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Gift of a Stone

2018-12-10 20:54
WASHINGTON—Gulchehra Hoja had a childhood full of dance and music in Xinxiang, China. She loved being on camera and dreamt of becoming a TV host. And she did. Hoja hosted shows in Chinese and the Uyghur language and started the first ever children's show on Xinjiang TV. She was a known face for Xinjiang viewers. In 2001, while on vacation in Europe, she heard something she'd never heard before—an uncensored news report on the radio about a protest in Xinjiang. She decided not to go back and to work as a Uyghur-language journalist from the outside instead. 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 press. Her viewers became her sources and helped her with information about the persecution of Uygurs by the Chinese communist regime. It’s now 17 years since Hoja has been reporting on the plight of Uygurs 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 family members of her own, including, tragically her baby brother. “He’s just one-and-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 too suffering from this separation but he’s suffering more,” said Hoja. Hoja has fond memories of her only sibling, Kaisar Keyum. They went to school together and never parted 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." RFA Journalist, Gulchehra Hoja with her brother, Kaisar Keyum on June 17, 2001 (Courtesy: Gulchehra Hoja) When Hoja joined RFA, Keyum was in college. She never went back 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 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 a total of 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 quizzed police about why, to which the officer replied, "His sister works there [RFA], is that not enough for taking him? ” The Chinese regime 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. According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a network of Chinese and international human rights NGOs, these regulations address Chinese regime’s perceived threat of terrorism linked to extremism. "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,” said CHRD. 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 wide spread torture of ethnic groups in Chinese re-education camps. The persecution of the spiritual practice of Falun Gong and House Christians is also widely reported. Disappearance of Hoja’s Family On Feb. 3, Hoja received another shocking phone call from