“A Million People Are Jailed at China’s Gulags. I Managed to Escape. Here’s What Really Goes on Inside”
“Rape, torture and human experiments. Sayragul Sauytbay offers firsthand testimony from a Xinjiang ‘reeducation’ camp” (china concentration camps)
“STOCKHOLM – Twenty prisoners live in one small room. They are handcuffed, their heads shaved, every move is monitored by ceiling cameras. A bucket in the corner of the room is their toilet. The daily routine begins at 6 A.M. They are learning Chinese, memorizing propaganda songs and confessing to invented sins. They range in age from teenagers to elderly. Their meals are meager: cloudy soup and a slice of bread.
Torture – metal nails, fingernails pulled out, electric shocks – takes place in the “black room.” Punishment is a constant. The prisoners are forced to take pills and get injections. It’s for disease prevention, the staff tell them, but in reality they are the human subjects of medical experiments. Many of the inmates suffer from cognitive decline. Some of the men become sterile. Women are routinely raped.”
“Such is life in China’s reeducation camps, as reported in rare testimony provided by Sayragul Sauytbay …a teacher who escaped from China and was granted asylum in Sweden. Few prisoners have succeeded in getting out of the camps and telling their story. Sauytbay’s testimony is even more extraordinary, because during her incarceration she was compelled to be a teacher in the camp. China wants to market its camps to the world as places of educational programs and vocational retraining, but Sauytbay is one of the few people who can offer credible, firsthand testimony about what really goes on in the camps.
I met with Sauytbay three times, once in a meeting arranged by a Swedish Uyghur association and twice, after she agreed to tell her story to Haaretz, in personal interviews that took place in Stockholm and lasted several hours, all together. Sauytbay spoke only Kazakh, and so we communicated via a translator, but it was apparent that she spoke in a credible way. During most of the time we spoke, she was composed, but at the height of her recounting of the horror, tears welled up in her eyes. Much of what she said corroborated previous testimony by prisoners who had fled to the West. Sweden granted her asylum, because in the wake of her testimony, extradition to China would have placed her in mortal danger.
She is 43, a Muslim of Kazakh descent, who grew up in Mongolküre county, near the China-Kazakh border. Like hundreds of thousands of others, most of them Uyghurs, a minority ethnic Turkic group, she too fell victim to China’s suppression of every sign of an isolationist thrust in the northwest province of Xinjiang. A large number of camps have been established in that region over the past two years, as part of the regime’s struggle against what it terms the “Three Evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism. According to Western estimates, between one and two million of the province’s residents have been incarcerated in camps during Beijing’s campaign of oppression.”
““At the end of 2016, the police began arresting people at night, secretly,” Sauytbay related. “It was a socially and politically uncertain period. Cameras appeared in every public space; the security forces stepped up their presence. At one stage, DNA samples were taken from all members of minorities in the region and our telephone SIM cards were taken from us. One day, we were invited to a meeting of senior civil servants. There were perhaps 180 people there, employees in hospitals and schools. Police officers, reading from a document, announced that reeducation centers for the population were going to open soon, in order to stabilize the situation in the region.”
By stabilization, the Chinese were referring to what they perceived as a prolonged separatist struggle waged by the Uyghur minority. Terrorist attacks were perpetrated in the province as far back as the 1990s and the early 2000s. Following a series of suicide attacks between 2014 and 2016, Beijing launched a tough, no-holds-barred policy.”
““In January 2017, they started to take people who had relatives abroad,” Sauytbay says. “They came to my house at night, put a black sack on my head and brought me to a place that looked like a jail. I was interrogated by police officers, who wanted to know where my husband and children were, and why they had gone to Kazakhstan. At the end of the interrogation I was ordered to tell my husband to come home, and I was forbidden to talk about the interrogation.””
“Sauytbay had heard that in similar cases, people who returned to China had been arrested immediately and sent to a camp. With that in mind, she broke off contacts with her husband and children after her release. Time passed and the family did not return, but the authorities did not let up. She was repeatedly taken in for nocturnal interrogations and falsely accused of various offenses.”
“I had to be strong,” she says. “Every day when I woke up, I thanked God that I was still alive.”
“I was very much afraid to sign,” Sauytbay recalls. “It said there that if I did not fulfill my task, or if I did not obey the rules, I would get the death penalty. The document stated that it was forbidden to speak with the prisoners, forbidden to laugh, forbidden to cry and forbidden to answer questions from anyone. I signed because I had no choice, and then I received a uniform and was taken to a tiny bedroom with a concrete bed and a thin plastic mattress. There were five cameras on the ceiling – one in each corner and another one in the middle.”
“The other inmates, those who weren’t burdened with teaching duties, endured more stringent conditions.”
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 had to teach the prisoners – who were Uyghur or Kazakh speakers – Chinese and Communist Party propaganda songs. She was with them throughout the day.”
“Why were people tortured?
“They would punish inmates for everything. Anyone who didn’t follow the rules was punished. Those who didn’t learn Chinese properly or who didn’t sing the songs were also punished.””
“Sauytbay says she witnessed medical procedures being carried out on inmates with no justification. She thinks it was done as part of human experiments that were carried out in the camp systematically. “The inmates would be given pills or injections. They were told it was to prevent diseases, but the nurses told me secretly that the pills were dangerous and that I should not take them.””
““The pills had different kinds of effects. Some prisoners were cognitively weakened. Women stopped getting their period and men became sterile.” (That, at least, was a widely circulated rumor.)
On the other hand, when inmates were really sick, they didn’t get the medical care they needed. Sauytbay remembers one young woman, a diabetic, who had been a nurse before her arrest. “Her diabetes became more and more acute. She no longer was strong enough to stand. She wasn’t even able to eat. That woman did not get any help or treatment.”
“The fate of the women in the camp was particularly harsh, Sauytbay notes: “On an everyday basis the policemen took the pretty girls with them, and they didn’t come back to the rooms all night. The police had unlimited power. They could take whoever they wanted. There were also cases of gang rape. In one of the classes I taught, one of those victims entered half an hour after the start of the lesson. The police ordered her to sit down, but she just couldn’t do it, so they took her to the black room for punishment.””
“Tears stream down Sauytbay’s face when she tells the grimmest story from her time in the camp. “One day, the police told us they were going to check to see whether our reeducation was succeeding, whether we were developing properly. They took 200 inmates outside, men and women, and told one of the women to confess her sins. She stood before us and declared that she had been a bad person, but now that she had learned Chinese she had become a better person. When she was done speaking, the policemen ordered her to disrobe and simply raped her one after the other, in front of everyone. While they were raping her they checked to see how we were reacting. People who turned their head or closed their eyes, and those who looked angry or shocked, were taken away and we never saw them again. It was awful. I will never forget the feeling of helplessness, of not being able to help her. After that happened, it was hard for me to sleep at night.””