It was supposed to be a routine trip home to Xinjiang for Mamutjan Abdurehim’s wife and two children.
That was five years ago. He says he hasn’t seen them since.
Mamutjan’s wife Muherrem took their daughter and son from Malaysia back to the region in western China to get a new passport in December 2015. They remain trapped there, he said, caught up in the sweeping government crackdown against Muslim minorities that has reportedly seen up to 2 million people arbitrarily detained in vast camps across Xinjiang.
China has denied the allegations of human rights abuses in the region, saying the camps are necessary to prevent religious extremism and terrorism.
Mamutjan said his family, who are ethnically Uyghur, are unable to leave China, while he would be at risk of being detained or imprisoned if he returned. He is now living in Adelaide, Australia.
This week, a CNN team tracked down Mamutjan’s 10-year-old daughter Muhlise at her paternal grandparents’ home in the city of Kashgar, in southern Xinjiang.
When asked if she has a message for her father, whom she hasn’t spoken to since 2017, Muhlise began to cry. “I miss him,” she said.
When Mamutjan watched the video from his home in Adelaide, he struggled to fight back his tears.
“I can’t believe how tall (my daughter) is now … What kind of country does this to innocent people?” he said.
In a new report released Thursday, Amnesty International estimated there may be thousands of Uyghur families like Mamutjan’s worldwide, parents and children who have been separated for years as a result of the Chinese government’s tightening grip on Xinjiang.
Under the leadership of the country’s all-powerful President Xi Jinping, Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have allegedly been subject to a government-engineered program of mass incarceration, forced indoctrination and even sterilization.
According to the Amnesty International report, some parents who fled the region in the early days of the crackdown have been unable to reunite with their children. Others, like Mamutjan, found themselves on opposite sides of the ocean by accident, and now fear returning to Xinjiang.
Alkan Akad, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said the separation of parents and children isn’t all accidental. In some cases, it can be a deliberate tactic by authorities.
“The Chinese government wants to gain a leverage over the Uyghur population residing abroad, so that they would be able to stop them from engaging in activism and speaking out for their families and their relatives in Xinjiang,” said Akad, who authored the new report.
Speaking at a news briefing on March 15, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang were “baseless and sensational.”
“Xinjiang-related issues are not human rights issues at all. They are in essence about countering violent terrorism, radicalization and separatism,” he said.
The Chinese government has not responded to CNN’s detailed questions on any of the families mentioned in the article, or on the scale of the family separations between Uyghurs in Xinjiang and abroad.
‘We did not deserve all of this”
The last time that Mamutjan said his family were all together – him, his wife and their two children – was in Malaysia in 2015.
Back then, Mamutjan said he was studying for his doctorate degree in Muslim World Studies, with a full scholarship, while his wife, Muherrem was learning English. He said his daughter Muhlise was in kindergarten and “very active,” always running around everywhere, playing in parks and on the university campus. His son was only six months old.
“We were quite happy. We had no major troubles in life,” he said.
In December that year, Mamutjan said, his wife went back to Xinjiang with the two children. According to Mamutjan, she had lost her passport and the Chinese embassy in Malaysia had refused to issue her a new one unless she went back to her hometown of Kashgar.
Her passport was renewed in 2016, but Mamutjan said his wife wasn’t able to leave immediately due to some financial issues. Then, around the beginning of 2017, her travel documents and those of the children were confiscated by authorities.
A few months later, he said his wife vanished. “I was in constant contact with my wife before April 15, 2017. We would chat daily, video chat with the children. And in the middle of April 2017, she promptly disappeared from (Chinese messaging app) WeChat,” he said.
“I called home the following day and my mom told me that she was gone for a short period of time, for a short study course … And I realized that she was detained.”
Mamutjan said he hasn’t spoken to his wife since. Initially he was worried his children might have been sent to state-run orphanages, but later received social media videos showing them still living separately with their grandparents from each side.
Worried for his safety, Mamutjan said he left Malaysia and moved to Australia. There was no word from his family for years – Uyghurs in Xinjiang can be placed in detention for only minor perceived infractions, including for contacting relatives abroad, according to leaked records seen by CNN, and it is common for families still in Xinjiang to cut communications.
Then in May 2019, Mamutjan said, he saw a social media video of his son, then age 4, excitedly shouting, “My mom has graduated!” The Chinese government insists the internment camps are “vocational training centers” and detainees are “students,” and Mamutjan took his son’s joyful cheering to mean his wife had been released.