Uighur woman tells of life and death in Chinese gulag

The mostly Muslim detainees at China’s re-education camps are subjected to brutal torture, according to a Uighur woman who was detained at one of the camps. They are forced to take drugs which cause memory loss and infertility. Women are raped by guards in front of other prisoners.

Conditions at the gulags, which China long denied existed, turns people “into bodies without a soul,” Sayragul Sauytbay told Haaretz.

A group of people believed to be Uighur Muslims at a train station on the way to a re-education camp.

The inmates are mostly starved until Fridays, when they are force-fed pork (eating pork is prohibited in Islam). They spend hours learning political slogans such as “I love Xi Jinping,” Sauytbay said.

China, which now acknowledges the camps exist but calls them “vocational education and training centers,” began its crackdown on Uighurs in 2016 after a series of terror attacks the communist government blamed on Muslim extremists.

Sauytbay told Haaretz that authorities began taking DNA samples from the Uighurs at the end of 2016, confiscated their phone SIM cards, and placed security cameras in every neighborhood.

The Uighur woman said that, in 2017, she was repeatedly arrested and questioned by police over her husband and children, who were living in neighboring Kazakhstan.

The 43-year-old Sauytbay said that she was detained in November 2017 and was forced into one of the camps to teach Chinese.

Sauytbay said she was forced to sign a document promising to teach her fellow inmates. The penalty for failing to comply was death, she said.

“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,” Sauytbay said.

“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,” she said. “There were five cameras on the ceiling – one in each corner and another one in the middle.”

Sauytbay said her quarters were practically luxurious compared to the conditions most of the other inmates were forced to live in.

She described to Haaretz how inmates sleep 20 to a room measuring 50ft by 50ft with a single bucket for a toilet.

The inmates are rousted from bed at 6 a.m. each day and given rice or vegetable soup with a small piece of bread, Sauytbay said.

They are taken for lessons which include learning Chinese, rehearsing propaganda songs, and repeating political slogans praising the Communist party.

Inmates are forced to “confess” sins including not knowing the Chinese language or cultural traditions. Those who failed to think of sins or invent some were punished, Sauytbay said.

After dinner “the pupils were required to stand facing the wall with their hands raised and think about their crimes again,” she added. “At 10 o’clock, they had two hours for writing down their sins and handing in the pages to those in charge.”

Sauytbay continued: “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.”

Rape and gang rape was frequently used as a weapon against female prisoners, with females under the age of 35 routinely taken to the guard’s quarters at night, without returning until morning, Sauytbay said.

On one occasions, Sauytbay said 200 prisoners were taken to a yard before one woman was ordered to come forward and confess her “sins.” Afterwards, the guards lined up and raped her one after the other while the rest of the prisoners were forced to watch.

“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,” she said.

Prisoners with pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes, had their medications taken away and were instead given mysterious pills and injections which guards claimed would protect them against disease and AIDS, but which Sauytbay believes was a medical experiment.

Those who were treated began suffering memory lapses and became either impotent or infertile, she said.

Sauytbay said she was released from the camp in March 2018. But, just three days after being released, she was accused of being in touch with someone from overseas and told she would be going back to a camp where she would be thrown in with the general population, and would have to stay there for up to three years.

Convinced she would die, Sauytbay said she fled for the Kazakhstan border, and from there managed to reunite with her family. She was denied asylum three times in Kazakhstan and in June of this year she left for Sweden, where asylum was granted and where she now lives with her husband and two children.

“I will never forget the camp,” she said. “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.”

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