The Black Gate: A Uyghur Family's Story, Part 1 : Up First It has been called a genocide and a possible crime against humanity. In the Xinjiang region of western China, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups have been arrested and detained. Many are still desperately searching for their families.

In this episode, the first of a two-part series, NPR's China Correspondent Emily Feng and language rights activist Abduweli Ayup tell the story of one Uyghur man and his efforts to reunite with his wife and young children, who were detained by Chinese authorities. For two years, he had no idea what had happened to them.

The Black Gate: A Uyghur Family's Story, Part 1

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United Nations said late last month that China's treatment of the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang province may constitute crimes against humanity. The accusation was part of a scathing U.N. report. There were also details about detaining people in so-called vocational, education and training centers. Investigators reportedly uncovered credible allegations of torture, forced medical treatment and sexual and gender-based violence at the centers. I'm Rachel Martin, and this is UP FIRST Sunday. And today we're thinking about a people who the U.S. State Department says are facing genocide. We're going to begin a two-part series reported by NPR's China correspondent Emily Feng with Abduweli Ayup. Today, a story of one Uyghur man and his journey to find his wife and children after they were forcibly detained by Chinese authorities and then disappeared.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Not long ago, I had a long conversation with a man named Abdullatif Kucar.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And his story was unlike any that I'd ever heard. He's Uyghur, a Turkic ethnic minority in western China that mostly practices Islam. He told me that for almost two years he lost all contact with his wife and children. Abdullatif told me it all started one December evening in 2017. This is how he remembers it. He'd been chatting with his wife, Meryem, on the phone. He was in Istanbul, and she was back in China at their home in Xinjiang, a region in western China where most Uyghurs live. Meryem was exhausted and on edge because Chinese government minders - they call themselves relatives - had been keeping a close eye on her every day.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) The relatives would come and live with us sometimes. They would even sleep there at night and have breakfast with us in the morning.

FENG: So it was only in the evenings, right before bedtime, when Meryem usually had some privacy.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) She would wash the kids, and then she would call me.

FENG: But as they chatted, Meryem heard a knock on the door. It was 10 p.m. Abdullatif felt a surge of fear.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) They don't arrest people during the day. They only arrest them at night.

FENG: And on the other end of the line, he could also hear Meryem's fear.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) She was so scared, but she told me she had to open the door. So she put the cell phone away. I heard some noises, the sound of something breaking.

FENG: After that, silence. Abdullatif tried calling Meryem back - nothing. So he frantically called family - Meryem's cousins and sisters who live nearby in Xinjiang. They got to his home early the next morning.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) They found my apartment was a mess. Everything was upside down. And our two kids were in shock by themselves at home. Our relatives went to the police station. They knew Meryem was there, but they were not allowed to meet her.

FENG: The police told them that Meryem had been arrested. So Abdullatif's cousins decided to take in the Kucars' young children - their son, Lutfullah, who was just 4 years old, and daughter, Aysu, who was 6.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) My cousins took care of our children, but then the cousins got arrested, so my sister-in-law took our children. And then she, too, was arrested.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: After that, Abdullatif lost all contact with his family. He had no idea where Meryem and the children were or what had happened to them. Years later, I reached out to the police in Xinjiang about Meryem - no answers. And COVID restrictions have made reporting in the region basically impossible. I've been reporting on the arrests and detentions in Xinjiang for five years. I've heard from literally dozens of Uyghurs who are desperately searching for family. China has been methodically attempting to dismantle their culture by imprisoning the adults and putting children in state schools. That's what Abdullatif feared had happened to his family. So he decided to try to save them against all odds.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: Abdullatif Kucar now lives full time in Istanbul, Turkey. Still, it took him time and courage before he could tell his story. It's a traumatic experience for him, and the Chinese state actively intimidates Uyghurs, even those outside of China, to keep them from sharing information. And by speaking out, Abdullatif risks the safety of all those he loves in China. Those challenges are why reporting on Xinjiang is so hard. But speaking out could also win attention and pressure China to help his family. In the second part of this story, we'll hear just what Abdullatif went through to try to free his wife and kids. But first, it's important to understand how things got to that point. In 1949, Chinese troops marched into Xinjiang and declared it part of the new communist China.

ABDUWELI AYUP: They promised autonomy for the Uyghur, the same pledge made to the Tibetans.

FENG: In the 1930s and '40s, Uyghurs and other ethnic groups had resisted Chinese occupation. They wanted their own nation state. Abdullatif Kucar's grandparents were part of that independence movement.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) My grandfather joined the war and was even the right hand man of Khoja Niyaz.

FENG: Khoja Niyaz, a famous Uyghur leader. But after communist China took control, the Kucar family history of resistance became a political stain. Abdullatif's father wasn't allowed to attend university until he joined the Communist Party and gave up Islam.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (through interpreter) But after my father finished his education in China, he started to drink alcohol, and he didn't let my mother pray. Because of these differences between my father and mother's families, they were fighting almost all the time.

FENG: Abdullatif remembers constant conflict at home between his parents. Finally, his father sued his mother for a divorce.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) He was forced to appear against his wife in court.

FENG: It was a horrible public affair. During the proceedings, Abdullatif's father turned over his mother's prayer rug as evidence of her strict Muslim faith. Later, he abandoned the family. Abdullatif's mother decided to leave China permanently. In 1986, she took Abdullatif and his older brother Abduracheep (ph) and moved to Turkey. The boys became Turkish citizens. There are now an estimated 50,000 Uyghurs living in Turkey because the language and culture are so similar. But the Kucar brothers couldn't leave China behind completely. They still had family and friends in Xinjiang. And even from afar, they could see the economy was slowly taking off. In 1990, when they were in their early 20s, the brothers opened up some restaurants in Xinjiang and later a textile export firm. China was still enforcing religious and political controls over Uyghurs. But as Abduracheep put it, it did not happen all at once.

ABDURACHEEP KUCAR: (Through interpreter) The oppression of Uyghurs was going on for many years. But the Chinese authorities did not target everyone in one day. Maybe I was too young or ignorant. But at the time I did not notice.

FENG: Throughout the 90's as their businesses grew, the brothers began to feel hopeful. Maybe China was changing. Maybe this could be home again. And there was another reason for Abdullatif's optimism. He met Meryem Aimati. She was from his hometown.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) We are both from the city of Kuqa, but we met at a party in Urumqi.

FENG: Abdullatif says they'd hang out at his restaurant in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital. It was a place where transplants from Kuqa like to go and eat. Abdullatif and Meryem were married in 1998. After their marriage, Abdullatif says he tried to convince Meryem to move to Turkey with him and trade in her Chinese passport for a Turkish one. But she said, no. I was born here, and my home is in China.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) She always loved her country, so she didn't want to leave it. She didn't want to leave behind her Chinese nationality.

FENG: So Abdullatif tried splitting his time between Turkey and China. A few months in Istanbul, then half a year in Xinjiang with Meryem. Which worked because China was trying to grow the economy and it wasn't very strict about businessmen coming in and out. But that brief window of openness in the 1990s was quickly ended after September 11, 2001.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRYANT GUMBEL: It's 8:52 here in New York. I'm Bryant Gumbel. We understand that there has been a plane crash on the southern tip of Manhattan. You're looking at the...

FENG: On 9/11, terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The attacks changed the world. And although Meryem and Abdullatif didn't know it at the time, the attacks kicked off a series of dramatic changes in China that would eventually lead to Meryem's arrest. It began with Chinese authorities interrogating Abdullatif every time he arrived from Turkey.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) They would ask, what are you doing? Who are you talking to in Turkey? How are you making money? I met basically every police officer in Urumqi. When I got to Kuqa, my hometown, they even asked me, what is my older brother doing in Turkey? - how many children he has and what his children are doing.

FENG: The U.S. war on terror had given China an opportunity to suggest that perhaps it, too, had a terrorism problem on its hands. Part of the issue was what was happening in Xinjiang. Despite Chinese controls, Uyghur culture and Islam were having a resurgence. Ornate mosques were replacing old shabby ones. Book stands started selling DVDs about the meaning of Islam, and many people began to pray five times a day. China does not like this. It begins to publicly blame historical ethnic tensions on Islamic extremism. In 2002, Chinese authorities claimed that Uyghur militants had been behind more than 200 terrorist attacks between 1990 and 2001, and it begins cracking down on Uyghurs who openly practice their faith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: Kalbinur (ph), a young Uyghur mother - she asked that I not use her last name - was living in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar as the crackdowns intensified. Kashgar was known for its Uyghur culture and religious expression. Kalbinur told me how authorities began to harass her family.

KALBINUR: (Through interpreter) Our family was clearly religious. My husband prayed five times a day, so officials would control us. They would visit us at night regularly and find any excuse to punish us. Every time anything happened in Kashgar City or neighboring cities, like a minor uprising or protest, even if it was far away, the local police station would call us and the other religious families, pick us up and bring us to the police station, where we would be interrogated or just kept there for up to five days for propaganda lessons. The police knew we had nothing to do with this, but they would interrogate us anyways.

FENG: Uyghurs said this kind of treatment was widespread. Uyghurs said they were passed over for state jobs and paid less than their Han Chinese counterparts - China's majority ethnic group. Chinese officials say Uyghurs have more economic opportunity under Communist rule. Still, I remember when I first moved to China, I was shocked to see Uyghur acquaintances turned away by hotels and taxis who just wouldn't take Uyghurs. And as more Chinese state companies and Han Chinese people moved into Xinjiang, many Uyghurs lost their land.

In July 2009, all that growing resentment finally exploded with deadly consequences in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It's been three days since bloody riots broke out, pitting ethnic Uyghur Muslims against the dominant Han Chinese. The spark - two Uyghur factory workers died in a brawl with the Han. Now 156 people have been killed and more than 1,000 injured, making it the worst ethnic violence this country has seen in decades.

FENG: After the riots, China rounds up and arrests at least a thousand - and perhaps far more - young Uyghur men. Abdullatif and Meryem were in Turkey at the time, and they watched the events with alarm. But like many Uygurs, they hoped the violence and the state repression would pass. They continued to build their lives. In 2011, their daughter Aysu was born and, in 2013, their son Lutfullah. But things were not getting better. They were getting worse. The same year Lutfullah was born, several Uyghur's rammed a car into Beijing's Tiananmen Square, wounding dozens of people and killing two pedestrians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Chinese authorities investigating the car crash in Tiananmen Square on Monday have named two suspects.

FENG: China immediately declared it a premeditated terrorist attack orchestrated by Uyghurs with ties to international extremist groups. The Chinese government blamed Uyghur militants for other attacks, too, including one in 2014 where 31 people were stabbed to death in a train station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Media reports there say several attackers boarded a train at the Kunming railway station.

FENG: There is evidence that several thousand Uyghur snuck abroad to try to train with militant groups. Some have joined al-Qaida and ISIS, and Uyghurs have been responsible for some attacks in China during the 2000s. But there was no sign extremism among Uyghurs is widespread or that they managed to set up cells in China. Still, China's response is swift, and it is brutal. In 2014, China launched the people's war on terror.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: China is waging a war on terror after a series of deadly attacks, many of them in Xinjiang.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The government quadrupled police funding for the Xinjiang region. Soon, there was a police station on nearly every city block. Authorities also cracked down on international travel. Meryem's Chinese passport was confiscated. Like most other Chinese Uyghurs, by the end of 2016, she's not allowed to travel without permission from the government. Abdullatif says he and the children also had their Turkish passports confiscated in China, trapping them in Xinjiang. Abdullatif says after that, he mainly stayed in the apartment.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) If you wanted to go outside, you had to pass through a security check. And without an ID card, you couldn't even go into your own home. We were a bit lucky because we had a special letter from the local government. Sometimes, you had to explain what the letter was to officials or wait two or three hours to get through security checks since it was not an official ID card. Sometimes we got angry, and sometimes, we could only laugh at our situation.

FENG: In part because Abdullatif and his family don't speak English, as I was reporting this story, I relied on a Uyghur reporter and translator for help. You can hear him asking Abdullatif questions. His name is Abduweli Ayup, and he, too, has his own story about China's crackdown.

So tell me a little bit about yourself. How do you want to be introduced?

AYUP: Language rights activist and a writer and former political prisoner.

FENG: Like Abdullatif and Meryem, Abduweli also lived in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, working as a Uyghur language teacher and writer. But his dream was to start a string of Uyghur-language kindergartens in Xinjiang so his own young daughter and other children could learn their mother tongue and keep the Uyghur language alive.

AYUP: This is our last point. This is our last front to stand. We will not compromise this. We shouldn't lose our language.

FENG: Abduweli launched a popular website about preserving the Uyghur language. But as China geared up for the people's war on terror, authorities turned on him.

AYUP: So yeah. But at the end, yeah, unfortunately - yeah, everything changed.

FENG: In August 2013, Abduweli was arrested and interrogated. Teaching Uyghur, preserving Uyghur culture, was now seen as treason, an act of challenging party rule of Xinjiang.

AYUP: I was questioned like that, you are a separatist. You are going to build a country, and it's your goal. I said no. I had never thought about it. It's really hard at the time to explain that I'm not the one who are interested in politics, who are interested in religious movement or any kind of modern language movement. But I failed to explain at the end.

FENG: You'll be hearing more of Abduweli later in the story, but he spent the next 15 months in a Xinjiang prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: It's August 2016, and Abdullatif and his family have been trapped in Xinjiang for nearly a year. Abdullatif decides to do one thing that's still allowed. He takes his family on a road trip through Xinjiang, driving from Urumqi in the north, through Korla, to the famous Uyghur city of Hotan in the southwest. What they see shocks them.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) We set off from Urumqi and drove in to Korla. On the way, we saw such a huge number of tanks. I said to myself, what a horrible thing this is. No one dared to ask why there were so many tanks.

FENG: Unbeknownst to him, Chinese authorities were preparing for something top secret. It would be even bigger than the people's war on terror.

Back in Beijing, I was hearing whispers about something Uyghurs called the black gate. People said more and more Uyghurs were being sent in but they didn't come out. So I started digging, and people spoke to me, despite the danger in doing so. Leaked documents, internal speeches, China's own state media reports and investigative work from journalists have since illuminated the militarization of the region and a vast network of detention camps - the black gates that China built to inter hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: These detainees can be seen in this video, tied, their heads shaved, shepherded into trains.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Well, it's probably the largest internment of an ethnic or religious minority since the Holocaust.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: How this happens is outlined in meticulous detail in these secret documents, including...

FENG: At first, China denied these camps existed. But later, under international scrutiny, authorities switched tactics and started calling them vocational education and employment training centers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TSU GUISONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: In this Chinese state press conference, Xinjiang Regional Government Spokesperson Tsu Guisong (ph) defends the camps, saying, quote, "The Xinjiang issue is not at all a democracy, human rights or religious issue, but is rather an issue of opposing terrorism, extremism, separatism and interference. The vocational training centers are to eradicate terrorism and religious extremism at its roots."

The idea is to identify any Uyghur who's exhibited what the Chinese consider worrying signs they're sympathetic to extremism and send them to be educated in Communist Party ideology and Mandarin Chinese so they can be more, quote, "Chinese." The scale of these detentions appears to have shrunk in recent years. But from 2017 to 2021, the State Department estimates more than 1 million historically Muslim minority adults were detained. Leaked government documents highlight how arbitrary such detentions were from this period. For example, officials in southern Karakax County in Xinjiang detained people for reasons including men having long beards, women who wore a veil and Uyghurs who'd applied for a passport.

Kalbinur, the young mother you heard earlier whose family is openly religious, says that by 2013, daily life became nearly impossible.

KALBINUR: (Through interpreter) People began disappearing. There were a lot of soldiers patrolling around. Some ladies started to take their head coverings off. Many isolated at home instead of going out without coverings for fear of police. I was one of them. My life became very isolated.

FENG: Anyone seen as a religious or intellectual figure in the Uyghur community was taken away. Abduweli, the translator and Uyghur language teacher, had many friends who were sent to detention or, worse, to prison around this time. Many had served the Chinese government as professors or public servants, but now they were seen as traitors.

AYUP: I think the main reason is they are a pillar of Uyghur culture. They are producer of cultural products. They produced historical novels. They produce songs, and they produce, like, something related to Uyghur and something for Uyghur. They can unite. They can organize people. I think because of those reason, because of their influence among the Uyghur population.

FENG: Abdullatif and his family were still in Xinjiang as the first wave of detentions started unfolding. But then a curious thing happened. Authorities gave Abdullatif back his Turkish passport. Abdullatif says he was deported and told not to come back to China. However, Meryem and the children, Aysu and Lutfullah, couldn't go with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: Before he goes, Abdullatif tells his family he'll see them soon. He prays they'll get their passports back and they can reunite in Istanbul.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) In the last moments before I had to leave, Lutfullah went to the front door and suddenly burst into tears. He had never cried like that before. When I said I was leaving, he ignored me. But after I got into the car, he sobbed and fell down on the floor.

FENG: Once he is back in Istanbul, Abdullatif is helpless to stop what happens next - Meryem's arrest and her disappearance into China's detention system. The children are gone, too. Abdullatif has no idea what's happened to them or how he'll ever get them back, but he decides to try anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: That journey next week on UP FIRST Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Next Sunday, we'll continue the story of Abdullatif Kucar and the search for his missing family. The music you're listening to right now is a folk song called "Nazugum" by Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit. He was arrested by Chinese authorities in 2017, reportedly in connection with a Uyghur-language song he had performed. In 2019, amid rumors of his death, the government released a video of the musician in which he said he was in good health and under investigation for allegedly violating national laws. We should say it's currently impossible to verify Heyit's well-being and whether he made the statements in the video under duress. Heyit hasn't been heard from since.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAZUGUM")

ABDUREHIM HEYIT: (Singing in non-English language).

MARTIN: This story was reported by Emily Feng with Abduweli Ayup. Phoebe Wang produced the episode. Our editor is Jenny Schmidt. Justine Yan is our assistant producer. Fact-checking by Naomi Sharp with help from William Chase. Mastering by Gilly Moon. Abduweli Ayup provided help with translation and interpretation. Additional translation by Kasim Abdurehim Kashgar (ph). Mehmet Jun Juma (ph), Mukharas (ph) and Kasim Abdurehim Kashgar did our voiceovers. Music by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Lee Hale, Shirley Henry, Ariana Gharib Lee, Gregory Warner, Durrie Bouscaren, Vanessa Castillo and the Kucar family for sharing their story. Anya Grundmann leads our team. The supervising producer of UP FIRST Sunday is Liana Simstrom. I'm Rachel Martin, and we'll be back again tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Meanwhile, have a great rest of your weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAZUGUM")

HEYIT: (Singing in non-English language).

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