Inside China's 're-education' camps

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Haaretz Magazine. Used with permission.

Twenty prisoners live in one small room. They are handcuffed, their heads are shaved, every move is monitored by ceiling cameras. A bucket in the corner of the room is their toilet. The daily routine begins at 6 a.m. They are learning Chinese, memorizing propaganda songs, and confessing to invented sins. They range in age from teenagers to elderly. Their meals are meager: cloudy soup and a slice of bread.

Torture — metal nails, fingernails pulled out, electric shocks — takes place in the “black room.” Pun­ish­ment is a constant. The prisoners are forced to take pills and get injections. It’s for disease prevention, the staff tells them, but in reality they are the human subjects of medical experiments. Many of the inmates suffer from cognitive decline. Some of the men become sterile. Women are routinely raped.

This is life in China’s re-education camps, as reported in rare testimony provided by Sayragul Sauytbay (pronounced Say-ra-gul Saut-bay, as in “bye”), a teacher who escaped from China and was granted asylum in Sweden. Few prisoners have succeeded in getting out of the camps and telling their story. Sauytbay’s testimony is even more extraordinary, because during her incarceration she was compelled to be a teacher in the camp. China wants to sell its camps to the world as places of educational programs and vocational retraining, but Sauytbay is one of the few people who can offer credible, firsthand testimony about what really goes on in the camps.

I met with Sauytbay three times, once in a meeting arranged by a Swedish Uighur association and twice, after she agreed to tell her story to Haaretz, in personal interviews that took place in Stockholm and lasted several hours, all together. Sauytbay spoke only Kazakh, and so we communicated via a translator. During most of the time we spoke, she was composed, but at the height of her recounting of the horror, tears welled up in her eyes.

She is 43, a Muslim of Kazakh descent, who grew up in Mongolküre County, near the Chinese-Kazakh border. Like hundreds of thousands of others, most of them Uighurs, a minority ethnic Turkic group, she fell victim to China’s suppression of every sign of an isolationist thrust in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. A large number of camps have been established in that region over the past two years, as part of the regime’s struggle against what it terms the Three Evils: terrorism, separatism, and extremism. According to Western estimates, between one million and two million of the province’s residents have been incarcerated in camps during Beijing’s campaign of oppression.

As a young woman, Sauytbay completed medical studies and worked in a hospital. Subsequently, she turned to education and was employed in the service of the state, in charge of five preschools. Even though she was in a settled situation, she and her husband had planned for years to leave China with their two children and move to neighboring Kazakhstan. But the plan encountered delays, and in 2014 the authorities began collecting the passports of civil servants, Sauytbay’s among them. Two years later, just before passports from the entire population were confiscated, her husband was able to leave the country with the children. Sauytbay hoped to join them in Kazakhstan as soon as she received an exit visa, but one never arrived.

“At the end of 2016, the police began arresting people at night, secretly,” Sauytbay related. “It was a socially and politically uncertain period. Cameras appeared in every public space; the security forces stepped up their presence. At one stage, DNA samples were taken from all members of minorities in the region and our telephone SIM cards were taken from us.”

“In January 2017, they started to take people who had relatives abroad,” Sauytbay says. “They came to my house at night, put a black sack on my head, and brought me to a place that looked like a jail. I was interrogated by police officers, who wanted to know where my husband and children were, and why they had gone to Kazakhstan. At the end of the interrogation I was ordered to tell my husband to come home, and I was forbidden to talk about the ­interrogation.”

Sauytbay had heard that in similar cases people who returned to China had been arrested immediately and sent to a camp. With that in mind, she broke off contact with her husband and children after her release. She was repeatedly taken in for nocturnal interrogations and falsely accused of various offenses. “I had to be strong,” she says. “Every day when I woke up, I thanked God that I was still alive.”

In November 2017, I was ordered to report to an address in the city’s suburbs, to leave a message at a phone number I had been given, and to wait for the police.” After Sauytbay arrived at the designated place and left the message, four armed men in uniform arrived, again covered her head, and bundled her into a vehicle. Following an hour’s journey, she arrived in an unfamiliar place that she soon learned was a “re-education” camp, which would become her prison in the months that followed. She was told she had been brought there in order to teach Chinese and was immediately made to sign a document that set forth her duties and the camp’s rules.

“I was very much afraid to sign,” Sauytbay recalls. “It said there that if I did not fulfill my task, or if I did not obey the rules, I would get the death penalty. The document stated that it was forbidden to speak with the prisoners, forbidden to laugh, forbidden to cry, and forbidden to answer questions from anyone. I signed because I had no choice, and then I received a uniform and was taken to a tiny bedroom with a concrete bed and a thin, plastic mattress. There were five cameras on the ceiling — one in each corner and another one in the middle.”

The other inmates, those who weren’t burdened with teaching duties, endured more stringent conditions. “There were almost 20 people in a room of 16 square meters [172 square feet],” she says. “There were cameras in their rooms too, and also in the corridor. Each room had a plastic bucket for a toilet. Every prisoner was given two minutes a day to use the toilet, and the bucket was emptied only once a day. The prisoners wore uniforms and their heads were shaved. Their hands and feet were shackled all day, except when they had to write. Even in sleep they were shackled, and they were required to sleep on their right side — ­anyone who turned over was punished.”

Sauytbay had to teach the prisoners — who were Uighur or Kazakh speakers — Chinese and Communist Party propaganda songs. There were specified hours for learning propaganda songs and reciting slogans from posters: “I love China,” “Thank you to the Communist Party,” “I am Chinese,” and “I love Xi Jinping” — China’s president. Sauytbay estimates that there were about 2,500 inmates in the camp. The oldest person she met was a woman of 84; the youngest, a boy of 13. “There were schoolchildren and workers, businessmen and writers, nurses and doctors, artists and simple peasants who had never been to the city.”

The camp’s commanders set aside a room for torture, Sauytbay relates, which the inmates dubbed the black room because it was forbidden to talk about it explicitly. “There were all kinds of tortures there. Some prisoners were hung on the wall and beaten with electrified truncheons. There were prisoners who were made to sit on a chair of nails. I saw people return from that room covered in blood. Some came back without fingernails.”

On one occasion, Sauytbay herself was punished. “One night, about 70 new prisoners were brought to the camp,” she recalls. “One of them was an elderly Kazakh woman who hadn’t even had time to take off her shoes. She spotted me as being Kazakh and asked for my help. She begged me to get her out of there, and she embraced me. I did not reciprocate her embrace, but I was punished anyway. I was beaten and deprived of food for two days.”

Sauytbay says she witnessed medical procedures being carried out on inmates with no justification. She thinks they were done as part of human experiments that were carried out in the camp systematically. “The inmates would be given pills or injections. They were told it was to prevent diseases, but the nurses told me secretly that the pills were dangerous and that I should not take them.”

“The pills had different kinds of effects. Some prisoners were cognitively weakened. Women stopped getting their period and men became sterile.” (That, at least, was a widely circulated rumor.)

The fate of the women in the camp was particularly harsh, Sauytbay notes: “On an everyday basis the policemen took the pretty girls with them, and they didn’t come back to the rooms all night. The police had unlimited power. They could take whomever they wanted. There were also cases of gang rape. In one of the classes I taught, one of those victims entered half an hour after the start of the lesson. The police ordered her to sit down, but she just couldn’t do it, so they took her to the black room for punishment.”

Tears stream down Sauytbay’s face when she tells the grimmest story from her time in the camp. “One day, the police told us they were going to check to see whether our re-education was succeeding, whether we were developing properly. They took 200 inmates outside, men and women, and told one of the women to confess her sins. She stood before us and declared that she had been a bad person, but now that she had learned Chinese she had become a better person. When she was done speaking, the policemen ordered her to disrobe and simply raped her one after the other, in front of everyone. While they were raping her, they checked to see how we were reacting. People who turned their head or closed their eyes, and those who looked angry or shocked, were taken away and we never saw them again. It was awful. I will never forget the feeling of helplessness, of not being able to help her. After that happened, it was hard for me to sleep at night.”

Sayragul Sauytbay’s story took a surprising turn in March 2018, when with no prior announcement she was informed that she was being released. Again her head was covered with a black sack, again she was bundled into a vehicle, but this time she was taken home. At first the orders were clear: She was to resume her former position as director of five preschools in her home region of Aksu, and she was instructed not to say a word about what she had been through. On her third day back on the job, however, she was fired and again brought in for interrogation. She was accused of treason and of maintaining ties with people abroad. The punishment for people like her, she was told, was re-education, only this time she would be a regular inmate in a camp and remain there for a period of one to three years.

“I was told that before being sent to the camp, I should return home so as to show my successor the ropes,” she says. “At this stage I hadn’t seen my children for 2½ years, and I missed them very much. Having already been in a camp, I knew I would die there, and I could not accept that.”

Sauytbay decided that she was not going back to a camp. “I said to myself that if I was already fated to die, at least I was going to try to escape. It was worth my while to take the risk because of the chance that I would be able to see my children. There were police stationed outside my apartment, and I didn’t have a passport, but even so, I tried. I got out through a window and fled to the neighbors’ house. From there I took a taxi to the border with Kazakhstan, and I managed to sneak across. In Kazakhstan I found my family. My dream came true. I could not have received a greater gift.”

But the saga did not end there: Immediately after her emotional reunion with her family, she was arrested by Kazakhstan’s secret service and incarcerated for nine months for having crossed the border illegally. Three times she submitted a request for asylum, and three times she was turned down; she faced the danger of being extradited to China. But after relatives contacted several media outlets, international organizations intervened, and in the end she was granted asylum in Sweden.

“I will never forget the camp,” Sauytbay says. “I cannot forget the eyes of the prisoners, expecting me to do something for them. They are innocent. I have to tell their story, to tell about the darkness they are in, about their suffering.”

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