We’ve all heard the stories that China has millions of people locked away in concentration camps, but we rarely hear much about them outside of Chinese propaganda claiming they’re actually educational facilities.
Few who enter are able to escape, but there have been a small number of people who were once interned but have found freedom and are telling their stories.
Haaretz’s David Stavrou has one such story, told to him by Sayragul Sauytbay, a 43-year-old Muslim of Kazakh descent who was living near the China-Kazakh border when her ordeal began. Sauytbay, a hospital worker who turned to teaching, oversaw five preschools in her region. In 2014, Stavrou reported, China confiscated the passports of civil servants, including Sauytbay. She and her husband had been planning to move to Kazakshtan with their two children, but she was unable to join them without a passport.
“At the end of 2016, the police began arresting people at night, secretly,” Sauytbay told Stavrou through a translator. “It was a socially and politically uncertain period. Cameras appeared in every public space; the security forces stepped up their presence. At one stage, DNA samples were taken from all members of minorities in the region and our telephone SIM cards were taken from us. One day, we were invited to a meeting of senior civil servants. There were perhaps 180 people there, employees in hospitals and schools. Police officers, reading from a document, announced that reeducation centers for the population were going to open soon, in order to stabilize the situation in the region.”
In 2017, she said, she was taken in the middle of the night to what looked like a prison. Officials placed a black bag over her head for the trip. Once there, police officers interrogated her and demanded to know where her family was and why they were no longer in China. They demanded she tell her husband to return to China, but she knew that if and her children returned, they would also be sent to a camp.
She was released from custody but later that year told to “report to an address in the city’s suburbs, to leave a message at a phone number I had been given and to wait for the police.” She did as she was told and again taken by armed men with a bag over her head. This time she was brought to a “reeducation” camp and ordered to teach Chinese to fellow inmates. She said she was ordered to sign a documents saying she understood what she was supposed to do and the rules she was required to follow.
“I was very much afraid to sign,” Sauytbay told Stavrou. “It said there that if I did not fulfill my task, or if I did not obey the rules, I would get the death penalty. The document stated that it was forbidden to speak with the prisoners, forbidden to laugh, forbidden to cry and forbidden to answer questions from anyone. I signed because I had no choice, and then I received a uniform and was taken to a tiny bedroom with a concrete bed and a thin plastic mattress. There were five cameras on the ceiling – one in each corner and another one in the middle.”
She said that the document stated that if she did not comply she would be executed. Because she was instructed to teach other inmates, Sauytbay actually received slightly better treatment than the general population.
“There were almost 20 people in a room of 16 square meters [172 sq. ft.],” she says. “There were cameras in their rooms, too, and also in the corridor. Each room had a plastic bucket for a toilet. Every prisoner was given two minutes a day to use the toilet, and the bucket was emptied only once a day. If it filled up, you had to wait until the next day. The prisoners wore uniforms and their heads were shaved. Their hands and feet were shackled all day, except when they had to write. Even in sleep they were shackled, and they were required to sleep on their right side – anyone who turned over was punished.”
Sauytbay said prisoners were given “watery rice soup or vegetable soup and a small slice of Chinese bread” three times a day. On Fridays they were served pork and forced to eat it even if it was against their religious beliefs.
She also said people were tortured for just about anything. If they refused to eat the pork, if they didn’t sleep on their right side, if they “didn’t learn Chinese properly or who didn’t sing the songs,” or if they didn’t confess to sins for hours a day. She said one woman was punished for not confessing to making a phone call she did not make. She was accused of calling someone outside of China, but she didn’t even own a phone or know how to use one. Sauytbay was once punished because a new prisoner recognized she was Kazakh and embraced her and asked for help. Even though Sauytbay didn’t reciprocate, she was punished.
“I was beaten and deprived of food for two days,” she said.
She also said young women and men were repeatedly raped and sexually abused. Her darkest story involved the public rape of a woman and punishment for anyone who reacted like a human being:
One day, the police told us they were going to check to see whether our reeducation was succeeding, whether we were developing properly. They took 200 inmates outside, men and women, and told one of the women to confess her sins. She stood before us and declared that she had been a bad person, but now that she had learned Chinese she had become a better person. When she was done speaking, the policemen ordered her to disrobe and simply raped her one after the other, in front of everyone. While they were raping her they checked to see how we were reacting. People who turned their head or closed their eyes, and those who looked angry or shocked, were taken away and we never saw them again. It was awful. I will never forget the feeling of helplessness, of not being able to help her. After that happened, it was hard for me to sleep at night.
Inmates, she said, were given various pills they were told would protect them from the flu and AIDS, but rumors around the prison were that they were experimental drugs. Men claimed to become sterile, while women stopped getting their periods. Sauytbay said one of the nurses “told me secretly that the pills were dangerous and that I should not take them.”
In contrast, when inmates were actually sick, they would not receive proper medical care.
Sauytbay said she was released in March 2018 without warning and told to go back to her old job in the Aksu region. Three days later she was fired and interrogated by police. She says they claimed she committed treason by continuing to associate with people outside China. This time she was to return to the camp as a regular inmate.
She said she was told to train her replacement before she would be sent to the camp. Police were stationed outside her home, but she snuck out a window and ran to a neighbor’s house. She then caught a cab to the Kazakhstan border and snuck across. She found her family, but was quickly apprehended by Kazakhstan’s secret service and put in prison for nine months for crossing the border illegally, Stavrou reported. She faced extradition to China, which meant either imprisonment or death (or, likely, both). Her family took her story to media outlets and the international community intervened. She was granted asylum in Sweden.
Others have told similar stories.
The Chinese Embassy in Sweden denied Sauytbay’s claims in a letter to Haaretz, saying her story was “total lies and malicious smear attacks against China.” The Embassy claimed she “never worked in any vocational education and training center in Xinjiang, and has never been detained before leaving China.” It said she left China illegally and “is suspected of credit fraud in China with unpaid debts [of] about 400,000 RMB,” which amounts to about $46,000. The Embassy claimed its “vocational education and training work in Xinjiang has won the support of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang and positive comments from many countries across the world.”
Indeed, as Stavrou reported, the ambassadors of 22 countries on the United Nations Human Rights Council wrote a letter last year condemning China, but ambassadors from 37 other states – including many Muslim-majority countries. The reason for the Middle East’s support of China’s persecution of Muslim is, simply, money. China has provided a great deal of money to these countries, which in turn has bought their support.