As Muslims globally celebrate the holy month of Ramadan with their families, the Uyghur people — many of whom practice Islam — are suffering genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (“Uyghur Region”).
Located in northwest China, the region — also referred to as East Turkestan by locals — is home to several ethnic groups, most notably the Uyghurs. Today, it’s estimated that two million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic-Muslim ethnic groups are arbitrarily detained in China’s mass network of concentration camps, where they are subject to pervasive state surveillance, forced interrogations, political indoctrination, torture, and forced labor. Since January 2021, several democracies — including the United States, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom — have recognized China’s actions as genocide.
On April 3, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) welcomed two courageous camp survivors, Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Qelbinur Sidik, and our friends at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) — Executive Director Omer Kanat and Director of Global Advocacy Louisa Greve — to our office to learn more about the crisis.
Gulbahar Haitiwaji was living in France when she was lured back to China, enduring 2 years in the camps and half a year under house arrest. She is the author of “How I Survived a Chinese ‘Reeducation’ Camp,” the first memoir by a Uyghur woman about surviving the horrors of the camps. Qelbinur Sidik, an ethnic Uzbek, was a Mandarin language teacher forced to teach at the camps,witnessing countless atrocities.
Since fleeing China, both women have refused to stay silent about what they experienced and witnessed inside the concentration camps. Haitiwaji’s daughter, Gulhamar Haitiwaji, facilitated the meeting’s interpretation, and UHRP provided additional insight throughout the conversation. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Remarks from Qelbinur Sidik:
I was forced to teach in a camp. There were about 7,000 men there — with 13 to 14 in a cell. They slept on the floor. They didn’t take a shower at all in the six months I was teaching there. There were specific time slots to go to the toilet. For food, they had steamed bread and soup.
They had handcuffs and chains on their feet. To get out of the cell, they had to crawl on the floor because the door couldn’t open widely since it was chained to the wall. They had to crawl to class and during break. They were regularly taken to interrogation sessions and we could clearly hear them being tortured. The four types of tools of torture were electric batons, electric helmet, electric gloves, and the tiger chair.
I was then transferred to a women’s center. There were almost 10,000 women inside. Ninety percent of them were between ages 17-40. All the women had shaved heads. They wore a gray uniform, an orange vest, and an assigned number embroidered on it.
They were regularly raped by the police during interrogations. The police put electric batons in their intimate parts. Every Monday, the women received mysterious injections and medication. Afterward, they no longer menstruated and couldn’t breastfeed.
Women living outside the camps also suffered. They are forced to go to health centers to get sterilized. I, too, was forcibly sterilized.
The Chinese government placed one Chinese official in the houses of women outside the camps. This official is called “your twin” or “your relative.” Women are often raped, in their own houses, by these officials. The Chinese government has a “policy of five” for this: Eat together. Sightsee together. Sleep together. Cook together. Learn together.
Remarks from Gulbahar Haitiwaji:
I was born in East Turkestan. My husband went to France in 2002. I joined him in 2006, with our two daughters. In 2016, I was lured to go back to China, where I was locked up for almost three years. I could clearly witness the Chinese government’s ongoing genocide.
They first confiscated my passport. They forced me to sign accusations of causing “public disorders.” They put chains on my feet and put me in a cell.
The conditions were terrible inside the camps. There were cameras everywhere. Every single move was watched by the police. The women inside were aged between 17-70 years old, all innocent. We had chains on our feet, and we were forbidden to speak. There were between 30-40 people in a cell.
We were all assigned numbers. I was No. 9.
Before every interrogation session, they put our arms behind our backs and put handcuffs on our wrists. They put a black bag on our heads and placed us on a tiger chair.
We had 11 hours of classes every day. We had to learn the Chinese language, Chinese law, and Chinese history. Every week, we had to learn one new “red” song. On Fridays, we had tests.
Before class and before meals, we had to first thank three main entities: the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, and Xi Jinping. After class and after meals, we had to thank those three entities again.
We received vaccinations, twice a year. After these vaccines, we no longer received our normal periods.
In 2018, I was transferred to a bigger and newly constructed center because the old camp was overcrowded. When I found out how much investment the Chinese government was putting into all this construction, I realized that this project of China’s is not a short-term one..
When I could finally call my family in France for the first time, I was trained for days beforehand by policemen who dictated what I could or couldn’t say. During the call, six policemen watched me the entire time. If my family members asked me a question that the police hadn’t prepared for me ahead of time, they would write down the answers on a notebook for me to say.
HRF: What is happening inside these camps is so brutal. Are all the guards brainwashed? Were any secretly nice or went against the government’s demands?
Qelbinur Sidik: Not at all. There were no signs of compassion. They constantly watched us, both from inside and outside the camps. They were fully armed and always seemed like they were ready for war.
Gulbahar Hatiwaji: During our time in the camps, we had to pass through 11 iron security doors to enter and exit, with police watching us at every stop.
HRF: How did you get out of China?
Qelbinur Sidik: My daughter lives in the Netherlands. Because of her advocacy abroad, I was able to go in October 2019. It is also thanks to my Uzbek identity; my husband, who is Uyghur, could not join me.
In January 2000, I started to advocate publicly for the Uyghur people. Since then, the Chinese police would harass me and threaten me through WeChat. In 2021, leading up to the Uyghur Tribunal in London, the Chinese police forced my husband to call me via WeChat — to insult me and to force him to divorce with me.
Gulbahar Haitiwaji: Thanks to the French government and my daughter’s advocacy overseas, I was able to leave for France in 2019. Before leaving, a high-ranking police chief told me to stay silent about my experiences. He threatened that he would hurt my family and relatives if I spoke up.
When I came to France, I first decided to speak anonymously to the media and different human rights organizations about my experiences. I eventually decided to write my book, which was published earlier this year. Ever since then, I have been classified as a “terrorist” by the Chinese government and lost contact with all of my family inside China.
UHRP: Those who leave have to sign a lot of documents and promise a “guarantee” to not speak out or insult the Chinese government: “I will not talk about what happened. The wellbeing of my relatives, children, and loved ones in China will depend on my obedience. I promise if you let me go, I will be quiet.”
There are also examples of “guarantees” where people promise they will return to China, or else their relatives in China will lose their jobs, houses, etc. It’s similar to the experiences of North Korean defectors; they knew their entire families would be sent to camps, and face starvation or torture.
HRF: What things are Uyghur communities abroad doing to keep their culture alive?
Qelbinur Sidik: Uyghur schools have been established in almost every European country and in the United States. Second-and-third generation children attend classes on weekends to learn about the Uyghur language, culture and history. Additionally, many Uyghur parents are actively involved in teaching their children about their cultural heritage.
Furthermore, forbidden books on Uyghur history and culture have been edited and republished in Turkey, providing access to important historical and cultural information.
UHRP: Efforts to preserve Uyghur culture and language are entirely self-funded. One of our main requests to the US government is to support us in the preservation of our culture, art, and language in the diaspora. For example, many historical books and cultural items are preserved in Central Asian countries; we have asked the US government to provide us with funds and opportunities to access and redistribute those materials. We would also like to republish books that have been destroyed.
Currently, it’s difficult to find any Uyghur books because many Uyghur intellectuals and cultural elites, who are the gatekeepers of Uyghur culture, are either in the camps or in prison with long-term sentences. Uyghur authors are forbidden from publishing Uyghur-language books; they are only allowed to translate books from Chinese to Uyghur.
It is also worth noting that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) continues to acknowledge China as the protector of our intangible and tangible heritage — even as the Chinese government actively destroys it. The UHRP has a thorough report that provides more specific details.
HRF: How can we ensure more people get out of the camps? Would legal assistance enable more people to get out, or does only political pressure help?
UHRP: We remain committed to rescuing people from the camps, and we’re frustrated by the lack of progress due to the inability of many governments to do so. We have to continue raising awareness and putting pressure on the Chinese government to release all the people in the camps. Pressure, pressure, pressure.
We’re aware that the Chinese government is playing games with the international community. In 2019, they claimed that all those in “re-education camps’ have been released, but most of them were actually transferred to forced labor factories or regular prisons with long-term sentences, often without a fair trial. Like Gulbahar, she was sentenced for seven years.
HRF to Haitiwaji’s daughter, Gulhamar Haitiwaji: We want to hear your story. How did you go about your advocacy in France?
Before she left France, we informed the French government about her trip. We were used to doing that, just in case. At that time, she had lived in France for about 10 years and had gone back to China three to four times to see family. She used to never have any issues going back.
However, this time, we found out that as soon as she arrived her passport was confiscated and she faced a full-day of interrogations. She called us to share that she was really afraid. She told me the police showed her a picture of me attending a demonstration against China while in France, and that this was considered a serious matter.
That’s when we realized that this time was different — and more dangerous. I immediately contacted the French embassy in Beijing, but they told me to wait and see what happens after two weeks, which is how long her trip was initially planned to be.
We waited. And she didn’t come back as planned.
I was going crazy at home — sending emails, calling people, and sharing videos of construction of camps in China. I was trying to tell everyone that these camps are just like the one built by the Nazis, but everyone found it so hard to believe.
After two years, I decided to publicly talk to the media to put pressure on China, and to put more pressure on the French government to hopefully make them accelerate their process. I also started a petition and gathered thousands of signatures.
In the months leading up to her release, we were able to contact each other via phone but there were always policemen standing next to her.
HRF: This is a very interesting time in the United States. There is an increased bi-partisan understanding of the threat China poses. What are some policy priorities at this time? What is at the top of the list right now regarding the next steps on the legislative side?
Qelbinur Sidik: Thanks to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, we were able to come to the US for these two weeks for advocacy. It has been fruitful because we could meet and tell our stories to different congressional members. I’m thankful for those who have voted for legislation against the Chinese government’s actions.
I hope everyone can stop buying Made-in-China products to put more economic pressure on China.
UHRP: The United States’ Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) is effective, but the rest of the world is going to become a dumping ground for forced goods if our major trading partners and like-minded countries continue to be ambivalent on the issue. We hope you can urge the European Commission to take action, as they are being heavily lobbied by companies that engage in forced labor practices.
Another critical issue in the United States is the refugee mandate. We are unable to rescue those detained in camps, so we implore the US government to assist Uyghurs who are under the risk of repatriation in the Middle East, Turkey, Central Asia, Malaysia, and Thailand. There are around five thousand Uyghurs in dire situations and at risk of being deported, detained and even sentenced. Passing legislation on immigration might be a sensitive and delicate issue, but democratic countries certainly have the power to help bring these people back from the brink.
There is also a lack of access to psychiatric care and investments in trauma recovery projects for Uyghurs who have experienced significant trauma due to the persecution they have faced. For instance, many widows and orphans in Turkey have their husbands and parents detained in the camps and are struggling to cope with the resulting emotional distress. It’s crucial to prioritize these trauma recovery projects as they are humanitarian in nature. People who are not involved in politics can all contribute to these efforts.
Donate to the Uyghur Human Rights Project to support their advocacy and research initiatives.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) remains committed to amplifying the voices of people oppressed by authoritarian regimes. HRF is part of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, dedicated to ending forced labor and human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government against the Uyghur population and other Turkic and Muslim-majority people.