Uighur journalist Shohret Hoshur spends most weekdays tucked inside his office in Washington, making hundreds of phone calls to government offices and police stations across Xinjiang, China. He calls so often that he fears they now recognize his voice, so he's started using a machine that makes him sound like a young woman, increasing his chances of engaging someone on the other end for a few seconds longer, to squeeze out any bit of information about what’s actually going on with the Uighur Muslims in his homeland.
"Sometimes we work 16 hours a day," he said. "Compared to what people are facing in the homeland, this is nothing. We do not become tired."
He’s talking about the fate of more than 1 million Chinese Muslims in “re-education camps” where they are indoctrinated with Chinese Communist Party teachings. Accounts of maximum security-style surveillance and physical, verbal, and mental torture have made their way into the global conscience through government document leaks as well as Uighur and Kazakh survivors.
Given China’s chokehold on information, some of the most crucial reporting on the situation in Xinjiang comes from the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia channel, where Hoshur and his colleagues make up the only Uighur-language news service operating outside of Communist Party control. Blocked in China, the service is still vital for the Uighur diaspora, as well as anyone hoping to get information out.
The small team usually receives several tips a month, in the form of legal documents, papers relating to particular camps, or images and videos from Uighurs still living in Xinjiang. With China’s recent coronavirus lockdown, these leads have been even harder to come by. But Hoshur and his colleagues work tirelessly to uncover new information and make calls to government officials or employees across Xinjiang to try to corroborate the information they’re receiving.
It’s a thankless job, made worse by an awareness that their actions could result in the targeting of their loved ones. Most employees haven’t heard word of their family members still living in China for years. Others have learned that their relatives have been sent off for so-called “re-education,” for unknown periods of time.
A leaked government document recently showed that Chinese authorities see any Uighurs who have family members abroad as suspicious. Those with relatives working for an organization like RFA, whose intention is to expose the Communist Party’s wrongdoings, are likely to be punished still further.
It’s an enormous weight that Hoshur and the rest of the team carries to work each day, and his eyes fill with tears when he thinks of his brothers who could well be suffering back home. But his and his colleagues' conviction has never been stronger.
"We live with this pain, this agony, but we cannot stop," said Mamatjan Juma, the service's deputy director. "They should know this message: They can make Uighur people cry, but they cannot stop us."
Cover: Uighur journalist Shohret Hoshur