The massive human rights violations perpetrated against the Uyghur community in China have been largely undocumented and hidden from worldview. Only in recent years has the brutal reality emerged: the state-sponsored cultural eradication and forced assimilation of Muslim Uyghurs. Muslims make up the majority population in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region located in the northwest of China. They include Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other communities who are ethnically Turkic and who have their own customs and languages, making them distinct from the dominant Han Chinese. An Amnesty International report in June 2021, based on the testimonies of numerous survivors highlighted mass imprisonment, torture, and persecution of the Uyghurs amounting to crimes against humanity. The organisation’s Secretary General, Agnès Callamard,described their plight as ‘a dystopian hellscape on a staggering scale.’
Gulbahar Haitiwaji’s heart wrenching account of her internment in a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp provides further evidence of the horrors committed by the Xi Jinping regime. It is a personal account by a Uyghur woman who describes her terrifying encounter with the Chinese authorities. Presented in a diary format, her memoir takes the reader through the details of her ordeal, recounting her time spent in a Chinese prison and then in a ‘re-education’ camp where she endured ‘hundreds of hours of interrogation, torture, malnutrition, police violence, and brainwashing’. The visceral details make for very uncomfortable reading.
Haitiwaji was born in Ghulja, Xinjiang, in 1966. She studied at the Urumqi Petroleum Institute; and after graduation, she worked as an engineer at an oil company in Xinjiang. Her husband too was an engineer. But, as Uyghurs, their lives in Xinjiang became insufferable. The Chinese government launched a systematic assault on the autonomy of Uyghurs. Job adverts unashamedly declared ‘No Uyghurs’ in their fine print, checkpoints, police inspections, interrogations, intimidation, and threats became routine. The community lived on ‘borrowed time, in a state of partial freedom’ that could be ripped away from them at any given moment. Uyghurs became synonymous with dissidents. These state strategies were allegedly designed to remove ‘political dissidents’ and the threat of ‘radical Islam’ and separatism. However, Haitiwaji was neither politically active nor particularly devout.
Like so many other Uyghurs, Haitiwaji and her family sought refuge in the West. Her husband Kerim managed to travel to France; and successfully claimed asylum. Haitiwaji and her two daughters followed in May 2006. The family lived in France for ten years.
But in November 2017, Haitiwaji received a phone call from a former employer. Under the guise of a pension related issue, for which she had to sign documents, she was asked to return to Xinjiang. Although initially reticent, eventually Haitiwaji agreed to returned to China. Her instincts proved right; shortly after arrival she was arrested, interrogated, and eventually detained.
During her interrogation she was shown a photograph of her daughter, Gulhumar, outside the Place du Trocadero in Paris, holding an East Turkestan flag. Gulhumar had attended a demonstration against Chinese repression of Uyghurs organised by the World Uyghur Congress in France. The interrogating officer branded Haitiwaji’s daughter a terrorist, and Haitiwaji was guilty by association. For the Chinese authorities, Uyghurs who had moved to the West posed a threat to the regime. This single photograph formed the basis of the entire case against her.
Initially detained in a county jail in Karamay (where she was assigned to cell 202), she had no contact with her family at first who were largely left in the dark about her whereabouts. Haitiwaji and other detained women had their identities stripped, were forced to wear orange jumpsuits, even having their names replaced by numbers. Their lives were largely confined to their cell rooms where the natural light was forcibly shut off, replaced by unforgiving fluorescent lights which suppressed any sense of night or day. Their every move was monitored by surveillance cameras. The crackling voice on the speakers would shout out the commands for the day. Every detail was controlled – even the cooks, who served up the standardised daily sustenance of stale bread, a greyish gruel, and one egg a week,were deaf and mute, chosen for their discretion.
Punishments were meted out for non-compliance. Everyday life was dictated by a series of rules: speaking Uyghur is forbidden, praying is forbidden, hunger strikes are forbidden; and failure to recite the rules by heart would lead to reprimand. In one instance, Haitiwaji recalls being chained to her bed for twenty days. Systematic physical and psychological torture reduced the detainees to a zombie like existence. However, throughout her degrading experiences Haitiwaji maintained a quiet defiance and dignity. She found comfort in the small things: daily yoga practices in her cell, the lingering smell of perfume on her bra, and prayer. Having never thought of herself as a particularly religious Muslim, Haitiwaji turned to God in defiance. These ‘little acts of resistance’, as she described them, kept her inner strength alive, in the face of unbelievable repression and cruelty.
A glimmer of hope appeared when Haitiwaji was told she would be tried in a court. This was short-lived. The farcical trial lasted just nine minutes, with neither legal representation nor independent judge. She was sentenced to seven years in a re-education camp. By this time, she had already been detained for a year.
She was moved from prison to a ‘school’ in Baijiantan where she spent eleven hours a day in the ‘classroom’, a room no bigger than 500 square feet crammed with up to forty other women. But this was no school. In the re-education camp, the only thing on the curriculum was Chinese indoctrination. Singing patriotic songs, regurgitating Chinese dogma, and pledges of allegiance to the Chinese state were the order of the day.
The women were still forced to wear jumpsuits, this time upgrading from orange to blue in colour, and were compelled to undergo physical education – in reality, a form of gruelling military training. Hans soldiers would bark commands ordering the women to march around a room to the point of physical exhaustion. They were required by spontaneous order to keep still for prolonged periods of time. Those who faltered and collapsed were quickly removed, never to be seen again. A scenario eerily reminiscent of the popular Netflix Korean series Squid Games – but these women were not here voluntarily, and this was no game.
In the prison, Haitiwaji and the other detainees were largely left with their own thoughts, with boredom and monotony as companions. But the pace of oppression was quicker in the re-education camps. The military rules were designed to break them with a strict regimen and ‘daily life came down to a triangular ambit: cell – classroom – mess hall.’ The disappearance of students and the late-night echoes of women being tortured became commonplace. Haitiwaji became numb to the horrors around her. The toll of the repression and intense programme of indoctrination started showing its effects. Following a forced sterilisation, her spirit began to weaken. Memories of her prior life started to fade, and she began to lose sense of the woman she once was. She realised that the aim of the camps was not to kill those incarcerated but to break their will power, to make them ‘slowly disappear’. The programme of de-personalisation, which was targeted at crushing a person’s autonomy and ability to think freely, was working.
Naturally, Haitiwaji’s detention had an obvious, collateral impact on her family members. Her sister, Madina, was also detained for a period. Her husband and her daughter campaigned tirelessly behind the scenes to raise international awareness of Haitiwaji’s predicament. The unsung hero of this book is her daughter, Gulhumar, who became a fearless activist and campaigner for her mother’s release back in France. She conducted her own investigation, gathered evidence, and liaised with the French foreign ministry. She even appeared on prime-time French TV proclaiming her mother’s innocence and openly reprimanding the Chinese government. Gulhumar’s sterling efforts were largely responsible for her mother’s eventual release; along with political pressure and a trial, which ultimately found her to be innocent.
Haitiwaji recalls how, in August 2018, the world discovered the existence of the secret re-education camps. Satellite images of the camps began to appear on global news networks. The United Nations took action and, for the first time denounced them, making an obvious comparison to internment camps. The scattered accounts of survivors also began to surface shining a spotlight on these atrocities. The Chinese government’s initial response was a blanket denial of the existence of the re-education camps or that any abuses had been committed in Xinjiang. These denials were coupled with total refusal to allow independent international monitors to investigate the camps. Considerable resource was channelled towards continued concealment.
But the truth, in the face of mounting evidence, was becoming difficult to resist. Having initially denied their existence, the Chinese authorities later described the camps as ‘vocational training and re-education programmes’ that aimed to alleviate poverty, increase employment opportunities, and combat terrorism threats. Western democracies, which had up to now remained largely silent on the issue, took notice. The US declared that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against its mainly Muslim minority in Western Xinjiang province. Canada and the Netherlands joined in the condemnation. A few Western countries responded with sanctions including restriction on trade with China, and punitive measures against certain individuals and companies. However, given China’s economic muscle and political sway, these sanctions have had little effect.
In contrast to the West, the Muslim world turned a blind eye to the genocide and cultural annihilation of the Uyghurs. At its Forty-Eighth Session, held on 22-23 March in Islamabad, Pakistan, the fifty-seven-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), addressed the plight of the Rohingyas and the Palestinians but ignored the Uyghur genocide in China. Instead, the OIC chose to honour and entertain the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has repeatedly refused to say anything on the Uyghur issue. On the contrary, Pakistani politicians have heaped praise on China for its ‘economic development and progress’ in Xinjiang! Turkey, the traditional ally of the Uyghurs, due to strong linguistic, cultural, and religious ties, was initially persuaded by 50,000 or so Uyghurs who have settled in the country after fleeing the persecution in China, to speak up. Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, described the situation in Xinjiang, in 2009 as ‘genocide’; and even sought to internationally shame China. But it has all been rather quiet on the Turkish front since then. It seems that majority Muslim states either lack the courage to confront China or do not care much about the plight of the Uyghurs.
Not surprisingly, despite the emerging international awareness, China’s oppression against Uyghurs continues unabated. And it is not just confined to detention or re-education facilities. It is part of a wider campaign of the subjugation of ethnic minorities and their forced assimilation. Restrictions on movement, separation of family members, arbitrary arrest, mass surveillance which includes the collection of DNA and other biometric information, are all state strategies designed to control and suppress the Uyghur people. There is a clear and concerted effort to erase Islamic traditions and ways of life: a prohibition on beards, headscarves, Uyghur names, banning religious ceremonies, preventing attendance at mosques, even the destruction of mosques and other important sacred sites. One to two million Uyghurs have been detained in a network of high-security indoctrination and prison camps in Xinjiang since 2017.
So, the Chinese government needs to be called to account. Haitiwaji’s terrifying portrait of her time in Xinjiang, before and after her internment, clearly shows that a modern-day ethnic cleansing is in full swing in China. It is an affront to human dignity that should shake us all to the very core. How I Survived a Chinese ‘Re-education Campis not just an urgent and compelling read. While twenty-four-hour news cycles and the instantaneous and shrinking attention spans of social media push the popular attention given to the plights of others back and forth across the globe, Haitiwaji’s tale urges us to look deeper than the headlines. Through reading these narratives, a truth often left hidden by the state of our contemporary world is lifted. And it is not just for awareness that we seek out these narratives, but it is our moral duty to stand up in defence of communities faced with such criminal injustice as the Uyghurs.
Maha Sardar is a human rights barrister.
Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Rozenn Morgat, How I Survived a Chinese ‘Re-education Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story, Canbury Press, Kingston Upon Thames, 2022
The Amnesty International report, ‘”Like we were enemies in a war”, China’s Mass Internment, Torture and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang’, published on 10 June 202, can be downloaded from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa17/4137/2021/en/ And Human Rights Watch report, ‘”Break their lineage, break their roots’, China’s crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims’, published on 19 April 2021, can be accessed at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa17/4137/2021/en/
Weekly briefs and tribunals of The Uyghur World Congress can be found on its website: www.uyghurcongress.org