The last anyone knew of Rahile Dawut, an internationally renowned anthropologist, she was traveling to the airport. Dawut, 54, lived in Urumqi, the sprawling capital of Xinjiang, a vast region comprising China’s northwestern frontier, where she was raised. On the night before her disappearance in December 2017, Dawut left a voice message for her daughter, Akida, mentioning that she had to fly to Beijing “for work reasons.”
The two had always been close, speaking nearly every day since Akida moved to Seattle in 2015 for graduate school. So, after three days of silence, Akida began to worry. Had the plane crashed? When she reached relatives in Urumqi over video chat, they were evasive: “Every time I asked where she was, they’d just say the same thing over and over, ‘You need to be patient.’” But their wincing equivocations revealed what Akida had already suspected: Like countless others in Xinjiang, her mother had been stolen by the state—detained by the Chinese government, caught up in the largest internment campaign of an ethnic group since World War II.
Among the niche community of Xinjiang-focused scholars, Dawut is a superstar. A short, spirited Urumqi-native, she was one of the first women of the Uyghur ethnic group to earn a PhD, at Beijing Normal University in 1998. She forged an illustrious career documenting the folkloric traditions of the Uyghurs (pronounced wee-ger), a mostly Muslim, Turkic minority of around eleven million people, native to Xinjiang. Reams of groundbreaking ethnographic work have come out of her extensive travels through the countryside, where she interviewed locals and produced recordings of devotional songs and rituals.
She has a gift for connecting with people, say colleagues, who describe her as quick-witted and good-humored, always eager to offer support. During outings to remote communities, she always came prepared with gifts, often bags of nawat, a Uyghur rock candy. “She is one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever known,” says a former student, who requested anonymity out of concern for family still in Xinjiang. “Around her, there is no hierarchy, no social status. She is a kind of social glue that can bring people together.”
Along with her love of others, Dawut has long been fascinated in the cultural nuances of Xinjiang. Officially designated an ethnic autonomous region, Xinjiang is about the size of Iran. Culturally, it resembles neighboring Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan more than it does China; in Mandarin, the name means “new frontier.” Beijing’s rule, which has always been contentious, has become, in recent years, outright draconian. Since 2017, well over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities have been extrajudicially detained in prisons or “re-education camps” as a part of what many, including the U.S. government, have deemed a genocidal campaign orchestrated at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which governs China.
Nearly any action, however mundane, can get a Uyghur detained. For basic cultural or religious expressions, such as reading Uyghur poetry or refraining from eating pork, detainees are accused by authorities of “promoting separatism” or practicing “religious extremism.” During their “re-education,” prisoners are made to renounce Uyghur cultural mores for Han ones, China’s dominant ethnic group.
A litany of abuses have been documented in association with the internment campaign, from torture to forced labor. In some camps, female detainees have been systematically raped. Beyond the camps, Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang are subjected to an all-encompassing system of surveillance that involves facial recognition, DNA profiling, digital monitoring and informants. According to Chinese government records, the Uyghur birthrate dropped by a third in 2018, which researchers attribute to forced sterilization campaigns.
Humanities scholars like Dawut have been especially targeted in the interment dragnet. “To in any way valorize elements of Uyghur culture–to valorize it simply by deeming it worthy of study–seems to have been turned into a sign of disloyalty in the eyes of the government,” says Rian Thum, an historian of Uyghur religiosity at the University of Nottingham. “The government retroactively made activities that it had approved of before, illegal, and it punished people for those, sometimes going back over a decade.”
With her esteemed reputation, Dawut was especially visible. Between fieldwork, she taught at Xinjiang University, the region’s premier educational institution, where, in 2007, she founded the first ever Uyghur folklore center. Fluent in English, she was one of the few Uyghur scholars allowed by the government to build a career abroad, serving as a scholar-in-residence at the Universities of Washington, Pennsylvania, California-Berkeley, Kent-Canterbury, and Indiana University. “She is someone that most specialists on Uyghur culture outside of China personally know,” said Thum.
Chinese academia feted her too. In 2008, she won the Zhong Jingwen Award, China’s top prize in anthropology. In 2016, a year before her disappearance, she landed the largest-ever grant for a Uyghur research project through the Ministry of Culture, a government body. Unlike Ilham Tohti, an outspoken Uyghur economist sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 for “separatism,” Dawut steered clear of politics. She liked to joke that her graduate students, who consist of Chinese, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Xinjiang ethnicities, reflected the harmonious ethnic melting pot championed by the CCP, of which she is a member.
“She was always careful to stay within the bounds that the Chinese government set,” says Joshua Freeman, a Princeton historian focused on the Uyghurs. For Freeman, Dawut’s targeting disproves official explanations for the mass internments. “It shows clearly that the Chinese government’s current campaign is not aimed at dissidents, is not aimed at religious extremism, but rather is aimed at the erasure of Uyghur culture and identity in their entirety,” he says. “It is targeting the Uyghurs as a people and it is targeting, with special intensity, the bearers of Uyghur culture and identity.”
One vital bearer of that identity are religious sites known as mazars, a chief focus of Dawut’s research. The teepee-like structures, draped in pieces of bright cloth and other offerings, dot the Xinjiang countryside like holy antennas. Each belongs to a specific saint and all have different functions. You might pray to one mazar for rain, another for fertility. Dawut calls them “living shrines” and, in her writings, depicts them as a kind of cultural nervous system. In 2012, years before the Chinese government began demolishing mazars and other religious sites en masse, Dawut envisioned, in an interview, a Xinjiang without mazars. “The Uyghur people would lose contact with the earth,” she said. “They would no longer have a personal, cultural and spiritual history. After a few years we would not have a memory of why we live here or where we belong.”
To the biggest mazars, families will travel for days by donkey cart or camel caravan for large festive gatherings. Such cheerful events, which boast food hawkers, handicraft vendors, magicians, musicians, traditional wrestling and tightrope walking, have historically served as vital nodes of intercommunal interaction, strengthening ties between distant communities across the vast Taklamakan Desert. In the last few years, thousands of mazars and other religious sites have been demolished. Others have been converted into tourist attractions and most large gatherings are banned. Once at a shrine, a beggar told Dawut, “When the mazar is at peace, the people are at peace.”
For two years following her mother’s disappearance, Akida kept quiet in Seattle. She feared that speaking out might invite retaliation upon her relatives by the Chinese government. It was a well-founded fear. Chinese authorities have a documented history of defanging dissidents by threatening family members who still live in China. But she was also certain that her mother would be released. “I was comforting myself, saying, ‘My mom is not political and she would not bring harm to the Chinese government,’” she recalled. “Now I realize, it’s not about loyalty to the Chinese government. Your loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party is not going to save you.”
Prior to her mother’s detainment, Akida had never been political. She led a comfortable, middle-class life with doting parents. On her birthdays, her mother would prepare her favorite meal, garlic-fried lamb with hand-pulled noodles. If studying for an exam, Dawut would invite Akida for a break and they would dance to their favorite Uyghur pop song, “There Is Beauty In You.” Other times they strolled around Red Lake on the Xinjiang University campus, where Dawut would sometimes chide her for staring at her phone. Their family apartment was famous for its lively gatherings, where her mother invited colleagues and students over for dinner and spirited discussions. In Urumqi, Akida was satisfied with her life, optimistic about her future.
And though she was proud, in a vague way, of her ethnic background, she never saw herself as separate from her Chinese counterparts. She had Han friends, took classes in Mandarin, and consumed Chinese pop culture. Joining her mother on research trips into the rural countryside, which was alien and rustic compared to her cosmopolitan urban lifestyle in Urumqi, she often felt impatient and out of place, especially when overnighting in people’s sparse homes, where showering involved water from a hollowed-out gourd and the toilets were outdoors. Her mother, who relished the country life, would chastise Akida if she complained, urging her “to be a good guest.” (Disrespecting rural Uyghur life was one of the few ways to make Dawut angry, Akida said.)
Growing up in China, Akida experienced little of the official persecution faced by less well-off Uyghurs. Only once, during a college trip to Beijing, did she feel singled out, when police banged on her hotel room in the middle of night demanding identification. Most of the time, Akida thought little about the long arm of the state. “I was one of the lucky Uyghurs,” she said. “I was naive.”
Today, Akida is an activist. At conferences, on college campuses and social media, she advocates passionately for her mother’s release and for an end to the Uyghurs’ plight. It takes up most of her time now, and the stress has been intense. She takes her mental health seriously, burdened by the thought that, absent her advocacy, her mother would be forgotten—just another voiceless Uyghur in a Chinese prison cell. “If I have any problems, who will stick up for my people, for my mother?” she posed. “It’s very hard for me. Sometimes I feel depressed. But I try my best to deal with it.”
And in the same way that Dawut’s research made her a target of the state, Akida’s activism makes her vulnerable. Many Uyghurs abroad have been harassed by Chinese authorities for calling attention to their persecution. One common tactic involves police officers in Xinjiang calling activists from the homes of family members to pressure them to keep quiet, as documented by recent reporting by the BBC. Other activists have been subjected to videos of family members in Xinjiang denouncing them, which are likely coerced. Though Akida has not faced harassment of this kind, she has to constantly contend with detractors online who accuse her of lying or question her mother’s innocence.
Of course, none of this is what Akida envisioned for herself. After finishing graduate school in Seattle in 2016, she had planned to return to Urumqi to lead a normal life with her family there. But her mother’s disappearance changed everything. “I never thought my homeland would be a dangerous place for me to go back to, maybe forever,” she said. “I miss my home so much.”
The Chinese government has not released information on Dawut’s whereabouts, nor even admitted they’ve detained her. The family has heard nothing from her since before her 2017 disappearance. Yet she is almost certainly being held in a prison somewhere in the Xinjiang countryside. Outside her cell wall, past a barbed-wire fence, lies the same yawning landscape she once roamed with a pocket recorder and bags of rock candy. Maybe she can see the green mountains that she told Akida, soon before her disappearance, she planned to retire to. Everyday she must wonder, as her daughter does, if she will ever be set free.