou, in southern China, where family members admitted her to depression. The mother came visiting.
Representatives of the police in Kashgar are now said to have called Mihriay often, to ask her to come home immediately. When this did not happen, they too must have traveled to Guangzhou, and insisted on being there with her.
Eventually it was these who wrote her out and made sure that she actually went home.
Later she was again admitted to a hospital. Also this time miles away from home, in Urumqi, and again due to depression. Also this time she is said to have been brought home by local police.
The uncle says she was not depressed, but claims that she was admitted to hospital to avoid being arrested.
In February 2020, she posted her resume on a job search site in Kashgar, indicating that she was at home.
Then it became quiet.
Uncle Abduweli Ayup has meanwhile become a well-known uiguir activist, who has settled in Bergen, in exile. He has criticized the Chinese authorities for abusing the Muslim minority, including in the US Congress.
Now he thinks Mihriay has disappeared due to his activity.
He believes the Chinese authorities are punishing his family for putting pressure on him and for stopping him from criticizing the authorities’ handling of Xinjiang.
His activism began in 2011 with the search for a mother tongue school where his daughter could learn the Uighur language. He found none, because now it’s Chinese that counts. He therefore established his own schools.
Mihriay worked for him, and when she moved to Japan, she taught uiguir children on weekends and in summer schools.
Was this her crime?
The mother tongue schools were accepted, until in 2013 they no longer existed. Abduweli Ayup was remanded in custody. He says he was tortured and raped, but never admitted any crime.
After fifteen months he was set free, and as soon as he got the chance, he fled the country.
The authorities have claimed that it was a mess with the economy that led to his arrest, but he himself believes that they have branded him a terrorist, because he is fighting for the Uighurs’ identity.
Dozens of people who have been involved in his schools are said to have been arrested or disappeared.
In one of the last conversations he had with Mihriay, she said that his actions have made him a hero, and her father a victim.
Several times she passed on messages to him from his family, that he must stop his public criticism of the situation in Xinjiang, because it affects them.
When Mihriay finally came home to Kashgar in 2019, she must have been unprepared for how she should react to the situation.
The uncle had prepared the niece for the fact that she would be questioned if she went home. At the same time, he warned her against admitting things she was not guilty of in order to escape, because he feared that she would not be allowed to escape.
He says that at this time there was a campaign against his influence in Kashgar, and he saw it as certain that she, as one of his closest, would be arrested.
And she was. Mihriay was arrested sometime after February 2020, according to Radio Free Asia.
I’m going to one of the last known places Mihriay is said to have been, namely Kashgar Detention Center in Yanbulak.
A large gray iron door hides the inside of the prison, but the sign shows that it is the right place.
Around the corner I see a watchtower, and barbed wire winds on top of red brick walls.
It is not known why she ended up behind these walls, but it may be that the remand prison is part of the insulted camps.
In December 2020, Mihriay’s fate will be sealed.
Then she’s dead.
It takes half a year before the news is confirmed, also this time by Radio Free Asia, and reaches the uncle in Bergen.
He is dissolving.
He shows up in front of the Chinese embassy in Oslo and shouts:
–Take me and arrest me. Kill me! Let me suffer the same fate as Jamal Khashoggi, but set my family free.
He feels he has lost everything.
Yet the uiguir identity is such a strong part of him that he neither can nor will let go of his struggle.
The story of how Mihriay died differs.
Her uncle thinks she must have lost her life in custody, because he thinks he knows that the family never saw her again before she died.
Radio Free Asia refers to sources who say she died while she was under investigation.
Kashgar (PSB) police do not confirm she was in custody, and have a different version of why she died.
After repeated inquiries to local police, I am called and told that Mihriay was ill already when she returned to China.
They claim she was at home when she was admitted to Yuandong Hospital in Kashgar.
She must have been there a whole month before she died. They also claim that both the brother and an uncle were present at the end.
NRK is also sent a video in which her brother and a doctor named Dilare Mamut claim that Mihriay was very ill, but would not accept help.
The doctor claims, among other things, that she had fluid in her abdominal cavity.
He further says that they suspected that she might be depressed and asked the family for help to get her to accept treatment, but to no avail.
The brother tells the camera that he came to the hospital to take care of the sister, because the mother was not in shape.
He claims his sister was ill.
–Life-saving attempts were made, but she refused treatment. You must not believe in rumors, he says.
As NRK has not obtained the brother, we can not know whether he has voluntarily given this testimony.
We’re trying to find the doctor to confirm her statements. The hospital says she worked there, in the internal medicine department, but left six months ago. They will not provide information about where she now works.
Friends in Japan can not believe that Mihriay may have been so ill.
They say that she was always thin, and had problems with her metabolism, but that this was not serious. A friend says she suspects Mihriay was killed or treated so badly in custody that she died.
The case of Mihriay has received international attention, and is covered by, among others, the New York Times.
Yet there are still more questions than answers to what happened to Mihriay.
NRK has asked the police (PSB) in Kashgar for details in the basis for the arrest of Mihriay.
We have also asked for the background to the verdict against the father, Erkin Ayup, and the aunt, Sajidgul Ayup.
In addition, we have expressed a strong desire to meet the mother Aynur Mamut, and other family members.
We have been told that someone often posts pictures of Mihriay when she was little, on her we-chat user, but we do not know who.
NRK also does not know where Mihriay is buried, but before we leave Kashgar we go to a traditional burial ground for Uighurs in the area she comes from.
The blue sky is adorned with white clouds. It is quiet, peaceful and beautiful.
The graves are sand-colored, such as on the ground. They are shaped like domes, others oblong, like chests.
We’re looking for colors, because when Mihriay left Japan, it was this message she sent to her friends:
“If I were to die, my grave would be adorned with peonies.”
We find no flowers.
The long search for an answer. For video, please look:
What happened to the young Uighur woman Mihria Erkin? NRK traveled to Xinjiang province in an attempt to find an answer.
Published 25 Oct. 2021 at 03:42 Updated 31 Oct. 2021 at 15:34
Translated by Google translation from Norwegian to English.