Sunday, August 23, 2009
How amateur-hour diplomacy took away dad
How amateur-hour diplomacy took away dad
PAWEL DWULIT/TORONTO STAR
Kamila Telendibaeva lifts her son Mohammad, 9, out of a wheelchair and into their minivan outside a community centre in Burlington. Telendibaeva has been left to take care of four sons alone as husband Huseyin Celil sits in solitary confinement in a jail in China, where he was extradited during a family trip to Uzbekistan.
Celil's case was not ignored. But it was handled very, very badly
Aug 23, 2009 04:30 AM
"Where is your dad?" Kamila Telendibaeva asks as she sits in the kitchen staring at her son Abdul's portrait of their family. The answers drift from behind her, where her four children have besieged the living room. "My dad is on holiday," says 3-year-old Zubeyir, whose face is smeared with chocolate popsicle. "Toronto?" asks Badrudin, 4, as he looks up from ploughing his head into his mom's thigh. Abdul, 5, replies quietly: "He's in China."
Abdul drew the picture around Valentine's Day last year, and the cut-out cardboard heart has remained on Telendibaeva's fridge, in her home in a Burlington housing co-op. The picture is optimistic in one respect: Abdul's eldest brother, Mohammad, a 9-year-old who is severely disabled and in a wheelchair, is pictured standing up.
But the artwork is disconcerting for a daycare project. "I bawled my eyes out," says Patti MacPherson, an early childhood educator who posted it on the wall with the others. "The way he identified it, but was okay with it. It was just, `This is my family.' "
The hunched stick-dad is covered by thick black lines descending vertically over a figure shorter than his own children; although smiling, he is a prisoner, present in Abdul's imagination but removed from the physical reality of this house, its joys and its burdens.
"Why is he there?" Kamila, 31, continues. Abdul, who is alone among his brothers in beginning to to understand the implications of his father's absence, replies: "He's in jail."
Abdul's father – Telendibaeva's husband – is Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen and Imam who once lived with them and delivered pizzas around Hamilton. He is now imprisoned in China's desolate northwest, serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. His relatives, who have met with him in prison, say he eats oatmeal gruel, is denied books and is forced to memorize tomes of Chinese laws.
While he, his wife and his sons were visiting family in Uzbekistan in the summer of 2006, he was detained and extradited to China, where he was convicted of terrorism-related offences and "splitism" – charges often applied to vocal members of China's Uighur Muslim minority, some of whom advocate independence for their autonomous region. Celil, 40, a human rights advocate, had previously fled China on similar charges.
His case was not ignored, like Suaad Hagi Mohamud's, just handled badly. Bellicose political posturing, from as high up as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and what experts call a "lack of China competence" at the Canadian embassy in Beijing, have failed to win Celil's release and may even have ensured his incarceration. Celil's plight is emblematic, especially for Muslim or Arab Canadians, such as Abousfian Abdelrazik, who was tortured in Sudan; Bashir Makhtal, who was just convicted of terrorism in an Ethiopian kangaroo court; or even Omar Khadr, the child soldier stuck in Guantanamo. But it is still only one half of the agony; the rest of the burden falls on those left behind, like Kamila Telendibaeva, a diminutive woman now struggling to raise a large family in the shadows of personal tragedy and sluggish international bureaucracy.
The air above the pavement bends in the heat as Kamila drives her rusting Plymouth Voyageur through Burlington's gridlock. The hot wind is little comfort. Kamila's day is already long and her face is as it usually is, unsmiling but friendly, a mask broken only occasionally by the antics of her children.
She is on her way from a daycare to a special day camp. Abdul is asleep in the back and Badrudin seems listless, though it is Abdul who is sick. She is worried. A cold in a heat wave? It's those freezies, she thinks, as she parks at a community centre.
Wearing a light brown headscarf secured with turquoise pins, Kamila walks through the front doors trailing two sons. Mohammad, who is developmentally delayed, is waiting. She wheels him through the front doors but gets the thick wheels stuck on the door frame. She pushes twice more, but can't move him. Someone holds the door and she wheels Mohammad up to the minivan's sliding side door.
He begins to flail. She hoists him in and breathes deep before she leans over with the seat belt, receiving blows from boy in silence.
"Sometimes, when I lift him, I have back pain. I'm really scared, you know, if I have some problems," she continues. "They need a dad..... It was so much easier, because he's a man. He's strong. He can lift him." She starts the car and steers it back into traffic, now to a north Hamilton clinic. She is told Abdul is fine.
At home, she gets Mohammad's stroller stuck first on three tricycles and then a recycling box. In the winter it's worse: she has to shovel the ramp and driveway before Mohammad's pick-up at 8:15 a.m. But now it is sweltering. She opens the door and her children rush in, kicking soccer balls around the living room. Badrudin is somersaulting on the couch. Mohammad is crawling across the floor. Tiny Zubeyir demands inflatable pool time. Abdul kicks a ball off his mom's back as she drags in yellow grocery bags. "This is my day," she says.
Their ordeal began in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Telendibaeva's parents fled to from China's neighbouring Xinjiang province after Mao Zedong's Communist victory in 1949. Her parents were Uighurs, nervous as revolution washed into their homeland, parts of which just enjoyed a brief bout of Soviet-backed independence.
The family had flown back in the summer of 2006 to visit Telendibaeva's family. It was her father who, in 1998, first raised the idea of an arranged marriage for Kamila with Celil, working in Kyrgyzstan as a cloth merchant and an Imam.
They had decided to get circumcisions for their young children in Tashkent, because the procedure is costly for non-infants in Canada. After the operation the children fell ill; not wanting to fly, the concerned parents applied for visa extensions.
They left their passports with Uzbekistan's security services, which Telendibaeva still calls the KGB. Celil and Telendibaeva's brother and father went to pick them up. "My husband," she says softly, "he went....." She trails off.
No one returned. Kamila, who was three-months pregnant, was frantic, but calls to their cellphones – which had by then been switched off – were not returned. At dusk, only two men came back. Celil had been arrested. "I searched everywhere," she says. "Even just to see him, to meet him."
Eventually, the family found his location and began bribing Uzbek prison guards to pass fresh clothes and food to Celil. "On June 22, they said they could not give him the food," she whispers.
He was gone.
Huseyin Celil, a husband and a father and a citizen of Canada, had been extradited to face trial in China, where Uighur activism is often conflated with separatist terrorism.
Before Uzbek authorities shipped Celil to China, the Canadian embassy in Moscow dispatched special representatives there. Uzbekistan did not listen; indeed, they had no reason to: in 2001, autocratic Uzbekistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a multilateral body composed of Russia, China and four post-Soviet `Stans, whose stated goal is to obliterate "terrorism, separatism and extremism" in member states.
Tashkent, where Celil was arrested, houses the organization's Regional Anti-Terrorist headquarters. It was unlikely Canada was ever going to negotiate the release of a suspected Uighur separatist in Uzbekistan, a close ally of China, which was where they would have to pursue the case.
But from the beginning, experts in Canada-China relations say, the case was bungled by Canada's Beijing embassy and taken up by ideological federal politicians in Canada, whose public statements may have crippled diplomats' efforts.
"We could have managed it better. It's possible that if we had, Mr. Celil would be in Burlington today," says Charles Burton, an academic who twice served as in-house counselor to Canada's embassy in Beijing.
He believes that Canada's foreign service remains intellectually ill-equipped to engage in the types of diplomacy that might have freed Celil, though Foreign Affairs says this is not true.
"The people that we have working in China don't have, first of all, the linguistic competence to be able to engage in diplomacy with the Chinese elements that are holding Mr. Celil," Burton says.
"Secondly, they don't have the cross-cultural communication skills to know how to approach the agencies that are responsible for his incarceration, to try and come up with some means to negotiate a satisfactory resolution."
Burton says this is because Canada's foreign service prefers to hire generalists, rather than people with expertise in a specific region or language, unlike foreign services in the United States or Britain. And Canadian diplomats posted to China, he adds, have rarely worked in the country before. He described Australia's current prime minister Kevin Rudd, a veteran diplomat and fluent Mandarin speaker with expertise in China, as "the kind of person our foreign service probably wouldn't be admitting."
Errol Mendes, a University of Ottawa law professor who co-edited a book on Chinese and Canadian approaches to human rights, said Harper's statements damaged any chance diplomats had of securing Celil's release. Harper's comment before the APEC forum in 2007 that he would not sell out human rights to the "almighty dollar," were too blunt, Mendes says.
"What I've learned, after going to China almost every year for the past 15 years is that the Chinese do not take kindly to people lecturing them. And the thing they need, more than anything else, is (help) trying to figure out a way of resolving disputes without losing face."
But a quiet, face-saving avenue for Beijing – something akin to former U.S. president Bill Clinton's private rescue of two U.S. journalists in North Korea, such as being sent abroad for medical treatment – may no longer be an option for Celil. Since riots in July left almost 200 dead in Urumchi, Xinjiang's capital, the Chinese government has ramped up repression within the province, and accused overseas Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer of fomenting the violence.
Any release now might look like a concession or even a victory to some Uighur exiles who crave an independent East Turkestan.
Since the riots, Telendibaeva has not been able to contact Celil's relatives, who used to visit him in prison every three months. They used to give her updates, which were not pleasant. He was not doing well. He was sick, his vision failing. She calls them every day.
No one picks up.
Hunks of Halal beef and lamb thaw in the sink. For her boys, Kamil likes to cook the traditional Uighur food she used to make for her husband – heavy, traditional fare like laghman noodles, which she rolls and stretches herself, or rice pilaf and mutton.
"They don't like our food, really," Kamila concedes. "They like hot dogs, sandwiches. But I don't give them. I try and make them fresh food every day."
Her boys' use of English is also an issue for her. The Uighurs' Turkic language is integral to their identity, and especially those who view the state school system's prioritization of Chinese in Xinjiang as forced assimilation. In China, they would have been taught Chinese and denied Islam; in North America, Kamila fears their cultural identity might simply wither."I speak to them in Uighur, but they talk to each other in English," she complains.
Her husband was a pillar of Uighur pride, a community volunteer and beacon for his young boys.
But his absence is pervasive. At one point, her federal child tax benefits were withdrawn because her application didn't have Celil's signature. It wasn't so bad when Kamila's mother was here. She came from Uzbekistan after Celil's arrest. After two years, diabetes and high blood pressure forced her home last August. It's been a year since she left and nearly three years since Abdul's tragic portrait has been the reality for Kamila and her sons.
She looks at it on the fridge.
"Look, he's behind a gate," she says, touching the picture.
"We need a key to get him out," Badrudin says triumphantly.
"Yes," his mother says, "We need a key."