Life didn’t turn out as Wumaerjiang Jiamali had expected. He got the opportunity to leave western China in 2014 to attend university studies in Istanbul. Four years later he is a refugee in northern Sweden. His son is locked up in their home province of Xinjiang, and Wumaerjiang no longer has any contact with the rest of his family.
With tired but sharp eyes, Wumaerjiang explained how everything suddenly turned into a nightmare when he allowed his then 16-year-old son, who had moved with him to Istanbul, to board a flight back to China in December 2015 to visit his mother. “My son disappeared as soon as he landed in China,” Wumaerjiang said. “When the family came to meet him at the airport, he just didn’t show up, and the family got no information on his whereabouts.”
It soon turned out that the police had taken Wumaerjiang’s son directly at the airport, and put him on another flight to his hometown, Yili, in northwestern Xinjiang. He was then held in a pretrial detention center for two months, and released as a totally different boy. His personality went from happy and cheerful, to introverted and huffy. Wumaerjiang observed from Turkey how his son’s updates on WeChat – China’s most popular messenger service – now consisted mostly of dark, depressing drawings and different types of ghosts.
Wumaerjiang’s ex-wife and the rest of his family in Xinjiang advised him not to contact his son, who couldn’t return to Turkey in any case since the police had seized his passport. Simultaneously, the situation for exiled Uyghurs in Turkey worsened as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan focused on strengthening ties with Beijing. Wumaerjiang feared for his personal safety, and decided to flee to Sweden. Since October 2017, he has been waiting in the town of Kiruna, some 200 kilometers north of the polar circle, as his request for asylum is being processed.
Then in March this year, Wumaerjiang was suddenly contacted by Chinese state security on WeChat. In the chat, a security agent told Wumaerjiang his son had been taken away a second time, and that Wumaerjiang needed to cooperate for the sake of his son’s well-being. “The agent wanted information about Uyghurs living in Turkey. Names, contact information and to know the organizers behind protests and rallies,” Wumaerjiang said. “They also wanted information about the Uyghur community in Sweden.”