Living in Calgary, Babur Ilchi and his family didn’t know for two weeks that his maternal grandfather had died in their country of origin.
In fact, they didn’t even know that the grandfather, Nurmuhemmet Tohti, had been detained during the winter. Now, they mourn him from 10,000 kilometres away, fearing that it would be too risky to visit.
Mr. Ilchi and his family are Uyghurs and they say their predicament illustrates the repression their Turkic ethnic group faces in China.
His grandfather was a prominent Uyghur writer. He was among hundreds of thousands of minority Muslims, perhaps as many as a million, who have been held in indoctrination camps in China, raising concerns of human-rights groups, the United Nations and foreign envoys.
Mr. Tohti was recently released but his family said being in custody was fatal for a 70-year-old with diabetes and heart problems. “Not giving him proper medical care that he needed … is tantamount to killing him,” Mr. Ilchi said in an interview.
Mr. Tohti came from Hotan, in the western region the Chinese call Xinjiang but which Uyghurs refer to as East Turkestan.
His work painted characters struggling with the political and environmental upheavals his people faced in modern times, said Abduweli Ayup, an expatriate Uyghur writer and activist.
Mr. Ayup said Mr. Tohti’s novels and short stories mentioned corrupted officials, the desertification of the Uyghur land, the arrival of ethnic Chinese settlers.
One work, Letter from Hotan, was about forced labour in silk farms. Another, Son of Desert, featured an attempt by a father and son to save a deer that belonged to an endangered species.
“We have few people like him, talented and well-known. When we lose those kind of people, Uyghurs become voiceless,” Mr. Ayup said in an interview.
PEN America said in a statement that Mr. Tohti’s death was “an appalling and tragic loss at a time when China is trying to erase the cultural and intellectual life of the Uyghurs.”
Mr. Ilchi said his grandfather had been released in March but never properly recovered his health following four to five months in custody.
Relatives in Canada did not even know that Mr. Tohti had been arrested and taken to a camp in November. They only confirmed his death in early June after Mr. Ilchi’s mother, Zorigul, had a short phone conversation with her mother in China.
Shortly after that exchange, the grandmother was contacted by local authorities and cautioned that it was dangerous for her to receive overseas calls, Mr. Ilchi said.
The family thinks Mr. Tothi was arrested because of suspicions triggered after he visited them in Canada in 2012.
Mr. Ilchi’s immediate family immigrated to Canada in 1999. They are now Canadian citizens but don’t feel it would be safe to return to China to mark Mr. Tohti’s death.
“Not only did it happen and we were completely unaware of it, but now that we are aware of it, we can’t call, we can’t talk to family members in East Turkestan, we can’t even go to the funeral or visit his grave, all of this is impossible to us,” Mr. Ilchi said.
According to Chinese officials, Xinjiang detention camps are vocational training centres to combat extremism.
Last March, Lu Shaye, who was then China’s ambassador to Canada, said: “These centres [are] meant to help these people who have been ‘brainwashed’ by the extremist thoughts of violence and terrorism to get rid of those thoughts and learn work and living skills.”
Mr. Ayup was himself detained for more than 15 months after he tried to raise money for Uyghur schools. He has lived in exile since his release in 2014.
He has helped compile a list of more than 380 Uyghur intellectuals detained by the Chinese. Several of them are elderly and in poor health, Mr. Ayup said, citing for example Abdukerim Rahman, a literature professor and folklorist in his late 70s.
He now hopes that Mr. Tohti’s work can be distributed abroad, thanks to publishing houses operated by expatriate Uyghurs in Istanbul. Mr. Ayup is also hoping that Mr. Tohti’s Son of Desert will be translated into other languages.
“He was a doorkeeper and organizer of our culture,” he said.