Amima Mamtimin is pictured above with the son, Abdullah, she fled China to save
When Amina Mamtimin became pregnant four years ago, she knew she must leave her country or the child would be killed.
‘I was very happy to be having a baby but also so scared,’ she said.
For like everyone in her city, she was aware what happened to pregnant Uighur women caught by the Chinese state.
‘They are forced to have abortions and then stopped from having more kids. It was happening to almost everyone in my neighbourhood.’
Amina, 30, already had four children, which was two more than permitted, so had been hiding with them in their house near the city of Hotan, in China’s Xinjiang region. ‘For two years I barely left my home, not even to the market,’ she said.
So the family decided to flee from Beijing’s hideous repression of Muslim minorities in western China. They had registered their third and fourth children as belonging to Amina’s sister, but knew they could not dupe Communist Party officials again.
Yet when they applied for passports, only Amina and her youngest daughter were successful. She agreed with her husband, Kurbanjan, that she must go first to save their fast-growing child in her womb, then the rest of the family would follow.
‘I was so sad to leave my country and my other three children. I cried a lot,’ said this friendly woman, exhaustion etched on her face. ‘But they never made it.’
Her husband was jailed for 15 years, disappearing into China’s sinister network of concentration camps, ‘re-education centres’ and prisons. She has no idea of the whereabouts of her other three children, aged between nine and 12.
She shows me a blurry picture of two of them on her phone as we talk in Istanbul, where she lives with her daughter and new son, Abdullah. ‘All I can do is hope we will one day meet again – but for now I feel barely alive and can’t feel any happiness.’
Her story is heartbreaking. Yet it is far from unique. Amina was one of about 25 Uighur women I met in a cafe. Many had similarly fled to save their unborn children and all had tragic tales of relatives thrown into gulags.
There are only 12 million Uighurs in China, a drop in the ocean of the country’s 1.4 billion population. Yet the Communist Party is trying to extinguish their culture and traditions with a ferocity being seen increasingly as genocide.
The process dates back to the last century when many Han Chinese began moving to their resource-rich province and grabbing land. Xi Xinping, China’s hardline president, ramped up repression on the pretext of combating terrorism after taking power in 2012.
A video posted on Twitter and believed to depict blindfolded and shackled detainees from China’s Uighur minority
At least one million people are thought to have been detained amid the harsh clampdown on Xinjiang, with numerous police checkpoints backed by Orwellian-style technology to control communications and movement. In one of the most chilling aspects of this crackdown, new analysis of official data shows how birth rates in areas such as Hotan plunged 60 per cent in just three years due to the most ruthless imposition of birth control imaginable.
Several of the women I met in Istanbul (which has become home to about 50,000 exiled Uighurs because of close links with Turkey through religion) told of being forced to sign papers agreeing to sterilisation before doctors would deliver babies safely in hospital.
Others had worse horror stories – such as Roshangul Tashmuhammad, who as the daughter of an imam in Gulja, came from a family deemed ‘politically sensitive’ and subjected to extra monitoring.
Roshangul, 45, explained how party officials, some of whom are even tasked with routinely checking women’s menstrual cycles to ensure they are not pregnant, discovered her brother’s wife was expecting a baby for the second time.
‘She was at three months when police came to her home and said they must take her to the hospital for checks. Doctors said the baby had died in the womb so they forcibly aborted it. But her first baby was so healthy we did not believe this.’
Two years later, her sister-in-law hid from the authorities during another pregnancy to give birth –but this only led to Roshangul’s brother being jailed for four years. ‘They said his baby should not be alive,’ explained Roshangul.
Zumret Abdullah gave me a unique insight into a state’s strategy that turns hospitals into terrifying places of murder. She spent four years training as a nurse at Urumqi Medical University, then three years working in its hospital maternity ward.
She estimated she saw about 90 forced abortions in those three years. Expectant mothers were made to swallow pills to abort foetuses or, if more than five months pregnant, had to have fatal injections into the heads of their unborn child. ‘I witnessed a lot of tragedies there,’ said Zumret, 30.
‘The husbands were not allowed inside. They take in the women, who are always crying. Afterwards, they just threw the foetus in a plastic bag like it was trash. One mother begged to die after her seven-month-old baby was killed. It took three more days to give birth. It was a proper baby. She asked if they could bury it but the doctors would not give it to the family.
‘These women suffered so much. Doctors would claim the women wanted abortions but then you would hear them chatting in the office and learn the truth.’
Zumret heard about the programme of forced sterilisation, although didn’t witness such operations before quitting her job, unable to bear the trauma. ‘I was having mental problems, seeing babies in my dreams. I still have nightmares,’ she added.
She said all the victims were Uighur, despite many Han Chinese moving to Urumqi, the regional capital. ‘It never happened to a Chinese person once. This was just to control the Uighur population.’
This vicious system of birth control dates back to China’s one-child policy imposed on the entire population, but when this cruel concept was loosened elsewhere in the country, the tactics were clearly escalated to target Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Kalbinur Kamal, a teacher, was among those forcibly sterilised.
‘I had no option but to sign the forms,’ she told me. ‘The Chinese doctor said you must accept because if not we will do it by force anyway, so better to do it willingly.’
She explained also how after violent street clashes in 2009, Beijing merged schools and sent new teachers to indoctrinate children and end Uighur language classes. Kalbinur was shifted from teaching history to becoming the school accountant.
Another woman told me how she fled, like Amina, in a panic during pregnancy with just one child accompanied by her husband.
He returned to China after ten days to collect their other children – only to be detained. ‘I’ve never heard from him again,’ she said.
Shortly before the end of 2018, she was scrolling through news feeds on her phone in Istanbul when she spotted her daughter with cropped hair and singing in a video that had been filmed in a state-run orphanage called Angel’s Garden.
She had thought her remaining children were living with relatives. ‘At first, I was happy because I had not seen her for so long. But then I realised she was speaking Chinese and sitting Chinese-style. It left me very depressed.’
One man said doctors delivered an ultimatum as his wife was giving birth. ‘They said I could have my wife or my baby but not both, then said they could save both if they sterilised her,’ he told me. ‘I refused to sign, threatening to kill myself if anything happened to either of them.’
Several people told me their families paid huge bribes to protect their babies, while others hid in homes or moved constantly to evade the authorities. I even heard of children trained to hide in cupboards every time there was a knock on the door. Such tactics are probably impossible now under such intensive surveillance.
One doctor told me she paid about a year’s salary to register her third child. During a decade working as a paediatrician in Urumqi, she often faked papers saying infants could not hear or speak since this allowed families to have another child.
Such awful stories offer a snapshot of the atrocities being inflicted on the Uighurs. They carry terrible echoes from recent European history, with the concentration camps, forced labour, having their hair shaved and sold, and medical abominations
Another exiled Uighur doctor was dressed elegantly, spoke carefully with prepared notes and yet had a haunted look in her eyes – for reasons that became clear as she told me her disturbing story.
Rahima Muhammad spent six years working in a clinic for women that had up to 100 abortion appointments each day. She did not know how many were genuinely voluntary as she managed to evade having to administer the deadly injections.
After two years, she opened an illegal clinic hidden behind a pharmacy to help women trying to save their babies since so many were giving birth alone at their homes or suffering health problems from brutal birth control methods.
Such was the reign of terror that some women asked for help to stop them expressing milk, as that indicated a new child. ‘I could not make a difference at the hospital but after I opened the clinic, more and more ladies came so I could not treat them all,’ she said.
One case involved a woman about seven months pregnant pleading for her baby to be induced since she was being chased to have an abortion. Eventually, Rahima agreed, but the baby’s lungs were under-developed and it had breathing problems. ‘I tried to persuade her to go to the hospital but she refused, so in the end I took the baby to the hospital but it died. I have never forgotten the baby’s face. This is why I cannot accept that we were forced into this situation.’
Despite her noble efforts, Rahima said she still felt guilty she could not do more. After several years, she had to close the clinic since she had given birth to her fourth baby and was moving around, finally fleeing to Istanbul like so many others.
Such awful stories offer a snapshot of the atrocities being inflicted on the Uighurs. They carry terrible echoes from recent European history, with the concentration camps, forced labour, having their hair shaved and sold, and medical abominations.
In the past three years, it has become far harder to escape China’s technological straitjacket. This is why perhaps the most harrowing tale came from a 46-year-old woman who did not wish to be identified for fear of repercussions. We agreed to call her Sumayya.
Initially, she was protected as her husband was the only son of a senior local party official. Her father-in-law even told her once how Beijing had ‘The 100-Year Plan’ to control their birthrates, which she claimed was designed to eliminate Uighurs.
But he lost power soon after the birth of Sumayya’s third child. She was hustled to hospital to have a contraceptive coil placed in her body, but it caused severe problems so was removed, and over subsequent years she was forced to have eight abortions.
‘I would cry each time,’ she said. ‘Usually the nurses would take it away, saying if it was a boy or a girl. One time when the baby came out, it was obviously a boy and I could hold his little hand. I slept with him all night, crying beside him.’
She became pregnant again in 2016. Medics said her body was so damaged by the previous surgical procedures that she must spend weeks in hospital preparing for another abortion.
She decided instead to flee. Her husband was later arrested – and after release two years later, looked skeletal and mentally shattered. Other relatives, scared of all the surveillance, cut off contact.
Desperate to find her daughter back home, she finally traced the teenager through social media with the help of a brave neighbour. Now they can communicate – although, aware they are being monitored, sometimes just sit there silently weeping together.
This daughter is aged 17. She sleeps in a room with her grandmother since two elderly Chinese men have been moved into their house. All these women are aware of cases where young Uighur women are made to marry older men from elsewhere.
So Sumayya lives alone in a foreign land bringing up a four-year-old child while fearing for the sanity and safety of her stranded daughter, who is trapped by a totalitarian state that seems determined to crush a traditional minority population.
‘My daughter texts me to say that she is losing all hope in life. I am so worried about her I cannot sleep more than a couple of hours. I tell her to focus on her studies but she responds aggressively that she is done with hope.
‘How is this fair?’ she asked plaintively. ‘Why are we treated worse than animals just because we are Uighurs?’