Mustafa Aksu’s hometown is in an area punctuated by billowy fields of cotton, an agricultural prefecture of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in far western China.
As a child growing up in the 1990s, Aksu watched as middle-school-aged Uighur girls around him left Xinjiang under duress to work in garment factories in other parts of the country. He heard about how, when they tried to escape and return home, they were caught and sent back. When traveling in other parts of China, Aksu was refused service at hotels because he was Uighur.
Uighurs, who make up less than half of Xinjiang’s population of 22 million people, have historically resisted Chinese rule. In response, the Chinese government spreads messages that Xinjiang is roiling with separatist unrest, which authorities have variously blamed on religious extremism or “foreign hostile forces” hell-bent on “splitting the motherland.” In 2015, when Aksu left China to study in the United States, Chinese police were starting to establish checkpoints in Xinjiang and randomly stopping Uighurs on the street. But he says it was as if a switch was flipped in March 2017, culminating in persecution on a scale he had never seen before. That year, while he was still living in the United States, his parents told him over WeChat that he shouldn’t visit because they were experiencing “seasonal sandstorms.” He has now not seen or heard from his family in nearly three years.