From book "The 100 Camp Testimonies"


Sayragul Sawutbay

Sayragul Sawutbay

I am ethnically Kazakh, and I was born on September 16, 1976 in Mongolkure County of Ghulja, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in East Turkistan.

I studied at the Xinjiang Medical University from 1993 to 1997. After graduation, I worked at a local traditional medicine hospital in my hometown for several years. Then I was ready for a career change, and decided to become a teacher. I started teaching Mandarin at a local school. In 2004, I got married and moved to a rural town where my husband’s from. We worked at the same school. In 2009 I completed a two-year course at Xinjiang Normal University. I went back to teaching at the same local school and took some administrative tasks as well. In 2016, I was appointed director, responsible for the administration of five state-owned kindergartens in the same local area as my school.

Also in 2016, the Chinese regime put forward a new language policy that called for the termination of all mother tongue education (e.g. Uyghur and Kazakh). We decided to emigrate to Kazakhstan, but being a civil servant as I was, I could not get a passport. My husband and my children emigrated to Kazakhstan, while I stayed.

From January 2017, the regime started harassing me because my husband and children were in Kazakhstan. On a number of occasions, I was taken to the local police station for questioning, and sometimes in the middle of the night.

In November 2017, one night I received a phone call when I was home, and the man on the phone told me to go to a place in the city center immediately. I asked him who he was and why I would go there. He insisted that I stop asking questions, and instead follow his order. He also informed me that I would teach Mandarin in the morning.

There had been mass arrests in 2017 all across East Turkistan, including my city. If I had resisted his order, there would have been severe consequences for me. So, I followed his order and went to the address he gave me. He asked 382 me to send an SMS “I have arrived” to a number upon my arrival, and his colleagues would come to meet me. After sending the SMS, four armed policemen arrived in a police car. They put a black hood over my head, and took me away in their car. We traveled some distance, and when the car stopped, they removed the black hood and I realized I was at an internment camp. I was told that I would be teaching the internees Mandarin at their “re-education” center. My first impression of the place was that it was a scary fascist camp.

They forced me to sign a non-disclosure agreement, repeatedly stating that if I broke any of the rules, I would pay the price with my life. So that was how I started working as a teacher at that internment camp in East Turkistan. The camp was worse than a prison, and if you were there, it would send chills down your spine. The internees were subjected to extreme mental torture, who were also handcuffed and had shackles attached to their ankles. Both men and women’s heads were shaved, and there were cameras installed everywhere, i.e. the internees were surveilled 24/7. The age range of the internees was 13–84, the majority of whom were men and women aged between 60 and 70.

I started teaching Mandarin at the camp. Usually, there were armed police/guards who would watch me teach. Everything I said had to be regime- friendly, while the contents of the teaching materials as well as the instructions were pre-arranged by the camp wardens. I just taught whatever I was told and I could not say anything beyond what was allowed. We (the so-called “teachers” at the camp) had no rights to decide anything beyond the given guidelines. No one was allowed to laugh or cry in the camp. The internees had to know and follow the camp rules, and if anyone dared to disobey any rule, they would suffer the consequences.

There was an internal document, a communist party directive, stating in Mandarin, “First deal with the people who wear straw shoes, then deal with those who wear leather shows.” This basically meant that the common people (i.e. non-government employees) were the ones who wore straw shoes, while the

government employees (i.e. civil servants) were the ones who wore leather shoes. So the translated version of the directive would be the following: First purge/silence the people who are not government employees, then get rid of the ones who are government employees.

The things we were told to teach the internees were the indoctrination materials of the communist party, including party guidelines, policies, ideology, the speeches of Xi Jinping, the official statements from the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (held between October 18 and 24, 2017), and so on. In addition, we were asked to teach the Chinese culture/customs, such as the things Chinese people say and do at a funeral or wedding, and their other everyday customs. We were also told to teach the history of China, especially the history of East Turkistan (aka. Xinjiang). There was a so-called book with the tile “History of Xinjiang in Three Parts,” which falsely stated that East Turkistan had always been an inseparable part of China.

We taught the speeches of communist party leaders like the chairman Xi Jinping’s. The camp guards provided teaching materials and took them away after we finished teaching every day, which were returned to us the next day. They checked and managed all the teaching materials.

I taught 50 to 60 internees, who sat on small stools like the children's stools, and if there were not enough stools, they sat on the floor. The elderly would normally have the stools to sit on, which was a type of torture because they could not bear this type of sitting. If they moved a bit, they would be punished for breaking the rule.

The internees were from all walks of life: civil servants, workers, rich people, businessmen/merchants, herdsmen, and farmers. They were also intellectuals, elites, youth, commoners, celebrities, and influential figures, i.e. a microcosm that reflected the society.

Although I taught at the camp, I was also an internee there. I did not have any rights either. The only difference that would separate me from the other internees was that I did not have handcuffs around my wrists or shackles around my ankles.

I soon learned that, according to the camp guidelines, each internee was only allowed to occupy one-square-meter space in a cell. Therefore, in a 16 or 17-square-meter cell, there would be at least 16 or 17 people, sometimes even 20 people were crammed inside. They were all handcuffed and legcuffed. There were five surveillance cameras installed in the four corners and one in the center of the ceiling. At night, in order to sleep each internee would lie down and curl up to not use more than one-square-meter space until sunrise. No movement was allowed in the cell, or else one would be punished.

The internees slept on the hard concrete floor. As a result, their bodies would ache and get swollen, and for some it would be challenging to even get up. Some would develop constipation, while others had neurological tumors and in need of medicines to stay alive. However, their conditions got worse since they were not allowed to bring medicines to the camp. The camp wardens and guards did not care if the internees with severe disease died.

A plastic bucket was used as a toilet in all cells. All the internees in a cell had to use that bucket for their bodily functions (i.e. excretion). Once the bucket was full, a lid was placed over it. However, it would only be emptied the next morning, so no matter how desperate you were, you had to withhold your bodily functions until it was emptied in the morning. I witnessed that many internees suffered from severe hemorrhoid, bowel problems due to forced withholding of urine and stool, and various other health issues. They also developed kidney problems, urinary tract infections, incontinence, and fecal stasis.

We were given three meals a day, however, the quality of the food was very bad. We only had two types of food: one was watery rice porridge, while the other was vegetable soup with steamed buns. Usually, there was no meat except on Fridays, when they fed us with pork. They tested whether the internees renounced their religion (i.e. Islam), and one of the tests was to feed us pork every Friday. They ensured that all internees ate pork on Fridays. Those who refused to eat pork would be punished severely with harsh treatments or longer detention. Therefore, everyone was scared and forced to eat pork.

Allow me to walk you through the daily routine in the internment camp, which does not mean that we always went through the routine because sometimes it varied depending on the orders given from high-ranking officials. Usually, we woke up at 6 a.m. and had breakfast between 6 and 7 a.m. I would teach from 7 to 11 a.m. And from 11 to 12 p.m. the internees would hold the slogans written on papers up in the air over their heads and say them out loud thousands of times. The internee who managed to repeat the most was considered a good performer in the camp. The propaganda slogans/contents are as follows: I am Chinese; I am from China; I am proud to be Chinese; I love China; my loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party; the Communist Party gave me my life and soul; there is no power except the Communist Party; etc.

The lunch break was from 12 to 2 p.m., after which we sang red songs (hongge 红歌 ‘Chinese patriotic songs’) from 2 to 4 p.m. to praise the Chinese

Communist Party (CCP), starting with the Chinese national anthem. Other red songs included “We are Family”, “No New China without the Communist Party”, “Unity is Power”, etc., which praised the CCP, the chairman Xi, and Han Chinese culture.

From 4 to 6 p.m. the internees would engage in self-criticism, i.e., they had to make up and criticize their wrongdoings or crimes they had “committed”.

Even though they committed no crimes, they were forced to find some wrongdoings or crimes for themselves to confess to.

The supper was from 6 to 8 p.m., after which the internees had to put their hands up against the cold wall to rethink about their crimes and repent from 8 to 10 p.m. Compared to the previous self-criticism session (from 4 to 6 p.m.), at this session they had to reexamine their wrongdoings, thoughts, and crimes, which would also be written down on a piece of paper from 10 to 12 a.m. and handed in the next morning. From 12 to 1 a.m. we, the camp teachers, would walk around to check on the internees. The internees would only get five hours of sleep, from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. We would be woken up at 6 a.m.

Usually, two armed camp guards would follow us, the teachers, to the classroom and stay there. During the class, some other armed guards would barge into the classroom without knocking and drag some internees out to penalize, interrogate, and torture them. They would take them to an isolated room, commonly known as the “dark room”. Surveillance cameras were installed everywhere in the internment camp except for the dark room which was used to carry out brutal tortures.

We always heard terrifying sounds of people screaming and crying for help, “help/save me!” It is worth mentioning that the screaming sounds from the dark room could be heard throughout the day and night. Some internees disappeared after being taken to the dark room, and I suspect that they might have died from torture, though I never saw a dead body in the camp. Those who were brought back were covered in blood and sustained serious injuries. Moreover, some internees had some of their fingernails pulled out. There were torture chairs with sharp nails pointing up from their seats, on which the internees would be forced to sit, and we could see the blood dripping from their bodies afterwards.

I saw the dark room with my own eyes. When the number of internees in the camp decreased significantly, they would bring more people in. One day they brought in new internees and lined them up in a row, bringing them in one by one. At the time, I was ordered to help with the new arrivals as a security guard. While on duty, I saw an elderly Kazakh lady, a herder, who was arrested and taken away from her home in the mountain. She wasn’t even given a chance to put on her outdoor clothes. Many if not all elderly Uyghur and Kazakh women would wear galoshes over their soft leather boots during winter. However, when they arrested her, they didn’t give her any time to wear her galoshes over her leather boots. It was a bitter cold day, but all she had on was her indoor clothing. She was terrified and freezing, for her whole body was shivering and her teeth were chattering. As she stood in line waiting for her turn to come in, she saw me, and then she ran towards me and hugged me, telling me what had happened to her in a flood of tears, “They said that they found a problem on my phone and arrested me. I am a herder living in the mountain, and I don’t even know how to use a cell phone; besides, I don’t even have a phone. They made up accusations against me, please rescue me!”

I was taken to the dark room for punishment because she hugged me, thereby breaking one of the camp rules. No internee was allowed to talk, smile, cry, hug, etc. If someone had told me about the torture equipment in the dark room, I wouldn’t have believed that in the 21st century such torture equipment still existed, but I saw them with my own eyes. There were so many different pieces of torture equipment: an electric chair, iron rod, electric stick, a tool like a sword with a sharp end, etc. If you were taken to the dark room, you would be so overwhelmed psychologically immediately upon seeing the torture equipment; it was such a scary place!

They put me in the electric chair and electrocuted me, and asked me repeatedly, “What did she say to you? What did you say to her?” During the interrogation and torture, I was conscious for a minute and became unconscious the next. I thought I was going to die, wouldn’t be able to see my children again, and would be killed in that camp without having committed any crime. After I was badly beaten and tortured, they dragged me back to my room and insisted that I must get up on time the next morning to continue with my teaching. I had to get up at 6 a.m. when the alarm bell rang. I pulled myself together, realizing that I was still alive. After experiencing such trauma, I was forced to carry out my duty as usual. However, after seeing the dark room, I wondered if I could even leave that place alive.

The female internees were subjected to sexual violence and rape. At night, the camp guards/policemen would pick beautiful girls from the cells and take them away.

I witnessed one absolutely horrific act which I will never forget as it hurt me so deeply. One day many internees gathered in a large hall, approximately 100 people. Then the camp guards brought in a young girl, 20 or 21 years old, who was forced to confess to a sham crime in front of everyone. She pleaded guilty to the sham crime in flood of tears. After that, in front of so many people five or six camp guards raped her in turn. They all wore masks, so we could not see their faces, only heard what they said. The poor girl cried out for help: “Rescue me please, help me please!” The sheer audacity of that despicable act was their way of testing those internees whether they were truly transformed, i.e., whether they had renounced their humanity. I felt like I died; it was a horrendous crime. What the girl was subjected to and her suffering were the most shocking thing that I know of.

Having witnessed such horror, my mind was tormented by anguish. While carrying out their unscrupulous test/act, the camp guards/policemen and other employees watched the internees closely and picked out those who resisted, clenched their fists, closed their eyes, or looked away and took them away for punishment. In the camp there were different officials of varying ranks in charge of different levels of administrative tasks. I don’t know who gave the order to assemble us in the hall; it was not possible to inquire about anything, and we simply didn’t know how they operated.

When I was commanded to teach at the camp, I had to also accept whatever duty I was given. It was impossible for me to oppose any order, and if I had opposed their orders, there would have been severe consequences for me. I might even lose my life. The orders came from the high-ranking officials, and those in lower ranks executed the orders, namely the police and the special police (auxiliary police), who were Han Chinese. Some came from the local area, while others were from mainland China as they spoke different dialects and had different accents. I believe the gang rape in the hall was an order from the higher-ups, which could very well be premeditated because they brought in the poor girl and commanded her to speak about her sham crimes.

The internees were forced to take medical tests for the purpose of preventing infectious diseases, whose blood would be drawn periodically and were also forced to take unknown pills and injections, which damaged the nervous system and prevented conception. The drugs stopped the menstruation of the female internees. I didn’t go through any medical examination, but all the internees did.

Each internee had a medical file. There were times that I was commanded to organize the medical files. The information in a medical file were as follows: the blood type, infectious disease status, five different test results of the liver, detailed blood test results, X-ray results, IUD status (i.e. whether a female internee has an intrauterine device inserted), IUD insertion/removal dates, the number of children, the date of last menstruation, etc. Basically, all information that was related to one’s health was clearly recorded in the file. All internees were forced to take a medical checkup prior to being brought to the internment camp for the first time, and they would bring their medical files with them.