HONG KONG: Every autumn, on the Karakoram Highway in the China-Pakistan border, a group of Pakistani merchants in Xinjiang province in China, bid farewell to their Uighur wives who spend their winter breaks in Pakistan.
After this, the men would remain in touch with their families through phone, until spring comes in and before they return back to Xinjiang province to reunite.
However, since last year, their calls have "remained unanswered".
The Pakistani men and their families have learnt that Uighur wives have suddenly disappeared into a growing network of shadowy “re-education centres” that have swept up the region’s Uighur Muslim minority over fears of Islamic militancy crossing the border from Pakistan, South China Morning Post reported.
A Pakistani businessman named Iqbal claimed that his wife and children were "taken away" by the Chinese authorities in March last year.
Iqbal said that he was not allowed to enter Xinjiang from the border in Pakistan, adding that the authorities asserted that his wife was "in training" and his children were "safe".
He added that the authorities refused him to talk to his daughters.
According to Javed Hussain, a member of the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) assembly said that Iqbal is one of the dozens of merchants from the province who return to Pakistan for visa reasons or to run their businesses and have been unable to contact their Uighur families living in China.
Earlier this month, the local assembly members passed a unanimous resolution protesting the “illegal detention” of the men’s families in China.
China’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying, "The two sides are maintaining communication about problems related to interactions between both countries’ people”, while Pakistan’s said the issue was being “actively discussed with the government of China."
The Uighur women are married to GB men, most of them who are affiliated with trading activities through the Khunjerab Pass, the only land route linking Pakistan and China. The mountain pass is situated about 4,500 meters above the sea level.
Regional lawmakers have asserted that the history of inter-caste marriages between GB and Xinjiang is decades old, and both the border regions share extremely close cultural ties.
In recent years, religiously motivated violence in Xinjiang province has been a thorn in the flesh for Chinese officials.
China has turned to increasingly drastic methods to eliminate what it describes as the “three forces” - terrorists, religious extremists and separatists in the province.
They have blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), who are responsible for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in and beyond the province.
The ETIM is believed to have ties with militants operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan respectively.
The separatist group was founded by Uighur militants, in response to the alleged government suppressions on religious and cultural expression, a charge Beijing has denied it as "baseless".
The GB region is the gateway to a massive economic cooperation deal, called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), initiated by Islamabad and Beijing.
The building of the USD 62 billion economic corridor is a combination of building roads, rails, power plants and economic free zones in Pakistan.
Thousands of Chinese are currently working on the CPEC project in Pakistan.
When built, it will link Gwadar to Xinjiang region in China, through Khunjerab Pass, giving Beijing a secure and shortest trade access to international markets.