Muharram Muhammad’ali hasn’t spoken with his family since his sister’s mobile went dead last year, but sometimes he calls his parents’ landline in Turpan, a city in the east of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Since the coronavirus pandemic spread to Xinjiang this summer, houses in the area have been sealed up, further isolating residents who were already all but cut off from the outside world. The line is always busy, but, he reasons, the fact that it is still in service means his mother is alive and paying the bill.
He doesn’t have any more information than that. He knows that his father, an imam, was arrested over three years ago and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — a catchall offense that the Chinese government applies to those it considers undesirable — and later convicted in a closed trial. He assumes his father is in jail, if he hasn’t died. That news came from his uncle, but one of the last things Muhammad’ali heard from his sister was that he, too, had been taken into police custody just over a year ago. “He is lost, and now there is no one to give me information,” he says.