Uighur Muslim jailed at Beijing 'reeducation camp' relives her ordeal

Posted 113 days ago


One at a time, our warders led us into a makeshift infirmary where men in lab coats were waiting. There was no choice.

I was told by one of the superintendents: ‘You must be vaccinated. You’re 50 years old. Your immune system isn’t what it used to be. If you don’t do this, you might get the flu.’

Terrified of reprisals if I didn’t agree, I signed a document giving my permission. One of the men jabbed the vein in my arm. I was so stupid.

I had been a prisoner in a Xinjiang ‘re-education’ camp for a year. The only horizon I had was the line of barbed wire that cut us off from the rest of the world.

Other women in the internment camp had told me that their periods had stopped shortly after such ‘vaccinations’. The younger women wept and grieved. They had hoped to start families once they were released from the camp.

Past the menopause myself, I tried to comfort them, though a horrific thought was already growing inside me: were they sterilising us?

Now, I know my fears were correct. Every day, new prisoners arrived. I saw their fearful faces.

I wanted to shout: ‘Watch out! Don’t get vaccinated!’ But what was the point?

Their turn would come, no matter what, and I’d just get punished. So I kept my mouth shut.

Like more than one million other Uighurs, I was imprisoned in a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp.

Uighurs are Sunni Muslims whose culture is Turkic. The camps, which China describes as ‘schools’, claim to ‘eradicate Islamist terrorism from Uighur minds’.

In reality, they aim to eradicate an entire ethnicity.

I am neither a separatist nor an Islamic terrorist – just a mother – but on the basis of a nine-minute trial, I was sentenced to seven years of ‘re-education’. They dragged my body through hell and my mind to the brink of madness.

The process starts by stripping you of your individuality. It takes away your name, your clothes, your hair.

Then you are forced to repeatedly recite the glories of the Communist Party for 11 hours a day in a windowless classroom. Falter, and you are punished.

So you keep saying the same things over and over again until you can’t feel, can’t think any more. You lose all sense of time.

In the camp, I wasn’t Gulbahar, but Number 9. I was forbidden from speaking Uighur, or from praying.

There was something extra about the taste of the vile slop that filled our bowls. Were they drugging our meals to make us lose our memories?

My weight plummeted. The blinding light worsened my vision and beneath my eyes, heavy rings made two pockets of shadow.

My heart beat so weakly that I could no longer feel it when I pressed my palm to my chest.

Whenever I was deemed to have broken the rules, I was slapped or, on one occasion, shackled to a bed for a fortnight.

I underwent hundreds of hours of nightmarish interrogations, until chaos gradually took over my soul.

Every week, women were taken away and we never saw them again. At night, we’d wake to terrifying screams, as if someone was being tortured upstairs.

We listened in silence, absolutely still, to howls that pierced the night. They were the cries of women going mad, begging guards not to hurt them any more.

When the footfalls of guards woke us in the night, I thought our time had come to be executed.

When a hand viciously pushed hair-clippers across my skull, I shut my eyes, thinking I was being readied for the scaffold, the electric chair, or drowning.

For two years, my husband, Kerim, and two daughters, Gulhumar and Gulnigar, had no idea where I was. They imagined the worst. They believed me dead.

I was born into a Uighur family that had lived in Xinjiang for generations.

This jewel, more than six times the size of the UK, is at the far western end of China. Its riches include gold, diamonds, natural gas, uranium, and – above all – oil.

Since being annexed by China, we Uighurs have been the stone in the Beijing regime’s shoe.

Xinjiang is far too rich a strategic corridor for it to lose and President Xi Jinping wants it cleansed of separatist populations.

In short, China wants a Xinjiang without Uighurs.

Along with my husband, I had worked as an oil engineer but our community had become subjected to unprecedented violent repression: discrimination, police inspections, interrogations, intimidation and threats.

So, in 2006, our family fled to France.

Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities targeted Uighurs with armies of facial-recognition cameras, police on every street corner, and ‘transformation-through-education’ camps.

In 2016, I received a phone call at my home in Boulogne, northern France. The man said he was calling from the oil company where I’d worked.

He said I had to return to China to sign documents to receive my pension.

When I hung up, a shiver ran down my spine. Was it a ploy so the police could interrogate me?

My life was in France now. But the visit to China would only take a few weeks. So I silenced the voices whispering in my head and bought a round-trip ticket to Karamay, in Xinjiang.

Seeking to soothe things, but also just because the thought happened to cross my mind, I said: ‘I hope nothing happens to me!’

My daughter got upset and said she hoped I hadn’t jinxed myself. She had no idea how right she would be.

When I arrived at the company office to sign the documents, I was put in handcuffs by police and asked why I’d left China for France.

One of the officers shoved a photo under my nose. It was my daughter, Gulhumar, at a demonstration in Paris protesting against Chinese repression in Xinjiang.

The officer slammed his fist on the table. ‘Your daughter’s a terrorist!’

I replied: ‘No. I don’t know why she was at that demonstration. She wasn’t doing anything wrong, I swear!’

The rest of the interrogation is a blur. All I remember is that photo, their aggressive questions and my futile replies.

To the authorities, Uighurs who had lived abroad, or knew people there, posed the biggest threat.

We were seen as spies. Judgment on the order of the ‘Great Western Betrayal’ lay in store for us.

How naive I had been. After a string of questions – always the same – they led me to the county jail.

The relentless lighting in Cell 202 flattened all sense of night and day. Detention was a parade of zombies adrift in jumpsuits, rings around their eyes.

After five months, I was told I was being taken to ‘school’ to undergo ‘training’. If I showed proof of discipline and rigour in my work, I might graduate ‘in a few months’.

For 11 hours a day, the world was reduced to one rectangular classroom. There were 40 of us, all women, wearing blue pyjamas. A big metal shutter hid the outside world from us.

Our ‘physical education’ was tantamount to military training.

Our exhausted bodies moved through the space in unison, back and forth, side to side, corner to corner.

When the soldier bellowed ‘At ease!’, our regiment of prisoners froze.

He would then order us to remain still. This could last half an hour, or just as often a whole hour, or even several.

Sometimes, one of us would faint. If the prisoner failed to revive, a guard would yank her feet and slap her awake.

If she collapsed again, he’d drag her out of the room and we’d never see her again. Ever.

We were also taught patriotic songs. ‘You must learn them by heart, or you will be punished.’ All day long, we croaked out these refrains.

‘Stand up! Stand up! Stand up! We are billions of one heart, braving the enemies’ fire. March on! Braving the enemies’ fire, march on! March on! March on! On!’

Our camp was on the outskirts of the city of Karamay, a no-man’s-land from which three buildings rose, each the size of a small airport.

Beyond the barbed-wire fence, there was nothing but desert as far as the eye could see.

In the dormitory, there was a toilet bucket; a window with its metal shutter always drawn tight; two cameras panning back and forth in high corners of the room.

That was it. No real mattress. No furniture. No toilet paper. No sheets. No sink.

The military rules were designed to break us. Our days were punctuated by the screech of whistles: on waking, at mealtime, at bedtime.

The guards always had an eye on us. If one of us whispered or wiped her mouth, she was accused of praying.

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