WASHINGTON—Gulchehra Hoja had a childhood full of dance and music in Xinjiang, China. She loved being on camera and dreamed of becoming a TV host. And she did, hosting shows in Chinese and the Uyghur language and starting the first children’s show on Xinjiang TV. Her face was known to Xinjiang viewers.
In 2001, while on vacation in Europe, she heard something on the radio she’d never heard before—an uncensored news report about a protest in Xinjiang.
She decided not to return to China and, instead, began working as an Uyghur-language journalist from overseas. She got a job with Radio Free Asia (RFA) in Washington, a broadcaster that brings free information to areas of Asia that don’t have freedom of the press. Her viewers became her sources and helped her with information about the persecution of Uyghurs by the Chinese communist regime.
It’s been 17 years since Hoja started reporting on the plight of Uyghurs in communist China. But never in her wildest dreams did she think that one day, she would have to talk about the persecution of 25 members of her own family, including her younger brother, Kaisar Keyum.
“He’s just one-and-a-half years younger than me. I feel he’s remembering me. I dream about him almost every night. I feel he’s suffering. I’m suffering from this separation, too, but he’s suffering more,” Hoja told The Epoch Times in an interview at her home in Virginia.
Hoja has fond memories of her only sibling. They went to school together and were always together as kids. “Whenever I fell sick, he wouldn’t leave me. If I didn’t go to school, he also refused to go,” Hoja said. Their names have similar meanings; while Gulchehra means “one with a flower-like face,” Kaisar means “the saffron or the saffron flower.”
When Hoja joined RFA, Keyum was in college. She never went home again and that changed Keyum’s life forever. Regular police interrogation forced him to drop out of school, so he had to get a job as a translator.
“Twice, [potential] marriages didn’t happen because the police came to the girls’ families and asked things like: Do you know his family’s background? Why would you want to be in trouble?” said Hoja.
Keyum has been arrested about 10 times, the last time on Sept. 28, 2017. He’s still in jail.
Hoja was in shock and tears when her mother, Qimangul Zikri, told her that the police blamed Hoja for Keyum’s arrest. Panicked, Zikri asked the police why, to which the officer replied: “His sister works [for RFA]. Is that not enough reason for taking him?”
The Chinese regime’s crackdown on Uyghurs has intensified since 2016. Around 1 million Uyghurs are detained in various pre-trial detention centers and prisons, both of which are formal facilities, and in political education camps, which have no basis under Chinese law, according to Human Rights Watch.
In April 2017, the Chinese Communist Party introduced the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region De-Extremism Regulations, which address the Chinese regime’s perceived threat of terrorism linked to extremism, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a network of Chinese and international human-rights NGOs.
“Under these regulations, someone can be locked up in a ‘re-education’ camp or forced to attend indoctrination sessions for possessing certain halal products, having a long beard, wearing a full-face headscarf, selecting children’s names with ‘Islamic connotations,’ refusing to consume state television or radio, or refusing to break Islamic dietary restrictions,” CHRD said.
Re-education camps are the Chinese regime’s long-standing practice to eradicate any group that doesn’t match its communist ideology. A 2018 report by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by 18 independent experts cited credible reports of widespread torture of ethnic groups in Chinese re-education camps. The persecution of practitioners of the spiritual discipline of Falun Gong and of Christian congregations is also widely reported.
Disappearance of Hoja’s Family
On Feb. 3, Hoja received another shocking phone call from her neighbor’s daughter: “Did you hear, sister, that your parents, all your family members, 25 people, were arrested by the Chinese government on the same day?”
“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Why? How do you know?’ She said, ‘I know because my mum told me.’ And then I just immediately called up to my home, and nobody picks up. I called my father, my mother, my brother, my cousins, like around 30 people—nobody picks up,” Hoja said, with tears in her eyes.
Just behind her, in the living room, dry fruits, cookies, and chocolates sit on a table, ready to be served with etken chai (Uyghur tea). In the corner to the left, is a picture of her parents and to the right is another of her brother in a suit and a bow tie.
“I can’t describe my feeling at that time. It’s huge guilt, you know. … Because of me, they have been arrested. But I feel so helpless, and even I don’t know where they are taken—are they alive or not?”
Hoja’s mother, Zikri, was released on March 10, but others are still in custody, including Hoja’s 77-year-old father, who was half-paralyzed after a stroke and was placed under guard in his hospital room.
Since the arrests, Hoja has spoken at various forums across the United States about her family’s predicament, and testified before Congress in July. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported on her family’s case and articles have written worldwide about her fight for justice.
But the pain inside her refuses to subside. She worries about her old aunt, who was left to take care of three small grandchildren alone. Every time she cooks kababs in her kitchen, she remembers Keyum.
“His picture is on [my] desk every day, in my heart, actually! I wish to see him. If he appears before me, I’ll not stop kissing him and I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry!” Hoja said.
At her home in Virginia, where Hoja lives with her husband and three children, there’s a glass case full of Uyghur memorabilia, including a stone that her father sent to her. She believes he sent a stone because letters are always under surveillance. By sending her a stone, her father sent her a strong reminder to remain connected with her people and her culture.
Video Photography: Brendon Fallon