“Where is Mama?” screams Ahmad’s 10-year-old daughter in a WeChat message he can hardly bear to replay.
Like many traders in Pakistan’s northernmost region of Gilgit-Baltistan, Ahmad fell in love with a Chinese woman on a work trip across the border. And like dozens of others, he has now been forcibly separated from the woman he married — and the child they had together — for months.
Last week, lawmakers in Gilgit-Baltistan demanded that authorities in China’s Xinjiang province immediately release from detention at least 50 Chinese women married to Pakistani men, some of whom have been held for a year on vague charges of extremism.
“It is absurd. We are well-off people and my wife is a housewife,” Ahmad told the Guardian, on condition of not publishing his real name. “Now our life is destroyed.”
He last heard from his spouse, who belongs to China’s Uighur Muslim minority, on 22 December. He worries she is not receiving the medicine she needs to treat her epilepsy. The last words she said to him were “I miss you. We need your care now.”
The Chinese government often professes a bond “deeper than the deepest ocean, sweeter than honey” with its old ally Pakistan, and construction is under way on the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC), a £44 billion, 1,990-mile trade route from Xinjiang through Gilgit-Baltistan to Pakistan’s southern coast.
But Beijing is wary of unrest in its Muslim population. After the 2014 murder of 29 people by knife-wielding terrorists in a train station, Uighur men in Xinjiang are no longer allowed to have long beards and parents cannot call their children Mohammad. According to a report by Radio Free Asia, a US-funded news group, at least 120,000 Uighurs have been placed in squalid “re-education” camps in the province.
The men from Gilgit-Baltistan say their wives are being held in these centres. “Officials say my wife is at school, that she is learning Chinese and Chinese law,” Ahmad told the Guardian. “But school is morning you go, evening you come home. You cannot call school where a person is detained and not coming home for many months.” That, he said, was prison.
Xinjiang authorities are not renewing the visas of Pakistani husbands, forcing them to leave their children behind in the province. One told local media that, despite having secured a visa from the Chinese embassy in Islamabad permitting him to re-enter the country, he was blocked at the border.
“I begged them to let me enter,” he said. “My wife, my two-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter were there.”
Separated from both her parents, Ahmad’s daughter, who is in the care of her Chinese grandparents, has started to act “psychotically”, throwing tantrums and crying all the time, he said. Once every 15 days his wife is permitted a five-minute call with their daughter — something not all the families in his situation are lucky enough to receive.
According to Adrian Zenz, of the European School of Culture and Theology, the roundup has little to do with a genuine analysis of the threat posed by the women. Under the control of Chen Quanguo, a hardline leader appointed in 2016, the Xinjiang government has started to detain “anybody travelling internationally who is a Muslim”, with particular focus on a list of 26 countries, including Pakistan. Whether the women would be released depended on the “guts of the Pakistan government”, he said.
Other countries with economic ties to China have kept quiet.
A member of the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly, Javed Hussain, told the Guardian that the protracted detentions were generating anger in the community. “We have heard nothing from the federal government since we passed a resolution demanding they take action,” he said, pushing for “concrete steps” to follow quickly.
Yet silence could also come at a cost. If the government does not soon secure the release of their spouses, Ahmed said, the affected husbands would call for widespread protests, even shutting down the border and threatening CPEC, which is considered vital for Pakistan’s future prosperity.
The religious community would then “consider it a matter of honour” to get their wives back, he said.