By Gulbahar Haitiwaji
JANUARY 23, 2022
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? Physically and mentally, I became a ghost.
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. Death lurked in every corner.
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. The theory classes which replaced the physical training were even worse. The teacher was always watching us. She slapped us every chance she got.
At her signal, we all stood up as one. Lao shi hao! This greeting to the teacher kicked off 11 hours of daily ‘education’. We recited a kind of pledge of allegiance to China: ‘Thank you to our great country. Thank you to our Party. Thank you to our dear President Xi Jinping.’
Glued to our chairs, we echoed these words like parrots. We were instructed in China’s glorious history, washed clean of all its abuses. At first, it made me laugh. Did they really think they could break us with a few pages of propaganda? But the days went by, I was exhausted and my resolve to resist was put on permanent hold.
The Baijiantan camp is a massive labyrinth of endless fluorescent-lit hallways. At their far ends, automatic security doors sealed off the maze like airlocks.
Only the sheer number of prisoners and guards whose paths we crossed gave me an inkling of just how enormous the camp really was. Every day, I saw new faces, zombie-like, bags under the eyes.
Cut off from the rest of the world, my perseverance crumbled away. The exhausting routine repeated itself infinitely, becoming one all-encompassing, gruelling day.
On the outside, in Xinjiang, the repression was speeding up.
Regulations ordered no beards, no headscarves, no giving your children Uighur names, no using WhatsApp, no communicating with anyone abroad, no taking part in traditional religious ceremonies.
Under the guise of a massive public health programme, provincial authorities began collecting DNA, fingerprints, retinal scans and blood types for millions of citizens. The people of Xinjiang were all suspects.
For two years, while I’d been wasting away, my daughter, Gulhumar, had been working like a fiend for my survival and release. She reached out to everyone we’d known in Xinjiang: family, friends, acquaintances. She tirelessly scrutinised the Chinese internet for proof of the camps’ existence.
After dead-end upon dead-end, in winter 2017, my file had ended up at the French Foreign Ministry in Paris. An acquaintance had put Gulhumar in touch with the Ambassador for Human Rights there. Gulhumar was promised that my case would be treated as if I were a citizen of France.
In Beijing, delicate negotiations began between the French Foreign Ministry and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In early 2018, a stunned world found out about the ‘schools’ in Xinjiang. China’s perfect surface was cracking as accounts from survivors started popping up and images from whistleblowers made their way around the world.
That November, the day of my trial finally arrived. I was reminded that I ought to feel lucky, that my crimes were worthy of prison and that, in its largesse, the court was sending me to a better place: a school where I could learn.
My ears were buzzing, everything was spinning, the whole world had been reduced to two words: seven years. Seven years.
I decided to let myself die. The idea had been stirring in me for a long time; my sentence only encouraged me. That was when a series of events plunged me into a state of fear and hope, at the same time.
In March 2019, I was interrogated ten hours a day for six days until, eventually, I gave in. Over and over and over again, my interrogator made me say that my husband was part of a terrorist organisation.
I was then ushered into a room where a group of women dyed my short, limp locks and buzzed around my face with mascara, lipstick and eye shadow.
‘Apparently, you were very co-operative during your interrogation. You’re going to say everything you said all over again but this time, for the camera,’ I was told.
Other women prisoners had told me about police techniques for filming a confession. Once they had it on tape, they could dangle your own words over your head at any time, as blackmail.
As they filmed me, I begged my husband to leave the Uighur group and pledge loyalty to China. Afterwards I wept, alone in a cell. China had stolen my very thoughts from me. As a reward for my ‘confession’, I was taken to a new building, where I was given cooked meals, new clothes and a soft bed, while police officers took turns keeping watch over me day and night.
I was also allowed to call my family in France. But I would have to lie. Regurgitate the propaganda of the Communist Party, which resorted to the most twisted tactics to keep the fate of Uighurs in China hidden.
The police began making me rehearse my lines to tell my family. I only remember the general thrust:
‘I’m doing well, don’t worry, I rented an apartment. I’m alone. Don’t worry.’
Were the police using the phone call to try to entrap my family? Would they realise I was being forced to spout a pack of lies?
Would the deafening silence all around me during the call tip them off that I wasn’t alone, that I was on speakerphone surrounded by police officers busy scribbling down my husband’s and my daughter’s words in notebooks?
On hearing my voice, my husband was shaking like a leaf. He choked out: ‘Where are you? We’ve been doing everything we can to free you.’
He was well versed in police interrogation techniques from Xinjiang and knew that I was surrounded by half a dozen party henchmen. My silences answered all his questions.
Intelligence services in Xinjiang were interested in my family’s very public search for me.
In France, my daughter, Gulhumar, had been talking to reporters about me; she was demanding that China release me. On TV, she was openly condemning ‘re-education’ camps. My husband was sharing articles on his Facebook page. A petition was circulating online.
My room became the field headquarters for a Chinese intelligence operation directed against my own family and I was part of it.
If I ever got out of here and went back to my quiet life in Boulogne, I’d have to tell my family about what had happened to me here in Xinjiang. It was all far too horrible to hear about, far too hard a story to tell. And yet I would have to.
During another call home, I was made to tell my daughter: ‘Do not speak about the Uighurs and criticise the Chinese government in the media any more. This is very serious. If you ever want to see me, you must stop.’
As a result, she and my husband had to let my case fall off the radar of the French media and authorities. Then and only then would I be sent discreetly back to France. I caved in to police violence, knuckled under. I even signed a false confession.
You can’t fight off brainwashing forever. Once you’ve fought it with dignity, all desire and willpower desert you. What options do you have left? A slow, excruciating slide toward death or… submission. First in jail, and then in the camp, my soul splintered and fragments drifted off, never to be seen again.
The Chinese authorities believed I was sincere in my repentance. Me, I never believed a single word of what I was made to say.
On August 2, 2019, having been forced to sign another confession, I was pronounced innocent by a judge in Karamay. I was free to return to France. But for the three years of my life that had been stolen from me, I heard no apologies.
My entire being should have been filled with intense happiness. And yet, the complete opposite was the case. I was worried my family wouldn’t recognise me. I wasn’t the same person any more. When my plane landed at Paris airport, the runway was bathed in golden light. How would I pick it up again with my family?
Part of my soul was still wandering the cold hallways at Baijiantan. China is far from halting its concentration camps in Xinjiang. To date, neither the UN nor any other international delegation has been able to see for themselves the scope of the genocide.
Those unspeakable things I saw - prisoners hollowed-out shells of themselves, all those people reduced to less than human beings by the brutal shock of repression - how could I ever forget them?
© Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Rozenn Morgat, 2022