Written by Askar M.
Edited by Christopher Gross, T. Ganz, and the Uyghur Cases Team
When Hesenjan Qari left Kazakhstan to visit his family in February 2017, his wife Gulshan had no reason to suspect that he would never come back. His relatives in Urumqi, China, had been calling him saying, “You have to visit here, things are not going well, people are taken to camps or to inner cities of China.” His family’s distress confused him. Chinese officials contacted Hesenjan, a Chinese citizen, asking him to return to China to answer some questions. Hesenjan and his wife, Gulshan, agreed that it would be best for him to make a brief visit back to his family. The trip would have to be quick, as Gulshan was three months pregnant. He would return to her and their five other children soon.
One week after arriving in Urumqi, Hesenjan received a phone call from a government official asking him to come in for questioning. When he arrived, the officers seized his passport and Kazakhstan resident card, prohibiting him from returning home. Over the next seven months, he was unable to return home, or to give his wife, Gulshan, any idea about when he might be able to. They spoke over WeChat, though he could not give any details on what exactly was keeping him or whether he planned on returning during their monitored conversations. When she asked when he would be back, he could only say, “things are not going well. I hope you take care of yourself and the kids. I should have stayed there instead of having gone on this trip.”
That October, Gulshan finally learned more about her husband’s fate. He was going to be ‘re-educated’ at a camp, but uncertain of how long or for what purpose. She still has clear memories of the call. “The day he was taken, he had some idea of what was happening. He called me to say he was going to be taken to a camp,” Gulshan remembers.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be back or not.” he said.
“What are you going to do?” she asked. “Why are you being sent to a camp?”
“To study,” he said.
“But you’re old,” she told him. “You’re almost fifty.”
He said that one of his relatives—almost eighty years old— was already studying in the same camp. “Age is irrelevant,” he said.
Since then, not another word. It’s almost as if he had vanished.
Hesenjan Qari was born in Atush, in Northwestern China, and started a career in business after finishing middle school, spending many years as a textile trader between China and Central Asia. He met his wife, Gulshan Manapova, in Uzbekistan in 1997. Gulshan Manapova is a citizen of Uzbekistan who grew up speaking Uyghur and Russian. Her family had escaped from China to Kazakhstan in 1969. They married in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Over the years, their marriage was happy and they excitedly built a family and a future together. They had six children and developed a family business in Kazakhstan, opening a fabric shop in 2017. When his family called asking for him to return, nobody had any reason to suspect that the Chinese state might have an interest in him.
Today we know much more about what is happening to Uyghurs in China. Between one and three million Uyghurs have been rounded up into concentration camps, where they are indoctrinated into communist ideology, and taught Chinese culture and to reject Islamic practice. The family members who are not incarcerated in this way are given Han Chinese ‘relatives,’ people who may visit, or live with, Uyghur families to ensure that they are adopting Chinese political and cultural values, and not engaging in traditional or religious practices. The list of things for which Uyghurs may be sent for ‘re-education’ is long, and includes expressing interest in or sympathy for foreign ideas, such as democracy, and practicing Islam or owning religious books or artifacts. Even communicating with people outside of China can be cause for internment.
Hesenjan had a few conversations with his family after he was imprisoned. According to Raziya, his daughter, “Every phone conversation lasted 5 minutes and was held in Chinese language. In fact, my father could only speak in Uyghur. He used to beg me and my older sister to teach him Russian, but he was never able to learn because his pronunciation was bad. I heard all he could say in Chinese was ‘how are you?’ and ‘how is it going?’ I know it must have been difficult for him to express himself in Chinese, and I wonder how he has been doing.”
After he was imprisoned, Raziya married. She said, “Before my marriage I asked his family in Atush to talk to him one more time to ask his permission. I heard he told them ‘Go for it, do not wait for me, as long as her mom agrees, I wish all the best for her married life.’
“It was heartbreaking getting married without my father’s attendance. I even hesitated to do it. Even on my wedding day I was crying hard. It was supposed to be the happiest day of my life, but my mind was all about my father. About what he said on the phone, and how I wished that he was there for me, holding my hand and giving me away himself. Mom was heartbroken to see me crying that hard.”
Gulshan, Raziya, and other family members submitted appeals to the Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan governments to ask for help. In February of 2019, the Chinese government responded with a letter saying he was being “re-educated” in a camp and foreign countries have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of other states. The coldness of their statement reflects the complicit nature of the CCP to indulge in crimes against humanity.
Raziya said, “My siblings are of the age that need a father’s love. The youngest one cries for him sometimes, saying he wants to see dad, and ‘where is dad.’ My other siblings are starting to question if dad is a bad person, and why he is in prison. We don’t know how to answer their questions. Even when we try to tell them they are too young to understand. They say ‘other kids have their dad, where is ours?’ My younger sister said, ‘why doesn’t dad come to pick me up from school?’ It is even harder for my mom to see her children having a hard time like this. She has been having health problems since then and gets sick more often, staying in bed for weeks.”’
“All I want is to be with my mother and father at the same time. Whenever I think about him, I wonder if he has lost a lot of weight, has had his head shaven, and is forced to work for the CCP. He was a fit and healthy man and now I imagine he is lifting heavy things or wearing heavy irons on his hands and feet; reading propaganda every day about communist ideology. His older brother, Imam Husan Qari, was a state governor worker in Atush, also taken to the same camp as my dad, and he passed away in that camp. I cannot imagine if he witnessed his own brother’s death and bearing the pain in himself; losing mental stability with each passing day.”