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 (pronounced: Say-ra-gul Saut-bay, as in “bye”), 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.
As a young woman, Sauytbay completed medical studies and worked in a hospital. Subsequently she turned to education and was employed in the service of the state, in charge of five preschools. Even though she was in a settled situation, she and her husband had planned for years to leave China with their two children and move to neighboring Kazakhstan. But the plan encountered delays, and in 2014 the authorities began collecting the passports of civil servants, Sauytbay’s among them. Two years later, just before passports from the entire population were confiscated, her husband was able to leave the country with the children. Sauytbay hoped to join them in Kazakhstan as soon as she received an exit visa, but it never arrived.
“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.”
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