When two hijacked commercial airliners flew into the World Trade Centre towers in New York on September 11, Mirehmet Ablet never thought it would change the course of his life, living in a far-flung town in Western China.
“I didn’t expect 9/11 would have such an effect,” he says.
The watershed attack in 2001 – and the stunning images it sent around the world – left Western governments deeply preoccupied with Islamic terrorism.
At the same time the Chinese government also quietly stepped up its control of the Muslim minority Uyghur community (also spelt Uighurs) in the once autonomous region of Xinjiang in the west of the country, where Mirehmet Ablet and his family lived.
“Until that time, I’d never heard of terrorism,” he recalled. “But after 9/11, the Chinese government started using that word a lot.”
In the following years, Chinese authorities made life harder and harder for religious, political and educated Uyghur people, and other ethnic minorities in the region. Fearing increasing persecution at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, Mr Ablet fled to Europe and he now lives in Amsterdam.
His brother, and millions of other Uyghur people, have not been so lucky.
After his brother Miradil was arrested and disappeared in 2017, his family believe he is among the more than one million Uyghur Chinese held in what the Chinese Communist Party euphemistically calls re-education camps. The Chinese government says it is free education to “eradicate ideological viruses” but human rights groups say the camps amount to the biggest genocide since the Holocaust.
After years of silence, Mr Ablet has decided to speak publicly about his brother’s case in a last-ditch effort he hopes could save his life.
“This is the last chance for us, this is the best way, to make it public, it’s our last chance to save him,” Mr Ablet told Yahoo News Australia.
“Time to make it public otherwise I might lose my brother.”
‘This is retaliation’
For Mr Ablet and his family, the Chinese government’s heavy-handed approach to the Xinjiang region, and those ethnically different to the Han Chinese population who make up 90 percent of the country, took a further worrying turn around 2017.
“In 2017, it got really different. Before you could negotiate with the Chinese … as long as you weren’t a political or religious person,” he said.
Around this time, his parents who remain in Xinjiang began telling him not to call out of fear they would get in trouble from authorities.
At the time, it was a few years after Xi Jinping had come to power and in 2014 introduced a new campaign dubbed “strike hard against violent terrorism” and turned Xinjiang into one of the most intrusive police states in the world.
“Before the Chinese government needed some kind of excuse to arrest someone, but since 2017 they didn’t need an excuse,” Mr Ablet said.
Mr Ablet’s other brother studied in Canada where he then settled. He later refused requests by the Chinese government to return home, which the family believes is the reason Miradil was detained by authorities.
“This is retaliation, because my brother in Canada didn’t go back.”
While he doesn’t have contact with his family at all anymore he believes his father passed away in January.
“My brother in Canada, he heard from his friends that my brother is still in prison or in the camps,” Mr Ablet said.
“About two years ago my parents communicated somehow with my brother in prison and he wasn’t healthy at all. Psychologically he wan’t well, physically also [unwell].”
In recent months and years, stories and footage from inside the Uyghur camps have leaked out including a woman who late last year described to The New York Times incidences of rape, forced abortions, medical experiments and other brutal treatment including detainees having their fingernails ripped out.
My disappeared brother by the Chinese police in Kashgar ( Kashi):— Mirehmet Ablet (@mirehmet) June 17, 2020
Name: Mieradili.Abulaiti ( Miradil Ablet)
Birthdate: 21 jan 1981
ID number: 650102198101214530
Father of two kids.
No criminal record, University graduate in IT at Xinjiang University in Urumqi. pic.twitter.com/OKROb2U86H
How Uyghur oppression touches you
Despite going on for years, the systematic oppression and detainment of muslim minorities in China has been largely overlooked by world powers, in part because Western governments have been reticent to criticise a cagey Chinese government on the issue.
But with criticism and horror stories continuing to mount, the issue has continued to demand mainstream attention.
This week, HBO talkshow host John Oliver laid out years of reportage of ghastly human rights abuses perpetrated on the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese government.
“If this is the first time you’re hearing about it … you are not alone,” he told viewers. “China has done its level best to keep this story from getting out but it may be getting harder to ignore.
“And you may have a personal connection to this without even knowing it.”
He was referring to a report this month which revealed that forced labour of Uyghur people was used to make face masks which have been shipped to countries around the world during the global coronavirus pandemic.
It comes after a report earlier this year by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), titled Uyghurs for Sale, found that under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghur people were working in factories in the supply chains of at least 82 well-known global brands including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen.
ASPI estimated that more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019, some from detention camps. It is something China have reportedly scaled up due to growing scrutiny of the camps.
‘Finally something is happening’
This month Australia joined the UK and Japan in publicly expressing concern over China's treatment of Uyghurs as Western government have sought to stand up to an increasingly aggressive China.
Mr Ablet says Western governments speaking out, including sanctions on top Chinese officials by the US, “makes me feel like I’m not alone”.
“Eventually somebody started to believe Uighurs. Eventually,” he said.
“The Chinese government has been committing genocide for years and years ... It makes me feel that finally something is happening.”
While he is pleased to see governments such as Australia speak out, he is pessimistic about the prospect of them forcing real change.
“I don’t know how much change it will bring to the situation of Uyghurs,” he said.
“Releasing them is like releasing the proof of torture and releasing the proof of genocide.”
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.