My wife was detained, released, and disappeared again in China. Here’s my message on behalf of my people, the Uighurs.

Mamutjan Abdurehim and his family at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in May 2015. Courtesy of Mamutjan Abdurehim
  • Mamutjan Abdurehim is from Kashgar, Xinjiang – the Chinese region known now for its severe surveillance, arbitrary detentions, and forced labour.
  • Abdurehim was separated from his wife and two young children in 2015, when they were forced to return to Xinjiang under the guise of a goverment request for a passport renewal. He stayed in Malaysia, where he was studying.
  • His wife was taken from their Kashgar home in April 2017 and sent to one of China’s detention camps for Uighur Muslims.
  • Two years later, Abdurehim found out through a WeChat video that she was released from the prisons and back living in Kashgar.
  • He has now discovered, through via coded messages from sources back home, that she has since disappeared again and likely is jailed for five years.
  • In a personal essay for Insider, Abdurehim tells his story and explains why he is speaking out.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

No words can properly describe how agonizing the past three years have been for me. I never imagined what it would be like to lose my family to a black hole where nobody knows what happens.

I am from Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang, western China. The region has in recent years become synonymous with severe surveillance, arbitrary detentions, and forced labour.

My wife, Muherrem Ablet, was taken away from our home in Kashgar and sent to a government detention camp on April 15, 2017. Our two young children were left behind with our parents.

Muherrem couldn’t have known it was coming. The day before she was taken, we were speaking on WeChat, and nothing seemed amiss.

All I know is what my parents told me the following day: That she was called in for a “study program” for a short period of time.

That is, I now know, a common euphemism for China’s detention camps, which are reported to be in dire condition, and where people endure psychological and physical torture so they would become loyal to the Communist Party.

On the day Muherrem was taken away, party agents said she was being detained, but was allowed family visits at her camp once a week.

Those promised visitations ended after the first one.

I did not know then that it would mark the beginning of the mass internment of Uighurs (activists estimate that between 1 and 2 million have been detained). My wife would have been one of the first to be taken away.

Xinjiang kashgar police
Uighur children play near a local police officer in Kashgar, Xinjiang, in June 2017. Kevin Frayer/Getty


In late May 2017, Muherrem texted me on WeChat saying that she had come home for a day “under guarantee of a family member” – meaning someone in the family promised to send her back, or be punished otherwise.

One or two days later, I found that she had changed her profile picture and deleted me from her contacts list – presumably before being returned to the camps.

She remained there until May 2, 2019.

I know this because that day I had come across a video of my son, Hikmet, on a relative’s WeChat page, where he could be seen screaming euphorically: “My mum has graduated!”

“Graduation” is a common euphemism for being released from the camps.

I can’t recall how many times I frantically watched and rewatched that video that day.

Seeing my son reunited with his mother gave me some peace. To be sure, I begged an acquaintance in Kashgar to confirm it for me. After many prodding messages, they confirmed after two weeks that Muherrem had come home and I need not worry.

Until recently, I had been under the impression that she was home, safe, after two years of internment. I can’t know for sure; I have not been able to have any conversations with her or anyone else in my family, as they have since told me to stop contacting them.

Read more:
Relatives of Uighurs in China are getting blocked online by their own family members, who are terrified to even tell them how bad their lives are

Mamutjan abudurehim family
Abdurehim’s wife and children at the Birth Registration Office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, applying for his son Hikmet’s birth certificate, in August 2015. Courtesy of Mamutjan Abdurehim

A family, separated

My wife and two children (daughter Muhlise, now 10, and son Hikmet, now 5) had moved with me to Malaysia, and lived there from November 2012 to December 2015 as I pursued a PhD.

Though Hikmet was born in Malaysia, he didn’t get to spend much time there – he had to return in December 2015 along with his mother and sister, when he was just six months old.

Muherrem’s passport had been stolen, and when we tried to apply for a replacement at the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur, we were denied.

Instead, we were issued a one-off travel document and told to renew in Kashgar. I reluctantly sent them back as I remained in Malaysia to finish my studies.

It was a painful family separation. But it would only get worse.

Mamutjan airport
Abdurehim’s wife and children at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in December 2015. This was the last time the family was together. Courtesy of Mamutjan Abdurehim

Muherrem got her passport in April 2016 – but then it was confiscated months later, either in September or October. A new hardline Communist Party official, Chen Quanguo, had taken over in Xinjiang in August, and the first thing he did was confiscate everyone’s travel documents.

We didn’t think to have Muherrem fly to Malaysia in those months, because we didn’t think it would get taken from her. I was waiting for some money from my PhD scholarship to come in so all four of us could afford to live in Malaysia.

I would have flown my family over immediately, had I known then what I do now. In fact, I wouldn’t even have sent them back to Xinjiang in the first place.

But I managed to keep in contact with them until April 2017, until Muherrem was taken away.

Around this time – May 2017, to be exact – I moved from Malaysia to Australia, where I am now. I had read reports that Egypt was deporting Uighur students back to China, and I feared that Malaysia would do the same.

Coded messages on WeChat

I recently learned from two sources in Xinjiang, via code words, that Muherrem had been taken again.

One of them used the word “hospital”, and the other “not at home.” I knew what they meant – both are popular words among Uighurs back home to indicate incarceration.

Both of these sources gave me the information by sending their messages as a response to my friend requests on WeChat, while not approving my request.

A third source – a close friend’s relative in Kashgar – suggested my wife was sentenced to five years in prison.

Again, I learned this via code: The source texted me the Uighur words “5 yash,” which means “five years of age.” This too is a common way to indicate someone’s sentence.

This source gave me information by sending me a text, then retracting it within two minutes, as WeChat allows you to do so – this way you can send messages without it appearing in your chat log, in case a police officer searches your phone.

Mamutjan abudurehim children
Abdurehim’s children at their family home in Malaysia in June 2015. Courtesy of Mamutjan Abdurehim

I am crushed.

I don’t know the exact circumstances of my wife’s second disappearance or the charges leveled against her – my sources would not go into detail. But it looks like she was arrested sometime in 2019 after her apparent release.

Her sentencing fits the prevalent pattern of former camp inmates being rearrested and sentenced to prison terms.

Why I’m speaking out

For years I did not speak out about my wife’s internment, because I did not have concrete information about her disappearance, and because we all assumed that this “study program” would only be short term.

More importantly, I did not speak out because I wanted to exhaust all my legal and diplomatic options to bring my family to Australia. But I could not use those channels because I am not an Australian citizen yet.

But now that she is imprisoned for up to five years, I am speaking out to demand my wife’s release and the reunion of my family.

My emails to the Chinese mission in Australia and Foreign Ministry in Beijing have been unanswered. I hope my messages in the media will get their attention now.

I also hope anyone reading this will contact the Chinese missions in their countries to push for the release of my wife and the million other people who are trapped in Xinjiang. Maybe then they will listen.

My story is just one of many, many more out there in the world – for every member of the Uighur diaspora speaking out, there are hundreds of thousands more who aren’t, for fear of repercussions from the Communist Party.

So many other families I know, especially in Turkey, have also been separated due to this mass internment, and have no way of communicating with their lost relatives.

As a family who have never broken the law, we deserve justice and reunion. No innocent people should be subjected to this level of agony and suffering for just being who they are or what they believe in.

China should not repeat the past mistakes of the Cultural Revolution and punish a whole population based on their religion and ethnicity.