Witness to horror: A teacher in a Chinese detention camp for Uighurs and Kazakhs will never get over the things she saw

A gripping account of the forced detention, torture and rape of Uighurs and Kazakhs in northwest China is being acknowledged as truth by governments around the world, even as the Communist Party tries to deny it. Review by Jeremy Rees.

In 2018, Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazakh doctor and teacher, escaped over the border from Xinjiang in China’s far west into neighbouring Kazakhstan without a passport. A few weeks later, she was picked up by the police and put before a court to decide whether she should be deported back to China.

Her subsequent trial, covered by global media, was significant. Sauytbay testified that she had been taken against her will to teach in an internment camp, run by the Chinese state and filled with Uighur and Kazakh inmates.

She testified about beatings, mistreatment and torture, and that inmates had been injected with unknown drugs, possibly to sterilise them.

In the end, the court decided she could not be deported back to China. Her testimony added to evidence of crimes against Muslim minorities, such as the Uighurs and Kazakhs, in Xinjiang.

The Chief Witness: Escape from China’s modern-day concentration camps is her nightmarish account of what happened, as told to German author Alexandra Cavelius, the biographer of Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer. It has been available in German for a year but was released in English just this month.

It is a grim account of the gulags of our time. Sauytbay talks of prisoners being brutalised, including an elderly woman having fingernails pulled out for a moment’s defiance. She says she cannot remain silent, that she hears the voices of internees, especially women, in her sleep.

In the book, she writes of witnessing a gang rape in her camp: a woman of just 20 or 21 was brought before 100 detainees for a forced confession. The guards then took turns raping her as a test of whether anyone would resist.

“I found myself staring into that panicking face, hearing those screams. ‘Please help me! Why won’t you help me?’ But no one could help her. As long as I live, I will never forget it.”

Sauytbay says showers in the camp had cameras and she believed young women were raped or assaulted in a “black room” used for interrogations and torture.

Forcing their Han

Sauytbay was born in a yurt to a Kazakh family in a village at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains in remote northwest China. She pointedly calls her region “East Turkestan”, rejecting the Chinese name, considering it an occupied territory that is not part of China.

The Kazakhs, a Turkic group, make up about 6 per cent of Xinjiang, and are fewer than their fellow Muslim Uighurs, or Han Chinese.

Hers was a bucolic upbringing; a loving mother and inspirational father. She was stubborn and a survivor. Smart and hard-working at school, she trained first as a doctor, working in a regional hospital, and then as a teacher when she returned later to her husband’s village.

The first half of the book serves as a counterpoint to the nightmare to come. But it is also one of the book’s strengths – family life in a Kazakh town is set against a growing presence of Han Chinese.

More Han were encouraged to head west seeking work and to develop the region. New apartment blocks sprouted on the edge of town. More and more shops were owned by the Chinese. Sauytbay points out that in the photo of her traditional Kazakh wedding, almost all billboards in the background are in Mandarin.

The story she tells is one of greedy interlopers despoiling her land and its culture. In schools, Mandarin was taught ahead of local tongues. She encounters situations in which jobs are set aside for Han.

All this is woven through her family story of growing up and getting married. It chimes with similar accounts, such as the oral histories of Tibetans in China collected by Barbara Demick in last year’s Eat the Buddha.

Then the situation exploded. There were growing protests by Uighur over their treatment. In 2009, there were riots in Ürümqi. There were a succession of attacks on both Uighur and Han. General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping ordered the former party secretary of Tibet, Chen Quanguo, to Xinjiang. He has set up a surveillance network over the province.

Sauytbay’s family took their passports and fled to Kazakhstan. Hers was never released by government officials, so she remained in China.

She says she watched as the schools she now managed became more rigid and taught party propaganda. She was ordered to be part of an ethnic reconciliation drive, which initially sounded benign.

She and others were forced to spend eight hours a month with a Han Chinese sponsor, who had to provide photos of happy moments together as proof. She talks of how some women found themselves doing forced housework.

Others were told they had to eat pork, forbidden for Muslims. Sauytbay paid her sponsor, a single man, a fee so he would not force her to sleep with him.

China says its policies are to promote understanding, as well as combat terrorism and extremism, and to help develop minorities economically.

Suspicious injections

In late 2017, Sauytbay was ordered by police to report to a nearby city. She was snatched off the street, blindfolded and driven to a facility in the mountains she was told was a “re-education camp”.

She was ordered to be a teacher because she could speak Mandarin. It is here that Sauytbay details the workings of the camp. “From that point on, I committed everything to memory with absolute precision, because I knew I was one day going to tell the world about it.”

She details everything she can remember: the 20 people in a 16-square-metre cell with a single plastic bucket as a toilet – and the stench.

A daily routine she recorded began with a six o’clock wake-up call, then from 7am to 9am she taught lessons on Chinese customs and the party’s thinking in Mandarin – her audience ranging from a 13-year-old to an 84-year-old shepherd. From 9am to 11am the inmates would write down what they could remember. From 11am to midday, they recited party slogans.

Lunch was vegetable soup. Then, from 2pm to 4pm, they learnt a song in praise of the party, followed by two hours of self-reflection to ponder their mistakes. Dinner was followed by two hours locked in their cells to “accept their crimes internally”, then 10pm to midnight was spent writing confessions. Prisoners would then sleep and Sauytbay would keep watch until 1am, when she was released to sleep on a plastic mattress on a concrete floor.

Then, she says, there was the “black room” for recalcitrants. “I saw with my own eyes the various instruments of torture. The chains on the wall. Many inmates, bound at the wrists and ankles, they strapped into chairs that had nails sticking out of the seats. Many of the people they tortured never came out of that room – others stumbled out, covered in blood.”

She tells of prisoners being given injections or medicines and a Chinese nurse who warned her not to take them, although she is unsure what they were.

In March 2018, she was abruptly released and, to her surprise, sent back to her schools. She decided to flee, whatever the danger.

Extraordinary denials

The Chief Witness is a compelling read, but the question implicit in the title is whether Sauytbay is a credible witness.

The Chinese Government has consistently said no. There are posts on the internet combing her testimony for any inconsistencies. Beijing claims Sauytbay is a “fugitive and a liar” who never worked in a camp. It says the camps are vocational centres, not internment camps.

Recently, Beijing has been on a drive to tell its version of how Xinjiang is a “wonderful land”. Globally, it has been rolling out sessions for media and academics, including one in New Zealand organised by the Chinese Embassy, which involved videos of sweeping vistas and a voice-over extolling its cultural and economic progress as well as live crosses to ministers of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region who said that lies were being spread by anti-China forces determined to slander it. Terrorism is being stamped out, minorities lifted from poverty and the region being rapidly developed, reporters were told.

Stuff journalist Paula Penfold, who is investigating New Zealand business links to Xinjiang, later tweeted: “Never in my career have I witnessed a press conference anything like this. It was absolutely extraordinary to the point of farce.”

The strength of Sauytbay’s case rests in her recall of detail and her clear, straightforward voice. Her story seems to have remained consistent from her evidence to the Kazakh court to interviews with journalists and then to the writing of her book.

Her testimony also matches the testimony of other witnesses. Other internees have told media of receiving unknown medication or injections they believed may have been sterilisations. In February, the BBC published accounts of Uighur and Kazakh women who said they had been raped in custody and included Sauytbay’s account.

The book does have its shortcomings. Sauytbay is at her most compelling when she fulfils the role she set herself – as a witness recording a crime. The account becomes weaker when it turns to geopolitical messages about the rise of China.

This weakness is not of Sauytbay’s making – the book is nearly a year old and some events have moved on. Former US president Donald Trump’s administration labelled the situation in Xinjiang “genocide” as a final act in January. So, too, did the incoming administration of Joe Biden.

The US State Department’s latest report, in March, on human rights called the situation in Xinjiang a “crime against humanity”. Our Parliament unanimously declared it believed “severe human rights abuses” are occurring. Sauytbay’s point seems to have been proven.

In the end, Sauytbay’s trauma continues. She says she is harassed by strangers she believes have been recruited by the Chinese Communist Party, ordering her to stay silent. She is haunted by visions of the camp and her health has deteriorated.

“Ever since I was in the prison camp, I sometimes can’t get up from bed. This is because I had to sleep on the cold concrete floor for so long. My limbs and joints hurt from rheumatism. Before, I was perfectly healthy; now, at 43, I’m a sick woman.”

But she says she needs to bear witness to what she has seen.

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