ISTANBUL — Aysu Kucar and Lutfullah Kcar, in quiet, polite voices, describe their nearly 20-month stay in Chinese state boarding schools in China’s western area of Xinjiang. They were forcibly separated with their families.

The two Uyghur ethnic children under the supervision of their father claim that their heads were shaved, that teachers and class monitors frequently hit them and locked them in darkened rooms, and that they were forced to take stress positions for perceived transgressions.

They were malnourished and traumatized by the time they returned home to Turkey in December 2019. They also forgot how to speak their native languages, Uyghur or Turkish. The children had been raised in Turkey, but were forced to attend boarding school when their family visited China.

“That was the most difficult moment of my life. Abdullatif Kucar, their father, says, “I felt as though they had killed me standing in front of my Chinese-speaking children.”

Authorities in Xinjiang have taken hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs from a largely Muslim ethnic group and sent them to detention centres where they are taught Mandarin Chinese as well as Chinese political ideology. During their detention, camp detainees were often forced to work in factories or when they are released. Children of detained or arrested people are often sent to state schools even if their relatives will take them in.

James Millward, a Georgetown University professor who studies Chinese history and Central Asian history, says that the ideological impulse to try to assimilate non Han people coincided with the punitive approach by putting adults into camps. Therefore, many young children ended up in boarding kindergartens, boarding schools, orphanages, or boarding schools. It is an attempt to make all Chinese see themselves as Chinese, and to have one cultural background.

Experts say that these family separations have led to a gradual erasure in China of Uyghur culture and language. This is one reason why officials from the U.S., Canada and France have declared that China’s policies regarding Xinjiang amounts to genocide.

China denies the widespread allegations of wrongful discrimination against Uyghurs in the region. However, Uyghurs, rights activists, and journalists have documented many accounts of systematic abuse. The Chinese government refuses to issue Uyghur passports to Uyghurs. It also arrests those who leak documents to journalists or give interviews to them.

The Kucar family shares its story for the first-time, despite all the dangers.

Lutfullah was just 4 years old when he was transferred to a boarding school south of downtown Urumqi in February 2018. Aysu, his older sister at the time, was also sent to a separate school within the same city. The two children were almost unrecognizable when they were reunited with their families the following year.

Neriman Kucar, their stepmother, said that they were “living corpses.” “They were completely different children.”

He was correct to have doubts about returning to China.

Abdullatif Kucar was originally from Xinjiang, but he had lived in Turkey for around 30 years. With some misgivings, he returned to China in 2015 with his family.

After ethnic violence in Xinjiang between Han people and the minority group, Uyghurs were being arrested by Chinese authorities in adisproportionate number. Sporadic terrorist acts in the region increased also. This was after ethnic violence between Uyghurs and Han people in Xinjiang in 2009. Authorities used this to justify tightening surveillance of Uyghur residents. China became more concerned about Uyghur separatist fighters attempting to smuggle themselves out of China in order to train with militant groups like al-Qaida.

Kucar couldn’t stay away from China. Kucar moved to Turkey in 1986 and regularly travelled between Istanbul and Urumqi to see his relatives and to keep his lucrative textile and leather business going.

Kucar’s fears proved to be correct. Kucar’s Turkish citizenship placed him under suspicion. In late 2015, Chinese authorities confiscated the passports of the family, trapping him and his children in China. Kucar was returned his documents in 2017 and deported to Turkey. He was then barred from entering China.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, ordered a huge security campaign to eliminate terrorist threats. It was directed at all Uyghur ethnic groups.

Xinjiang began quickly to build a vast network of detention camps, and expanded existing prisons. These “transformation through Education” camps were used to train Uyghurs, and other historically Muslim minorities, to learn Chinese political ideology and to master the Chinese language. Uyghurs were also said to have been subjected to physical and mental torture, and women had their genitals removed. Uyghurs who have a religious background, or a history with international travel — such as the Kucars — were sentenced for long prison terms.

Kucar had to leave Aysu, Lutfullah, and Meryem Aimati in Urumqi because Chinese authorities hadn’t returned their children’s passports. Kucar believed that their separation would be temporary.

Aimati began to feel more fearful. Soon, she was required to participate in daily flag-raising ceremonies to pledge allegiance to China’s Communist Party. Unannounced, local officials would often drop by her Urumqi apartment to meet with Uyghur families. This was part of a series in which over 1 million civilians were sent and Communist Party officials also arrived.

“Three officials visited today. “They took photos of me raising the Chinese flag and I talked a lot,” Aimati stated in 2017 voicemail to Kucar, which he recorded for NPR. “I am exhausted.”

Kucar was on the phone talking to Aimati one night when Urumqi police began banging on her Urumqi apartment doors. Terrified, Kucar told Aimati that she would let the police in and then she hung up.

Aimati was visited by relatives in Urumqi the next day. Aimati disappeared after they discovered her apartment was upside down.

Aimati’s cousins adopted the children but they were also arrested in February 2018. The children were not mentioned in the news. It was almost as if the children had vanished.

The children were sent to boarding schools, where they received harsh punishments.

Kucar did not know that Lutfullah and Aysu had been sent to Urumqi’s two state schools.

NPR’s children described how every school day started the same. The children were taken out of their dormitory rooms, where they hung out with a variety of Uyghur children. Before the children could get up for breakfast, they had to be checked by their teachers.

They were then taught how to chant Chinese political slogans, and patriotic songs. The children would sing Chinese songs about Grandfather Xi Jinping, and Father Wang Junzheng years later. This is the former security chief for Xinjiang who was sanctioned by many governments, including the U.S. government for human rights violations.

Kucar says, “My children spoke Chinese and birds sing.”

Interviews from Istanbul, where both children live, revealed that they were subject to routine emotional and physical punishment. The older students were bullied by the class monitor in each room.

“The ‘older sister’ pulled my hair and beat I. Aysu now 10, says that all my hair fell out while I was in school.

Lutfullah now 8 says, “If we cried the ‘older brother” made us stand still facing to the wall or hit us.”

The children claim that if children didn’t learn fast enough or followed orders, their teacher would place them in a stressful position they call the “motocycle.” Aysu & Lutfullah demonstrated: Aysu stretched their arms out in front with their knees bent in half-squat. They held this position for several minutes.

They claim that the worst punishment was being sent down to the basement of the school. Lutfullah claims that teachers told him ghosts lived in that basement, and that children, including him, were kept there alone for hours.

The children claim that they were taught Mandarin six days a semaine in class. Students who spoke in Uyghur or without permission were hit with rulers.

Each day, after class, the children did their homework silently before going to bed and watching TV. Aysu claims that she was terrified to talk to other children and spent most of her waking hours alone. She recalls that she would stare at the ceiling in a daze to sleep if she couldn’t.

China is expanding boarding schools

NPR was able identify the school Lutfullah went to. It was previously known as the Urumqi Folk Arts School. It is located in Sandunbei, the capital of the region.

According to Education Ministry documents, the school is one of at least 1,300 boarding schools in the Xinjiang area. Although the Xinjiang government has been cleaning their websites of any references to boarding schools, an official education report from 2017, the year before Kucar children were sent there, shows that nearly half a billion children had been enrolled as of the beginning of 2017.

China has increased its central control over education, after the regional authorities alleged that Uyghur students were being radicalized by seditious textbooks. Sattar Sawut was sentenced to death by a Xinjiang court last April for allegedly inserting separatist material in Uyghur textbooks. Researchers and Uyghurs deny that the accusations of radicalization in schools are false.

“[The textbooks] were approved in that time. The reality was that the standards were altered from the top, making these people scapegoats,” Millward, the Georgetown professor, says.

China claims it is increasing the number of boarding schools in order to increase educational access, particularly in remote rural areas.

Students of all ethnicities can attend school in boarding schools. … Students and parents can make all the decisions. They have the right to visit their children whenever they wish,” Mierguli Maimaitimin, a Xinjiang boarding schools teacher, stated at a news conference that was held by the Xinjiang region government in July.

However, Uyghur families claim that such schools also send children to those whose parents are detained or imprisoned against their family’s wishes.

Mukerrem Mahmud is a Uyghur student living in Turkey. “My relatives would prefer to take care of them themselves, but they are forced into sending the kids to schools,” he said.

After her mother was sentenced for six years for wiring Mahmud money, her four younger siblings were sent by their mother to Hami, an east Xinjiang, city to attend state boarding schools. Their father received a 15 year sentence for unknown reasons. Abdullah, her 15-year old brother, died from an untreated tumor in 2019 while Abdullah was still attending school.

Mahmud says, “I’m quite certain that he would have survived if his parents were able to transport him to Shanghai [for treatment] as they planned.”

A U.N. human rights panel stated in 2018 that it had “credible reporting” that 1 million Uyghur adults were held without due process in Xinjiang. The number of children left behind temporarily grew as a result of the increasing rate of mass incarcerations in the region.

The 2018 state-compiled list of Xinjiang’s Karakax County (Moyu in Chinese) lists the names and numbers of more than 1,700 Uyghur kids who received welfare payments while their parents were either in prison or detention. Officials from the county wrote that the entry for a 8-year old girl was “No ability to Work, Mother Detained Under ‘Strike Hard Campaign,” and that father was being trained [in an reeducation camp].” She was paid 151 Yuan ($24) per month.

The Xinjiang Victims Database is a website that compiles names and personal information of people thought to be in camps in the area. It was created by rights advocates.

Some Uyghur parents are desperate and looking for answers. They have turned to Chinese social media in an attempt to find their children.

Istanbul shopkeeper Uyghur has been looking for five of his Chinese children. In 2016, he left China to send his three other children to Turkish school. He found one clue two years later: a photograph of Fatima, his 7-year-old daughter, with her head shaved, hands clasped, and celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year together with her elementary school class.

Although the picture was posted by Yopurga County in northern Xinjiang as a public record, it had not been taken at Fatima’s school when she left for Turkey. Fatima was not able to find her twin brother.

The man said that he is worried that the Chinese will forget his culture and language, and would not be able communicate with him. He did not want to be identified as he believes he was being deported back to China.

Kucar was able to reunite his children

Abdullatif Kucar, who was stuck in Turkey and feeling anguished, had been protesting outside the Chinese Embassy and petitioning Turkish ministries for assistance with rescuing Aysu Lutfullah and Lutfullah. Kucar recalls that he only saw one minister per month.

His activism paid off. The Turkish Foreign Ministry informed Kucar in 2019 that it had reached an agreement with China for Kucar to receive a single-entry visa that would allow him to enter China and collect his children.

Kucar landed in Urumqi (Xinjiang’s capital) in November 2019. In a series interview with NPR, Kucar described the events. He immediately began dialing relatives’ phone numbers. He says that every single person hung up on him and then turned off their phones. Kucar walked through his neighborhood passing by former neighbors and acquaintances. To avoid speaking to Kucar, they crossed the street.

Both of his hotel rooms were booked by police. He was not permitted to close the hotel door. When he went out for dinner, security officers followed him in two vehicles. He had to report to the local government office each day to update police about his whereabouts. He waited 10 days for authorities to bring him Aysu or Lutfullah.

Kucar recalls, “When the Chinese police brought out my two children, they ran to us as fast as a bullet from an gun.” As his children started hugging him, he fainted in the snow of December.

He realized that his children didn’t seem to respond to Uyghur or Turkish when he arrived to visit. “Even though they didn’t understand me, I didn’t think there was any language barrier. Kucar says that we could communicate using our expressions.” “I held them and kissed them. They couldn’t stop smiling at me.”

NPR confirmed that Kucar traveled from Turkey through China in 2015 and 2019, using visa stamps and Chinese identification documents. Turkish education and medical professionals treating the children confirmed the details of the children’s accounts. The Turkish Embassy in Beijing did not comment on the story, and referred all queries to the Kucar family.

What about their mother?

The Kucars made one final stop before departing China in December 2019. It was to visit Meryem Aimati, the mother of the children. Kucar was informed that she had been sentenced in Kucha to a 20 year term. However, Chinese authorities made arrangements for her to be taken to a hospital nearby for one last visit with her family.

He recalls, “She was thin to bone and had lost all of her hair.” “I reached out to grab her skeletal hand, and I saw the dark marks that the handcuffs had left behind on her wrists,” he said.

Kucar was informed that his visit was ended after 15 minutes. He said that despite the prohibitions against touching or crying, he wrapped Aimati up in a bear hug and lifted her from her bed. He noticed that she was too weak for him to lift her off the bed and he decided to set her down.

“I wondered to myself: What is the point in living?” He says. “But Meryem was crying on the bed, and my children grabbed my hands. “I must live for my children,” I said.

Both China’s Foreign Ministry (China) and the Xinjiang Regional Government (China) did not respond to our requests for comment.

Although the children are at home, there is a way to recover.

The Kucar children are still recovering from their long journey back to Turkey just over two years ago.

Both of them lost weight while at boarding school. They were diagnosed by a pediatrician in Istanbul with iron and calcium deficiencies. The family then prescribed a special diet.

Neriman Kucar, the stepmother, says that Aysu made Aysu laghman Uyghur-style noodles on her second day home. “Aysu began crying when she saw this dish. She was only served Uyghur food once while at school. But her older classmates had already had it before she.

Both children feel the psychological trauma from Urumqi has had a far greater impact than the physical. Aysu, Lutfullah and their friends hid from guests for months. Before they could use the bathroom or eat, they asked permission.

“Lutfullah couldn’t speak or express himself before the end of the first grade. The child’s Turkish elementary school teacher says that he did not experience the same problem with Uyghur children in Xinjiang. Because discussing China’s policies regarding Xinjiang in Turkey is politically sensitive, the teacher chose not to be identified.

They also have a psychiatrist who is trained in Uyghur art therapy. After school, they go to Uyghur language classes.

Kucar claims that for the first four months of the children’s stay in Turkey Kucar sat at their bedside each night due to their intense nightmares. “The children would gnash their teeth and kick in bed, shouting, ‘No, that’s not what I’m doing!’ Kucar describes their sleep.

To keep Lutfullah from reliving the horrors of being locked up in the basement of the school, he still has the lights on inside the house 24 hours per day.

Kucar believes prayer and a sense that he has a duty to his family is what keeps him going. They are one of the luckier Uyghur family, despite their scars.

Abduweli Ayup contributed reporting in Istanbul.