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How I survived a Chinese language ‘re-education’ camp for Uighurs


The man on the telephone mentioned he labored for the oil firm, “In accounting, really”. His voice was unfamiliar to me. At first, I couldn’t make sense of what he was calling about. It was November 2016, and I had been on unpaid depart from the corporate since I left China and moved to France 10 years earlier. There was static on the road; I had a tough time listening to him.

“You should come again to Karamay to signal paperwork regarding your forthcoming retirement, Madame Haitiwaji,” he mentioned. Karamay was town within the western Chinese language province of Xinjiang the place I’d labored for the oil firm for greater than 20 years.

“In that case, I’d wish to grant energy of lawyer,” I mentioned. “A pal of mine in Karamay takes care of my administrative affairs. Why ought to I come again for some paperwork? Why go all that manner for such a trifle? Why now?”

The person had no solutions for me. He merely mentioned he would name me again in two days after wanting into the potential for letting my pal act on my behalf.

My husband, Kerim, had left Xinjiang in 2002 to search for work. He tried first in Kazakhstan, however got here again disillusioned after a yr. Then in Norway. Then France, the place he had utilized for asylum. As soon as he was settled there, our two women and I’d be a part of him.

Kerim had all the time identified he would depart Xinjiang. The thought had taken root even earlier than we have been employed by the oil firm. We had met as college students in Urumqi, the most important metropolis in Xinjiang province, and, as new graduates, had begun in search of work. This was in 1988. Within the job advertisements within the newspapers, there was typically a little bit phrase in small print: No Uighurs. This by no means left him. Whereas I attempted to miss the proof of discrimination that adopted us all over the place, with Kerim, it turned an obsession.

After commencement, we have been provided jobs as engineers on the oil firm in Karamay. We have been fortunate. However then there was the purple envelope episode. At lunar new yr, when the boss handed out the annual bonuses, the purple envelopes given to Uighur staff contained lower than these given to our colleagues who belonged to China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han. Quickly after, all of the Uighurs have been transferred out of the central workplace and moved to the outskirts of city. A small group objected, however I didn’t dare. Just a few months later, when a senior place got here up, Kerim utilized. He had the proper {qualifications} and the seniority. There was no cause he shouldn’t get the place. However the submit went to an worker who belonged to a Han employee who didn’t even have an engineering diploma. One night time in 2000, Kerim got here residence and introduced that he had give up. “I’ve had sufficient,” he mentioned.

What my husband was experiencing was all too acquainted. Since 1955, when communist China annexed Xinjiang as an “autonomous area”, we Uighurs have been seen as a thorn within the facet of the Center Kingdom. Xinjiang is a strategic hall and much too worthwhile for China’s ruling Communist occasion to danger dropping management of it. The occasion has invested an excessive amount of within the “new silk highway”, the infrastructure venture designed to hyperlink China to Europe by way of central Asia, of which our area is a crucial axis. Xinjiang is crucial to President Xi Jinping’s nice plan – that’s, a peaceable Xinjiang, open for enterprise, cleansed of its separatist tendencies and its ethnic tensions. Briefly, Xinjiang with out Uighurs.



A professional-Uighur rally in Hong Kong in 2019. {Photograph}: Jérôme Favre/EPA

My daughters and I fled to France to affix my husband in Could 2006, simply earlier than Xinjiang entered an unprecedented interval of repression. My daughters, 13 and eight on the time, got refugee standing, as was their father. In in search of asylum, my husband had made a clear break with the previous. Acquiring a French passport in impact stripped him of his Chinese language nationality. For me, the prospect of handing over my passport held a horrible implication: I’d by no means be capable to return to Xinjiang. How may I ever say goodbye to my roots, to the family members I’d left behind – my mother and father, my brothers and sisters, their kids? I imagined my mom, getting on in years, dying alone in her village within the northern mountains. Giving up my Chinese language nationality meant giving up on her, too. I couldn’t carry myself to do it. So as an alternative, I’d utilized for a residence allow that was renewable each 10 years.

After the telephone name, my head was buzzing with questions as I regarded across the quiet front room of our condo in Boulogne. Why did that man need me to return to Karamay? Was it a ploy so the police may interrogate me? Nothing like this had occurred to any of the opposite Uighurs I knew in France.

The person referred to as again two days later. “Granting energy of lawyer won’t be potential, Madame Haitiwaji. You should come to Karamay in particular person.” I gave in. In spite of everything, it was solely a matter of some paperwork.

“Advantageous. I’ll be there as quickly as I can,” I mentioned.

After I hung up, a shiver ran down my backbone. I dreaded going again to Xinjiang. Kerim had been doing his greatest to reassure me for 2 days now, however I had a nasty feeling about it. Presently of yr, Karamay metropolis was within the grip of a brutal winter. Gusts of icy wind howled down the avenues, between the outlets, homes and condo buildings. Just a few bundled-up figures braved the weather, hugging the partitions, however on the entire, there was not a soul to be seen. However what I feared most of all have been the ever-stricter measures regulating Xinjiang. Anybody who set foot exterior their residence may very well be arrested for no cause in any respect.

That wasn’t new, however the despotism had grow to be extra pronounced for the reason that Urumqi riots in 2009, an explosion of violence between town’s Uighur and Han populations, which left 197 individuals lifeless. The occasion marked a turning level within the current historical past of the area. Later, the Chinese language Communist occasion would blame the complete ethnic group for these horrible acts, justifying its repressive insurance policies by claiming that Uighur households have been a hotbed of radical Islam and separatism.

The summer season of 2016 noticed the doorway of a major new participant within the lengthy battle between our ethnic group and the Communist occasion. Chen Quanguo, who had made his repute imposing draconian surveillance measures in Tibet, was named head of Xinjiang province. Along with his arrival, the repression of Uighurs escalated dramatically. Hundreds have been despatched to “faculties” constructed nearly in a single day in the course of the desert. These have been often known as “transformation via training” camps. Detainees have been despatched there to be brainwashed – and worse.

I didn’t wish to return, however all the identical, I made a decision Kerim was proper: there was no cause for me to fret. The journey would solely take a number of weeks. “They’ll undoubtedly pull you in for questioning, however don’t panic. That’s fully regular,” he reassured me.


A few days after I landed in China, on the morning of 30 November 2016, I went to the oil firm workplace in Karamay to signal the vaunted paperwork associated to my upcoming retirement. Within the workplace with its flaking partitions sat the accountant, a sour-voiced Han, and his secretary, hunched behind a display screen.

The subsequent stage passed off in Kunlun police station, a 10-minute drive from the corporate head workplace. On the best way, I ready my solutions to the questions I used to be prone to be requested. I attempted to metal myself. After leaving my belongings on the entrance desk, I used to be led to a slim, soulless room: the interrogation room. I’d by no means been in a single earlier than. A desk separated the policemen’s two chairs from my very own. The quiet hum of the heater, the poorly cleaned whiteboard, the pallid lighting: these set the scene. We mentioned the explanations I left for France, my jobs at a bakery and a cafeteria within the enterprise district of Paris, La Défense.

Then one of many officers shoved a photograph underneath my nostril. It made my blood boil. It was a face I knew in addition to my very own – these full cheeks, that slender nostril. It was my daughter Gulhumar. She was posing in entrance of the Place du Trocadéro in Paris, bundled up in her black coat, the one I’d given her. Within the picture, she was smiling, a miniature East Turkestan flag in her hand, a flag the Chinese language authorities had banned. To Uighurs, that flag symbolises the area’s independence motion. The event was one of many demonstrations organised by the French department of the World Uighur Congress, which represents Uighurs in exile and speaks out in opposition to Chinese language repression in Xinjiang.

Members of the Uighur community and supporters demonstrate near the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 2020.



Members of the Uighur neighborhood and supporters display close to the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 2020. {Photograph}: Mohammed Badra/EPA

Whether or not you’re politicised or not, such gatherings in France are above all an opportunity for the neighborhood to get collectively, very similar to birthdays, Eid and the spring pageant of Nowruz. You possibly can go to protest repression in Xinjiang, but in addition, as Gulhumar did, to see associates and meet up with the neighborhood of exiles. On the time, Kerim was a frequent attender. The ladies went a few times. I by no means did. Politics isn’t my factor. Since leaving Xinjiang, I’d solely grown much less .

Abruptly, the officer slammed his fist on the desk.

“You recognize her, don’t you?”

“Sure. She’s my daughter.”

“Your daughter’s a terrorist!”

“No. I don’t know why she was at that demonstration.”

I saved repeating, “I don’t know, I don’t know what she was doing there, she wasn’t doing something improper, I swear! My daughter just isn’t a terrorist! Neither is my husband!”

I can’t keep in mind the remainder of the interrogation. All I keep in mind is that picture, their aggressive questions, and my futile replies. I don’t know the way lengthy it went on for. I do not forget that when it was over, I mentioned, irritably: “Can I’m going now? Are we finished right here?” Then one in every of them mentioned: “No, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, we’re not finished.”


‘Right! Left! Comfortable!” There have been 40 of us within the room, all girls, sporting blue pyjamas. It was a nondescript rectangular classroom. A giant metallic shutter, perforated with tiny holes that permit the sunshine in, hid the skin world from us. Eleven hours a day, the world was decreased to this room. Our slippers squeaked on linoleum. Two Han troopers relentlessly saved time as we marched up and down the room. This was referred to as “bodily training”. In actuality, it was tantamount to navy coaching.

Our exhausted our bodies moved via the house in unison, backwards and forwards, facet to facet, nook to nook. When the soldier bellowed “Comfortable!” in Mandarin, our regiment of prisoners froze. He ordered us to stay nonetheless. This might final half an hour, or simply as typically a complete hour, or much more. When it did, our legs started to prickle throughout with pins and needles. Our our bodies, nonetheless heat and stressed, struggled to not sway within the moist warmth. We may odor our personal foul breath. We have been panting like cattle. Generally, one or one other of us would faint. If she didn’t come spherical, a guard would yank her to her ft and slap her awake. If she collapsed once more, he would drag her out of the room, and we’d by no means see her once more. Ever. At first, this shocked me, however now I used to be used to it. You will get used to something, even horror.

It was now June 2017, and I’d been right here for 3 days. After nearly 5 months within the Karamay police cells, between interrogations and random acts of cruelty – at one stage I used to be chained to my mattress for 20 days as punishment, although I by no means knew what for – I used to be advised I’d be going to “college”. I had by no means heard of those mysterious faculties, or the programs they provided. The federal government has constructed them to “appropriate” Uighurs, I used to be advised. The ladies who shared my cell mentioned it could be like a standard college, with Han lecturers. She mentioned that when we had handed, the scholars could be free to go residence.

This “college” was in Baijiantan, a district on the outskirts of Karamay. After leaving the police cells, that was all the knowledge I’d managed to glean, from an indication caught in a dried ditch the place a number of empty plastic luggage have been drifting about. Apparently, the coaching was to final a fortnight. After that, the lessons on idea would start. I didn’t know the way I used to be going to carry out. How had I not damaged down already? Baijiantan was a no man’s land from which three buildings rose, every the dimensions of a small airport. Past the barbed-wire fence, there was nothing however desert so far as the attention may see.

Bound and blindfolded Uighur inmates at one of China’s re-education camps.



Sure and blindfolded Uighur inmates at one in every of China’s re-education camps. {Photograph}: Battle on Freedom

On my first day, feminine guards led me to a dormitory stuffed with beds, mere planks of numbered wooden. There was already one other lady there: Nadira, Bunk No 8. I used to be assigned Bunk No 9.

Nadira confirmed me across the dormitory, which had the heady odor of contemporary paint: the bucket for doing your small business, which she kicked wrathfully; the window with its metallic shutter all the time closed; the 2 cameras panning backwards and forwards in excessive corners of the room. That was it. No mattress. No furnishings. No rest room paper. No sheets. No sink. Simply two of us within the gloom and the bang of heavy cell doorways slamming shut.

This was no college. It was a re-education camp, with navy guidelines, and a transparent want to interrupt us. Silence was enforced, however, bodily taxed to the restrict, we now not felt like speaking anyway. Over time, our conversations dwindled. Our days have been punctuated by the screech of whistles on waking, at mealtime, at bedtime. Guards all the time had an eye fixed on us; there was no method to escape their watchfulness, no method to whisper, wipe your mouth, or yawn for worry of being accused of praying. It was in opposition to the principles to show down meals, for worry of being referred to as an “Islamist terrorist”. The wardens claimed our meals was halal.

At night time, I collapsed on my bunk in a stupor. I had misplaced all sense of time. There was no clock. I guessed on the time of day from how chilly or scorching it felt. The guards terrified me. We hadn’t seen daylight since we arrived – all of the home windows have been blocked by these damned metallic shutters. We have been surrounded by desert so far as the attention may see. Although one of many policemen had promised I’d be given a telephone, I hadn’t been. Who knew I used to be being held right here? Had my sister been notified, or Kerim and Gulhumar? It was a waking nightmare. Beneath the emotionless gaze of the safety cameras, I couldn’t even confide in my fellow detainees. I used to be drained, so drained. I couldn’t even assume any extra.

The camp was an unlimited labyrinth the place guards led us round in teams by dormitory. To go to the showers, the lavatory, the classroom, or the canteen, we have been escorted down a sequence of infinite fluorescent-lit hallways. Even a second’s privateness was unimaginable. At both finish of the hallways, computerized safety doorways sealed off the maze like airlocks. One factor was for certain: all the pieces right here was new. The reek of paint from the spotless partitions was a relentless reminder. It appeared just like the premises of a manufacturing unit, however I didn’t but have a deal with on simply how massive it was.

The sheer variety of guards and different feminine prisoners we handed as we have been moved round led me to consider this camp was large. Day by day, I noticed new faces, zombie-like, with luggage underneath the eyes. By the tip of the primary day, there had been seven of us in our cell; after three days there have been 12. Somewhat fast maths: I’ve counted 16 cell teams, together with mine, every with 12 bunks, full up … that made for nearly 200 detainees at Baijiantan. 2 hundred girls torn from their households. 2 hundred lives locked up till additional discover. And the camp simply saved filling up.

You might inform the brand new arrivals from their distraught faces. They nonetheless tried to satisfy your eyes within the hallway. Those who’d been there longer regarded down at their ft. They shuffled round in shut ranks, like robots. They snapped to consideration with out batting an eye fixed, when a whistle ordered them to. Good God, what had been finished to make them that manner?


I’d thought the idea lessons would carry us a little bit of aid from the bodily coaching, however they have been even worse. The instructor was all the time watching us, and slapped us each probability she received. In the future, one in every of my classmates, a girl in her 60s, shut her eyes, certainly from exhaustion or worry. The instructor gave her a brutal slap. “Suppose I don’t see you praying? You’ll be punished!” The guards dragged her violently from the room. An hour later, she got here again with one thing she had written: her self-criticism. The instructor made her learn it out loud to us. She obeyed, ashen-faced, then sat down once more. All she’d finished was shut her eyes.

After a number of days, I understood what individuals meant by “brainwashing”. Each morning, a Uighur teacher would come into our silent classroom. A girl of our personal ethnicity, instructing us the right way to be Chinese language. She handled us like wayward residents that the occasion needed to re-educate. I questioned what she considered all this. Did she assume something in any respect? The place was she from? How had she ended up right here? Had she herself been re-educated earlier than doing this work?

At her sign, all of us stood up as one. “Lao shi hao!” This greeting to the instructor kicked off 11 hours of every day instructing. We recited a type of pledge of allegiance to China: “Thanks to our nice nation. Thanks to our occasion. Thanks to our expensive President Xi Jinping.” Within the night, an identical model ended the lesson: “I want for my nice nation to develop and have a shiny future. I want for all ethnicities to kind a single nice nation. I want good well being to President Xi Jinping. Lengthy dwell President Xi Jinping.”

The Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center north of Kashgar, Xinjiang, believed to be a re-education facility.



The Artux Metropolis Vocational Abilities Schooling Coaching Service Middle north of Kashgar, Xinjiang, believed to be a re-education facility. {Photograph}: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty

Glued to our chairs, we repeated our classes like parrots. They taught us the wonderful historical past of China – a sanitised model, cleansed of abuses. On the quilt of the guide we got was inscribed “re-education programme”. It contained nothing however tales of the highly effective dynasties and their superb conquests, and the nice achievements of the Communist occasion. It was much more politicised and biased than the instructing at Chinese language universities. Within the early days, it made me giggle. Did they actually assume they have been going to interrupt us with a number of pages of propaganda?

However as the times glided by, fatigue set in like an outdated enemy. I used to be exhausted, and my agency resolve to withstand was on everlasting maintain. I attempted to not give in, however college went steamrolling on. It rolled proper over our aching our bodies. So this was brainwashing – entire days spent repeating the identical idiotic phrases. As if that weren’t sufficient, we needed to do an hour of additional research after dinner within the night earlier than going to mattress. We’d evaluate our endlessly repeated classes one final time. Each Friday, we had an oral and written take a look at. By turns, beneath the cautious eye of the camp leaders, we might recite the communist stew we’d been served up.

On this manner, our short-term reminiscence turned each our best ally and our worst enemy. It enabled us to soak up and regurgitate volumes of historical past and declarations of loyal citizenship, so we may keep away from the general public humiliation dished out by the instructor. However on the similar time, it weakened our crucial skills. It took away the reminiscences and ideas that bind us to life. After some time I may now not image clearly the faces of Kerim and my daughters. We have been labored till we have been nothing greater than dumb animals. Nobody advised us how lengthy this might go on.


How even to start the story of what I went via in Xinjiang? inform my family members that I lived on the mercy of police violence, of Uighurs like me who, due to the standing their uniforms gave them, may do as they wished with us, our our bodies and souls? Of women and men whose brains had been completely washed – robots stripped of humanity, zealously implementing orders, petty bureaucrats working underneath a system through which those that don’t denounce others are themselves denounced, and those that don’t punish others are themselves punished. Persuaded that we have been enemies to be overwhelmed down – traitors and terrorists – they took away our freedom. They locked us up like animals someplace away from the remainder of the world, out of time: in camps.

Within the “transformation-through-education” camps, life and demise don’t imply the identical factor as they do elsewhere. 100 occasions over I believed, when the footfalls of guards woke us within the night time, that our time had come to be executed. When a hand viciously pushed clippers throughout my cranium, and different palms snatched away the tufts of hair that fell on my shoulders, I shut my eyes, blurred with tears, pondering my finish was close to, that I used to be being readied for the scaffold, the electrical chair, drowning. Loss of life lurked in each nook. When the nurses grabbed my arm to “vaccinate” me, I believed they have been poisoning me. In actuality, they have been sterilising us. That was once I understood the tactic of the camps, the technique being applied: to not kill us in chilly blood, however to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that nobody would discover.

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We have been ordered to disclaim who we have been. To spit on our personal traditions, our beliefs. To criticise our language. To insult our personal individuals. Girls like me, who emerged from the camps, are now not who we as soon as have been. We’re shadows; our souls are lifeless. I used to be made to consider that my family members, my husband and my daughter, have been terrorists. I used to be so far-off, so alone, so exhausted and alienated, that I nearly ended up believing it. My husband, Kerim, my daughters Gulhumar and Gulnigar – I denounced your “crimes”. I begged forgiveness from the Communist occasion for atrocities that neither you nor I dedicated. I remorse all the pieces I mentioned that dishonoured you. Right this moment I’m alive, and I wish to proclaim the reality. I don’t know if you’ll settle for me, I don’t know for those who’ll forgive me.

How can I start to inform you what occurred right here?


I was held within the camp at Baijiantan for 2 years. Throughout that point, everybody round me – the cops who got here to interrogate prisoners, plus the guards, lecturers and tutors – tried to make me consider the large lie with out which China couldn’t have justified its re-education venture: that Uighurs are terrorists, and thus that I, Gulbahar, as a Uighur who had been dwelling in exile in France for 10 years, was a terrorist. Wave after wave of propaganda crashed down upon me, and because the months glided by, I started to lose a part of my sanity. Bits of my soul shattered and broke off. I’ll by no means recuperate them.

Throughout violent interrogations by the police, I kowtowed underneath the blows – a lot in order that I even made false confessions. They managed to persuade me that the earlier I owned as much as my crimes, the earlier I’d be capable to depart. Exhausted, I lastly gave in. I had no different selection. Nobody can struggle in opposition to themselves for ever. Irrespective of how tirelessly you battle brainwashing, it does its insidious work. All want and fervour desert you. What choices do you have got left? A gradual, painful descent into demise, or submission. Should you play at submission, for those who feign dropping your psychological energy battle in opposition to the police, then no less than, regardless of all of it, you grasp on to the shard of lucidity that reminds you who you might be.

I didn’t consider a phrase of what I used to be saying to them. I merely did my greatest to be an excellent actor.

On 2 August 2019, after a brief trial, earlier than an viewers of just some individuals, a decide from Karamay pronounced me harmless. I barely heard his phrases. I listened to the sentence as if it have been nothing to do with me. I used to be enthusiastic about all of the occasions I had asserted my innocence, all these nights I had tossed and turned on my bunk, enraged that nobody would consider me. And I used to be enthusiastic about all these different occasions once I had admitted the issues they accused me of, all of the pretend confessions I had made, all these lies.

That they had sentenced me to seven years of re-education. That they had tortured my physique and introduced my thoughts to the sting of insanity. And now, after reviewing my case, a decide had determined that no, in precise truth, I used to be harmless. I used to be free to go.

Some names have been modified. Translated by Edward Gauvin. That is an edited extract from Rescapée du Goulag Chinois (Survivor of the Chinese language Gulag) by Gulbahar Haitiwaji, co-authored with Rozenn Morgat and printed by Editions des Equateurs

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