In the first days, Rebiya Kadeer could not get enough of her children. She woke them up to talk to them and hugged them to make up for lost time.
After spending 5 1/2 years in Chinese jails for advocating the rights of Uighurs, a Muslim minority in the western province of Xinjiang, Kadeer, 58, is with her children again in Northern Virginia. She is still jetlagged, and wakes up in the middle of the night. In an interview Monday, the petite businesswoman with wavy hair, once held up as the richest woman in China, embraced her daughter Akida Rouzi, 27, repeatedly as she spoke.
Rebiya Kadeer was jailed for 5 1/2 years in China after complaining of mistreatment of ethnic Uighurs.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- AP)
She arrived here late on March 17 because of a deal arranged before the visit to China by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The Chinese apparently agreed to release Kadeer, allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to open an office in Beijing and let a U.N. human rights official visit political prisoners in exchange for Washington's agreement not to seek a U.N. resolution critical of China's human rights record.
During her incarceration, Kadeer suffered hallucinations of her children calling out her name, she said in an interview. She would rush to her cell's cold metal bars to find nobody there. Repeated exposure to the sound of the groans and piercing screams of young men and women under interrogation triggered other nightmarish imaginings, such as being crowded by blood-drenched torture victims in her cell, she said in Uighur, an ancient Turkic dialect interpreted by Rouzi, Kadeer's daughter.
The Uighurs' province was briefly autonomous as East Turkestan in the late 1940s, but has been under Chinese rule since 1949.
Before Chinese authorities came to see her as a catalyst for Uighur separatism, Kadeer was regarded as a model of success. She and her family assembled an empire that included department stores, real estate and import-export firms. She started the Thousand Mother Movement, which invested in business concerns and then donated a portion of the profits to help orphans, underprivileged children and students.
She was appointed as an ethnic representative for Uighurs to the Chinese government. Traveling around her province, she came into contact with members of her repressed community and took their grievances to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a top advisory board.
"I decided to put these issues on the table," she said. Uighurs suffered from unequal education opportunities, fewer social benefits and harsh birth control measures, she said. When authorities responded to her complaints by staging reprisals against her businesses, Kadeer took her case to the United States.
After visiting her husband and five of her 11 children here, she returned to China in 1997 and had her passport confiscated. She was arrested on Aug. 11, 1999, while on her way to meet U.S. congressmen who had traveled to Xinjiang.
In prison, her comfortable life was replaced with a horrific existence. Her diet consisted of three rolls per day and boiled vegetables. Once a week, she got a serving of rice and meat.
In an effort to break her, young men were tortured in rooms next to the one where she was being interrogated, she said. When a young man of about 21 was dragged one day from his interrogation booth, his limbs inert, he noticed her in the adjacent room. He stood up, pushed away the guard and lunged toward her.
"Mother, what are you doing here?" he cried. "Young men like us are going to jail for mothers like you."
"I started crying," she recalled.
The hardest thing, Kadeer said, was that she was not allowed to speak with other inmates. She could only speak to wardens, and only when prompted.
She was praying silently one day when inmates assigned to monitor her saw her lips moving. She was reported. As punishment, she was forced to stand motionless for three hours.
Malnutrition, swelling joints and other ailments went untreated in the first 3 1/2 years of captivity, and she developed high blood pressure. When foreign governments and rights groups began speaking up for her, she began receiving medical attention, she said.
Kadeer said she was incredulous when prison officials told her she would be set free and flown to the United States on the condition that she return in 18 months.
She was warned that if she spoke about sensitive political issues abroad or told anyone about her imminent release, it would be "the end of your children and business."
Her five children living in Xinjiang were called in to see her. For the first time, they did not have to look at her from behind a glass shield. They were allowed to speak to her, only in Chinese, but they could touch and embrace her.
One of her sons began weeping, thinking it was a last visit before her execution. And Kadeer could not share what the prison authorities had told her. "Everything will be fine," she muttered in Chinese as guards watched.
Rouzi broke the news to her brother on the day of her mother's arrival in the United States. "He was driving and he just exploded into tears and sobs," she said. Later, all five children in America welcomed her at Ronald Reagan National Airport.