Uyghur father pleads for his wife and children trapped in Xinjiang

Over the past five years, Mamutjan Abdurehim has been holding onto the slim hope that the Chinese government will release his wife, who was reportedly detained in the re-education camp in Xinjiang for two years. In order to secure her release, Abdurehim chose to remain silent about her disappearance while other Uyghurs around the world were trying to advocate for their missing family members. However, he learned about his wife’s possible imprisonment for five years through a friend in 2019, forcing him to go public about the ordeal that his family has gone through. He chooses not to be silent this time.

Mamutjan Abdurehim lives in Sydney and he has been separated from his wife and children for almost five years now. The family are Uyghurs, the Turkic-speaking ethnic minority group that lives in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

While Uyghurs around the world were busy advocating for their missing family members, Abdurehim chose to remain silent in the beginning, as he hoped to secure the release of his wife by directly negotiating with the Chinese government. He hoped Beijing would let his family be reunited in Australia.

After the Chinese government ignored his requests for information about his wife’s whereabouts multiple times, Abdurehim learned about the news that his wife might have been sentenced to five years in prison. He decided not to remain silent anymore. He went public with the story of his family’s separation.

How the family of four got separated

Abdurehim was originally pursuing his PhD degree at a university in Malaysia, and his wife and two children joined him in Malaysia at the end of 2012. The family lived in the country for three years, but in December 2015, his wife had to renew her passport. She took the two children back to Xinjiang while Abdurehim continued his studies in Malaysia.

In the beginning of 2016, Abdurehim’s wife successfully got her new passport, but due to financial difficulty, the family couldn’t be reunited in Malaysia immediately. Not long after that, she began to complain about tightened security measures in Xinjiang to Abdurehim.

“She began to complain about being questioned by police in 2016 for wearing a hijab and she began to reduce her communication with me,” said Abdurehim. “Due to the increasing security presence on the streets in Xinjiang, my wife also became more conscious while she was talking to me. She would sometimes used facial expressions when she wanted to say certain things to me. According to her, police in Xinjiang began to set up many street checkpoints and they would ask people to remove their veils and register their personal information.”

In April 2017, Abdurehim’s parents suddenly told him that his wife had been taken away by the police. His father was also later detained in the re-education camps for a while. “In May 2017, my mom asked me not to contact her again, because it had become dangerous for Uyghurs in Xinjiang to contact someone abroad,” Abdurehim said. “People were beginning to be sent to re-education camps for contacting someone abroad.”

Fleeing to Australia

Around the same time that he learned about his wife’s fate, Abdurehim fled to Australia as he no longer felt safe in Malaysia. Malaysia was criticized by the international community for deporting some Uyghurs back to China. At the end of May 2017, Abdurehim’s wife suddenly contacted him on WeChat, telling him that she would be gone again soon.

“My wife said if I can’t contact her, I should know that she is gone and since that point, she deleted me from WeChat and went back to the internment camp,” Abdurehim said.

In the following two years, Abdurehim remained silent and waited to hear anything about his wife. In May 2019, he suddenly saw a video of his son yelling into the sky that “my mom has graduated.” Abdurehim rewatched that video several times, hoping to see if he could recognize his wife’s voice in the background or not.

“When I heard my wife’s voice in the background, I was slightly relieved,” said Abdurehim. However, a few months after he saw the video, a friend in Xinjiang told him that his wife “was not at home again.” Several overseas Uyghurs said “not at home” or “in the hospital” are often used by Uyghurs in Xinjiang to inform overseas family members that someone has been sent into re-education camps again.

Additionally, as most Uyghurs in Xinjiang can’t explicitly share sensitive information with family members abroad, they often have to use coded languages to let them know that some one has been detained or sent to re-education camps again.

After Abdurehim learned that his wife could have been imprisoned again, he became very anxious. In order to confirm his wife’s whereabouts, Abdurehim asked a friend’s relative in Xinjiang who knew his family to check on his family. “When the friend asked his relative how old was my wife (coded language,) he said five years,” Abdurehim said.

“When my friend shared the information with me, I knew she had probably been sentenced to five years by authorities in Xinjiang. Since I couldn’t contact my family members in Xinjiang directly, I could only guess based on the limited information I have.”

When I tried to contact local authorities and police department to ask about the condition of Abdurehim’s wife, they hang up the phone when they knew I was a journalist.

The disconnected phone number at home

After losing contact with his family for more than two years, Abdurehim decided to call his parent’s house during the Eid festival in 2019. When his mom heard his voice on the other side of the phone, she sounded very nervous.

“She spoke in a rush that ‘there were cadres at home now and no calling. Please don’t call,’” Abdurehim said. “She then hang up.” A few months later, Abdurehim tried to call his parents again, but no one ever picked up the phone. Nowadays, whenever he tries to call his parents, the number will always be busy. “I assume they might have disconnected the line,” he said.

Even though Abdurehim isn’t entirely sure who help to raise his children, based on the video featuring his son from 2019, he suspects that his children are being raised by his parents and his wife’s parents. He said he originally wanted to apply visa to Australia for his family members when he had legal status in the country, but now that his wife might have been imprisoned, he thinks he no longer needs to remain silent about the family’s ordeal anymore.

“The possible reason for my wife’s detention might be her religious practices and her history of living in Malaysia, which is deemed as one of the 26 sensitive countries by the Chinese government,” Abdurehim said.

“My private messages to the Chinese government were ignored, so I’m turning to the media to let the Chinese government hear my voice. I hope they could release this innocent women and reunite the children and us, letting them enjoy some parental care. My priority now is to reunite my wife with my children, but eventually, I would want to reunite with them in Australia here.”

This article was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

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William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

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William Yang

William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

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