ISLAMABAD: The last time Chaudhry Javed Atta saw his wife was over a year ago when the Pakistani trader in dried and fresh produce was leaving their home in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region to return to the home country for visa renewal.
He remembers the last thing she told him: “As soon as you leave, they will take me to the camp and I will not come back.”
That was August 2017. By then, Atta and Amina Manaji, from the Muslim ethnic Uighur group — that is native to Xinjiang — had been married for 14 years.
Atta is one of the scores of Pakistani businessmen — that according to him are more than 200 — whose spouses have disappeared, taken to what Chinese authorities tell them are education centres.
Beijing has been accused of interning members of its Muslim population — reportedly in millions — to “re-educate” them away from their faith. It is seen as a response to riots and violent attacks that the government blamed on separatists.
Ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs in China said that ostensibly innocuous acts such as praying regularly, viewing a foreign website or taking phone calls from relatives abroad could land one in a camp.
“They call them schools, but those are prisons,” Atta said. “They can’t leave”. Political and economic factors, including concerns about losing out on vast Chinese investments, have kept Pakistan and other Muslim countries silent about the plight in China of fellow Muslims, the Uighurs.
“Cold, hard interests will always carry the day in international relations,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program, at the Washington-based Wilson Centre.
“The Muslim world’s deafening silence about China’s treatment of Muslims can be attributed to its strong interest in maintaining close relations with the world’s next superpower,” he said.
For Atta, it’s not just the separation from his wife.
He has also had to leave their two sons, who are five and seven years old, and their passports were confiscated by the Chinese government. They are now in the care of his wife’s family. Otherwise, he said, the authorities would have put them in an orphanage.
Atta went back to China twice for a few months but both times his visas expired and he had to return to Pakistan. Getting in touch with his family in Xinjiang is a circuitous route that involves reaching out to Pakistani friends still there, who then track down family members willing to talk.
“Now especially, I am worried. It is now eight, almost nine months, that I have not seen my children,” he said. “I haven’t even been able to talk to them,” he added.
Last week, Atta finally talked to his brother-in-law after a friend discovered he had a heart attack and was recovering in a hospital in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
“He said my sons were good, but he had no news of my wife,” said Atta.
China routinely responds to queries on Uighurs by saying its policies are aimed at creating “stability and lasting peace” in Xinjiang but President Xi Jinping’s campaign to subdue a sometimes restive region, including the internment of more than a million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, has alarmed a United Nations panel and the US government.
Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the Senate committee on foreign affairs, said the cardinal principle of Pakistan-China relations was to refrain from commenting on anything to do with the other country’s domestic issues.
“Given the relationship of Pakistan with China, and in the Muslim world, in particular, the Chinese narrative is apparently being accepted across the board like the one that is correct,” Mr Hussain said.
A steady stream of Pakistani men has visited Beijing in recent months, lobbying for the release of their wives to little avail. Some say they met Pakistan’s ambassador to China Masood Khalid on multiple occasions and were told their issues had been raised privately with the Chinese authorities.
Another Pakistani man, Mir Aman, went to China over 25 years ago as a labourer in search of work. There, he met Maheerban Gul. The couple worked hard and eventually bought a hotel. They have two daughters, Shahnaz, 16, and Shakeela, 12, and both live with their father in Pakistan.
Last year, Aman first tried to go back to China alone, but the authorities denied him entry at a border crossing without his wife. Then they returned together to Xinjiang. There, she was ordered to report every morning to the police, who gave her books on the Communist Party to read.
“When they would see anything written in Urdu, a prayer mat or something related to religion, they would seize it,” he said.After a few weeks, Aman was ordered to leave even though he had a six-month visa. He was told he could return after one month. But when he returned to China, his wife was gone.
For four months, he pestered the police every day and also threatened to take his life in public. He was finally allowed to see his wife, who was brought to a local police station for just an hour.
When the meeting ended he was told to go home to Pakistan “and stop making trouble for the administration”. He has no idea where his wife is being held.
Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2018