I am a witness and a victim of China’s mass internment drive. I was born and raised in Ürümchi, East Turkistan.
I went to college in Ürümchi and was later employed as a Chinese language teacher at No. 24 Elementary School, where I had worked for 28 years. Then, I was forced to retire early on February 10th, 2018. I came to the Netherlands on October 9, 2019 to reunite with my daughter and seek medical treatment.
In September 2016, there was, all of a sudden, a Chinese proficiency test being rolled out for the Uyghur teachers in our school and in every other school in Ürümchi, an evaluation of the Uyghur teachers’ competence in Mandarin. Uyghur teachers were told to give lessons only in Mandarin in so-called “open class” (公开课), where seven or eight Chinese teachers would be present as evaluators. At the end of the classes, they asked us to talk about the course design/lesson plan. As a matter of course, the fall semester of 2016 became a period that entailed the screening, testing, evaluation and elimination of Uyghur teachers. Uyghur teachers, including the Uyghur language teachers, had to take more than 10 exams. didn't look at my passport at all. I was then asked to go to the national security office.
On the morning of February 28 (in the Spring semester of 2017), when we were preparing for the normal lesson, the principal of the school called me and said, “You have to come to my office immediately, and there is something important to tell you.” As I entered his office, he said “You need to go to the Party Committee office of the Saybagh district Education Bureau at 1:30 p.m. You have an important meeting there.” When I asked, “What kind of meeting is it?” He said, “I don’t know, but you need to go.”
Normally, when we were sent to a meeting, I would ask what kind of meeting it was because I was responsible for the school’s cadre work; in addition, I was the head of the Chinese language research office, the group leader of the teaching and research team, and was in charge of the archival work. Depending on the nature of the meeting, I would bring my notebook on cadre work, or my archival work notes. At 1:30 p.m. I arrived at the building that was near Hongshan (红山 ‘red mountain’), where there was a publishing office across the street. When I entered the office of the Party Committee, Song Liying, the party secretary of our Education Bureau, was there, whom we often referred to as “Song secretary”. In the room, there were two assistants of Song, seven to eight Han Chinese teachers, and another Uyghur teacher from No. 88 Elementary School.
The meeting started with Song saying, “We have just started a new semester. We have gathered a number of illiterates for you. Starting from tomorrow, March 1, you will start teaching the national language100 to them at designated locations.” Then, she handed to each of us 3 books. It was a three- part book series: “Special Textbook on Bilingual Education.” just a businesswoman.” At the end they said, “We will let you think this over.”
She emphasized to us that: “We have a condition for you. When you go there, you don't tell anyone what you see, hear or know. You keep everything confidential. Do not mention anything to your school leaders, principals, coworkers, friends, and not even to your family members.” I was surprised to hear that, and I thought to myself, “It only concerned a bunch of illiterate people, and why do we need to keep it a secret?”
I never thought I would be teaching at a “re-education” camp. She handed out four or five pieces of paper. “All you have to do is sign these forms” she said. We all signed our names and stamped with our inked fingers. I noticed something when I was skimming through: “If any information is disclosed, he/she will be held accountable, where their family members and relatives can also be implicated.”
After we signed, she said, “Due to time constraints, we will not explain the contents of these forms. But like I said, you must keep everything to yourselves and don't tell anyone.” Then, she asked me, “Teacher Qelbinur, your daughter is in the Netherlands, right?”101 I replied, “Yes, my daughter is studying in the Netherlands and she is going to graduate soon.” She asked, “What is she studying?” “She is studying medicine, and she wants to become a doctor.” I said. Then she said “Okay. Netherlands and China have very close relationship. We can bring your daughter here.” I took that as a warning call. After her last words, I felt uncomfortable. I thought to myself, “Why did she say that?”
She gave us a piece of paper with a designated police driver's number and said, “Call this number, this police officer will be responsible for your commutes.” Then we went back to our schools and delegated our regular tasks to others. The following day, March 1, I called the police driver and went to the designated internment camp, which was a men’s camp at the fifth group division in Cangfanggou village (仓房沟村五队). This camp had no name of its own. Nobody told me its name. He drove me to the top of a mountain by car. The first man that drove me was a Han Chinese policeman. He was alone. We greeted each other casually. “What school are you at?” he asked. I said “No. 24 Elementary School.” “You are teaching there?” “Yes.” We had a casual conversation like this on our way to the camp. When we arrived at the camp, he got out of the car. I saw a four-story old building. There was an army base close by, where the police stayed at. It looked like an old building, but it was a compound. The walls were covered with barbed wire and seemed fortified. Its doors were electric. The policeman tapped a card and opened up the door. I then followed him.
As we entered the compound, I saw police and many soldiers patrolling the compound. As soon as I came close to the courtyard, I was in a state of fear. Normally, we often saw them on the streets, but at schools and in places like that, it felt disturbingly different. We walked towards a building, whose entrance was made of three layers: The outermost layer was a wire mesh partition panel; the middle layer was a metal fence door; while the innermost door was a metallic door, similar to an apartment door. He opened those three doors. When I entered the hallway, a policeman was sitting at a table next to the door. The driver said, “This is a teacher who came here to teach.” I was asked to write down my name, ID number and phone number, which I did. After that, the driver and I were heading to an office. As we walked down the hall, I saw more iron fences and wires on the right hand side. On the left, the second floor was visible. I saw a sign on a door read, “监控室” (Jiankongshi ‘surveillance/control room’); a policeman was sitting at a table next to the door, where there were also four armed soldiers standing on each side of the table. Yes, there were soldiers in the building.
When I walked into the office, there were five Uyghur female clerks. The next day, I found out that there were actually ten clerks who worked at the office and brought from various residential committees, where five of whom would work for 24 hours and then rotate with the other five. A girl from the office recognized me when I first walked in, whose name was Mahire; she worked for the Lengku (冷库) residential committee near our school. She said, ‘Hi Qelbinur, you work at No. 24 Elementary School, aren't you?” I said, “Yes. Do you know me?” She said, “Yes, I work for the local residential committee. My daughter goes to your school.” I said, “okay.” She asked, “Did you come to teach here? How long will you teach here?” I told her that I had a six-month contract and I asked her who those illiterate people were. She said, “You will know.” She did not say anything else. Then I saw surveillance cameras even in that office.
They asked, “Teacher, are you ready? If so, we will bring language learning class students.”102 The internees in this internment camp were referred to as “students”. I said, “I’m ready.” I took out my books and teaching notes. We walked to the table at which a policeman was sitting. We stood in front of the barrier fence. They said, “We will take some people out, and then you can come in.”
One of the female guards opened the three locked doors located on the right of the corridor with different keys: One with an electronic keypad, one with a regular padlock, and the third one was intertwined by wires. So, the guard went in and shouted, “class has started, class has started,” opening the door of each holding cell, as in prison. The cells were locked by chains and the guard opened them up. I saw them coming out. I looked at them as they came out, I noticed that they were older adults whose hands and feet were in shackles.
I burst into tears every time when I give testimony about them. People have been trying to comfort me and I’ve also promised myself not to cry each time I speak about them, but I can’t help it when I think about them and their conditions in that internment camp. I thought they must be brought in recently for they hadn’t got a chance to shave off their beard. When they walked past me, it flashed through my mind that they were the people we normally were too timid to greet on the streets out of respect.
I was standing by the door, trembling. I felt the despair and helplessness in their eyes. Some of them looked at me and then looked at their shackled hands, expecting me to rescue them. My heart was pounding. I trembled and didn’t know what to do. I had to restrain myself because I was surrounded by the armed police. “God, please give me some strength,” I kept begging with my inner voice. I saw there were ten people in each holding cell. I saw seven women come out, three of whom were young girls, while the other four were adults at my mom’s age. They all went into the so-called “classroom”. I entered the room after she opened the door and said, “You can come in, teacher.” The right side of the room looked like a classroom, but on the left there was another cell.
The internees lay on the cement floor, the cell was dark and the window was cover by tin. I was able to peek through the window and saw around 10 pieces of thin blankets. My heart ached again when I imagined what they had for bedding. I walked past the cell and entered the classroom on the right. There was a teacher’s desk in front of the classroom. There was a moving board and small chairs in the classroom, which looked like the chairs that students would bring from their homes when we had outdoor events at school. There were 97 internees sitting in rows, while armed police and military personnel stood at the back of the classroom. Those five female clerks came forward and sat down by the front desk. All internees sat quietly, without raising their heads.
The internees were mature, wise and decent looking people. As soon as I entered the classroom, I said, “Assalamu alaykum” without realizing that this Islamic way of greeting was discouraged at best by the Chinese authorities, and often times people could get into trouble using this greeting. As expected, no one greeted me back. However, I saw people whispering and eyes looking down. The female clerks sitting in the front also said something. I continued, “I will teach you the national language from today. My name is Qelbinur, and I am a teacher of Mandarin from No. 24 Elementary School.”
I felt like I’d break down if I hadn’t started the lesson right away. I noticed that there were eight surveillance cameras installed in different corners of the classroom, two of which were monitoring me at the top of the blackboard. I turned around and continued with my lesson. I heard sniffing and weeping sounds while I was writing Chinese pinyin on the blackboard. I just couldn’t turn around and look at the internees because I knew I would easily break down. I was writing and reading out loud the pinyin. I started with the vowels and asked them to read after me, without me looking at them the whole time. I didn't want to see them weep. My voice trembled, and I think they noticed that too.
Finally, this four-hour class ended. It felt so long as time went by so slowly. It was normal to teach an open class requested by Chinese leaders to evaluate your teaching. Some of my colleagues said they would get nervous when they taught in front of those Chinese leaders, while I personally never felt nervous since I was just teaching my students at school. But the teaching at the internment camp was totally different. This four-hour long lesson was the longest and the scariest time in my teaching career. I will never forget this four- hour long lesson.
At noon time, I picked up my notebook and left the classroom. I walked to the yard and looked up at the sky saying, “Are you seeing this? What’s happening?” I did not see any cameras in the courtyard. The internees were religious figures and scholars. The lunch break was from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. and the female clerks said they were going to serve lunch to the internees. “I want to help too,” I said. They agreed. Each internee was given two steamed buns and a bowl of so-called rice soup104 through the door of the cells. I gave one extra steamed bun to two elderly internees without knowing that it was a big mistake. Someone shouted, “buns are missing!” It almost caused a scene. The clerk Mahire immediately said that the female workers miscounted the buns when they took them from the kitchen, and she fetched two more buns from the kitchen. When we were having our lunch at the yard, Mahire asked me to be extra careful next time and told me that everything was counted. She also asked me not to help the elderly the next day because I almost put them in danger. I was horrified hearing all that.
I went home after finishing my class in the afternoon. And the following days were pretty much the same as far as the teaching went. Ten days later, circa March 10, I noticed that the male internees’ beard and heads were shaved, while female internees’ hair was cut short. All internees were wearing two-piece uniform that looked like gray pajamas. They also wore a vest that had an orange label, and no one was allowed to ask their names. They were recognized by the number written on their vests. I could see how embarrassed the female internees felt wearing the pajama-like clothes. I felt bad for them. Another 10 days or so had passed, and there came many newcomers who were mostly young men between March 20 and April 1. I got acquainted with a guard named Qadir, to whom I occasionally talked. I asked him where these people came from, and he told me that he didn’t know. It was not something unusual that the armed police would detain loads of people and bring them to the camps by buses overnight.
You cannot imagine how fast and sneaky the Chinese communists were with regard to getting things done. On March 20, the stairways to the second floor were open, meaning free access, and the rooms were unused. All it took was one night; they installed barrier fences, blocking off the stairway access to the second floor, and transforming all the offices into holding cells. The changes made overnight were mind-blowing.
On March 21, Qadir told me that there wouldn’t be any classes in the morning because there were too many internees and they had to come up with a schedule. I helped the female clerks since I didn’t have classes in the morning that day. I taught six to seven hours a day, but every hour to a different group of people. For example, if I had to teach six hours on Monday, the first hour would be a class of 100 people who were mostly elderly, and the next hour 100 people who were mostly young men and so on. I reckon there might be around 7 to 8 thousand internees in that internment camp because I didn’t get to see the same faces I taught earlier in days. Whether it was seven or eight thousand, all the internees that came later were all young men if not teenagers. Most of them were around 18, but there was one 16-year-old boy. I heard him calling me “Teacher Qelbinur” when I walked past the second floor. My heart stopped when I saw this kid. I recognized him. He just graduated from school and was admitted to an athletic school because of his talent in long-distance running. I asked Mahire what the reason was behind this kid’s detention.
The female clerks mentioned earlier were responsible for documenting everything about the internees: Where they were from; what they did; where they went etc. Mahire continued to say, “They found an ‘illegal’ app on the boy's phone.” I do not remember the name of that app. On the following day when Mahire handed him the food, he asked Mahire to pass on his message to me: “Could you please tell teacher Qelbinur that I have a brother who works at Saybagh Education Department? She knows him. Please ask her to tell my brother that I’m here.” I was heartbroken. There was no way I could pass on his message to his brother. No one knew where these internees were kept. For instance, when a husband was detained at night, not his wife nor his children knew where he was taken to. They were simply not allowed to ask for his whereabouts. If they had gone to the local community center and asked for their family member’s whereabouts, the police would have threatened them by saying: “You’ll end up going where they went too if you come back to ask us tomorrow”. No one knew where their detained family members were, nor did they know if they were alive.
There was no class arranged for the morning of April 1. I asked Qadir, when we were alone, if he could show me the surveillance room. He said I should curb my curiosity. I insisted that I had never seen it before, and he finally agreed to show it me. We entered the surveillance room when the armed police were out for lunch. “Ok, here you go,” he said. There was only one Uyghur guy in the room. I saw huge monitors hanging on three walls. One could easily see all the holding cells and the internees. I noticed there were around 30-50 people in each cell, depending on the cell size. The internees were motionless, sitting in silence. The surveillant would switch on the light of the cell if he saw anyone talking or moving around. When the light was on, you could zoom in on the monitor and see very clearly what was happening inside the cell. He showed me everything and demonstrated how it all worked. “How do they sleep at night?” I asked. He said they would take turns sleeping every three hours. “I see,” I replied. I figured they barely slept.
When we went out to the courtyard, I asked Qadir, “I have lived in Ürümchi for so many years, and I have never met any of these guys on the streets. Where did these thousands of guys come from?” He replied, “Oh, teacher Qelbinur, I also wondered if they were molded in factories. They are all so handsome, as if they were chosen. I was also surprised. It's like they were molded at a factory.”
As time passed, the number of internees increased. The internees there could not take a shower, for there were no shower rooms to be found. The men’s cell quarter had only one toilet on each floor. The toilet could only be used three times a day. I asked the female clerks for more information about the internment camp. I noted that the internees only had one minute to wash their faces and hands in the morning. They were allowed to use the toilet only three times a day, where each time only lasted one minute. Toilet papers were in short supply. “What do they do if they don’t have the toilet paper?” I asked. “We don't know. There are not enough toilet papers” they said. I was speechless.
It was a day at the end of April or maybe early May of 2017. At noon, I saw the soldiers and the police gather in the yard. There were two giant basins, into which they poured boiling water to wash the uniforms of the internees. The soldiers and the police were laughing. As soon as I got out of the building, I looked at them and wondered why they were laughing, so I walked up to them. The policemen were telling each other as they were pointing at some bugs, “Wow, look, look, did you see that?” The internees’ uniforms contained bugs because they could not even take a shower. The policemen tried to kill the bugs by soaking the uniforms in the boiling water.
One guy said, “Wow! These Uyghurs are tough. They would not die even if you torture them, starve them or freeze them. Even these bugs from their bodies are also running away without dying in the boiling water!” They were insulting the Uyghur internees. I looked up at the sky and said with my inner voice, “Oh God, I know you see this, and you are witnessing all this.” The soldiers were laughing continuously, saying “Wow, wow look at it”.
I was so skeptical of the water the internees were drinking. The camp guards would serve the water taken from a large thermos container to the internees. One day, when I got the boiling water from the same large thermos container, a woman ran out to me and shouted, “Hey teacher, don’t drink this, don’t drink this water.” There were three Hui people working in the camp kitchen, two females and one male. The male was the chef. I was devastated. “What are you talking about? Why can't I drink this water? The ‘students’ drink this water.” She insisted that I couldn’t drink it. So I asked, “Ok, so what do I drink?” She replied, “Come, we got boiled water inside.” She gave me a kettle, and I poured the boiling water to my cup.
I sat down at the kitchen to have some tea. It seemed like the chef from the kitchen didn’t see that I got my water from the female clerk, and he also shouted at me, “Hey teacher, what kind of water are you drinking?” I walked up to him and asked, “You are shocked too. I got the boiling water from a kettle. What's in the large thermos container? Is there anything put in it? Any kind of drug?” “No, are you kidding? Teacher, we don’t want you to have an upset stomach, just making sure that you drink boiled water,” he said. I thanked him for his concern. I became more skeptical ever since that day.
I had been in that internment camp for six months as a teacher, and I had never seen that large thermos container getting cleaned. So I asked Mahire when we were in the yard, “My sister, do they put some kind of drug into that boiling water?” She said she didn't know. I told her that I had been shouted at, out of concern, by the female clerk and the chef, and that they even got nervous and told me not to drink the water from that large container. I continued to tell her, “Would he do that if they didn't put any drug in it?” She still said, “We have no idea.”
There were two Chinese nurses at the internment camp. On Mondays, the internees would not have classes for two hours, for the nurses would get their blood drawn and do injections for unknown purposes to the male internees. After the routine procedure, one tablet, white and crumbly, was given. I saw this white, small pill with my own eyes, and I refrained myself from asking questions about this pill.
Then one Monday, one of the nurses was a little more open and talkative. On my way to the class, I said to the nurse, “You are working hard. What are you injecting them with?” She answered, “Look, you know this, because these people don't go out of their cells much, and the government will take care of them and give them vitamin supplements. These medicines will also replenish their calcium level.” I thought to myself that the very same government had locked them up. Why would they give them vitamin supplements? They must have been doing it for another purpose.
When the internees were first brought to the internment camp, their faces looked normal and had glows. As time went by, those healthy people were losing weight dramatically, accompanied by fatigue and lack of sun exposure. After a period of time, they couldn’t walk at a normal pace. The same would happen to us if we slept two days on the concrete floor, and our bodies would not bear it. The police would take some internees out if they were in bad shape, and they would bring more internees to the camp after some time.
There were two internees that were relatively more active than others in the classroom. We taught the internees the national anthem and the red songs (hongge 红歌 ‘Chinese patriotic songs’). We practiced handwriting Chinese characters, and the internees also learned Chinese poems. If I taught a poem today, they should memorize it by the next day. One day, I asked the female clerks about the active “student” in my class and gave them a description, “What’s that brother’s name?” “Osman,” they said. “He is a very tall and healthy looking man, and he also looks rich,” I said. “Yes, he owns a grocery store called Jinlong (金龙). He supplied the restaurants and cafes with goods in all of Ürümchi, very rich, and his daily turnover could reach up to CN¥1 million.”
Osman was detained and sent to the internment camp because he was a successful businessman. Those who were sent to the camp later were successful restaurateurs, entrepreneurs and businessmen, whom the regime has been targeting, according to a news piece by the Wall Street Journal.105 For example, Dilber’s Öpkehésip Restaurant106 on the consulate street, whose owner Dilber was detained along with her female staff. In addition to the rich, the Uyghur intellectuals, actors, writers, and poets were also locked up in the camp.
Osman was very active in the classroom, who always tried his best and was not afraid of making sentences in Mandarin, though more often than not they were wrong. At the end of May 2017, he disappeared from the camp. In the classroom I could easily spot him out of a hundred people due to his big-boned physique. I asked Mahire, “Do you know what is up with Osman?” She said, “He had high blood pressure and diabetes. One night, his became very ill and he died on the way to the hospital.” He was someone I knew personally.
There was another hardworking man in the camp, whose name I don’t recall. He had his own restaurant somewhere near Dawan district of Ürümchi. The same case applies to him, where he was also active and diligent in the class, and he went missing later. I remember the faces of the men who were very hardworking and always actively asked questions in the class. I asked Mahire about him, and she said, “Teacher Qelbinur, he suffered from uremia. He asked the policemen in the camp for medicine, as he was in pain, but he didn’t get any medicine. He had end-stage kidney disease and died on the way to the hospital.”
I bear witness to these two cases. And from what I heard from the female clerks at the camp, there were many tragic incidents in the camp like the ones mentioned above. The Justice Bureau (sifaju 司法局) has jurisdiction over the internment camp, whose bureau chief was Qing (given name unknown) and deputy chief was Ahmet. Those two were in charge of the internment camp where I taught Mandarin.
Many internees died, became ill, or were called out and taken away during the class or at lunchtime. During the class, the police would call out internees by their assigned numbers. There were interrogations in the basement, and the screaming sounds could be heard due to torture, which would cause you considerable distress. I knew the person was being tortured as I went on to teach. The same thing was true at night: The screaming could be heard all over the building. Those who were tortured couldn’t go to class. After months in the cells, their limbs were severely injured, and some of whom were taken to the hospital, while others whose limbs couldn’t be treated were amputated.
Many young Uyghurs who were sent to the internment camp were confused because they hadn’t committed any crime, yet they were deprived of their freedom and subjected to interrogation. Many young Uyghurs had studied abroad, and when their parents told them, “Don’t come back my child, do not come back,” they thought to themselves, “What could they do to me? I’m just studying abroad.” Many of them lost their minds.
You may have heard that the Chinese regime stated, “A lot of students ‘graduated’, and they had been released.” Former internees could be easily recognized on the streets, for they were so skinny, frail, and in poor health. When people saw them on the streets, it was highly likely that they were recently released from the camps. Then there were those people that became so sick and handed over to their families, and some of them were not happy, for they wanted to go back to the camps. There were a lot of Uyghurs in our residential area, where young boys and husbands would say, “Take me back to the camp.” Their family would then ask, “Why do you want to go back there?” “Because there was something addictive put in the food, water, and injections,” they replied. These former internees would become depressed.
Back in the camp, the internees would ask me over and over, “When will we finish the Mandarin language class? When will we finish the book? When will it107 be over?” When we finished a textbook, it made them happy. When I asked them to do some Mandarin exercises to review the previous day’s lesson, they would say, “Teacher, could you start a new lesson today?” The camp guard would shout at them, “Don't interfere, don't talk.” The days went by like this.
For the first four or five months, the internees would go on with a glimmer of hope: Getting released from the internment camp, regaining their freedom. As time went by, they would start to despair of life and everything else. It seemed like they bore nothing in mind, not even their children or wife. All the internees were brainwashed, probably with the help of medication and injections. It pained me immensely that I could do nothing about their suffering. Our cell phone use was restricted at the camp, where we had to turn it off in the morning and switch it back on when we headed home.
I went home and told my husband, and my tears just kept coming. Finally, a week later, my husband said, “Don't tell me please, you won't be able to sleep and neither can I.” He decided to sleep separately in another bedroom. When we had arguments, he even said, “I saw you crying even at midnight. Maybe you can sleep at the camp.” If I couldn’t even talk to him, I would be destroyed mentally. Our food did not taste like food, and when I cooked or had a cup of tea at home, I would think of those people back in the camp. When I went to bed, the image of those internees sleeping on the concrete floor would come to my mind, with such intensity.
On August 27, 2017, a day before my contract expired, I went to the office of Qingju (the head of the internment camp) and told him, “My contract will end tomorrow, and I need to go back to my school. My students are in the fifth grade and I have two classes. They will graduate next year. They need me more than ever.” I explained to him that I had taught them since they were in the first grade. “Yes, we have that form,” he said. He wrote a lot at the end and signed. I looked at the form and he wrote, “She has kept everything confidential, and she is reliable, serious ...” I thanked him, and he said to me, “You worked hard, thank you too.”
The following day, on August 28, I returned to my school. There were some big and dramatic changes in the school. In the past, at the school entrance it was written “Ürümchi City No. 24 Elementary School” with Uyghur scripts on the top and Chinese characters right underneath. Now, it is only written in Chinese. When I entered the campus, I saw slogans, billboards written only in Chinese. On each floor of the teaching building there was a well-known Chinese poet’s picture, where we also used to have Uyghur poets alongside them. There were a lot of calligraphy, but now it is only in Chinese. In every classroom school rules and guidelines were set in four frames: two in Uyghur language, and the other two were in Chinese. Now, they are available only in Chinese. The Uyghur script was effectively removed from the school.
When I entered the archive room, one Chinese, Liangchen, was sitting there. She said, “Hi, you are back.” I said, “Yes.” Before September 2004, the whole archives were set up in Uyghur. The Han-Chinese came to our school in September 2004, and since then our school had been a bilingual school, so our archives became bilingual too, and we had rewritten each archive in both languages. Now the whole archival work is in Chinese only, so I asked her, “Why is it only in Chinese? What about the rest of the archives?” She replied, “It was an order from above. We're going to burn those archives.” I was shocked. I had no energy to talk and explain to them. I became powerless and frustrated.
I went to the principal's office and showed him the paper that I was back. “You worked hard. You did your job very well,” said the Chinese principal, Lihongjun. He didn't say anything else, nothing about the internment camp. He asked, “You've worked hard, and are you going to take your own classes?” I said, “Yes.” My Uyghur students were in 5th grade, i.e. classes 3 and 4, whereas classes 1 and 2 were Chinese classes. I entered a bright classroom (that emotion I had was indescribable) and greeted by those innocent, cute kids, “hello teacher (in Chinese).” I looked at the classroom and put my notebook on my desk, and took a deep breath, which was so comfortable. In our class, the class monitor, Salahidin, was a sharp kid. He asked me, “Teacher, you’re back and it seems you are so happy to see us, huh?” I said, “Wow, my smart kid, how did you find out?” Tears almost fell from my eyes. He replied, “I figured from the way you looked at us and your deep breath.” “That’s the reason you’re the class monitor, smart kid,” I said. I missed my class, and I went back to my normal state and said I was a little relieved. I was upset when I went to my office, where I couldn’t say what I wanted to say about the internment camp. And two days had passed in school.
Then our principal once again called me to his office. I did not feel good about it. When I entered his office, Songling, the secretary of the communist party committee, was sitting with two other cadres. The principal said to me, “Tomorrow you will be sent to the school at Tougong (头宫).” I could not say no to them because I had no other choice. It was a school in Tougong area of Ürümchi, and I thought they would send me to another internment camp. So, I kept quiet. “What do you think? Are you under pressure? Any problems?” I replied, “No, I have no pressure. I have to teach them the national language, which is what I’m doing here anyway.” “Then sign this form” Songling said.
After signing the form, they once again gave me a police driver's number, who would be responsible for my commute to Tougong camp.
From September 1st, 2017, I started teaching Mandarin at a women’s internment camp in Tougong. The police driver would drop me off at the camp every day, just like before.
The Tougong internment camp had an old grey six-story building, with no balconies. The building was surrounded by other residential buildings, and one could hardly notice that it was a camp because the building was repurposed. It used to be a residential building for the elderly, for it had four big red Chinese characters right in the middle: 老年公寓 (laonian gongyu ‘senior apartment’). The building was very similar to the internment camp I worked at before, and it had barbed wire and the gates were heavily guarded.
We passed multiple security checks as we walked into the building. The police driver took me to an office, in which there were two Han Chinese women and three or four Han Chinese men. They looked like they were the wardens of the camp, but they were not wearing police uniforms. The two Chinese women started explaining to me, “This building has six stories, and there is a classroom on each floor. You start teaching in the morning. Your first class is on the first floor, second is on the second floor, and third is on the third floor, and after you are done teaching the fourth floor at 12, you should come down and we will have lunch. After lunch, starting from 1 p.m. you need to go up and teach on 5th and 6th floors. After you finish teaching your afternoon classes, come down to us and we will leave together. Now you can go and teach.” There were more than 20 holding cells on each floor. This building looked like it used to be a community center for the retired Chinese people, where they would play mahjong or poker in different rooms. There was a large hall on each floor, which had a 200 – 300 people capacity.
The most absurd thing about this internment camp was that there was a checkpoint at the stairway of each floor, so I had to go through the security check each time when I went up or down a floor. My first impression about the camp was that it was a high security prison for the world’s most dangerous criminals. I walked into the classroom on the first floor. The first striking difference was that I found myself standing in a cage, some kind of barrier fence, separating me from the internees. The room was so dark for all windows were covered up to 80%. There was a lamp hanging over my head, but I couldn’t see anything beyond the third row in the classroom. In the previous camp where I taught Mandarin, I didn’t have anything that blocked my view in the classroom.
So I walked into the cage, the “students”/internees entered the classroom through a different door. They could only enter the room after I walked into my cage. In my very first class there, one male Chinese police and one female Chinese cadre sat next to where I stood in the cage. They both had their masks on.
The janitors in the camp were all Chinese males, and they also had their masks on all the time. The reason was that the entire building stank of urine and feces because the holding cells on each floor had buckets placed in the corners as makeshift toilets. All Chinese officers and personnel had their masks on all the time to protect themselves from any potential pathogens, but we teachers had to go into the classrooms without masks.
The number of internees in the building was mind-blowingly high. All internees had the same uniforms: Grey shirt worn inside the orange jacket, with a number written on the latter. Sometimes I saw the numbers between 7,000 and 8,000, and therefore I concluded that there were at least 8,000 inmates in this internment camp. The majority of the internees (around 90%) were women aged between 18 and 40, and the elderly internees accounted for the remaining 10%, where the latter group’s cells were on the 5th and 6th floors. All internees had a clean-shaven head.
There was no glimmer of hope in their eyes; they looked extremely sad and depressed. Their steps were heavy, seemed as if they had a mountain of weight placed on their shoulders. They couldn’t move their limbs like normal people, for they looked like they had been tortured day and night.
I met a friend of mine on the first day; she was a Chinese police, and we hung out sometimes outside of work. She was taking some notes in front of a cell. She asked, “Did you come here to teach?” “Yes, I did. What are you doing here?” I replied. “I’m here for work; let’s meet at the front of the building at noon.” As we went on talking, the door of one cell opened, and two Chinese soldiers carried one girl out on a stretcher, aged between 18 and 20. We quickly looked into each other’s eyes and decided to cut our conversation short and meet outside at noon. The girl looked dead to me. I don’t remember how I finished teaching all morning that day.
At noon, my Chinese friend told me that the girl was dead long before they got her to the hospital. The cause of death was her menstruation didn’t stop for one and a half months, and they didn’t even bother to take her to a hospital during that time period. She lost too much blood and died. If they had had an ounce of human decency or sympathy, they would’ve taken her to a hospital, and she could be alive now. I still can’t comprehend this preventable tragedy, which I witnessed with my own eyes. I asked my Chinese friend, “I heard that raping the female students was very common in women’s re-education centers. There are lots of girls here, and do you know if it’s true that the police are raping these students?”108 She replied, “Yes, of course, as a matter of fact this is why I’m here; I’m here to investigate such cases.”
Male police officers really like to work in women’s internment camps, where most of them would volunteer to be in these camps. They brag about whom and how they raped within their inner circles after getting drunk, and that’s how this terrible news got out. So, that’s why my Chinese friend was there to investigate.
When I met her that morning, she was asking the internees some questions about police raping. I said to her, “This is just an act. No one really cares.” She agreed and said yes. I continued to ask, “I’m very surprised, what’s the point of asking questions inside the cell or in the hallway as they all were being monitored via surveillance cameras installed everywhere? If you really want to know, you should take them into a private room.” She said, “We asked them if they had been tortured during the interrogation, to which they said, ‘yes, because they force us to confess to the crimes we never committed.’ Then we asked them if they had been raped, then most of them started crying. I told them it was okay to talk to us; we would take notes and they need to sign.” I said, “It’s like signing their death sentence; this is such a ridiculous investigation.” “I know, it’s all just an act, showing it to the high level officers,” she replied.
“How do they rape? I guess you guys know a lot more than I do,” I asked. “You really don’t want to know,” she replied. “I do actually, I’ve been hearing a lot about this lately, and really want to confirm it with you,” I asked. “What’s not to believe about these rumors? There is a reason that male police officers would beg to come to this camp since there are more pretty girls here. They would take girls into the interrogation rooms, where there’s no camera, and four or five police officers would gang-rape one girl after another. After raping, they would take an electric rod and stick it into their vagina and rectum to torture them, and rape them again after,” she said. I was shocked, “I really shouldn’t have asked. And you shouldn’t have told me.” She continued, “Some girls would bleed a lot during the rape, and they still order them to clean up the room after. Some other girls even bleed through their ears and mouths. You can imagine what else is going on in here.”
The more I listened the more emotional I got, and I cried out loud because I have a daughter too. “Oh my God, these are the precious daughters of others too! Disgusting Chinese policemen! Is God not seeing these obscenities and torture? These are just little young girls. God, what kind of tragedy is this?” I said while crying. “Do you want us to die?!” my friend yelled at me. At 1 p.m. I went back to the office. “Why didn’t you eat your lunch?” one Chinese officer in the office asked me, as my lunch was untouched on the table. “I started talking with my friend, and it’s been a while since we last met, so it took a while,” I told him. I lost all my appetite after listening to the horrible stories, and how am I supposed to act normal and eat and drink like everyone else? I went on to finish my classes on the 5th and 6th floors before heading home. I remember my body was shaking the whole afternoon that day.
Later I found out that all female internees in that camp got some injection to stop their menstruation. They were given random medication periodically, which also controlled their menstrual cycle. They did blood tests to check if there were any contagious diseases among the internees. Some internees experienced side effects of the injection and medication, like severe bleeding.
One day I taught them the Chinese word 祖国 (zuguo, ‘the motherland/country’), and I asked the internees to use it in a sentence. All of them wanted to give me their answers, and it took two hours to go through each of their sentence.
Among them, one girl said, “My parents spent a lot of money to send me to the US to study, and I came back because I missed my motherland, my parents and my friends. I was sent to here to study Chinese right after I landed at the airport, without even seeing my parents. I love my motherland, and I thank the government and the Communist Party for giving me this opportunity and learning environment.”
All of them were using this opportunity to indirectly share their personal stories. I stayed strong while listening to all of their sentences, and when I almost broke out crying, I looked at the blackboard and started writing and erasing the Chinese word 祖国 (‘motherland/country’). Another girl said, “I love my motherland. I have four kids, and the youngest is only 15 days old. I was breastfeeding when I was taken and brought to here to study Mandarin. I thank the government and the Communist Party for giving me this opportunity.” Another girl said, “I love my motherland. I was supposed to get married, and all the invitations were sent out. My fiancé was taken a week before the wedding, and I came here a couple of days later. I thank the government and the Communist Party for giving me this opportunity.” Under normal circumstances, they would have burst out crying while saying these words, but none of them cried. I listened to all of them.
Some went to study in Egypt, while others studied in Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. One girl said she was only 18 and studied in Kazan University, pointing out that it was her first time leaving home, and she came back home after a semester and was sent to here. Some studied in Japan and Korea. They looked as if all hopes in life were gone, forced to accept their cruel reality, and one thing is certain: They are scarred for life. They survived all the beating, raping, torture, and etc., but ended up living in their respective solitary shells. Once I thought the reason why they couldn’t stand or sit well was because the room was cold or the chairs were too small. But in reality, it was because their bodies were physically assaulted, so their movements were compromised.
One time, a police driver gave me and a 70-year-old law teacher a ride. I sat at the back and rolled down the window as I listened to their conversation. The law teacher said, “What is the government doing here? I was brought here to teach law to these students. Later I found out that the classes were divided based on their educational background. Classroom one was called ‘elite class’, and it was full of people who had studied abroad. There were people with graduate degrees. I was shocked by the quality of their questions and answers. That’s why I don’t understand why the government wants to have these kids in here.”
The law teacher kept on talking about the horrible things he could not comprehend. “I looked at the food that they were given. It was just water and one small steamed bun. No wonder they’re losing weight day by day and look sicker and sicker. It’s one thing that they don’t feed them enough and leave them in cold rooms without proper clothes, it’s another thing that they beat them, rape and torture them, making them confess to the crimes they didn’t commit. Do you know anything more inhumane than this?” I was not sure if they were testing me to see if I engaged in their conversation, so I kept quiet. “Do you know they rape them one after another? It is such a cruelty; don’t you think? How do you feel normal after seeing and knowing all this?” He kept on talking to the driver. These were the things that I witnessed with my own ears and eyes.
Life went on, I continued to teach my regular classes at the women’s internment camp. My contract period was from September 1, 2017 to March 1, 2018, but I was struggling to cope with the stress. I was still suffering from all the traumas that I was subjected to from the previous internment camp. In July 2017, I was notified by the local community office (shequ 社区) that I needed to have an intrauterine contraceptive device (IUD) inserted in my body, a necessary procedure for all women aged between 18 and 50. In November 2017, when I was still teaching at the women’s internment camp, my period did not stop for 15 consecutive days. One day, I could not get up from my bed and I told my husband to take me to the hospital. My blood pressure was 45/65 millimeters of mercury. Doctors admitted me to the hospital and took out the IUD before starting the treatment.
When doctors were examining me, my phone rang and it was from the camp. My husband answered the phone. “Why is Qelbinur not at the school? And why are you answering the phone?” “She’s in the hospital” my husband said. I took the phone and said, “My period did not stop and I lost a lot of blood.” The warden on the phone continued, “Every woman has their period, what’s wrong with that? You can still work, and why didn’t you call us?” That afternoon, they sent two officers to visit me in the hospital. They saw my pale face and asked me, “You look so ill. Are you stressed out? Is teaching at the school stressing you out? What’s there to stress about?” I told them it was just that my period became irregular and that I felt very tired all the time. After the age of 45, all women would experience the same physical challenge and this was the stress that I was talking about.
They asked me, “Who should we get as a substitute teacher?” I told them I didn’t know, and they asked me to recommend someone. We had a Uyghur teacher who taught the subject social morality, so I told them they could contact her and ask her to be the substitute teacher for up to a month, at least until I got better. They looked at my charts and stormed out the room. I got no “speedy recovery” from them; moreover, I was not expecting a sense of humanity from them either.
After getting discharged from the hospital, my husband told me, “If you keep on teaching there and get sick again, I’m not going to take care of you. If you stop teaching at the camp, they would probably just fire you, nothing more serious than that.” So, I stopped teaching at the camp.
I went back to my elementary school in February 2018, and everything was turned upside down for me. There was a meeting on my first day, where every staff at school needed to report back. I was the first one called out by name there at the meeting. They kept on reading, “Since she failed to complete her duties last year, her personnel cadre (人事干部) title is stripped and transferred to Xing Jianjun- a male physical education instructor. Liangchan will take over her archival work (档案工作). Jiayan will step in as the new group leader for the instructors.” I remember all these three names because my name was called out first on my first day back at work.
My class with Uyghur students was combined with Chinese students: Each Uyghur girl sat with a Chinese boy, and each Uyghur boy sat with a Chinese girl. Every class was arranged like that. We were not allowed to teach; we only taught as substitutes, and we spent the majority of our time at the janitor’s office and helped the security guards at the school. I could not say anything; I was just glad that they did not send me back to teach at an internment camp for not doing what I was told.
After a few days, I was called into an office, “You should start writing a request for retirement, making sure that you say you are retiring of your own volition.” I told her, “I know I was not able to complete my assignment, but that was due to my poor health. I beg you to let me stay for another two years at the school. I can be a janitor or a security guard. I can retire in two years, for I will be with 30 years of seniority.” She said, “There’s no way you are coming back to this school. You should leave now and write that retirement request as soon as possible.” There was nothing I could do, so I just did what she asked for. It turned out that there were 12 of us who requested to retire “voluntarily”. I had worked for 28 years for that school, even on weekends doing all sorts of tasks. I was asked to leave just like that. In February 2018, I was forced to retire early and left the school.
I turned 50 on May 5th of 2019. On May 20th, a young lady on the phone said to me, “Qelbinur sister, you have to go to the hospital to get sterilized, and our hands are tied.” Upon hearing that, I was shocked and almost dropped my phone to the ground. I told her that, “Dear sister, what are you talking about? I have just turned 50. I am willing to meet any other requirements, but I cannot do this one.” She said, “If so, you have to go to the Bahuliang (八户梁) police station and talk with our police officer Li Wenjiang (I still remember that name).” “Can he help me?” I asked her. “He will say the same thing. We really cannot help you. You have to get it done.” I continued, “Is there a workaround so that I can avoid doing this procedure?” “No, you cannot avoid it,” she said.
I was asked to go to Chang Le Yuan community clinic (乌鲁木齐昌乐 园社区诊所). When I went there, I saw people standing in line. When it was my turn, I entered a room where there was a physician and a nurse. That physician was relatively older. By the look of her, I thought to myself that retired doctors must have been asked to do this scheme, or she was really working there. I was asked to lie flat on a bed. The physician started to say, “It is not painful at all; you will not feel the pain. It is different from inserting an IUD, and it may hurt a bit, but you really don’t feel it.” I was given an IV and an injection. I don’t know how long it took, maybe half an hour or one hour. “Done, you can get up now,” the physician said. But I could not stand up because I felt very dizzy. “I was feeling dizzy,” I told them. “It is because you lost lots of blood.” Finally, they stamped on a paper indicating that I was sterilized.
I don’t really know how I got home that day after taking a taxi. I somehow lost myself. I stayed home and did not go outside. I needed to recover quickly because I was going to visit my daughter within a week. After getting the paper work ready for my forced sterilization, I submitted it to that young lady who had called me and asked me to sterilize myself, proving that I had done a good job: Obeying the Chinese regime’s order. As a result, I was able to get my passport on September 15, 2019.
What more can you say about this anguish, and to whom can I lodge a complaint? There had been many unbearable things taking place during that time period. In 1982, the Chinese regime decided that the month of May is the “ethnic unity education month” (民族团结教育月) and everyone must get together and carry out some activities that promoted unity between ethnic minorities and Han Chinese. For proof our photos must be taken and sent to the Education Bureau of Saybagh district and to the newspapers.
However, in May 2017, an extra thing was added to this unity promotion concept: Uyghurs and Han Chinese were paired up as “relatives”. We were given a Han Chinese relative and my relative was the leader of myhusband’s work unit, who was a high ranking official. He visited our home once every three months starting from May. When he visited us for the first time, he brought his wife and child, all of whom stayed in our home for a week.
We served them our best traditional dishes. We taught them how to cook Uyghur food, and we ate, studied109, traveled, and slept together. If these Han Chinese “relatives” find anything suspicious when they visit their coercively paired up Uyghur relatives, the former will report to the Chinese officials, which would then bring troubles to the latter, meaning Uyghurs could end up in an internment camp with no judicial proceedings whatsoever.
Every time when Han Chinese “relatives” visit their Uyghur host families, they would and have to write down notes regarding the activities done together in their notebooks.
There was a slogan in the official communist document called “the five together” (五个在一起): cook together, eat together, study together, travel together and sleep together. The Han Chinese men particularly emphasize the “sleep together” part. I was lucky that I had my husband by my side, our Han Chinese relative couldn’t do anything even if we slept together. I made the bed for my husband and my Han Chinese “relative” in one room, and I slept in another room. However, this Chinese beast, my “relative”, had the audacity to tell me multiple times, “You did not treat me well, you did not make me enjoy myself, and you did not sleep with me.” I told him, “I cannot sleep with both of you because you both snore, and I cannot sleep at all. I hope you understand.”
Knowing that the Han Chinese men love to drink alcohol with various stir-fried dishes, I reminded my husband not to get drunk. He told me not to worry. When I told him, “Something may happen to me if you get drunk.” Our Chinese “relative” asked me what I was telling my husband in Uyghur, and I replied that I was telling him to enjoy the wine with you. He removed all of his clothes, only leaving his trousers on at the table. He told me to come close and sit next to him, and he hugged me and said, “You are beautiful, let me kiss you, your food is great.” I was seriously disturbed by his behavior. I looked at my husband for help, but for some reason he was busy drinking alcohol. I was disappointed that he could not protect me from that beast, and I wished my husband had said to him the following, “I am her husband, you cannot do this to her, would you allow me to do the same thing to your wife?”
I don’t know what happened to my husband, and he completely lost his dignity. Once, he was drunk, and that Chinese “relative” demanded that I sleep with him. Then I told my husband that, “If this Chinese man rapes me tonight, I will kill him and then kill myself.” Then my husband came to his senses and shouted at me, “Are you crazy? Are you an idiot? What kind of teacher are you? Just be patient for a while and this will be over.” What can I say? Is it really nothing? I made the bed for these two men and sat beside their bed. When the Chinese man came to me and said, “Let’s sleep.” I told him I would sleep a bit later for I could not stand the smell of alcohol. Sometimes he demanded that I drink with them. I told him I would just toast without actually drinking. I allowed him to do whatever he wanted with disgust.
When I was cooking, the Chinese man came close to me and asked me to teach him how to cook, and asked me to hold his hand while cutting the vegetables. I had to hold his hand to cut the vegetables, and I had to hold his hand to fry stuff in the pan. He hugged and kissed me several times while I was cooking. As a vulnerable woman, what could I have done? I shouted out loud at my husband and asked for his presence in the kitchen.
This Chinese beast threatened me by saying, “If you don’t treat me well, I will write this into my notes”. Then I immediately came up with an excuse so as not to be written into his notebook, although I was the victim there. I apologized to him several times. While he was eating, he asked/ordered us to sing a song. My husband sang and I danced for him. The Chinese man observed our emotions and attitudes while he was clapping his hands. When we felt relaxed, he asked us if we were religious, if we prayed, and if we dressed ourselves in Muslim attire? I told him that, “Although our faith is Islam, our parents did not teach us anything about religion, and I don’t even know how to dress myself in Muslim attire. Then he asked if I prayed, and I said, “No, I don’t pray because I am a teacher, I teach my students science, not religion.”
Then he continued to ask, “Every Friday, Muslim men go to Mosque to pray. Does your husband go to mosque on Fridays?” I replied, “No, he does not know how to pray; you see he drinks wine.” Then he turned to my husband and said, “Tursun, your wife is smart and sharp; whenever I say something to her, she responds very quickly.” I then said, “Not that quick, I am just stating the fact, please don’t get me wrong.”
He continued to dig even deeper into our private life. For example, he asked us how we viewed the current government policy, “There are policemen on the streets and police stations everywhere. And they check you Uyghurs everywhere, which must be disturbing to you. How do you view this policy?” He asked us this question several times and I answered him, “They are doing it for the benefit of us. Our government is doing it for our security. We were afraid at night before if we were on the streets, but now we are not afraid of anything because we have the police presence everywhere. So, we can come home safely without worrying if it’s late at night.” And then he repeated the same thing, “You are quick to respond, you are smart and sharp.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my Han Chinese male “relative”, with whom I was coercively paired up as relatives by the Chinese regime, where the “Big Brother” was actually in my own home.
Uyghurs are living in the cage, figuratively speaking. The ones locked up in the internment camps are suffering enormously, many of whom even forgot who they were and also forgot about their families. Uyghurs who are not in the internment camps live in an open prison. They too are not free, not without pressure; for example, when a Uyghur walks into a building or is at one of the many checkpoints, the police would check their IDs and question them.
Young security guards who were newly recruited would shout at people, asking them to show their IDs, and they also checked their cell phones for suspicious information. Sometimes one was forced to carry two bags; one for the ID and the other for the phone. The security guards checked people on the streets at random and at the entrance of buildings. Sometimes the armed police would barge into your home and step on your clean carpet with their dirty shoes. They carried a red flashlight on them, which would light up if they found something “sensitive”, a fact I came to know later. For example, if they found the holy book Qur’an or a prayer mat, the flashlight would light up. They would check every nook and cranny for the sensitive items in your home.
They would check every Uyghur home at least once a month; sometimes they would come with neighborhood committee members. Those committee members would talk with us at the door, while the police would go in and check every nook and cranny, including the kitchen, drawers, and cabinets. And sometimes the police would knock on the door at/after midnight, and as a result we would lose our sleep due to anxiety and fear.
The Chinese authorities would often issue announcements and guidelines, such as, “If you don’t cooperate with us, we will bring your children110 back home to you; If you don’t cooperate with us, you will be sitting in the iron chair in the police station.” We would also get our information through the grapevine, which may also contribute to the government’s propaganda. For instance, we heard through the grapevine that, “The government has brought back someone’s child who was studying in the US, and now he/she is in an internment camp.” “Someone’s husband was brought back from abroad and now he’s at some place”. It makes you think that nowhere is out of reach as far as the Chinese regime is concerned. People really believe in the power of the Chinese government that they can repatriate any Uyghur.
Arbitrary arrests peaked between 2017 and 2018. One evening around 11:30 p.m. there was a loud noise coming from outside, we all looked out the window and saw the police arresting many Uyghurs, over whose heads were black hoods. That scene was very terrifying and very cruel, and it made us to go to bed with our clothes on at night because it could be us next time, and you never know when they would knock on your door and barge right in. We heard that many Uyghurs were taken away in their pajamas. We became so anxious that we could be next to be taken away and sent to an internment camp, so I also bought some medicines in 2018 and kept them by my bed for several months.
Even people who are not in an internment camp would endure a great amount of stress. I could not meet my daughter for she was in the Netherlands and still is, and I became so anxious as I often heard people say that Uyghurs studying/living abroad were brought back, so I thought that I would rather die overdosing on those pills I bought than see my daughter suffer in an internment camp. I was ready to die by overdosing on the pills if the police knocked on my door. I didn’t want to see her suffer in an internment camp because I knew what was going on there. I panicked and my husband told me that, “You are crazy; you’re losing your mind, and you will end up walking on the streets as an insane person.” “So be it and I no longer give a hang about anything,” I said to him while weeping. I worried so much that the police would knock on our door, and thinking, “Is it our turn yet?” We had not slept well in months.
The Chinese regime knows how to put on a show, deceiving the gullible. Sometimes you see Uyghur ladies from the camps are shown on TV or in some footage published by western media outlets, but the fact of the matter is that they were forced to sing and dance, showing the world how happy they are. You would also see some Uyghurs who get drunk and wander around on the streets. In so doing, they would be left alone by the police because when they show to the Chinese regime that they are interested in drinking and having fun, the regime would not consider them as a threat.
The Chinese regime also worked hard on their propaganda game. They said, “We closed all the camps, and all the formers students are employed and we released most of them.” In fact, not a single Uyghur was released from an internment camp as a healthy individual. The regime would release those internees who are very close to dying and return them to their family or relatives. They would then die as soon as they are released from the camps, or die within one or two weeks. There were a great number of deaths between 2017 and 2018.
There was one such case that I bore witness to in May 2018. I remember this particular incident because May is my birth month. One day in May of 2018 in my neighborhood, the police returned the body of a Uyghur man to his mother who lived in the neighboring building. The cause of dead according to the police was, “He just died.” I am ethnically Uzbek; my downstairs neighbor was Tatar. I went down to ask her, “Let’s go and visit that poor lady who lost her son.” Her name I believe was Ayshem, with whom I talked from time to time in the neighborhood, and she told me that his son disappeared without a trace.
When we entered Ayshem’s home, we saw several cadres from neighborhood committee. She burst into tears and lamented when she saw us. There were no other people around except the neighborhood committee cadres and us. A bit later, several young men came and took her dead son to a nearby mosque to prepare the body for burial and hold a prayer session. We stayed for a while when they went to the mosque. The most shocking thing was that the body was returned to her home because many people died on that day and were brought to that mosque. Her son could not get his turn to get the last ritual wash, nor a prayer session. Everyone cried after hearing that, including the neighborhood committee members. This kind of death certainly happened a lot in 2017 and 2018. I have never heard that even dead bodies were waiting in line to get buried, which was a real tragedy.
My husband worked for a big company, where most of the employees were Han Chinese. They produced construction/building materials, such as bricks. The company does not operate in winter. So my husband didn’t work from November 20 to April. My husband told me that more than one hundred Uyghurs were brought to his company, who were from places like Kashgar, Atush and Aqtu.
One day my husband came back from work and told me, “Our company suddenly brought numerous young Uyghur girls and boys.” When I asked him what happened to them, he said that some were college graduates. Then we figured that they were forced to work there. My husband said that his boss thought his Mandarin was good, so he was asked to translate for his boss, for those newly arrived young Uyghur boys and girls didn’t speak Mandarin that well.
My husband could speak Mandarin, but he was not at advanced level, and I taught him Mandarin almost every day. At the time, he would call and ask me how to say this and how to write that. He also asked me to say or write something on WeChat (Chinese messaging App). I was wondering why he was doing that, and he told me the reason why when he came home.
Those young Uyghur workers’ phones were confiscated by the authority, and they were allowed to call their family once a month. They were not allowed to leave their workplace, nor contact anyone. Basically, they had no contact with the outside world. They worked 12 hours a day, and their salary was around CN¥1500. Their food was provided by the company, but they slept at different places. So my husband’s company used forced labor. The young Uyghur workers there were modern day slaves.
Another place in Ürümchi that used Uyghur forced labor was a place called Badaowan Industrial Park (Badaowan Gongyeyuan 八道湾工业园), at which hundreds of university graduates worked, making traditional Uyghur naan bread. I went to that big industrial park circa April 2019.