Three Uyghur exiles in the US are in China’s sights as family members condemn their testimonies at the London tribunal, ITV News US Correspondent Emma Murphy reports
Family members of some witnesses at the Uyghur Tribunal in London are being put up at a press conference in China to rebut their relatives’ claims.
The first set of hearings of the Uyghur Tribunal were held in Westminster over the weekend. Witnesses accused China of genocide, with allegations of forced sterilisations, family separations, and the mass internment of around one million Turkic Muslims.
When she was released two years later, they were returned – Elina and Moez with serious health issues, Mohaned as a frozen corpse.From birth, he had been the strongest of the babies. She has no idea what happened to him. The children still ask for their brother.
One day, they might ask why they have operation scars on their necks – no one is sure why.
Mihrigul testified against China at the Uyghur Tribunal. Now, she and two other Uyghurs exiled in the USA, are in China’s sights as family members are broadcast condemning their testimony.
Uyghur advocate of the year Gulbahar Jalilova
For her advocacy against the Uyghur Genocide for her fearless courage in speaking up for the Uyghur women, she left behind in the concentration camps. April 3, 2021.
Uyghur advocate of the year Gulbahar Jalilova For her advocacy against the Uyghur Genocide for her fearless courage in speaking up for the Uyghur women, she left behind in the concentration camps. April 3, 2021.
Gulzira Auelkhan (left), meets with Bob Fu in the U.S. (Bob Fu photo)
TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A Kazakh woman who survived months of torment at a China’s re-education camp in Xinjiang has arrived in the United States with the assistance of ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian nonprofit devoted to raising awareness of human rights abuses.
Bob Fu (傅希秋), founder of ChinaAid, told Taiwan News on Wednesday (Feb. 10) the organization has helped former camp detainee, Gulzira Auelkhan from Kazakhstan, flee to the U.S.
Auelkhan’s 18-month detention in the camp has left her in poor health. According to Fu, she has shown symptoms associated with concussion, cerebral hemorrhage, pancreatitis, as well as renal and uterine issues.
Auelkhan was featured in a Feb. 2 report carried by the BBC about alleged systematic rape and abuses in Beijing’s supposed re-education camps. The camps, the Chinese claim, are designed to provide professional training to Uighurs and people of other minority groups.
According to her account, Auelkhan was forced to take off Uighur women’s clothes and handcuff them, before leaving them to Chinese men, some of them policemen. She attested to organized rape in the facilities, saying she could not say no for fear of being punished.
In agonizing details, BBC provided a peek into some of the darkest sides of the camp networks, through interviews with former detainees, teachers, and guards. The accusations include indoctrination, food deprivation, rape, sexual abuse, physical torture such as electrocution, and “spirit destroying” abuse.
Beijing has vehemently denied the accusations, slamming them as groundless and intended as a smear campaign against the Chinese government.
'Their goal is to destroy everyone': Uighur camp detainees allege systematic rape
Matthew Hill, David Campanale and Joel Gunter – BBC News
Women in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured, according to detailed accounts obtained by the BBC. You may find some of the details in this story distressing.
The men always wore masks, Tursunay Ziawudun said, even though there was no pandemic then.
They wore suits, she said, not police uniforms.
Sometime after midnight, they came to the cells to select the women they wanted and took them down the corridor to a “black room”, where there were no surveillance cameras.
Several nights, Ziawudun said, they took her.
“Perhaps this is the most unforgettable scar on me forever,” she said.
“I don’t even want these words to spill from my mouth.”
Tursunay Ziawudun spent nine months inside China’s vast and secretive system of internment camps in the Xinjiang region. According to independent estimates, more than a million men and women have been detained in the sprawling network of camps, which China says exist for the “re-education” of the Uighurs and other minorities.
Human rights groups say the Chinese government has gradually stripped away the religious and other freedoms of the Uighurs, culminating in an oppressive system of mass surveillance, detention, indoctrination, and even forced sterilisation.
The policy flows from China’s President, Xi Jinping, who visited Xinjiang in 2014 in the wake of a terror attack by Uighur separatists. Shortly after, according to documents leaked to the New York Times, he directed local officials to respond with “absolutely no mercy”. The US government said last month that China’s actions since amounted to a genocide. China says reports of mass detention and forced sterilisation are “lies and absurd allegations”.
First-hand accounts from inside the internment camps are rare, but several former detainees and a guard have told the BBC they experienced or saw evidence of an organised system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture.
Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after her release and is now in the US, said women were removed from the cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. She said she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men.
Ziawudun has spoken to the media before, but only from Kazakhstan, where she “lived in constant fear of being sent back to China”, she said. She said she believed that if she revealed the extent of the sexual abuse she had experienced and seen, and was returned to Xinjiang, she would be punished more harshly than before. And she was ashamed, she said.
It is impossible to verify Ziawudun’s account completely because of the severe restrictions China places on reporters in the country, but travel documents and immigration records she provided to the BBC corroborate the timeline of her story. Her descriptions of the camp in Xinyuan county – known in Uighur as Kunes county – match satellite imagery analysed by the BBC, and her descriptions of daily life inside the camp, as well as the nature and methods of the abuse, correspond with other accounts from former detainees.
Internal documents from the Kunes county justice system from 2017 and 2018, provided to the BBC by Adrian Zenz, a leading expert on China’s policies in Xinjiang, detail planning and spending for “transformation through education” of “key groups” – a common euphemism in China for the indoctrination of the Uighurs. In one Kunes document, the “education” process is described as “washing brains, cleansing hearts, strengthening righteousness and eliminating evil”.
The BBC also interviewed a Kazakh woman from Xinjiang who was detained for 18 months in the camp system, who said she was forced to strip Uighur women naked and handcuff them, before leaving them alone with Chinese men. Afterwards, she cleaned the rooms, she said.
“My job was to remove their clothes above the waist and handcuff them so they cannot move,” said Gulzira Auelkhan, crossing her wrists behind her head to demonstrate. “Then I would leave the women in the room and a man would enter – some Chinese man from outside or policeman. I sat silently next to the door, and when the man left the room I took the woman for a shower.”
The Chinese men “would pay money to have their pick of the prettiest young inmates”, she said.
Some former detainees of the camps have described being forced to assist guards or face punishment. Auelkhan said she was powerless to resist or intervene.
Asked if there was a system of organised rape, she said: “Yes, rape.”
“They forced me to go into that room,” she said. “They forced me to take off those women’s clothes and to restrain their hands and leave the room.”
Some of the women who were taken away from the cells at night were never returned, Ziawudun said. Those who were brought back were threatened against telling others in the cell what had happened to them.
“You can’t tell anyone what happened, you can only lie down quietly,” she said. “It is designed to destroy everyone’s spirit.”
Mr Zenz told the BBC that the testimony gathered for this story was “some of the most horrendous evidence I have seen since the atrocity began in 2017”.
“This evidence confirms the very worst of what we have heard before,” he said. “It provides authoritative and detailed evidence of sexual abuse and torture, at a level clearly greater than what we had assumed.”
The Uighurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic minority group that number about 11 million in Xinjiang in north-western China. The region borders Kazakhstan and is also home to ethnic Kazakhs. Ziawudun, who is 42, is Uighur. Her husband is a Kazakh.
The couple returned to Xinjiang in late 2016 after a five-year stay in Kazakhstan, and were interrogated on arrival and had their passports confiscated, Ziawudun said. A few months later, she was told by police to attend a meeting alongside other Uighurs and Kazakhs and the group was rounded up and detained.
Her first stint in detention was comparatively easy, she said, with decent food and access to her phone. After a month she developed stomach ulcers and was released. Her husband’s passport was returned and he went back to Kazakhstan to work, but authorities kept Ziawudun’s, trapping her in Xinjiang. Reports suggest China has purposefully kept behind and interned relatives to discourage those who leave from speaking out. On 9 March 2018, with her husband still in Kazakhstan, Ziawudun was instructed to report to a local police station, she said. She was told she needed “more education”.
According to her account, Ziawudun was transported back to the same facility as her previous detention, in Kunes county, but the site had been significantly developed, she said. Buses were lined up outside offloading new detainees “non-stop”.
The women had their jewellery confiscated. Ziawudun’s earrings were yanked out, she said, causing her ears to bleed, and she was herded into a room with a group of women. Among them was an elderly woman who Ziawudun would later befriend.
The camp guards pulled off the woman’s headscarf, Ziawudun said, and shouted at her for wearing a long dress – one of a list of religious expressions that became arrestable offences for Uighurs that year.
“They stripped everything off the elderly lady, leaving her with just her underwear. She was so embarrassed that she tried to cover herself with her arms,” Ziawudun said.
“I cried so much watching the way they treated her. Her tears fell like rain.”
The women were told to hand over their shoes and any clothes with elastic or buttons, Ziawudun said, then taken to cellblocks – “similar to a small Chinese neighbourhood where there are rows of buildings”.
Nothing much happened for the first month or two. They were forced to watch propaganda programmes in their cells and had their hair forcibly cut short.
Then police began interrogating Ziawudun about her absent husband, she said, knocking her on the floor when she resisted and kicking her in the abdomen.
“Police boots are very hard and heavy, so at first I thought he was beating me with something,” she said. “Then I realised that he was trampling on my belly. I almost passed out – I felt a hot flush go through me.”
A camp doctor told her she might have a blood clot. When her cellmates drew attention to the fact that she was bleeding, the guards “replied saying it is normal for women to bleed”, she said.
According to Ziawudun, each cell was home to 14 women, with bunk beds, bars on the windows, a basin and a hole-in-the-floor-style toilet. When she first saw women being taken out of the cell at night, she didn’t understand why, she said. She thought they were being moved elsewhere.
Then sometime in May 2018 – “I don’t remember the exact date, because you don’t remember the dates inside there” – Ziawudun and a cellmate, a woman in her twenties, were taken out at night and presented to a Chinese man in a mask, she said. Her cellmate was taken into a separate room.
“As soon as she went inside she started screaming,” Ziawudun said. “I don’t know how to explain to you, I thought they were torturing her. I never thought about them raping.”
The woman who had brought them from the cells told the men about Ziawudun’s recent bleeding.
“After the woman spoke about my condition, the Chinese man swore at her. The man with the mask said ‘Take her to the dark room’.
“The woman took me to the room next to where the other girl had been taken in. They had an electric stick, I didn’t know what it was, and it was pushed inside my genital tract, torturing me with an electric shock.”
Ziawudun’s torture that first night in the dark room eventually came to an end, she said, when the woman intervened again citing her medical condition, and she was returned to the cell.
About an hour later, her cellmate was brought back.
“The girl became completely different after that, she wouldn’t speak to anyone, she sat quietly staring as if in a trance,” Ziawudun said. “There were many people in those cells who lost their minds.”
Alongside cells, another central feature of the camps is classrooms. Teachers have been drafted in to “re-educate” the detainees – a process activists say is designed to strip the Uighurs and other minorities of their culture, language and religion, and indoctrinate them into mainstream Chinese culture.
Qelbinur Sedik, an Uzbek woman from Xinjiang, was among the Chinese language teachers brought into the camps and coerced into giving lessons to the detainees. Sedik has since fled China and spoken publicly about her experience.
The women’s camp was “tightly controlled”, Sedik told the BBC. But she heard stories, she said – signs and rumours of rape. One day, Sedik cautiously approached a Chinese camp policewoman she knew.
“I asked her, ‘I have been hearing some terrible stories about rape, do you know about it?’ She said we should talk in the courtyard during lunch.
“So I went to the courtyard, where there were not many cameras. She said, ‘Yes, the rape has become a culture. It is gang rape and the Chinese police not only rape them but also electrocute them. They are subject to horrific torture.'”
That night Sedik didn’t sleep at all, she said. “I was thinking about my daughter who was studying abroad and I cried all night.”
In separate testimony to the Uighur Human Rights Project, Sedik said she heard about an electrified stick being inserted into women to torture them – echoing the experience Ziawudun described.
There were “four kinds of electric shock”, Sedik said – “the chair, the glove, the helmet, and anal rape with a stick”.
“The screams echoed throughout the building,” she said. “I could hear them during lunch and sometimes when I was in class.”
Another teacher forced to work in the camps, Sayragul Sauytbay, told the BBC that “rape was common” and the guards “picked the girls and young women they wanted and took them away”.
She described witnessing a harrowing public gang rape of a woman of just 20 or 21, who was brought before about 100 other detainees to make a forced confession.
“After that, in front of everyone, the police took turns to rape her,” Sauytbay said.
“While carrying out this test, they watched people closely and picked out anyone who resisted, clenched their fists, closed their eyes, or looked away, and took them for punishment.”
The young woman cried out for help, Sauytbay said.
“It was absolutely horrendous,” she said. “I felt I had died. I was dead.”
In the camp in Kunes, Ziawudun’s days drifted into weeks and then months. The detainees’ hair was cut, they went to class, they underwent unexplained medical tests, took pills, and were forcibly injected every 15 days with a “vaccine” that brought on nausea and numbness.
Women were forcibly fitted with IUDs or sterilised, Ziawudun said, including a woman who was just about 20 years old. (“We begged them on her behalf,” she said.) Forced sterilisation of Uighurs has been widespread in Xinjiang, according to a recent investigation by the Associated Press. The Chinese government told the BBC the allegations were “completely unfounded”.
As well as the medical interventions, detainees in Ziawudun’s camp spent hours singing patriotic Chinese songs and watching patriotic TV programmes about Chinese President Xi Jinping, she said.
“You forget to think about life outside the camp. I don’t know if they brainwashed us or if it was the side effect of the injections and pills, but you can’t think of anything beyond wishing you had a full stomach. The food deprivation is so severe.”
Detainees had food withheld for infractions such as failing to accurately memorise passages from books about Xi Jinping, according to a former camp guard who spoke to the BBC via video link from a country outside China.
“Once we were taking the people arrested into the concentration camp, and I saw everyone being forced to memorise those books. They sit for hours trying to memorise the text, everyone had a book in their hands,” he said.
Those who failed tests were forced to wear three different colours of clothing based on whether they had failed one, two, or three times, he said, and subjected to different levels of punishment accordingly, including food deprivation and beatings.
“I entered those camps. I took detainees into those camps,” he said. “I saw those sick, miserable people. They definitely experienced various types of torture. I am sure about that.”
It was not possible to independently verify the guard’s testimony but he provided documents that appeared to corroborate a period of employment at a known camp. He agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
The guard said he did not know anything about rape in the cell areas. Asked if the camp guards used electrocution, he said: “Yes. They do. They use those electrocuting instruments.” After being tortured, detainees were forced to make confessions to a variety of perceived offences, according to the guard. “I have those confessions in my heart,” he said.
President Xi looms large over the camps. His image and slogans adorn the walls; he is a focus of the programme of “re-education”. Xi is the overall architect of the policy against the Uighurs, said Charles Parton, a former British diplomat in China and now senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
“It is very centralised and it goes to the very top,” Parton said. “There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this is Xi Jinping’s policy.”
It was unlikely that Xi or other top party officials would have directed or authorised rape or torture, Parton said, but they would “certainly be aware of it”.
“I think they prefer at the top just to turn a blind eye. The line has gone out to implement this policy with great sternness, and that is what is happening.” That left “no real constraints”, he said. “I just don’t see what the perpetrators of these acts would have to hold them back.”
According to Ziawudun’s account, the perpetrators did not hold back.
“They don’t only rape but also bite all over your body, you don’t know if they are human or animal,” she said, pressing a tissue to her eyes to stop her tears and pausing for a long time to collect herself.
“They didn’t spare any part of the body, they bit everywhere leaving horrible marks. It was disgusting to look at.
“I’ve experienced that three times. And it is not just one person who torments you, not just one predator. Each time they were two or three men.”
Later, a woman who slept near Ziawudun in the cell, who said she was detained for giving birth to too many children, disappeared for three days and when she returned her body was covered with the same marks, Ziawudun said.
“She couldn’t say it. She wrapped her arms around my neck and sobbed continuously, but she said nothing.”
The Chinese government did not respond directly to questions from the BBC about allegations of rape and torture. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the camps in Xinjiang were not detention camps but “vocational education and training centres”.
“The Chinese government protects the rights and interests of all ethnic minorities equally,” the spokeswoman said, adding that the government “attaches great importance to protecting women’s rights”.
Ziawudun was released in December 2018 along with others who had spouses or relatives in Kazakhstan – an apparent policy shift she still doesn’t fully understand.
The state returned her passport and she fled to Kazakhstan and then, with the support of the Uighur Human Rights Project, to the US. She is applying to stay. She lives in a quiet suburb not far from Washington DC with a landlady from the local Uighur community. The two women cook together and take walks in the streets around the house. It’s a slow, uneventful existence. Ziawudun keeps the lights low when she is in the house, because they shone brightly and constantly in the camp. A week after she arrived in the US, she had surgery to remove her womb – a consequence of being stamped on. “I have lost the chance to become a mother,” she said. She wants her husband to join her in the US. For now, he is in Kazakhstan.
For a while after her release, before she could flee, Ziawudun waited in Xinjiang. She saw others who had been churned through the system and released. She saw the effect the policy was having on her people. The birth rate in Xinjiang has plummeted in the past few years, according to independent research – an effect analysts have described as “demographic genocide”.
Many had turned to alcohol, Ziawudun said. Several times, she saw her former cellmate collapsed on the street, the young woman who was removed from the cell with her that first night, who she heard screaming in an adjacent room. The woman had been consumed by addiction, Ziawudun said – she was “like someone who simply existed, otherwise she was dead, completely finished by the rapes”.
“They say people are released, but in my opinion everyone who leaves the camps is finished.”
And that, she said, was the plan. The surveillance, the internment, the indoctrination, the dehumanisation, the sterilisation, the torture, the rape.
“Their goal is to destroy everyone,” she said. “And everybody knows it.”
Photographs by Hannah Long-Higgins
Readers in the UK affected by sexual abuse or violence can find support information via the BBC website here.
🗣 ′′ Once I stayed chained to my bed for 20 days not knowing if I broke the rules."
Uyghur and settled in France, Gulbahar Haitiwaji tells of the horror she experienced in China. A rare and valuable testimony.
The man on the phone said he worked for the oil company, “In accounting, actually”. His voice was unfamiliar to me. At first, I couldn’t make sense of what he was calling about. It was November 2016, and I had been on unpaid leave from the company since I left China and moved to France 10 years earlier. There was static on the line; I had a hard time hearing him.
“You must come back to Karamay to sign documents concerning your forthcoming retirement, Madame Haitiwaji,” he said. Karamay was the city in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang where I’d worked for the oil company for more than 20 years.
“In that case, I’d like to grant power of attorney,” I said. “A friend of mine in Karamay takes care of my administrative affairs. Why should I come back for some paperwork? Why go all that way for such a trifle? Why now?”
The man had no answers for me. He simply said he would call me back in two days after looking into the possibility of letting my friend act on my behalf.
My husband, Kerim, had left Xinjiang in 2002 to look for work. He tried first in Kazakhstan, but came back disillusioned after a year. Then in Norway. Then France, where he had applied for asylum. Once he was settled there, our two girls and I would join him.
Kerim had always known he would leave Xinjiang. The idea had taken root even before we were hired by the oil company. We had met as students in Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang province, and, as new graduates, had begun looking for work. This was in 1988. In the job ads in the newspapers, there was often a little phrase in small print: No Uighurs. This never left him. While I tried to overlook the evidence of discrimination that followed us everywhere, with Kerim, it became an obsession.
After graduation, we were offered jobs as engineers at the oil company in Karamay. We were lucky. But then there was the red envelope episode. At lunar new year, when the boss handed out the annual bonuses, the red envelopes given to Uighur workers contained less than those given to our colleagues who belonged to China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han. Soon after, all the Uighurs were transferred out of the central office and moved to the outskirts of town. A small group objected, but I didn’t dare. A few months later, when a senior position came up, Kerim applied. He had the right qualifications and the seniority. There was no reason he shouldn’t get the position. But the post went to an employee who belonged to a Han worker who didn’t even have an engineering degree. One night in 2000, Kerim came home and announced that he had quit. “I’ve had enough,” he said.
What my husband was experiencing was all too familiar. Since 1955, when communist China annexed Xinjiang as an “autonomous region”, we Uighurs have been seen as a thorn in the side of the Middle Kingdom. Xinjiang is a strategic corridor and far too valuable for China’s ruling Communist party to risk losing control of it. The party has invested too much in the “new silk road”, the infrastructure project designed to link China to Europe via central Asia, of which our region is an important axis. Xinjiang is essential to President Xi Jinping’s great plan – that is, a peaceful Xinjiang, open for business, cleansed of its separatist tendencies and its ethnic tensions. In short, Xinjiang without Uighurs.
My daughters and I fled to France to join my husband in May 2006, just before Xinjiang entered an unprecedented period of repression. My daughters, 13 and 8 at the time, were given refugee status, as was their father. In seeking asylum, my husband had made a clean break with the past. Obtaining a French passport in effect stripped him of his Chinese nationality. For me, the prospect of turning in my passport held a terrible implication: I would never be able to return to Xinjiang. How could I ever say goodbye to my roots, to the loved ones I’d left behind – my parents, my brothers and sisters, their children? I imagined my mother, getting on in years, dying alone in her village in the northern mountains. Giving up my Chinese nationality meant giving up on her, too. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So instead, I’d applied for a residence permit that was renewable every 10 years.
After the phone call, my head was buzzing with questions as I looked around the quiet living room of our apartment in Boulogne. Why did that man want me to go back to Karamay? Was it a ploy so the police could interrogate me? Nothing like this had happened to any of the other Uighurs I knew in France.
The man called back two days later. “Granting power of attorney will not be possible, Madame Haitiwaji. You must come to Karamay in person.” I gave in. After all, it was only a matter of a few documents.
“Fine. I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I said.
When I hung up, a shiver ran down my spine. I dreaded going back to Xinjiang. Kerim had been doing his best to reassure me for two days now, but I had a bad feeling about it. At this time of year, Karamay city was in the grip of a brutal winter. Gusts of icy wind howled down the avenues, between the shops, houses and apartment buildings. A few bundled-up figures braved the elements, hugging the walls, but on the whole, there was not a soul to be seen. But what I feared most of all were the ever-stricter measures regulating Xinjiang. Anyone who set foot outside their home could be arrested for no reason at all.
That wasn’t new, but the despotism had become more pronounced since the Urumqi riots in 2009, an explosion of violence between the city’s Uighur and Han populations, which left 197 people dead. The event marked a turning point in the recent history of the region. Later, the Chinese Communist party would blame the entire ethnic group for these horrible acts, justifying its repressive policies by claiming that Uighur households were a hotbed of radical Islam and separatism.
The summer of 2016 saw the entrance of a significant new player in the long struggle between our ethnic group and the Communist party. Chen Quanguo, who had made his reputation imposing draconian surveillance measures in Tibet, was named head of Xinjiang province. With his arrival, the repression of Uighurs escalated dramatically. Thousands were sent to “schools” built almost overnight in the middle of the desert. These were known as “transformation through education” camps. Detainees were sent there to be brainwashed – and worse.
I didn’t want to go back, but all the same, I decided Kerim was right: there was no reason for me to worry. The trip would only take a few weeks. “They’ll definitely pull you in for questioning, but don’t panic. That’s completely normal,” he reassured me.
Afew days after I landed in China, on the morning of 30 November 2016, I went to the oil company office in Karamay to sign the vaunted documents related to my upcoming retirement. In the office with its flaking walls sat the accountant, a sour-voiced Han, and his secretary, hunched behind a screen.
The next stage took place in Kunlun police station, a 10-minute drive from the company head office. On the way, I prepared my answers to the questions I was likely to be asked. I tried to steel myself. After leaving my belongings at the front desk, I was led to a narrow, soulless room: the interrogation room. I’d never been in one before. A table separated the policemen’s two chairs from my own. The quiet hum of the heater, the poorly cleaned whiteboard, the pallid lighting: these set the scene. We discussed the reasons I left for France, my jobs at a bakery and a cafeteria in the business district of Paris, La Défense.
Then one of the officers shoved a photo under my nose. It made my blood boil. It was a face I knew as well as my own – those full cheeks, that slender nose. It was my daughter Gulhumar. She was posing in front of the Place du Trocadéro in Paris, bundled up in her black coat, the one I’d given her. In the photo, she was smiling, a miniature East Turkestan flag in her hand, a flag the Chinese government had banned. To Uighurs, that flag symbolises the region’s independence movement. The occasion was one of the demonstrations organised by the French branch of the World Uighur Congress, which represents Uighurs in exile and speaks out against Chinese repression in Xinjiang.
Whether you’re politicised or not, such gatherings in France are above all a chance for the community to get together, much like birthdays, Eid and the spring festival of Nowruz. You can go to protest repression in Xinjiang, but also, as Gulhumar did, to see friends and catch up with the community of exiles. At the time, Kerim was a frequent attender. The girls went once or twice. I never did. Politics isn’t my thing. Since leaving Xinjiang, I’d only grown less interested.
Suddenly, the officer slammed his fist on the table.
“You know her, don’t you?”
“Yes. She’s my daughter.”
“Your daughter’s a terrorist!”
“No. I don’t know why she was at that demonstration.”
I kept repeating, “I don’t know, I don’t know what she was doing there, she wasn’t doing anything wrong, I swear! My daughter is not a terrorist! Neither is my husband!”
I can’t remember the rest of the interrogation. All I remember is that photo, their aggressive questions, and my futile replies. I don’t know how long it went on for. I remember that when it was over, I said, irritably: “Can I go now? Are we done here?” Then one of them said: “No, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, we’re not done.”
‘Right! Left! At ease!” There were 40 of us in the room, all women, wearing blue pyjamas. It was a nondescript rectangular classroom. A big metal shutter, perforated with tiny holes that let the light in, hid the outside world from us. Eleven hours a day, the world was reduced to this room. Our slippers squeaked on linoleum. Two Han soldiers relentlessly kept time as we marched up and down the room. This was called “physical education”. In reality, it was tantamount to military training.
Our exhausted bodies moved through the space in unison, back and forth, side to side, corner to corner. When the soldier bellowed “At ease!” in Mandarin, our regiment of prisoners froze. He ordered us to remain still. This could last half an hour, or just as often a whole hour, or even more. When it did, our legs began to prickle all over with pins and needles. Our bodies, still warm and restless, struggled not to sway in the moist heat. We could smell our own foul breath. We were panting like cattle. Sometimes, one or another of us would faint. If she didn’t come round, a guard would yank her to her feet and slap her awake. If she collapsed again, he would drag her out of the room, and we’d never see her again. Ever. At first, this shocked me, but now I was used to it. You can get used to anything, even horror.
It was now June 2017, and I’d been here for three days. After almost five months in the Karamay police cells, between interrogations and random acts of cruelty – at one stage I was chained to my bed for 20 days as punishment, though I never knew what for – I was told I would be going to “school”. I had never heard of these mysterious schools, or the courses they offered. The government has built them to “correct” Uighurs, I was told. The women who shared my cell said it would be like a normal school, with Han teachers. She said that once we had passed, the students would be free to go home.
This “school” was in Baijiantan, a district on the outskirts of Karamay. After leaving the police cells, that was all the information I’d managed to glean, from a sign stuck in a dried ditch where a few empty plastic bags were drifting about. Apparently, the training was to last a fortnight. After that, the classes on theory would begin. I didn’t know how I was going to hold out. How had I not broken down already? Baijiantan was a no man’s land from which three buildings rose, each the size of a small airport. Beyond the barbed-wire fence, there was nothing but desert as far as the eye could see.
On my first day, female guards led me to a dormitory full of beds, mere planks of numbered wood. There was already another woman there: Nadira, Bunk No 8. I was assigned Bunk No 9.
Nadira showed me around the dormitory, which had the heady smell of fresh paint: the bucket for doing your business, which she kicked wrathfully; the window with its metal shutter always closed; the two cameras panning back and forth in high corners of the room. That was it. No mattress. No furniture. No toilet paper. No sheets. No sink. Just two of us in the gloom and the bang of heavy cell doors slamming shut.
This was no school. It was a re-education camp, with military rules, and a clear desire to break us. Silence was enforced, but, physically taxed to the limit, we no longer felt like talking anyway. Over time, our conversations dwindled. Our days were punctuated by the screech of whistles on waking, at mealtime, at bedtime. Guards always had an eye on us; there was no way to escape their watchfulness, no way to whisper, wipe your mouth, or yawn for fear of being accused of praying. It was against the rules to turn down food, for fear of being called an “Islamist terrorist”. The wardens claimed our food was halal.
At night, I collapsed on my bunk in a stupor. I had lost all sense of time. There was no clock. I guessed at the time of day from how cold or hot it felt. The guards terrified me. We hadn’t seen daylight since we arrived – all the windows were blocked by those damned metal shutters. We were surrounded by desert as far as the eye could see. Though one of the policemen had promised I’d be given a phone, I hadn’t been. Who knew I was being held here? Had my sister been notified, or Kerim and Gulhumar? It was a waking nightmare. Beneath the impassive gaze of the security cameras, I couldn’t even open up to my fellow detainees. I was tired, so tired. I couldn’t even think any more.
The camp was a vast labyrinth where guards led us around in groups by dormitory. To go to the showers, the bathroom, the classroom, or the canteen, we were escorted down a series of endless fluorescent-lit hallways. Even a moment’s privacy was impossible. At either end of the hallways, automatic security doors sealed off the maze like airlocks. One thing was for sure: everything here was new. The reek of paint from the spotless walls was a constant reminder. It seemed like the premises of a factory, but I didn’t yet have a handle on just how big it was.
The sheer number of guards and other female prisoners we passed as we were moved around led me to believe this camp was massive. Every day, I saw new faces, zombie-like, with bags under the eyes. By the end of the first day, there had been seven of us in our cell; after three days there were 12. A little quick maths: I’ve counted 16 cell groups, including mine, each with 12 bunks, full up … that made for almost 200 detainees at Baijiantan. Two hundred women torn from their families. Two hundred lives locked up until further notice. And the camp just kept filling up.
You could tell the new arrivals from their distraught faces. They still tried to meet your eyes in the hallway. The ones who’d been there longer looked down at their feet. They shuffled around in close ranks, like robots. They snapped to attention without batting an eye, when a whistle ordered them to. Good God, what had been done to make them that way?
I’d thought the theory classes would bring us a bit of relief from the physical training, but they were even worse. The teacher was always watching us, and slapped us every chance she got. One day, one of my classmates, a woman in her 60s, shut her eyes, surely from exhaustion or fear. The teacher gave her a brutal slap. “Think I don’t see you praying? You’ll be punished!” The guards dragged her violently from the room. An hour later, she came back with something she had written: her self-criticism. The teacher made her read it out loud to us. She obeyed, ashen-faced, then sat down again. All she’d done was shut her eyes.
After a few days, I understood what people meant by “brainwashing”. Every morning, a Uighur instructor would come into our silent classroom. A woman of our own ethnicity, teaching us how to be Chinese. She treated us like wayward citizens that the party had to re-educate. I wondered what she thought of all this. Did she think anything at all? Where was she from? How had she ended up here? Had she herself been re-educated before doing this work?
At her signal, we all stood up as one. “Lao shi hao!” This greeting to the teacher kicked off 11 hours of daily teaching. We recited a kind of pledge of allegiance to China: “Thank you to our great country. Thank you to our party. Thank you to our dear President Xi Jinping.” In the evening, a similar version ended the lesson: “I wish for my great country to develop and have a bright future. I wish for all ethnicities to form a single great nation. I wish good health to President Xi Jinping. Long live President Xi Jinping.”
Glued to our chairs, we repeated our lessons like parrots. They taught us the glorious history of China – a sanitised version, cleansed of abuses. On the cover of the manual we were given was inscribed “re-education programme”. It contained nothing but stories of the powerful dynasties and their glorious conquests, and the great achievements of the Communist party. It was even more politicised and biased than the teaching at Chinese universities. In the early days, it made me laugh. Did they really think they were going to break us with a few pages of propaganda?
But as the days went by, fatigue set in like an old enemy. I was exhausted, and my firm resolve to resist was on permanent hold. I tried not to give in, but school went steamrolling on. It rolled right over our aching bodies. So this was brainwashing – whole days spent repeating the same idiotic phrases. As if that weren’t enough, we had to do an hour of extra study after dinner in the evening before going to bed. We would review our endlessly repeated lessons one last time. Every Friday, we had an oral and written test. By turns, beneath the wary eye of the camp leaders, we would recite the communist stew we’d been served up.
In this way, our short-term memory became both our greatest ally and our worst enemy. It enabled us to absorb and regurgitate volumes of history and declarations of loyal citizenship, so we could avoid the public humiliation dished out by the teacher. But at the same time, it weakened our critical abilities. It took away the memories and thoughts that bind us to life. After a while I could no longer picture clearly the faces of Kerim and my daughters. We were worked until we were nothing more than dumb animals. No one told us how long this would go on.
How even to begin the story of what I went through in Xinjiang? How to tell my loved ones that I lived at the mercy of police violence, of Uighurs like me who, because of the status their uniforms gave them, could do as they wished with us, our bodies and souls? Of men and women whose brains had been thoroughly washed – robots stripped of humanity, zealously enforcing orders, petty bureaucrats working under a system in which those who do not denounce others are themselves denounced, and those who do not punish others are themselves punished. Persuaded that we were enemies to be beaten down – traitors and terrorists – they took away our freedom. They locked us up like animals somewhere away from the rest of the world, out of time: in camps.
In the “transformation-through-education” camps, life and death do not mean the same thing as they do elsewhere. A hundred times over I thought, when the footfalls of guards woke us in the night, that our time had come to be executed. When a hand viciously pushed clippers across my skull, and other hands snatched away the tufts of hair that fell on my shoulders, I shut my eyes, blurred with tears, thinking my end was near, that I was being readied for the scaffold, the electric chair, drowning. Death lurked in every corner. When the nurses grabbed my arm to “vaccinate” me, I thought they were poisoning me. In reality, they were sterilising us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.
We were ordered to deny who we were. To spit on our own traditions, our beliefs. To criticise our language. To insult our own people. Women like me, who emerged from the camps, are no longer who we once were. We are shadows; our souls are dead. I was made to believe that my loved ones, my husband and my daughter, were terrorists. I was so far away, so alone, so exhausted and alienated, that I almost ended up believing it. My husband, Kerim, my daughters Gulhumar and Gulnigar – I denounced your “crimes”. I begged forgiveness from the Communist party for atrocities that neither you nor I committed. I regret everything I said that dishonoured you. Today I am alive, and I want to proclaim the truth. I don’t know if you will accept me, I don’t know if you’ll forgive me.
How can I begin to tell you what happened here?
Iwas held in the camp at Baijiantan for two years. During that time, everyone around me – the police officers who came to interrogate prisoners, plus the guards, teachers and tutors – tried to make me believe the massive lie without which China could not have justified its re-education project: that Uighurs are terrorists, and thus that I, Gulbahar, as a Uighur who had been living in exile in France for 10 years, was a terrorist. Wave after wave of propaganda crashed down upon me, and as the months went by, I began to lose part of my sanity. Bits of my soul shattered and broke off. I will never recover them.
During violent interrogations by the police, I kowtowed under the blows – so much so that I even made false confessions. They managed to convince me that the sooner I owned up to my crimes, the sooner I’d be able to leave. Exhausted, I finally gave in. I had no other choice. No one can fight against themselves for ever. No matter how tirelessly you battle brainwashing, it does its insidious work. All desire and passion desert you. What options do you have left? A slow, painful descent into death, or submission. If you play at submission, if you feign losing your psychological power struggle against the police, then at least, despite it all, you hang on to the shard of lucidity that reminds you who you are.
‘It’s a place where they try to destroy you’: why concentration camps are still with us
I didn’t believe a word of what I was saying to them. I simply did my best to be a good actor.
On 2 August 2019, after a short trial, before an audience of just a few people, a judge from Karamay pronounced me innocent. I barely heard his words. I listened to the sentence as if it were nothing to do with me. I was thinking about all the times I had asserted my innocence, all those nights I had tossed and turned on my bunk, enraged that no one would believe me. And I was thinking about all those other times when I had admitted the things they accused me of, all the fake confessions I had made, all those lies.
They had sentenced me to seven years of re-education. They had tortured my body and brought my mind to the edge of madness. And now, after reviewing my case, a judge had decided that no, in actual fact, I was innocent. I was free to go.
• Some names have been changed. Translated by Edward Gauvin. This is an edited extract from Rescapée du Goulag Chinois (Survivor of the Chinese Gulag) by Gulbahar Haitiwaji, co-authored with Rozenn Morgat and published by Editions des Equateurs
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(CNN)Friday, September 4 was one of the happiest days in recent memory for Mayila Yakufu and her family. Play this video
That day, Yakufu, a 43-year-old ethnic Uyghur, had been freed from a Chinese detention camp and allowed to return home to her three teenage children and aunt and uncle in Xinjiang, western China. It was the first time she’d seen her family in more than 16 months.
The same night, Yakufu was even able to video call her cousin, Nyrola Elima, who lives in Sweden.
“I didn’t recognize her at the very beginning, because she looked so pale. She looked so weak and she had short hair,” Elima said. “She was terrified, she didn’t dare to speak too much with me.”
Elima quickly passed on the news to Yakufu’s parents and sister who live in Australia.
“I can’t describe my feelings, how happy I was when I heard my sister had been released,” said Marhaba Yakub Salay, Yakufu’s sister. “At the time, I still remember my heart was going to explode.”
Nyrola Elima, who lives in Sweden.
Yakufu had spent more than a year in Yining Detention Center — her second stint in Xinjiang’s shadowy network of internment camps. Before that, she’d been held in a different camp for 10 months. Yakufu’s apparent crime was transferring savings to her parents in Australia, to help them buy a house.
The US State Department estimates that since 2017, up to two million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities could have passed through the camp system, which China calls vocational training centers designed to fight extremism. Leaked documents seen by CNN show the extent of the mass surveillance apparatus that China uses to monitor Uyghurs, who could be sent to a camp for perceived infractions such as wearing a long beard or headscarf, or owning a passport.
For the family, having Yakufu back home was all that mattered. But her freedom was shortlived.
A day later, Chinese authorities took her away again, this time to Yining People’s Hospital in western Xinjiang, her family said.
They said the authorities didn’t give them a medical reason for her admission to hospital, but they did pass a message to her aunt and uncle: stop your daughter, Nyrola, from tweeting.
“I told the entire world”
For months, Nyrola Elima had been campaigning to secure her cousin’s release from her home in Sweden, more than 3,000 miles (4,900 kilometers) away from Xinjiang, by lobbying parliamentarians, speaking with NGOs, and tweeting.
Elima left Xinjiang nearly a decade ago to study and to get a better job. She now works as a data analyst and has a Swedish passport and husband.
She says that since she began speaking publicly — she gave her first print interview to the Washington Post in September 2019 — the Chinese authorities have been tracking her closely; in Xinjiang, police officers have approached her parents about her activities multiple times. But she says she feels she had “no options left” other than to speak out, as silence didn’t help her family.
After the short video call with her cousin, Elima posted a Twitter thread about her release, saying she was “overwhelmed” with relief, but worried because she felt her cousin was “not fully free.”
“I put it on Twitter, I told the entire world,” Elima says. “They took her immediately to the hospital. This is the way they want me to stop, they want to censor me.”
Elima’s mother in Xinjiang asked her to stop tweeting about the case.
But after Yakufu was taken to hospital, the family didn’t hear anything about her for weeks, and no visits or phone calls were allowed. Elima became increasingly anxious.
On September 19, she tweeted again about her cousin’s mysterious detention in hospital, posting: “I put up with it for fourteen days, kept my mouth shut for fourteen days, listened to my parents educate me for fourteen days, and tried to persuade my sister as a peacemaker for fourteen days. In those fourteen days, my sister’s children cried at me, begging me to stop speaking up, twice. So if you have something to say, just come directly to me, I’m willing to talk to you. Just stop pushing my parents and the children. My parents are really going to be sick, and the kids are really going to have a breakdown.”
Within 30 minutes, Elima said police officers arrived at her mother’s house in Xinjiang with printed copies of the tweets. Again, they demanded that they stop their daughter from speaking out.
“(They) said, Look, your daughter is talking about the Chinese Communist Party,” Elima said. “‘She’s making (the) Chinese government look very, very bad. You need to tell your daughter, stop it.'”
Rian Thum, a Uyghur historian at the University of Nottingham in the UK, said it was the first time he’s heard of police directly confronting family members with social media posts by Uyghurs abroad. “It shows that the Chinese authorities are very concerned about international opinion, that they’re monitoring Twitter, which is of course banned in China,” he said.
Elima says the Chinese authorities confronted her family about her tweets three times. The first time was in August, when Elima reposted a Chinese state media article: she was highlighting that the piece used a picture of her mother apparently happily celebrating International Women’s Day in March — in reality, during that period her cousin was in her first detention camp in 2018.
Nyrola Elima’s mother (second in line on the right) pictured in a “propaganda” photograph.
“It is propaganda,” Elima said. If her happiness, and that other Uyghurs portrayed in state media, is real, “then why (are) there so many Uyghurs outside looking for their family members?” she asked. “Open the region. Let everyone travel there freely or let the Uyghur people go abroad.”
Elima’s social media is not the only thing under surveillance. In 2017, she says Chinese authorities demanded a photograph of her Swedish passport, and her Swedish address, via her mother over WeChat. She provided the details and moved house straight after.
“I am terrified every day,” Elima said.
“What we see in this case is intimidation by the Chinese police through family members (to) other family members abroad,” said Thum. “It’s also a case that shows how the Chinese government thinks about Uyghurs as threats, and how they think about international connections.”
Faced with the increasing threats to her family, Elima has again decided to speak publicly, giving her first interview on-camera to CNN. “I feel there’s a gun behind my head, and I feel that I’m playing Russian (roulette) with the Chinese government,” Elima said. “Every time when I move, I may well face very serious consequences, and my family members will pay for that.”
Many Uyghurs abroad are faced with the same gut-wrenching decision: do as instructed and stay silent, or risk speaking out to try to offer some protection to relatives, in the hope that if their names become well-known it will be more conspicuous if they disappear.
A day after Elima’s interview with CNN in December, the family got more bad news.
They were told via a phone call from the authorities that Mayila Yakufu had been taken from the hospital to the detention center in late November.
Proving her innocence
Yakufu’s sister and parents live in Adelaide, South Australia.
Her sister, Marhaba Yakub Salay, 32, said Yakufu had been a model citizen in Xinjiang, working multiple jobs as a successful insurance saleswoman and a Mandarin teacher. She is fluent in Chinese and Uyghur and understands English.
“She worked really hard, because she’s (a) single mother of three,” Salay said. The children’s father had left when they were very young, “so she knows she has to be very strong.”
The Chinese government says the “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang are part of a “poverty alleviation” scheme to help train poor rural workers to learn Chinese and find employment. In a Xinjiang government press conference in Urumqi on November 27, videos were shown of seven Uyghurs who had “graduated” from the camps. They all praised the system, saying it had helped them to turn away from extremism and find good jobs.
“I’m now a workshop manager in a garment factory in Hotan County,” said Tusongnisha Aili, a woman in one of the videos. “I received a good education at the training center. I learned fashion design, sewing techniques related to making clothing.”
But multiple Uyghurs who have spoken to CNN after they left the camp system have dismissed these claims from officials. They say many of the people taken to the camps already spoke fluent Chinese, had a good education and salary, or weren’t even living in China at the time.
Mayila Yakufu with her aunt.
The first time Yakufu was taken into a camp, on March 2, 2018, she was not accused of any specific offense. But the second time she was detained, in April 2019, she was accused of “financing terrorist activities” — a charge experts say has been leveled against multiple Uyghurs who sent money outside of China. She also had a sum of nearly 500,000 RMB ($76,000) confiscated by the authorities, and her aunt and uncle were put under house arrest, the family says.
In July 2013, Mayila Yakufu and her aunt and uncle sent nearly $135,000 Australian dollars ($100,000) to the family in Australia to buy a house, in three separate transfers from the Bank of China to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
To prove Yakufu’s innocence, the family has meticulously documented the bank transfers and house purchase records and sent the evidence to the Australian and Chinese governments.
Australian Federal Police have confirmed to the family in writing that they are not under criminal investigation in Australia, although they would not comment on the case to CNN.
Mayila Yafuku’s family have sent bank transfers and house purchase records to the Chinese and Australian governments to prove her innocence.
“It really shows you the extent that the Chinese government will go to, and the very innocuous activities that can result in imprisonment,” Rian Thum said.
When asked about Yakufu’s case, the Chinese Mission to the EU told CNN that her family were believed to be members of the “Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organization,” which the Chinese government labels a terrorist organization.
A spokesperson said Yakufu had been informed in writing that financial transactions with her family would be illegal. “In spite of that, she still provided funds to them. By so doing, she was suspected of violating article 120 of China’s Criminal Law for abetting terrorist activities,” the spokesperson added. “She was arrested by the public security authority in May 2019 and the case is currently under trial.”
In a statement, Yakufu’s family denied any links to terror groups and said the mission’s allegations were “demonstrably false.” If they had links to terror groups, Chinese authorities wouldn’t have let them travel freely in and out of China in the years after the transaction was made in 2013, they said.
In July, the family asked Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) for help, and the department sent back the response they received from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, which read: “Ms Yakefu Mayila was prosecuted in July 2019 for allegedly financing terrorist activities and is currently in good health.”
In an email to CNN, DFAT said it cannot comment on individual cases, but added that Australia has “serious concerns” about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, and has “consistently urged China to cease the arbitrary detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang.
In the recent Xinjiang press conference, CNN asked for an official response to comments from US President-elect Joe Biden, who said that China’s policy against the Uyghurs amounted to “genocide.”
“As for the claim that Xinjiang is implementing a genocide policy, it is completely a false proposition and a vicious attack on Xinjiang by overseas anti-China forces,” said Elijan Anayit, the spokesperson of the Information Office of the People’s Government of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
“My daughter is suffering”
In Adelaide, Yakufu’s father, Yakefu Shabier, and mother, Bahaer Maimitiming, live with the burden of knowing the house they reside in may have caused their daughter to be imprisoned.
Marhaba Yakub Salay’s parents’ home in Adelaide.
“I feel pain every day, as if I am stepping on nails, because the cost of this house is my daughter’s suffering,” said Shabier, 73. “My dream and hope is that my daughter be freed from oppression as soon as possible and reunited with us.”
The couple first came to Australia in 2007, to visit their son who had emigrated there several years earlier. After their son died in a drowning accident on New Year’s Eve in 2008, they decided to stay in Australia permanently. Their daughter, Marhaba Yakub Salay, then moved there in 2011. But Yakufu, who had children, chose to stay in Xinjiang.
The family now runs a Uyghur restaurant in central Adelaide called Tangritah.
“Ever since we came to Australia, we worked extremely hard, we opened a restaurant, and we are trying our best to be good citizens and contribute to Australia,” said Maimitiming, 64. “We are not terrorists.”
Salay said working is the only way her parents know how to deal with the pain caused by her sister’s detention. “They want to rescue their daughter, but can’t do much here,” Salay said. “They don’t know what to do. So, they just push themselves to work hard.”
The family’s goal is to keep the pressure on the Chinese government by highlighting what is going on in Xinjiang.
“What happened to my family, it’s also happening to other Uyghur families,” Elima said. “Our family’s case is just (the tip of the) iceberg.”
“It’s very difficult to know whether their loved ones are still alive in some cases, or whether they’re interned in these camps, some of which have really horrific conditions,” Rian Thum said. “So there’s a major wave of depression and trauma that Uyghurs outside of China are suffering.”
“China threatens Uyghurs overseas, and it works,” Salay said. “China uses my sister as a hostage strategy.”
This strategy is one which kept their own family quiet for a long time, she adds. “Many Uyghurs censor themselves,” Salay said. “We were one of them.”
Now Yakufu is back in detention, Salay only hopes they can try to keep her from harm. “The situation gets worse and worse when I keep silent,” Salay said. “Now I have no choice. If I don’t speak up, she (might) end up in one of the dark corners in the prison.”
Going public is not a decision that comes lightly for the family. Elima is battling what she calls “survivor’s guilt.” At night she lies awake in her “comfortable bed” and worries about the kind of conditions her cousin is sleeping in.
She remembers the last snatched conversation she had with her cousin in September.
That day, Yakufu had told her: “Please tell my parents I miss them so much … I dream about them every night.
“That is the only one way I can meet my parents, my children, my sister, your parents and you.”
'Will they let us live?' Inside Xinjiang, survivors of China's internment camps speak
‘Will they let us live?’ Inside Xinjiang, survivors of China’s internment camps speak
The car drove toward a site visible by satellite but not marked on Chinese maps. It lay hidden in the mountains along a desolate road lined with Islamic cemeteries. The car traveled south as a red sun sank over snow-blanketed peaks, turning tombstones to silhouettes.
Night was coming to Xinjiang. The car approached a police tower guarding the Hongyan Clothing Park compound. A slogan appeared on the building’s walls: “Forget not the Party’s mercy, walk with the Party forever.” In an instant, police and men in dark clothing sprinted toward the car, surrounding the reporters inside.
“Delete everything,” one of the men ordered. The reporters complied and left, only to be stopped twice more by cars that swerved in front and beside them, letting out minders who demanded double-checks of the journalists’ phones and cameras.
This was territory Chinese authorities did not want the outside world to see: evidence against President Xi Jinping’s claims of bringing mass “happiness” to the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where a vast system of surveillance, detention, cultural erasure and forced labor has devastated the Uighur people in their homeland.
On a recent weeklong trip across Xinjiang, a Times reporter and a colleague working for a German outlet visited more than a dozen prisons, detention centers, demolished mosque sites and former reeducation camps turned into high-security factories. The Times met with Uighurs — they are predominately Muslim — who spoke of their imprisonment, fear and life in the region.
The Chinese government’s tactics in Xinjiang are the culmination of tensions that have simmered since the Mao era, when the state sponsored a massive influx of Han Chinese settlers. The repression that followed led to deadly riots and Uighur attacks on police and civilians, some of which were claimed by a separatist movement.
In 2017, the Chinese government forced more than a million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities into indoctrination camps in what authorities described as a “counterterrorism” strategy. But many swept into that system had no ties to extremist or separatist groups.
They reached their hands into my family, strangled us and wouldn’t let us go.
Jevlan Shermemet, a Uighur
Jevlan Shirmemmet, 29, a Uighur who left China as a student in 2011 and is now a tour guide in Istanbul, lost contact with his parents and brother when they were taken to the camps in 2018. Only in June this year did he hear from his father, who called from a police station. His first sentence after two years was not a greeting, but an accusation that his son had joined “troublesome groups” abroad. Shirmemmet was shocked.
He hadn’t joined any political movements, he told his father. “This was my father’s mouth,” said Shirmemmet, “but it was the Xinjiang authorities and public security speaking through him.”
His mother, he was told, had been sent to prison — likely because she visited him in Turkey in 2013. When Shirmemmet asked the Chinese Embassy in Turkey for proof of her trial or conviction, they suggested he instead write a list of his activities and contacts abroad. “If you can figure out where you did wrong, tell us,” an embassy official told him.
Shirmemmet’s parents were civil servants who taught him to speak fluent Mandarin and avoid politics. But being Uighur, he said, made him a target for the Communist Party. “They reached their hands into my family, strangled us and wouldn’t let us go,” he said of the party. “As long as you are Uighur, you are political.”
In Xinjiang today, cameras hang over every street and inside every taxi, sending footage to the police. Residential compounds are watched by facial recognition systems, security guards, and pandemic QR codes that are scanned at every entry or exit. Police in flak jackets stand at bus stops, stores and ubiquitous “convenience stations” that often have large portraits of Xi surrounded by happy children, smiling through the windows.
Whatever technology misses, humans report. Inside a Uighur store near Ürümqi’s grand bazaar, a document on the wall listed 10 Uighur names and phone numbers linking nearby stores together, along with instructions to spread party doctrine, watch for outsiders and monitor acts threatening “social stability.” In a village on the outskirts of Kashgar, posters announced an upcoming disciplinary inspection of local cadres and welcomed villagers to report any suspicious behavior of the cadres.
Several Uighur villages the reporters visited near Kashgar and Korla appeared empty. Signs were posted on doors stating that the locks had been changed because residents had been absent for too long. Murals portrayed Uighur women bursting out of black veils into colorful clothing and a giant ax chopping Uighurs holding an East Turkestan flag — a symbol for Xinjiang independence — into pieces.
We’ve had too many negative reports from outside. You can only speak with the people we arrange.
Every day, the two reporters were summoned off trains and planes upon arrival. They were registered, photographed and given coronavirus tests by police. Their car was tailed by several vehicles and men who sometimes called police to stop them. At times, the men manhandled the journalists.
During one confrontation in a village outside Korla, an official blurted: “You can’t speak with the people here. We’ve had too many negative reports from outside. You can only speak with the people we arrange.” Talking to locals would create a “security problem,” he said.
What the minders preferred to present of Xinjiang was an illusion of normalcy: Uighurs mingled with Han Chinese at the night market in Kashgar. They invited shoppers to eat samples at a naan museum in Ürümqi. They sang about ethnic unity and “never splitting apart” in slick music videos played at tourist sites.
In Korla, minders led reporters to a plaza to watch dozens of mostly Han Chinese middle-aged residents wearing Uighur costumes, dancing to a Uighur song. “Aren’t these uncles and aunties cute?” one of the minders said.
Behind these performances lies a years-long program to eradicate Uighur heritage and replace it with Han Chinese culture and obedience to the Communist Party. More than 10,000 mosques, shrines and other cultural sites have been razed, according to satellite imagery analyses. The few left standing as tourist sites have mostly had Islamic features carved off or covered up with signs declaring: “Love the Party, Love the Nation.”
Since 2016, the Chinese government has also sent more than 1 million party cadres into ethnic minorities’ homes in Xinjiang to “become family,” a program that purports to promote ethnic unity but spies on and indoctrinates minorities.
A 2018 manual posted online for such visits instructed cadres to observe Uighur homes for signs of extremism, like receiving outside visitors, religious hangings on walls, or watching videodiscs instead of television. If they weren’t sure of the Uighurs’ honesty, they could question the children, the manual suggested: “Children don’t lie.”
Those who visited overseas websites, used unapproved apps and shared anything from such sites with others were guilty of “preparing to commit terror crimes and inciting ethnic hatred,” the manual said. Cadres should explain to families of violators: “Such activity harms national security. The party and government are punishing him to educate and save him, or else this path would lead to destruction.”
Dozens of cadres have also posted diaries online describing villagers obediently attending flag-raising ceremonies and sitting on plastic stools in front of the police station, where they swear allegiance to the party and vow to root out “two-faced people,” a euphemism for disloyal minorities. Many entries feature images of families waving party flags and singing patriotic songs.
In a diary entry from a village near Atush in 2017, a cadre wrote about the party secretary lecturing families of people punished for participating in unsanctioned religious activities. “Although your family members committed mistakes, the party and government have not forgotten you,” the party secretary said, then gave each family two sacks of fertilizer.
Many Uighur families were moved to tears, the cadre claimed: “The party secretary was very happy, all village cadres were very happy, the police were also happy, and the villagers were even happier.”
Ever lurking in the background of such “happiness” are the camps, prisons and factories.
Government documents leaked to newspapers and human rights organizations have revealed how Xinjiang authorities incarcerated minorities en masse in a system of “preventive” security. The documents have shown that the internment camps are run with commands to “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison.”
The Australian Strategy Policy Institute (ASPI) has identified at least 380 suspected detention facilities in Xinjiang, based on satellite imagery and official construction documents. Some facilities were decommissioned in 2019 after Chinese authorities declared that all “students” had “graduated” from “vocational training centers.”
But new, higher-security facilities were built in 2019 and 2020 and are still being expanded, while the Uighur diaspora has reported of family members being sent from camps to prison with sentences of seven to 25 years.
In one neighborhood north of Urumqi, The Times visited a cluster of six prisons built within a two-mile radius. The floor space in their residential buildings had quadrupled since 2016, according to satellite image analysis by ASPI. They were surrounded by high concrete walls and barbed-wire fences, with guard dogs barking in the snow and military police patrolling between watchtowers.
Some reeducation camps appear to have been transformed directly into labor facilities. Satellite images from 2018 of the Hongyan Clothing Park visited by The Times show that the compound had newly built features similar to those of known detention camps: internal walls and extensive wire fencing separating the buildings, with four distinct yards attached to the one block.
When The Times visited this month, the compound had been altered, with internal walls and fences removed and a basketball court added to the floor. Chinese cultural motifs were painted on a white wall around its outside.
The Times found only one company registered to the Hongyan site: Xinjiang Bailangqing Garments Ltd., established in November 2020, according to online records. Its main shareholder and legal representative, Cheng Jianghuai, is an executive of garment companies across Xinjiang. State media has lauded Cheng for his participation in “poverty alleviation” programs that place ethnic minorities in factories — a system that rights groups, academics and the U.S. government have criticized as forced labor.
Reached by telephone, Cheng said that he was the company’s legal representative, but he was not responsible for its day-to-day operations. “It’s a unit belonging to the government,” he said. Asked whether he could explain what happens at the Hongyan site, Cheng said: “I can’t explain. It’s confidential,” and hung up.
Xinjiang authorities did not respond to requests for further comment.
One morning before sunrise, a Times reporter evaded the minders and entered the home of a prominent Uighur intellectual. Like hundreds of other Uighur scholars, poets, doctors, journalists and other intellectuals who were once honored for their preservation of Uighur culture, he has been cut off from the outside world since 2017.
He stood in a traditional embroidered green skullcap, his daughter still in pajamas beside him. A closed-circuit TV broadcast played on the television behind them.
“This is what they always warn us against,” the daughter said. But they agreed to speak.
Three of the intellectual’s children had been detained in 2017, the daughter said: herself, for having made a phone call abroad, and her two brothers for having studied abroad. They were taken to separate facilities with no trial or conviction of any crime. She was held in a detention facility for more than a year, then moved to a “school” with slightly better conditions, she said.
In both, she had lived in a room of more than 10 other women. Their belongings were confiscated. They had no outside contact except one three-minute phone call to their home every two months. She was not beaten, but her brothers were. They were allowed no calls through the first year.
You could write our story. But after that, will they let us live?
A Uighur father
Every day in the camps, they studied two books of Mandarin and Chinese laws and regulations, the daughter said. Those who spoke better Mandarin were made language teachers to the other detainees, many of whom were farmers.
For a year and a half, they lived without hope of release. Her father, weak with heart disease, was hospitalized several times while his children were gone — though he was not detained. Then, one day in 2019, they were suddenly let out.
“They all kept watching us after that,” she said. “The neighborhood committee, the officials, the public security, they came to our home every day.” Families like theirs, who once had contact with academic colleagues abroad, were under heightened scrutiny. They were warned never to speak to foreigners without the presence of officials.
Not everyone had been released from the camps, the daughter said. Some had been moved to factories, others to prisons. Those who were out didn’t need any more physical monitoring. Fear of return to the camps kept them silent.
Speaking Mandarin, his voice slow and thick, her father wondered why his and many other Uighur families were detained in the first place: “They are good people,” he said. “They did nothing wrong. Some died in those places. Why were they taken?”
Asked by The Times reporter for permission to write about their experiences, the father paused.
“You could write our story,” he said, turning to look at the reporter. “But after that, will they let us live?”
Journalists in China understand the country’s dark side, he said. “We Uighurs are not meant to live. We Uighurs should be erased from this earth.”
“My father is speaking out of anger,” his daughter said. They were glad to know the outside world was paying attention to Xinjiang and that some Uighurs abroad had been reunited with their families. “But we are all here. We have no relatives outside, no escape,” the daughter said. Many Uighurs in Xinjiang no longer think of anything beyond eating, sleeping, being together and not being in the camps.
“Tell our story, but don’t use our names,” she murmured. “Please leave. I am afraid because you are here.”
Just before the reporter left, the father stood. He grasped her hand and shook it, his back straight, his gaze steady through his tears.