'My Family Has Been Broken': Pakistanis Fear For Uighur Wives Held In China Rights groups estimate as many as 1 million Uighurs are detained in Chinese camps, with the aim of stripping away their ethnic identity, suppressing their Muslim faith and ensuring loyalty to China.

'My Family Has Been Broken': Pakistanis Fear For Uighur Wives Held In China

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Take a look at a map of Asia, and you will see that Pakistan shares a border with western China. The two countries have cultivated friendly relations and, in some cases, friendly personal relations. Many Pakistani men have traveled to China for business. They've met women in the Uighur region, married and settled down. These husbands say their wives are being detained inside Xinjiang province as part of the wider crackdown on Uighurs, and it's tearing their families apart. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Mir stands outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad. He's one of half a dozen men hoping to plead their cause to officials.


HADID: Mir's Pakistani. His wife is Uighur. And until a few months ago, they lived in Xinjiang. Last August, the family came here, to Pakistan, for a visit. And when they crossed back into China, authorities detained Mir's wife. He hasn't heard from her since, and he says he's going mad with worry.

MIR: (Through interpreter) My mind just won't work. I sound incoherent. I even forget what to say in my prayers.

HADID: His two daughters hold his hands. He says his 15-year-old daughter is now raising her little sister. She looks cheery, with painted nails and glittery shoes, but Mir says she can't sleep.

MIR: (Through interpreter) She misses her mother. She asks me, will you bring her home?

HADID: Mir and others tell NPR that Chinese authorities have detained hundreds of Uighur women married to Pakistani men. We aren't using their full names because authorities might punish their wives. The men said, for a long time, they were hopeful their wives would be released because China and Pakistan have a close strategic relationship. But it's an unequal one. China's one of the world's largest economies. Pakistan needs an economic bailout and wants billions of dollars in loans from China. This is Shehryar Fazli, an analyst on Pakistan-China affairs.

SHEHRYAR FAZLI: The economic situation in Pakistan is such that the government feels like, in order to resolve this crisis, it needs patrons.

HADID: Fazli says Pakistan doesn't want to upset those patrons. And suggesting that sensitivity, Pakistani officials refuse to comment to NPR. And despite that close relationship, the wives were detained because they married men from Pakistan. Since the crackdown began, Chinese authorities have targeted Uighurs who've had contact with people from 26 countries with large Muslim populations, ranging from Sudan to Saudi Arabia.

FAZLI: Pakistan is listed in that list of 26 countries where association with these Muslim countries is considered as raising the risk that these individuals were involved in some form of militancy.

HADID: And now the men say their kids are at risk. They say some of the children of these mixed marriages have been taken away on the pretext that their parents aren't around. That's what happened to Rehman. He's a Pakistani doctor who met his wife while he was studying in Xinjiang. They had a son there before moving to Pakistan. Last year, Rehman's wife flew to Xinjiang for a visit and was detained at the airport. Security officials initially took Rehman's 6-year-old son to his Uighur grandmother. But a few weeks later, they returned.

REHMAN: (Through interpreter) They took him to an orphanage. They don't want the children to have Pakistani or Uighur customs. They want the children to become Chinese.

HADID: Rehman says he hasn't heard from his wife or son since.

REHMAN: (Through interpreter) It's a very difficult time. My family has been broken.

HADID: We spoke to another businessman - Javeid. He's Pakistani and lived in China for decades. He was married to a Uighur woman and says she was detained in October. Then, he couldn't renew his visa and had to leave the country. But authorities wouldn't let him take his two boys to Pakistan. So before he left, he told his boys he was going away for business, and he sent them to live with their Uighur relatives.

JAVEID: I take them to school. And I tell them that I'm going - sorry - I'm going to Kashgar.

HADID: Kashgar is a city in Xinjiang. But recently, a friend there told him to send $500 to his relatives, a bribe so officials wouldn't take his children. Javeid says he paid. Javeid and the other men have met with officials at Pakistan's foreign ministry, hoping they'll pressure China to free their wives. But nothing's happened so far, and they say Pakistan's close relationship with China should have helped. Instead, they fear that Pakistan's dependence on its powerful neighbor leaves them helpless.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.


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