'We don't have a family anymore': The anguish of Hankiz Kurban and the Uighur diaspora

The Uighur protest China's treatment of their community on 58th Boulevard Street in Zeytinburnu. Kerem Uzel for The National

Andrew Wilks
Feb 19, 2019

A panicked voice message from her mother more than a year ago turned the world of Hankiz Kurban and her three siblings upside down.

“They’re taking us. I’m very afraid,” her mother said from Urumqi, the capital of China’s troubled Xinjiang region. “Contact the embassy and our community elder.”

Hankiz’s parents – and her uncle who disappeared two days earlier – are among dozens of Turkish citizens of Uighur descent to have gone missing in Xinjiang over the last two years, according to a leading Uighur dissident, amid a crackdown on the region’s Muslim minorities.

The message, received on the morning of September 11 2017, was the last time the 28-year-old, from Istanbul, heard her mother’s voice or had any news on the whereabouts of her parents.

“Around 65 Turkish citizens from Uighur descent are in jail or camps or missing in China since 2017,” said Ismail Cengiz, the prime minister of the region’s government-in-exile.

“The Turkish authorities have contacted the Chinese and asked where they are. The Chinese say they will look for them but nothing happens.”


Unlike the case of two Canadian nationals missing and presumed detained since December, the disappearance of Turkish passport-holders has not been previously reported.

“What would the US do if they lost 65 of their citizens?” Mr Cengiz said. He said the missing Turks had been in Xinjiang on business or to see relatives.

Speaking to The National in a teahouse in Zeytinburnu, a European district of Istanbul, Hankiz said her parents’ disappearance had left her, her sister and two brothers to fend for themselves while coping with the mental anguish of not knowing what had happened to their mother and father.

“No one can understand the situation we are in,” she said. “We don’t have a family anymore. We get psychological support but it doesn’t help. The doctor gives us medicine but it just makes us sleep. We don’t want to sleep, we want our family back.”

Hankiz said she was hospitalised for six weeks due to the strain of the situation and broke off her engagement. Her 18-year-old sister, the youngest of the siblings, failed her university entrance exam.

“My parents have been Turkish citizens for 40 years and me and my siblings were born in Istanbul,” she said. “My father ran an import-export business and they were living between Istanbul and Urumqi.”

Despite concerns about the worsening situation in Xinjiang, where the Muslim community faces intense surveillance and the risk of arbitrary arrest, Hankiz said her parents believed their passports would protect them.

“My father said: We’re Turkish citizens, we’re not doing anything illegal, there’s nothing to worry about.”

The Turkish authorities have been unable to help.

“I’ve even been to Ankara to the president’s palace in the hope of speaking to him as he enters or leaves,” she said. “I would beg him to listen to me and tell him about our situation. It’s a terrible situation. Nobody should go through something like this.

“If I was alone without my siblings I would have committed suicide.”