A Uyghur man returns to China to find his wife and children : Up First In the second and final part of our series "The Black Gate: A Uyghur's Family's Story," a Uyghur man returns to China to find his children who've been sent to "boarding schools" and his wife who's spent two years in prison. 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.

The Black Gate: A Uyghur Family's Story, Part 2

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is UP FIRST Sunday. I'm Rachel Martin, and today we're thinking about people under siege. We're bringing you the second part of "The Black Gate: A Uyghur Family's Story." It's about a Uyghur Muslim man and his struggle to find his wife and children after they were detained by Chinese authorities. For years, the Chinese government has been arresting and imprisoning Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang. The detentions have been described by the U.S. government as genocide and by the U.N. as possibly constituting crimes against humanity. If you haven't listened to the first part, we recommend starting there. Today, Emily Feng and Abduweli Ayup continue the story of Abdullatif Kucar, a man desperate to find and bring his family home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: When we last left off, Abdullatif Kucar, a husband and father, had been deported from China's Xinjiang region. He's had to leave behind his two young children - Aysu and Lutfullah - and his wife, Meryem. They hoped Chinese authorities would eventually give them back their passports so they could reunite. But in the meantime, they stayed connected by video chatting.

ABDULLATIF KUCAR: (Through interpreter) We would just talk about our daily lives, like what we had for breakfast and such. But later, even these calls were banned by community officials. They set specific times for when we were allowed to call each other. But we were told that they could see and listen to what we were talking about. So Meryem and I talked less and less.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: Then late one night in 2017, one of their nightly chats gets interrupted when Chinese authorities break into the Kucars' apartment and arrest Meryem. Three months later, the family members taking care of the Kucar children are arrested, too, Abdullatif says, and the kids disappear. They aren't the only ones in this situation. In Xinjiang, so many adults are taken away during this period that many children have no one left to care for them. The Chinese government acknowledges a boom in boarding schools in Xinjiang, and my own reporting suggests that many children whose parents were detained were sent to these schools.

As for Abdullatif, he can only watch this nightmare unfold from afar. He's stuck in Turkey and has no idea what's happened to Aysu and Lutfullah. Friends and relatives in Xinjiang won't pick up the phone or they tell him, don't call us ever again. Everyone is terrified. Abdullatif's wife, Meryem, is a Chinese national, but his children - they are Turkish citizens. So he does the only thing he can from Turkey. He starts lobbying Turkish ministers, demanding they help him get his kids back.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) I couldn't sleep. Every day, I had tears in my eyes. I nearly lost my voice because I was lobbying parliamentarians, ministers, mayors all the time. I kept searching for officials to meet. And whenever I met them, I would give them all the documents I had about my family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: As NPR's China correspondent, I started hearing more and more reports of Uyghur parents who had managed to leave China when the detentions began but lost their children. One of these parents is Kalbinur (ph). Kalbinur says she left her children behind in Xinjiang in 2016 and went to Turkey to give birth to her seventh child because authorities were cracking down on women violating China's birth restrictions. And while she was away, one by one, the adults in her family were detained. And then her children disappeared, too.

KALBINUR: (Through interpreter) My sister was able to tell me that my husband had been sentenced to at least 10 years in prison. I have not been able to talk to my family since after that conversation with my sister. They won't answer the phone.

FENG: They won't answer the phone, she thinks, either because they could get arrested for talking to people abroad or they're already in prison, too. So Kalbinur and other Uyghur parents in Turkey started forming Facebook and WhatsApp groups to communicate. And together, they desperately scoured Chinese social media, hoping they might catch glimpses of their loved ones in state propaganda videos. In late December 2018, Kalbinur sees a TikTok video they found.

KALBINUR: (Through interpreter) It was a random video, and when it began to play, of course, I recognized her immediately.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AYSHE: (Non-English language spoken)

KALBINUR: (Through interpreter) It was my daughter, Ayshe (ph). The video shows a lot of children in uniforms - girls wearing one color, boys in another. They're sitting around a table with drinking cups, and they're learning Chinese. They're learning Chinese words for ears and eyes and so on. In the background, I can see a room with beds, so it's like a dormitory.

FENG: Kalbinur sees her little girl, Ayshe, with her head shaved. She's dressed in a uniform, so it looks like she's in Chinese school with other Uyghur children. It's a terrifying hint of what their children might be going through.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: For Abdullatif Kucar, this kind of scenario is his worst nightmare - the idea that his children, Lutfullah and Aysu, might be in state schools without family and love, a place where they might be trained to reject their Uyghur identity. And here's where Abdullatif's story diverges from that of Kalbinur's and so many others that I've heard in my five years reporting on Xinjiang. After nearly two years pleading publicly for the return of his family, he actually hears back from the Chinese government. Abdullatif's brother, Abduracheep (ph) remembers this moment.

ABDURACHEEP: (Through interpreter) He got a message from the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry. They told him, we have received information about your bid to get your children back. You and your family are smearing the government. But if you want your kids back, apply for a visa to return to China.

FENG: Abdullatif was scared after this phone call. For two years, since he was deported, China had forbidden him to return. Now they were telling him to come back. Was it a trap? It was impossible to know. Abdullatif says the Chinese government also had very specific conditions under which he could return.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) The Turkish government met with the Chinese Embassy to negotiate and help me get a visa to China. The Turkish diplomat said that after you go to China, you have to follow China's plans. You can't live in your own house because they will arrange accommodation for you, and you have to report back to the Chinese Embassy once you've returned to Turkey.

FENG: Of course, Abdullatif cannot guarantee his own safety if he returns to Xinjiang. And, of course, he says, yes, I'll go - anything for his family. So in November 2019, two years after his wife, Meryem, was arrested, Abdullatif gets on a plane and flies to China. The following is Abdullatif's account of how events unfolded. We confirmed dates of travel, but the rest is from his memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: Abdullatif lands in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang and his home with Meryem for more than two decades. He immediately feels something is wrong. First, there's the security presence. He's not allowed to live in his own apartment, which has been empty since Meryem's arrest. Instead, he's driven by police straight from the airport to a special hotel.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) The police reserved three rooms in the hotel. Their doors were all kept open and my room was in between their rooms. When I went out, five or six police followed me in two patrol cars.

FENG: Abduracheep would later tell me that his brother was especially shaken by the behavior of those he'd been close to.

ABDURACHEEP: (Through interpreter) Even in Urumqi, when he tried to call some of his friends, the ones who did pick up would say they'd call him back, but then never picked up their phones again. When he saw people he knew, they'd turned their backs and went another way. Everyone was afraid.

FENG: So day after day, Abdullatif waits in a local community office, where Uyghurs come in and out, registering their identity papers. He keeps asking, when do I get to see my children? And he starts to panic. Maybe they've tricked him into coming to China.

KUCAR: (Through Interpreter) They lied to me every day. They kept telling me, not today, tomorrow. But then, 10 days had gone by, and they still hadn't let me see the children. I couldn't take it anymore. So I told them directly, if you don't let me meet them, I'm going back to Turkey.

FENG: Abdullatif continues to go to the community center, day after day. Then, one cold and snowy December morning, he's told the reunification is finally happening.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) Officials tell me that the kids are on their way now. I go outside to wait for the car. Then a police car drives into the yard.

FENG: Abdullatif hears knocking at the car window.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) I heard shouting from the car. Then I saw them.

FENG: There, in the police car, are his children, Lutfullah and Aysu.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) They ran to me just like a bullet from a gun. It was the hardest moment in my life. I can hardly describe it. I can only remember that I held them. Then I lost consciousness. I don't know what happened to me. It was like my heart just stopped beating.

FENG: He actually faints from emotion. And when he comes to...

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) I found myself on the muddy ground. There was someone feeling my forehead. The kids were on top of me. Then someone pulled me up and took our picture.

FENG: Abdullatif realizes there's a state photographer following them. He was furiously snapping away, so Chinese propagandists can use this moment later in state media. He also starts to notice Aysu and Lutfullah don't seem to understand the Uyghur he's speaking to them.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) They spoke Chinese to me. And when they spoke to each other, they used Chinese a hundred percent of the time. I couldn't understand at all. I told them to speak Uyghur to me.

FENG: They can't. They seem to have forgotten their native language, especially Lutfullah.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) He spoke Chinese just like a bird singing.

FENG: So Abdullatif uses a kind of pidgin Chinese - a few phrases he knows mixed with Uyghur words - to talk to his kids.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) I didn't think of it as a language barrier. We could understand each other simply by looking at each other. They looked at me with smiles. I smiled at them, kissed them, held them. I could not find the words to describe how happy I was.

FENG: Abdullatif's Chinese handlers tell him he can bring the kids back to Turkey. They're foreign citizens, and China doesn't want them. This is the reason Abdullatif's story is different from most Uyghurs, the reason he could get his kids back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: But there's one last thing to do, and that's to find Meryem. He's told she's being kept in a women's prison in the city of Kuqa. So he flies to Kuqa with the kids under heavy surveillance. Abdullatif says his hotel was surrounded by about 100 soldiers and 50 or 60 police officers.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) They started ordering me to take out all my documents, checking my suitcase, my passport and marriage certificate. I asked them, who are you and why are you treating me like this? They said, shut up and don't ask anything. A Han Chinese person told me to get in his car and said to me, I am the one who will take you around. But you can't ask my name, and you can't ask me who I work for. In fact, you can't ask any questions. And that's how I traveled.

FENG: The officers tell Abdullatif that he and the kids have gotten special permission to visit Meryem in Kuqa's central hospital. Abdullatif says he was told she'd be moved there from the women's prison as a concession to Turkish diplomats who'd negotiated the visit. I should mention that we reached out to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, but they declined to be interviewed for this story. China's foreign ministry and the Xinjiang government didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

To get into the hospital, Aysu, Lutfullah and Abdullatif undergo a thorough security check and are told how to behave.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) Our minders gave us 30 minutes of instruction, and the inspection was very strict. Even the children's hair was checked.

FENG: And they're told, do not hug Meryem too tightly or cry when you see her.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) When we got into the room, the kids ran into their mother's arms. She was sitting on the bed, but she could not get down. She must have wanted to run to us and hold us. But no, she could only just sit on the bed.

FENG: Abdullatif is shocked at her physical state. She's lost so much weight, she doesn't seem to be able to stand.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) I told my wife to be hopeful God will help us. But she held my hand and said, don't say God in front of me.

FENG: Meryem also seems to have lost all her hair. She tries to comfort Aysu and Lutfullah, telling them she's just receiving medical treatment. And despite the explicit instructions he's been given, Abdullatif starts to cry.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) I grabbed my wife's hand. There was no flesh at all, and I saw the shadow of handcuffs on her hand. When we had to leave, I hugged my wife. I lifted her directly off the bed. When I put her down, her legs were so weak that she could not stand. I didn't want to let her go, but the staff started yelling at me. What are you doing? Why don't you obey us? That's when I said to myself, what's the point of living like this? But my children grabbed my hand. I looked at them, and I thought, I have to raise these two children. I have to live for the children.

FENG: In total, they get about 15 minutes with Meryem, and then they're ushered out. That's when Abdullatif says he's told he can't take her back to Turkey. She's been sentenced to 20 years in prison for colluding with terrorist organizations. The alleged proof was that Meryem had taken a picture with Turkish President Recep Erdogan some years earlier during one of his state visits to China. Turkey has complicated relations with China, and the picture was used as evidence Meryem had suspicious ties to communities of separatist Uyghurs abroad. What haunts Abdullatif to this day is how Meryem must be suffering in Xinjiang. From what the family knows, she is still in a Xinjiang women's prison where malnutrition, overcrowding and sexual abuse have been reported.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) I have experienced unbelievably difficult days. I do not know whether it's a test from God or what.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: After their visit with Meryem, Abdullatif and the children leave China for good. They return to Istanbul. Late last year, Abduweli and I were able to interview the family in their Istanbul home. Abdullatif, Aysu and Lutfullah live there with Abdullatif's second wife, Nuriman (ph). It's unusual, but not unheard of in Uyghur culture to have more than one wife. It's been more than two years since the kids got out of Xinjiang. In some ways, the kids seem like themselves again. They're quiet and polite, and they love playing chess with their father.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Nuriman says they have come a long way since first arriving in Turkey.

NURIMAN: (Through interpreter) They were like a living corpse in total shock. They didn't even know how to talk and what to say of where they had come from. Somehow, we felt like we were in a dream. I didn't know what to say. My children were just looking around in shock.

FENG: Abdullatif immediately brought Lutfullah and Aysu to a doctor to check for signs of physical or sexual abuse.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) The doctor was very careful, checking everything from their hair to their toenails. He was worried the children's internal organs had been poisoned, about whether they had taken any medicine and so on.

FENG: Nuriman, their stepmother, says they were found to be very malnourished. She started filling them up on Uyghur dishes.

NURIMAN: (Through interpreter) Both of them are particularly weak in the body and lack nutritions.

FENG: Nuriman's really stepped in as their surrogate mother. And throughout our interview with her, she kept calling Aysu and Lutfullah her children. Over time, Abdullatif has been able to piece together what happened to Aysu and Lutfullah while they'd been separated. He learned through conversations with his children that in February 2018, a few months after Meryem's arrest, authorities took Aysu, who was 6 at the time, and Lutfullah, who was 4, and put them in separate boarding schools specifically for Uyghur children without parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: These schools are among at least 1,300 boarding schools set up across the Xinjiang region according to Education Ministry documents. Xinjiang local governments have been scrubbing their websites of all references to the boarding schools. But an official education report from 2017, which is the year before the Kucar children were sent to the schools, says nearly half a million children had already been enrolled by the start of that year. And until Aysu and Lutfullah, no one I'd ever met had been able to get their children out. Abdullatif had done the nearly impossible. He'd found his children and brought them back home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: I first heard about the Kucars through Abduweli Ayup, the language teacher who'd been arrested for starting a Uyghur kindergarten. After spending 15 months in prison, Abduweli was eventually released. He now lives in Norway with his family, and he helped report this story with me.

ABDUWELI AYUP: It's really heartbreaking because of - my niece is in Chinese boarding school. Is in Urumqi, Yeah, like, it's personal for me because those kids are just like my niece.

FENG: Abduweli went to visit the Kucars in Istanbul and translated when I spoke to them. During one conversation, Abduweli and Abdullatif together asked Aysu about the physical punishment she faced. This is the first time a Uyghur child who went through one of these Chinese state schools is sharing their account publicly.

AYUP: (Non-English language spoken).

AYSU: (Non-English language spoken).

AYUP: Aysu is saying here, the big sisters at the school beat us. They would not let us cry. The teachers wouldn't punish us, but when we went back to our dormitory, the big sisters would physically punish us there behind the closed door. There was nothing we could say.

FENG: The big sisters and big brothers - older Uyghur students tasked with monitoring the younger students. Both Aysu and Lutfullah remember one punishment in particular. They call it the motorcycle.

AYUP: (Non-English language spoken).

AYSU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: When Abduweli asks them to show him, both Aysu and Lutfullah squat and hold their arms straight out. Holding the motorcycle position for long periods of time is exhausting and painful. Abduweli says he had to do the same punishment when he was in prison.

AYUP: Like, that Lutfullah. He told me that they punished him - like, that motorcycle, that way. I hold him and I cried because of - I had experienced that when I was in detention. And he told me that they ask him to stand against the wall - like, hands up - your hands like this. And it also the common practice in jail. And another third one - he told me that they ask you to stand one feet, like this. It's also common practice in the jail. Like, I had never imagined those kids punished like adults. Yeah, because they are kids. How could that be possible?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: While in the boarding school, Aysu told her father she eventually lost all her hair. Both kids had their heads shaved when Abdullatif picked them up.

AYUP: Aysu says the dormitory monitors would beat her and pull her hair enough so that all her hair fell out.

FENG: Each day in the boarding school, the kids say their routine was the same - get up, make their bed military-style, eat together, then take Chinese class. After classes...

AYUP: Aysu says after class, she would go back to the dormitory, watch some television, then do homework. They weren't allowed to talk while doing homework, which they had to finish before watching television. I asked her what she did after she was done with all that. She said, she just would stare at the ceiling in a daze if she couldn't sleep.

FENG: They were also punished if they spoke Uyghur to each other. Only Chinese was allowed. And each day, they went to class where they learned patriotic Chinese songs. Here's Abdullatif remembering one song his children kept singing when they first arrived in Turkey.

KUCAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Songs praising Grandfather Xi Jinping and Father Wang Junzheng. The latter is the former security chief of Xinjiang who has been sanctioned by numerous governments, including the U.S. government, for human rights abuses. Aysu and Lutfullah refuse to sing the song now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: After the kids are settled in Istanbul, Abdullatif enrolls them in school. It is a tough transition. Remember, they'd forgotten both their native Turkish and Uyghur languages. Abduweli and I had the chance to speak to one of Lutfullah's teachers. He didn't want to be named in the interview because discussing China's actions in Xinjiang is sensitive even in Turkey.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: (Through interpreter) When I compare with other children, Lutfullah is very calm, but he cannot speak. He cannot express himself. I did not have this problem with other children. They, too, were Uyghurs, children from Xinjiang. They had no such problem in their ability to understand and express themselves.

FENG: And the teacher notices that Lutfullah is extremely fearful. He asks for permission to do everything.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: (Through interpreter) When Lutfullah needs to go to the toilet, we let him go himself whenever he wants because the toilet is quite low. But Lutfullah does not go himself. I think he is unable to ask me for permission. His stepmother came to school and told us, teacher, can you ask him if he needs to go to the bathroom? He can't tell you himself.

FENG: When he visited the Kucars, Abduweli also had a hard time getting Lutfullah to express himself.

AYUP: He always have a feeling of negotiating between himself. Is it right or wrong? Is it right or wrong? I have this feeling too. I still have this feeling. I always in hesitation. I always negotiate myself. I should do it or not. I should do it or not. I should do it - because of its - if you frequently punished, and you have this feeling, you are not decisive.

FENG: Months after returning to Turkey, the kids both continue to bear the mental scars of that experience.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) They would talk in their sleep and gnash their teeth. My daughter would jump around while sleeping, just like a cat. She would keep saying no, no, in her sleep. My son also could not sleep well, so I would sit all night by his side watching him. It took about 3 to 4 months before they stopped talking in their sleep.

FENG: Aysu and Lutfullah later tell their father they were sometimes kept in solitary confinement in the dark. Even now, they're afraid of sleeping without the lights on. Abduweli was shaken when he heard this. He was also punished in this way and experiences the same fear.

AYUP: At night, I am afraid of voiceless. I am afraid of living alone, and he's the same. He cannot even go from one room to another room alone if he is alone at home. Like, those trauma reminded me that - like, I saw from his eyes different version of me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: Today, both Aysu and Lutfullah are still in the middle of a long recovery process. They're physically healthy now, they're fluent in Turkish, and they say they've forgotten all their Chinese. They're going to art therapy. And after school, they attend Uyghur language classes. For Abdullatif, his children are his biggest hope now. He wants them to grow up happy and go to university. That was his and Meryem's dream for them, an opportunity he was denied growing up in China. Aysu has already said she wants to become a doctor. But Abdullatif feels like he's running out of time. As unlikely as it seems, he still hopes that one day they can all be reunited with Meryem. But last year, he was diagnosed with cancer.

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) The illness is bothering me, but the hope is supporting me too. I am praying for Allah. I am taking every measure. If my illness gets better, I am not going to stop. If Meryem is alive, I am going to keep up my activism. If I never see Meryem again, I will become a different Abdullatif.

FENG: Just before police broke into Meryem's apartment, she sent Abdullatif a video. She was going to the market with Lutfullah. You can hear him chattering excitedly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERYEM: (Non-English language spoken).

LUTFULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

MERYEM: (Non-English language spoken).

KUCAR: (Through interpreter) I cried every time I watched the video, but I couldn't allow my mother to see me, so I cried behind closed doors, or I'd walk to a park near our house. But at the park. I'd see other kids playing, and that reminded me of my own kids. I would ask myself, what was their crime?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: That question hangs in the air for anyone who has studied or reported on Xinjiang. It floats unsaid among Uyghurs looking for their lost families and in the minds of people who've seen loved ones imprisoned or hurt. What exactly was their crime?

(SOUNDBITE OF RAHIMA MAHMUT SONG, "MY DEAR SON, WHEN WILL YOU RETURN?")

MARTIN: You're listening to the song, "My Dear Son, When Will You Return?" It's by Uyghur singer and activist Rahima Mahmut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY DEAR SON, WHEN WILL YOU RETURN?")

RAHIMA MAHMUT: (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 Robert Rodriguez. Abduweli Ayup provided help with translation and interpretation. Additional translation by Kasim Abdurehim Kashgar (ph). Mehmet Jun Juma (ph), Mukharas (ph), Lee Hale, Sabine Gusbeth (ph) and Kasim Abdurehim Kashgar did our voiceovers. Music by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to 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. UP FIRST will be back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Meanwhile, have a great rest of your weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY DEAR SON, WHEN WILL YOU RETURN?")

MAHMUT: (Singing in non-English language).

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