A Million People Are Jailed at China’s Gulags. I Managed to Escape. Here’s What Really Goes on Inside
Rape, torture, and human experiments. Sayragul Sauytbay offers firsthand testimony from a Xinjiang ‘reeducation’ camp
byDavid Stavrou Stockholm
STOCKHOLM – Twenty prisoners live in one small room. They are handcuffed, their heads shaved, every move is monitored by ceiling cameras. A bucket in the corner of the room is their toilet. The daily routine begins at 6 A.M. They are learning Chinese, memorizing propaganda songs and confessing to invented sins. They range in age from teenagers to elderly. Their meals are meager: cloudy soup and a slice of bread.
Torture – metal nails, fingernails pulled out, electric shocks – takes place in the “black room.” Punishment is a constant. The prisoners are forced to take pills and get injections. It’s for disease prevention, the staff tell them, but in reality they are the human subjects of medical experiments. Many of the inmates suffer from cognitive decline. Some of the men become sterile. Women are routinely raped.
Such is life in China’s reeducation camps, as reported in rare testimony provided by Sayragul Sauytbay (pronounced: Say-ra-gul Saut-bay, as in “bye”), a teacher who escaped from China and was granted asylum in Sweden. Few prisoners have succeeded in getting out of the camps and telling their story. Sauytbay’s testimony is even more extraordinary, because during her incarceration she was compelled to be a teacher in the camp. China wants to market its camps to the world as places of educational programs and vocational retraining, but Sauytbay is one of the few people who can offer credible, firsthand testimony about what really goes on in the camps.
I met with Sauytbay three times, once in a meeting arranged by a Swedish Uyghur association and twice, after she agreed to tell her story to Haaretz, in personal interviews that took place in Stockholm and lasted several hours, all together. Sauytbay spoke only Kazakh, and so we communicated via a translator, but it was apparent that she spoke in a credible way. During most of the time we spoke, she was composed, but at the height of her recounting of the horror, tears welled up in her eyes. Much of what she said corroborated previous testimony by prisoners who had fled to the West. Sweden granted her asylum, because in the wake of her testimony, extradition to China would have placed her in mortal danger.
She is 43, a Muslim of Kazakh descent, who grew up in Mongolküre county, near the China-Kazakh border. Like hundreds of thousands of others, most of them Uyghurs, a minority ethnic Turkic group, she too fell victim to China’s suppression of every sign of an isolationist thrust in the northwest province of Xinjiang. A large number of camps have been established in that region over the past two years, as part of the regime’s struggle against what it terms the “Three Evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism. According to Western estimates, between one and two million of the province’s residents have been incarcerated in camps during Beijing’s campaign of oppression.
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As a young woman, Sauytbay completed medical studies and worked in a hospital. Subsequently she turned to education and was employed in the service of the state, in charge of five preschools. Even though she was in a settled situation, she and her husband had planned for years to leave China with their two children and move to neighboring Kazakhstan. But the plan encountered delays, and in 2014 the authorities began collecting the passports of civil servants, Sauytbay’s among them. Two years later, just before passports from the entire population were confiscated, her husband was able to leave the country with the children. Sauytbay hoped to join them in Kazakhstan as soon as she received an exit visa, but it never arrived.
“At the end of 2016, the police began arresting people at night, secretly,” Sauytbay related. “It was a socially and politically uncertain period. Cameras appeared in every public space; the security forces stepped up their presence. At one stage, DNA samples were taken from all members of minorities in the region and our telephone SIM cards were taken from us. One day, we were invited to a meeting of senior civil servants. There were perhaps 180 people there, employees in hospitals and schools. Police officers, reading from a document, announced that reeducation centers for the population were going to open soon, in order to stabilize the situation in the region.”
By stabilization, the Chinese were referring to what they perceived as a prolonged separatist struggle waged by the Uyghur minority. Terrorist attacks were perpetrated in the province as far back as the 1990s and the early 2000s. Following a series of suicide attacks between 2014 and 2016, Beijing launched a tough, no-holds-barred policy.
“In January 2017, they started to take people who had relatives abroad,” Sauytbay says. “They came to my house at night, put a black sack on my head and brought me to a place that looked like a jail. I was interrogated by police officers, who wanted to know where my husband and children were, and why they had gone to Kazakhstan. At the end of the interrogation I was ordered to tell my husband to come home, and I was forbidden to talk about the interrogation.”
Sauytbay had heard that in similar cases, people who returned to China had been arrested immediately and sent to a camp. With that in mind, she broke off contacts with her husband and children after her release. Time passed and the family did not return, but the authorities did not let up. She was repeatedly taken in for nocturnal interrogations and falsely accused of various offenses.
“I had to be strong,” she says. “Every day when I woke up, I thanked God that I was still alive.”
The turning point came in late 2017: “In November 2017, I was ordered to report to an address in the city’s suburbs, to leave a message at a phone number I had been given and to wait for the police.” After Sauytbay arrived at the designated place and left the message, four armed men in uniform arrived, again covered her head and bundled her into a vehicle. After an hour’s journey, she arrived in an unfamiliar place that she soon learned was a “reeducation” camp, which would become her prison in the months that followed. She was told she had been brought there in order to teach Chinese and was immediately made to sign a document that set forth her duties and the camp’s rules.
“I was very much afraid to sign,” Sauytbay recalls. “It said there that if I did not fulfill my task, or if I did not obey the rules, I would get the death penalty. The document stated that it was forbidden to speak with the prisoners, forbidden to laugh, forbidden to cry and forbidden to answer questions from anyone. I signed because I had no choice, and then I received a uniform and was taken to a tiny bedroom with a concrete bed and a thin plastic mattress. There were five cameras on the ceiling – one in each corner and another one in the middle.”
The other inmates, those who weren’t burdened with teaching duties, endured more stringent conditions. “There were almost 20 people in a room of 16 square meters [172 sq. ft.],” she says. “There were cameras in their rooms, too, and also in the corridor. Each room had a plastic bucket for a toilet. Every prisoner was given two minutes a day to use the toilet, and the bucket was emptied only once a day. If it filled up, you had to wait until the next day. The prisoners wore uniforms and their heads were shaved. Their hands and feet were shackled all day, except when they had to write. Even in sleep they were shackled, and they were required to sleep on their right side – anyone who turned over was punished.”
The document said ‘that if I did not fulfill my task, or if I did not obey the rules, I would get the death penalty. It was forbidden to speak with the prisoners, to laugh, to cry.’
Sauytbay had to teach the prisoners – who were Uyghur or Kazakh speakers – Chinese and Communist Party propaganda songs. She was with them throughout the day. The daily routine began at 6 A.M. Chinese instruction took place after a paltry breakfast, followed by repetition and rote learning. There were specified hours for learning propaganda songs and reciting slogans from posters: “I love China,” “Thank you to the Communist Party,” “I am Chinese” and “I love Xi Jinping” – China’s president.
The afternoon and evening hours were devoted to confessions of crimes and moral offenses. “Between 4 and 6 P.M. the pupils had to think about their sins. Almost everything could be considered a sin, from observing religious practices and not knowing the Chinese language or culture, to immoral behavior. Inmates who did not think of sins that were severe enough or didn’t make up something were punished.”
After supper, they would continue dealing with their sins. “When the pupils finished eating they were required to stand facing the wall with their hands raised and think about their crimes again. At 10 o’clock, they had two hours for writing down their sins and handing in the pages to those in charge. The daily routine actually went on until midnight, and sometimes the prisoners were assigned guard duty at night. The others could sleep from midnight until six.”
Sauytbay estimates that there were about 2,500 inmates in the camp. The oldest person she met was a woman of 84; the youngest, a boy of 13. “There were schoolchildren and workers, businessmen and writers, nurses and doctors, artists and simple peasants who had never been to the city.”
Do you know which camp you were in?
Sauytbay: “I have no idea where the camp was located. During my time there, I was not allowed to leave the grounds even once. I think it was a new building, because it had a great deal of exposed concrete. The rooms were cold. Having connections with others was forbidden. Men and women were separated in the living spaces, but during the day they studied together. In any case, there were police who supervised everything everywhere.”
What did you eat?
“There were three meals a day. All the meals included watery rice soup or vegetable soup and a small slice of Chinese bread. Meat was served on Fridays, but it was pork. The inmates were compelled to eat it, even if they were religiously observant and did not eat pork. Refusal brought punishment. The food was bad, there weren’t enough hours for sleep and the hygiene was atrocious. The result of it all was that the inmates turned into bodies without a soul.”
Sins and abortions
The camp’s commanders set aside a room for torture, Sauytbay relates, which the inmates dubbed the “black room” because it was forbidden to talk about it explicitly. “There were all kinds of tortures there. Some prisoners were hung on the wall and beaten with electrified truncheons. There were prisoners who were made to sit on a chair of nails. I saw people return from that room covered in blood. Some came back without fingernails.”
Why were people tortured?
“They would punish inmates for everything. Anyone who didn’t follow the rules was punished. Those who didn’t learn Chinese properly or who didn’t sing the songs were also punished.”
And everyday things like these were punished with torture?
“I will give you an example. There was an old woman in the camp who had been a shepherd before she was arrested. She was taken to the camp because she was accused of speaking with someone from abroad by phone. This was a woman who not only did not have a phone, she didn’t even know how to use one. On the page of sins the inmates were forced to fill out, she wrote that the call she had been accused of making never took place. In response she was immediately punished. I saw her when she returned. She was covered with blood, she had no fingernails and her skin was flayed.”
On one occasion, Sauytbay herself was punished. “One night, about 70 new prisoners were brought to the camp,” she recalls. “One of them was an elderly Kazakh woman who hadn’t even had time to take her shoes. She spotted me as being Kazakh and asked for my help. She begged me to get her out of there and she embraced me. I did not reciprocate her embrace, but I was punished anyway. I was beaten and deprived of food for two days.”
Sauytbay says she witnessed medical procedures being carried out on inmates with no justification. She thinks it was done as part of human experiments that were carried out in the camp systematically. “The inmates would be given pills or injections. They were told it was to prevent diseases, but the nurses told me secretly that the pills were dangerous and that I should not take them.”
What happened to those who did take them?
“The pills had different kinds of effects. Some prisoners were cognitively weakened. Women stopped getting their period and men became sterile.” (That, at least, was a widely circulated rumor.)
On the other hand, when inmates were really sick, they didn’t get the medical care they needed. Sauytbay remembers one young woman, a diabetic, who had been a nurse before her arrest. “Her diabetes became more and more acute. She no longer was strong enough to stand. She wasn’t even able to eat. That woman did not get any help or treatment. There was another woman who had undergone brain surgery before her arrest. Even though she had a prescription for pills, she was not permitted to take them.”
The fate of the women in the camp was particularly harsh, Sauytbay notes: “On an everyday basis the policemen took the pretty girls with them, and they didn’t come back to the rooms all night. The police had unlimited power. They could take whoever they wanted. There were also cases of gang rape. In one of the classes I taught, one of those victims entered half an hour after the start of the lesson. The police ordered her to sit down, but she just couldn’t do it, so they took her to the black room for punishment.”
‘Meat was served on Fridays, but it was pork. The inmates were compelled to eat it, even if they were religiously observant and did not eat pork. Refusal brought punishment.’
Tears stream down Sauytbay’s face when she tells the grimmest story from her time in the camp. “One day, the police told us they were going to check to see whether our reeducation was succeeding, whether we were developing properly. They took 200 inmates outside, men and women, and told one of the women to confess her sins. She stood before us and declared that she had been a bad person, but now that she had learned Chinese she had become a better person. When she was done speaking, the policemen ordered her to disrobe and simply raped her one after the other, in front of everyone. While they were raping her they checked to see how we were reacting. People who turned their head or closed their eyes, and those who looked angry or shocked, were taken away and we never saw them again. It was awful. I will never forget the feeling of helplessness, of not being able to help her. After that happened, it was hard for me to sleep at night.”
Testimony from others incarcerated in Chinese camps are similar to Sauytbay’s account: the abduction with a black sack over the head, life in shackles, and medications that cause cognitive decline and sterility. Sauytbay’s accounts of sexual assaults has recently been significantly reinforced by accounts from other former inmates of camps in Xinjiang published by The Washington Post and The Independent, in London. A number of women stated that they were raped, others described coerced abortions and the forced insertion of contraceptive devices.
Ruqiye Perhat, a 30-year-old Uyghur woman who was held in camps for four years and now lives in Turkey, related that she was raped a number of times by guards and became pregnant twice, with both pregnancies forcibly aborted. “Any woman or man under age 35 was raped and sexually abused,” she told the Post.
Gulzira Auelkhan, a woman of 40 who was incarcerated in camps for a year and a half, told the Post that guards would enter “and put bags on the heads of the ones they wanted.” A Kazakh guard managed to smuggle out a letter in which he related where the rapes at his Xinjiang camp took place: “There are two tables in the kitchen, one for snacks and liquor, and the other for ‘doing things,’” he wrote.
Journalist Ben Mauk, who has written on China for The New York Times Magazine and others, investigated the camps in Xinjiang and published a piece in The Believer magazine containing the accounts of former prisoners. One is Zharkynbek Otan, 32, who was held in a camp for eight months. “At the camp, they took our clothing away,” Otan said. “They gave us a camp uniform and administered a shot they said was to protect us against the flu and AIDS. I don’t know if it’s true, but it hurt for a few days.”
Otan added that since then he has been impotent and prone to memory lapses. He described the camp he was in as a huge building surrounded by a fence, where activity was monitored by cameras that hung in every corner: “You could be punished for anything: for eating too slowly, for taking too long on the toilet. They would beat us. They would shout at us. So we always kept our heads down.”
Thirty-nine-year-old Orynbek Koksebek, who was incarcerated in a camp for four months, told Mauk, “They took me into the yard outside the building. It was December and cold. There was a hole in the yard. It was taller than a man. If you don’t understand, they said, we’ll make you understand. Then they put me in the hole. They brought a bucket of cold water and poured it on me. They had cuffed my hands… I lost consciousness.” Koksebek also told about roll calls held twice a day in which the prisoners, their heads shaven, were counted “the way you count your animals in your pasture.”
A 31-year-old woman, Shakhidyam Memanova, described the Chinese regime of fear and terror in Xinjiang thus: “They were stopping cars at every corner, checking our phones, coming into our homes to count the number of people inside… People getting detained for having photos of Turkish movie stars on their phones, new mothers separated from their babies and forced to work in factories like slaves.” Later in her testimony she added that children were being interrogated at school about whether their parents prayed, and that there were prohibitions on head coverings and possessing a Koran.
Curtain of secrecy
The Xinjiang region in northwestern China is a very large. Spanning an area larger than France, Spain and Germany combined, it is home to more than 20 million people. About 40 percent of the population is Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority, but the majority in Xinjiang are ethnic minorities, mostly Turkic Muslim groups. The largest of these is the Uyghurs, who constitute about half the region’s population; other ethnic groups include Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others.
Xinjiang became part of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and received an autonomous status. In recent decades, the region has experienced dramatic social, political and economic changes. Formerly a traditional agricultural area, Xinjiang is now undergoing rapid industrialization and economic growth powered by the production of minerals, oil and natural gas, and by the fact that it is a major hub of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is an important part of China’s global economic expansion.
“Since the 1950s, the Chinese government has invested heavily in Xinjiang,” says Magnus Fiskesjö, an anthropologist from Cornell University who specializes in ethnic minorities in China.
“A large part of this investment is managed by a governmental military enterprise called Bingtuan [short for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps], whose activity, together with various economic and political measures taken by the central government, created resentment among the local population. They were discriminated against and were becoming a minority in their own land, because the authorities moved masses of Han Chinese to Xinjiang,” he explains. “The tension between minority peoples and Han Chinese there is not only a result of religious feelings or a specific economic enterprise. It stems from a wide range of Chinese policies that the native population does not benefit from. Tensions reached a boiling point on several occasions, and in some cases deteriorated into organized violence and terror attacks.”
The vast majority of the minorities in Xinjiang are opposed to violence, but radical Uyghurs have at times been able to dictate the tone. Fiskesjö elaborates: “The Chinese government used these conflicts and terror attacks to paint the entire population of Xinjiang as terrorists and to start a campaign of erasing the population’s cultural identity. The Chinese are erasing minority cultures from both the public and the private arena. They are criminalizing ethnic identities, erasing any trace of Islam and minority languages, arresting singers, poets, writers and public figures. They are holding about 10 percent of the minority ethnic groups in modern-day gulags.”
According to Fiskesjö, the Chinese initially denied these claims, but when pictures and documents were leaked to the West, and satellite images showed camps being built all over the region – Beijing revised its story. Officials now admit that there is a legal campaign under way that is aimed at combating radicalism and poverty by means of vocational reeducation centers.
“The Chinese claim that these are vocational retraining camps and that the inmates are not there by coercion is a complete lie,” says Nimrod Baranovitch, from the University of Haifa’s Asian studies department. “I know directly and indirectly of hundreds of people who were incarcerated in the camps and have no need of vocational retraining. Intellectuals, professors, physicians and writers have disappeared. One of them is Ablet Abdurishit Berqi, a postdoctoral student who was here with us in Haifa. I hope he is still alive.”
Baranovitch finds it striking that the Muslim countries are ignoring the Chinese suppression. “For quite a few countries, we’re not only talking about coreligionists but also about ethnic affinity, as the Uyghurs are of Turkish descent. The thing is that many Muslim states are involved in the Silk Road [Belt and Road Initiative] project. In my opinion, one of the reasons for the promotion of that project, whose economic rationale is not always clear, is to facilitate the elimination of the Uyghur problem. By means of investments and the promise of huge future investments, China has bought the silence of many Muslim countries.”
Indeed, last July, an urgent letter about Xinjiang to the United Nations Human Rights Council from the ambassadors of 22 countries was answered by a letter of support for China from the representatives of 37 other states, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait and Bahrain.
One factor that makes it easier for the world to remain silent about the events in Xinjiang is that China has effectively closed off this immense region behind a curtain of secrecy, by means of surveillance and espionage, internet and social-network censorship, travel restrictions and bans on residents’ contact with relatives and others abroad, along with policing, oversight and control on a vast scale. According to Fiskesjö, these efforts are concealing an actual genocide – according to the UN definition of the term from 1948 – even if the measures don’t include widespread acts of murder.
“Children are being taken from their parents, who are confined in concentration camps, and being put in Chinese orphanages,” he says. “Women in the camps are receiving inoculations that make them infertile, the Chinese are entering into private homes and eradicating local culture, and there is widespread collective punishment.”
Medical procedures were carried out on inmates with no justification. But when inmates were really sick, they didn’t get the care they needed.
A charge of treason
Sayragul Sauytbay’s story took a surprising turn in March 2018 when, with no prior announcement, she was informed that she was being released. Again her head was covered with a black sack, again she was bundled into a vehicle, but this time she was taken home. At first the orders were clear: She was to resume her former position as director of five preschools in her home region of Aksu, and she was instructed not to say a word about what she had been through. On her third day back on the job, however, she was fired and again brought in for interrogation. She was accused of treason and of maintaining ties with people abroad. The punishment for people like her, she was told, is reeducation, only this time she would be a regular inmate in a camp and remain there for a period of one to three years.
“I was told that before being sent to the camp, I should return home so as to show my successor the ropes,” she says. “At this stage I hadn’t seen my children for two-and-a-half years, and I missed them very much. Having already been in a camp, I knew what it meant. I knew I would die there, and I could not accept that. I am innocent. I did nothing bad. I worked for the state for 20 years. Why should I be punished? Why should I die there?”
Sauytbay decided that she was not going back to a camp. “I said to myself that if I was already fated to die, at least I was going to try to escape. It was worth my while to take the risk because of the chance that I would be able to see my children. There were police stationed outside my apartment, and I didn’t have a passport, but even so, I tried. I got out through a window and fled to the neighbors’ house. From there I took a taxi to the border with Kazakhstan and I managed to sneak across. In Kazakhstan I found my family. My dream came true. I could not have received a greater gift.”
But the saga did not end there: Immediately after her emotional reunion with her family, she was arrested by Kazakhstan’s secret service and incarcerated for nine months for having crossed the border illegally. Three times she submitted a request for asylum, and three times she was turned down; she faced the danger of being extradited to China. But after relatives contacted several media outlets, international elements intervened, and in the end she was granted asylum in Sweden.
“I will never forget the camp,” Sauytbay says. “I cannot forget the eyes of the prisoners, expecting me to do something for them. They are innocent. I have to tell their story, to tell about the darkness they are in, about their suffering. The world must find a solution so that my people can live in peace. The democratic governments must do all they can to make China stop doing what it is doing in Xinjiang.”
Asked to respond to Sayragul Sauytbay’s description of her experience, the Chinese Embassy in Sweden wrote to Haaretz that her account is “total lies and malicious smear attacks against China.” Sauytbay, it claimed, “never worked in any vocational education and training center in Xinjiang, and has never been detained before leaving China” – which she did illegally, it added. Furthermore, “Sayragul Sauytbay is suspected of credit fraud in China with unpaid debts [of] about 400,000 RMB” (approximately $46,000).
In Xinjiang in recent years, wrote the embassy, “China has been under serious threats of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism. The vocational education and training centers have been established in accordance with the law to eradicate extremism, which is not ‘prison camp.’” As a result of the centers, according to the Chinese, “there has been no terrorist incident in Xinjiang for more than three years. The vocational education and training work in Xinjiang has won the support of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang and positive comments from many countries across the world.”