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Zhanargul Zhumatai: A Dramatic Interview with an Ethnic Kazakh Camp Survivor Who May Soon “Disappear

Bitter Winter interviewed the 43-year-old artist in Urumqi, where the police is threatening to take her to a psychiatric hospital.

By Ruth Ingram

January 3, 2023

Zhanargul Zhumatai. From Twitter.

“Either kill me or let me go to Kazakhstan. I don’t want to continue in this hell.”

The pleas of Zhanargul Zhumatai speaking to Bitter Winter from her apartment in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang autonomous region, Northwest China were compelling as she waited for the heavy boots to echo up the stairwell and blows to rain down on her door after threats that she would be arrested and returned to captivity. “I just want to live the normal life that is being denied me,” she said, begging the international community to step in and raise her case with the UN, despite knowing that in doing so she might die.

All fears that speaking to a foreign journalist might condemn her further were brushed aside in her desperation to get her SOS out to anyone who might listen. Through tears, the 43-year-old Kazakh, born in China as a member of the large ethnic group of indigenous Kazakhs who have also, with vast numbers of Uyghurs, fallen foul of Beijing’s ruthless clampdowns, explained how her life has become unbearable since her release from two years internment.

Corralled into detention without trial or legal redress in 2017, the much-loved Kazak singer, director, and artist was released a broken woman, after two years and twenty-three nightmarish days in Urumqi’s number two and number three prison and a re-education facility. Rather than leave her alone once her so-called “studies” were complete, there has not been a day since when she has not been brow beaten, harassed or questioned by the authorities, called in for more questioning, threatened or insulted, she told us.

The all-pervasive surveillance machinery sought her out wherever she was. Her ID card marked with her former camp detainee status would cause alarms to go off whenever she went shopping, visited the cinema, wanted to leave town, or visit friends. Normal life became untenable.

Zhanargul loved the arts growing up. She was an accomplished musician and singer and longed for the music and culture of her people to be enjoyed by a wider audience. She travelled to Kazakhstan in 1999 where she studied at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, after which she worked as a journalist in Kazakhstan and set up her own arts company.

On returning to China in 2008, her efforts to pursue national unity through the arts and her many exhibitions and cultural events earned the highest accolades and prizes in the corridors of the CCP. Preserving Kazakh intangible cultural heritage became a passion and the company she started travelled far and wide recording music, folk literature and poetry for posterity.

Zhanargul’s work certificate at the Kazakh National TV. From Twitter.

It was during her travels into the mountains where herders had kept sheep and goats for centuries that she became aware of the injustices they faced in receiving their rightful compensation following land acquisition by the authorities. So-called grassland protection and “poverty alleviation” policies prompted by over grazing, have seen Beijing set targets to rid the country of nomadic farmers, both among Tibetan and Kazakh herders and to transform vast tracts of land into national parks. Certain that unfair payouts were not Central Government’s doing, but corruption at lower levels, she raised the matter with local authorities. This proved to be her undoing.

Around this time the new governor of Xinjiang Chen Quanguo had launched an “anti-terrorism” sweep. For “crimes” as sporting a beard, going to the Mosque, having children studying in Turkey, or reading a book that was on ever lengthening list of forbidden authors, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and Kazakhs were rounded up. For her legal protest, Zhanargul was branded a troublemaker, arrested without warning on September 26th, 2017, and detained until 2019. She never went to court, had legal counsel or recourse to a defense. Police records also indicate having banned software on her phone such as Instagram and Facebook, which incriminated her further.

There she languished in squalid conditions of brutality, cruelty and inhumanity. She was shackled and beaten and the absence of medical facilities for “prisoners” left her broken physically and mentally.

On October 18th, 2019, she was released as mysteriously as she was detained, but not to freedom and a new start. She found that her lovingly nurtured company had been disbanded, her telephone number disconnected, and her funds impounded. Attempts to restart the business proved fruitless due to her “criminal” record, and police pursued her from dawn till dusk. When she realized she had no future in China, she asked for a passport and permission to leave for Kazakhstan, but was told she would first have to sell her house to repay the mortgage. This proved to be an empty promise and on its sale, she found herself not only jobless but homeless.

She is now living with her frail 77-year-old mother, unemployed and unemployable. In her desperation she reached out over the border to a former colleague in Kazakhstan who notified Serikzhan Bilash, exiled leader of the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights Organization who posted her story on social media, for which additional “felony” she is about to be arrested to an uncertain fate.

Zhanargul’s identity card. From Twitter.

On January 2nd, 2023, Urumqi police went from house to house among her relatives accusing Zhanargul of consorting with foreign terrorists and spies. They were told in no uncertain terms to prevent her from slandering the state with her “lies.” They sent her brother to her home with the message that only by voluntarily surrendering herself to the local psychiatric hospital and claiming insanity might she escape “justice.”

Speaking to Bitter Winter, she repeated her resolve to tell her story to the world. “If they come to the door I will not open it,” she said, demanding that they bring officials who will listen to her side of the story. “I will never surrender to a mental hospital,” she added. “I am not mentally ill. I am not a bad person. I am innocent of their crimes,” she stressed. “Please tell the world what they have done to me,” she implored, “before it is too late.”

Her case has now been posted on the Atajurt website, where it will be updated.

Zhanargul Zhumatai, during happier days in China when she was feted and honored by the CCP for her work in promoting ethnic harmony and Kazakh culture.

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