ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- When word came from the capital, Nur-Sultan, that no Kazakhs were being held in "reeducation" centers in northwest China's Xinjiang region, many who didn't believe that claim sought help tracking down their loved ones.
They found it in Atazhurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland), a human-rights group founded by ethnic Kazakhs who moved from Xinjiang as part of a repatriation program after Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991.
Thousands of families have been separated due to dramatic changes in China’s policies regarding ethnic minorities -- predominantly Muslim -- over the past two and a half years.
The fate of China’s Kazakhs -- many thousands of whom have been forcibly taken to the reeducation camps -- is part of a much larger campaign in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China that targets Muslims, mainly Uyghurs but also Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and even Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslims).
China claims the camps are for vocational education and training. It denies people at the centers are abused or mistreated despite thousands of reports and testimonies from internees.
In October, just after Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi declared that there were "no [ethnic] Kazakhs" at the controversial Chinese camps, several residents of the Almaty region bordering Xinjiang came to Atazhurt Eirktileri's offices to tell their stories.
'Disappeared Without A Trace'
"I came again to tell people about my son," Taldykorgan resident Nauatkhan Zhaqyp said tearfully. "Maybe there is a person who will hear us, understand our feelings."
Her 30-something son, Zheniskhan Zhanbyrbai, a livestock farmer, was the breadwinner for his extended family.
When they decided to move from China to their historical homeland, Zhanbyrbai's parents and his school-age son were the first to settle in the Almaty region.
"He bought us a house and in 2017 went back to China to take care of some business," Zhaqyp said. "He disappeared without a trace."
The family eventually came to the conclusion that Zhanbyrbai had been taken to a "political reeducation camp."
She said that relatives in Xinjiang are reluctant to talk about the situation there. They don't go into much detail, limiting conversations to everyday topics like health.
"They speak in hints, they are afraid to say openly," she said.
The reality, she said, is that Kazakhs in China are afraid to speak with someone from Kazakhstan because they don't want to risk imprisonment.
"We were able to find out with difficulty that our son had been sentenced to six years," Zhaqyp said. "Our daughter-in-law and youngest grandson remained in a Chinese village. God only knows how they survive there. The eldest grandson lives with me, he is studying. We live on my Kazakh pension."
'Nothing I Can Do'
Sultan Saulebek moved to Kazakhstan from China in 2013. He was later followed by his brother, but their parents stayed behind in Xinjiang.
They have heard from their mother, who is now under house arrest, but have not heard from their father, now 75, since 2017.
"My heart breaks when I think about my father, Sultan Aqyn, and mother, Gulsinai, who remained in the village of Mazar," Saulebek told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "There is nothing I can do."
The Chinese authorities allowed the brothers to speak to their mother by telephone in late 2019. But "father was taken to the 'political reeducation camp' two years ago and there is no news from him," Saulebek said.
From what Saulebek understands, his father, who had a kidney removed in 2002, can no longer walk and has lost his hearing. Saulebek suspects that his father was persecuted because of his religion.
"In 2013, he legally performed the Hajj to Mecca," Saulebek said. "We believe that the Chinese authorities were attracted to him for this."
'What Kind Of Friendship?'
Bikamal Kakenqyzy visited Atazhurt Eriktileri's offices with her two daughters. "China did what God couldn't -- separate me from my husband," she said, crying.
Adilghazy Muqaiuly, who is in his late 40s, was arrested in July 2017 immediately after crossing the Chinese border, she explained. She regrets that he did not ignore his former employer's request for him to return.
"For 2 1/2 years he has been kept in a political reeducation camp," she said. "We learned about his fate after the Chinese police delivered his mobile phone and other possessions to his relatives in China. There has been no news from him."
Kakenqyzy rents an apartment in the village of Uzynaghash in the Almaty region. Her youngest daughter, who was five months old when her father left, does not remember him. The eldest daughter was two years old.
Kakenqyzy cannot talk about her family without breaking into tears and is thankful for the assistance she has received from Atazhurt Erіktіlerі.
Despite the fact that she is a citizen of Kazakhstan, she said she does not receive child support and she is not able to gather needed documents.
"Almost every day I hear about the friendship between the two states," she told RFE/RL. "What kind of friendship is this? Why can't the Kazakh government ask its friend about us?"
Even if the Kazakh authorities believe there are no Kazakhs in Xinjiang's reeducation camps, they are aware of the problems faced by ethnic Kazakhs in China.
One of the people who visited Atazhurt Eriktileri brought along a letter from the Kazakh Foreign Ministry.
“The Foreign Ministry is working with the Chinese side to objectively examine complaints from Kazakh citizens seeking their relatives living in China," the letter reads. "In order to expedite a positive review of the issue, please provide complete information about your relative."