HONG KONG—An ethnic Uyghur woman in Pakistan has repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought help from the Chinese embassy there in returning home to far-northwestern Xinjiang to escape domestic abuse, the woman and a Uyghur rights activist have said.
Asyem Kerem, 41, said she and her four children had fled from the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar to the capital Islamabad seeking protection and permission to return to her home in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
But the Chinese embassy, she said, has declined to assist her and only complicated her efforts to leave the country.
“I thought that because I am a Chinese citizen, they would let me return home. I also thought that they would help with the documentation for my children—talk to the Pakistani government and give me protection while my documents were getting processed,” Kerem said.
“But they didn’t do anything for me," she said. “It’s like this because I am Uyghur. If I were [Han] Chinese, I wouldn’t be left helpless. At least I would be permitted to return home.”
Xinjiang, home to millions of mainly Muslim Uyghurs, has struggled for decades with ethnic tensions between native Uyghurs and recently arrived Han Chinese, with deadly rioting last year that left nearly 200 dead. Security has remained tight ever since.
Chinese authorities have blamed several deadly attacks on Uyghur radicals with ties to Islamic extremist groups, though it has provided little evidence. Critics say Beijing's heavy-handed control over the vast region has failed to help Uyghurs economically while suppressing their language, culture, and religion.
Kerem said two of her four children, aged five to 13, also have Chinese citizenship and passports, but the other two are Pakistani nationals.
Officials at the embassy instructed her to bring their birth certificates from her home in Peshawar to process them for entry into China—at the risk of facing additional domestic abuse.
“I thought they could search for these documents through their own channels, but they didn’t. I cannot imagine how they won’t think about the safety of my two children,” she said.
“I just escaped from there. How can I return to get these materials?”
Kerem said she has visited the Chinese embassy five times over the last three months, while she has been staying with her children at a home a local Uyghur rights group has helped her to rent.
An official at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, contacted by telephone Friday, said he was unfamiliar with the situation, adding, "You had better contact the Consular Office ... There is a clear division of labor between us."
Repeated phone calls to the Chinese embassy consular office went directly to an automated message and voice mail.
Kerem has been borrowing money to pay the 200 rupee (U.S. $2.30) fee for each embassy visit, in addition to the cost of hiring a translator to convey her situation to the Mandarin-speaking staff members.
“Whenever I go with these difficulties, they ask me to bring something else or go somewhere else to resolve them. I don’t know anything. I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know Urdu [Pakistan's official language]. I have no money,” Kerem said.
“On top of that, I cannot go outside openly, so how can I get these things done?” she said.
Married women who flee their homes in Peshawar are often killed.
“Right now I’m hiding and getting by with the help of others. I’m living under very dangerous conditions.”
Fifteen years ago, Asyem Kerem married Pakistani Jalil Wahid and moved to Pakistan from her home in Korla, the capital of the Bayin'gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang.
According to Kerem, Wahid, 42, traveled to Xinjiang five years ago for business, but has not been seen since.
After some time had passed, Kerem said, her brothers-in-law began to blame her for Wahid’s disappearance, cursing and beating her regularly.
She said her relationship with her husband’s family had been “normal” when he was at home, but that they began to make things difficult for her after he disappeared.
“When my husband set off to Xinjiang, I was with them here. How could I be the cause of my husband’s disappearance?"
One of her brothers-in-law eventually threatened to kill her unless his brother was found and forbade her to leave her home until Wahid returned.
“They ... beat me several times at the beginning of this year and left my face black and blue. They wouldn’t let me go to the hospital. They said ‘If our brother isn’t found, we’ll kill you.’ They also beat my children and frightened them,” Kerem said.
Kerem said that when she fled Peshawar, she had planned to take her children back to Korla and search for her husband. If she couldn’t find him, she planned to live with her relatives and continue to care for her children.
“But when I talked to the Chinese embassy, telling them I wanted to take my children home, they said I needed to present a letter of permission from my husband. They also told me to bring a birth certificate from Peshawar,” she said.
She said that after talking with her relatives in Korla, her brothers tried to travel to Pakistan to help her, but were denied permission to enter the country.
She eventually spoke with a local Uyghur rights organization and the group provided her with housing and food assistance through the collection of donations.
Chinese influence in Pakistan
Uyghur activist Omar Khan, who helped Asyem Kerem when she arrived in Islamabad, said she had suffered trauma and needed help from the Uyghur community.
“When she first came, I saw her. Her eyes were black and blue and her forehead was swollen. Her children were shivering with fear. At that time, she was distant and we didn’t really know the details of the situation. Later, we found out that the Chinese embassy would not let her return with her children and provided her with no help,” the activist said.
He said his group, the Omar Uyghur Trust, had looked after Kerem and arranged a place for her to live temporarily, while planning to seek asylum elsewhere.
“But Asyem said, ‘I can’t do that. I am still married to my husband. First of all I should go back to Xinjiang and talk with my husband about the future of our four children.’”
Khan said that the Chinese government has spent much time and money exerting its influence in Pakistan to have Uyghurs from Xinjiang deported for alleged involvement in Uyghur “separatist activities.”
“Now here is a woman who did nothing to the Chinese who wants to go back to her home, but they are giving her a hard time,” he said.
Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated from the Uyghur by Mamatjan Juma. Additional reporting by Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.