‘For The First Time in my Life,
I Wished I Was Dead’
A Uyghur woman who studied in Turkey relates the abuse she endured on her return to the XUAR.
A Uyghur woman in her 20s from the XUAR’s Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture was forced to attend daily “education” sessions at a local community center for around two months in 2014, spent time in a semi-closed re-education facility, and was held for four days in a political re-education camp after returning home from her studies in Turkey. During a recent interview from exile, she told RFA’s Uyghur Service on condition of anonymity that she had been targeted because she was educated abroad in a country blacklisted by China’s government for its perceived threat of religious “extremism,” and described her experiences in detention.
RFA: What did the authorities make you do after you returned to the XUAR from Turkey?
Former student: I was made to check in once a week. I had to go [to the local police station] and give a report of my activities. Plus, I couldn’t go anywhere outside of Kargilik (Yecheng) county. If I went to visit anyone’s home, I had to give the authorities notice in advance … I was told that I couldn’t go anywhere outside of Kargilik. If I did, my ID card would notify them … everywhere has checkpoints, which we have to use our ID cards to pass … They told me that if my ID card signals them, that would be a reason for me to get picked up and sent to the re-education camp.
They said “we are educating everyone now and you will also have to go there for education. You must be very careful. We are trying to help you … You should just sit at home and only interact with your relatives.” I said I would and that is what I did … During that time, I only went once a week for political studies.
I was supposed to read books from 7:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. The first floor is for the relatives of people in the re-education camps … For hours, one person reads a book and the others write what they hear … It’s all political stuff—mostly about [President] Xi Jinping. There were some articles about our town, like the situation there, and others about things like “The 23 Types of Illegal Religious Activities.”
There were also elementary school kids, with no one caring for them. I gathered them up and took them to the library so that they could read, instead of just running around and playing … What I was doing with the kids caught attention of the community secretary and he liked it very much. The kids used to run around and make trouble, giving them headaches, so the authorities liked what I was doing … and it was a pleasant time for me.
‘Open education’ facility
One day in September, I received a phone call at 7:00 a.m., asking me to come in on a day I wasn’t supposed to be there … The party secretary told a woman to take me somewhere on her motorbike and she dropped me off there. The front entry looked like a jail door. There were two heavily equipped Special Forces police officers all dressed in black, standing there with their guns. When I arrived they unlocked the chains on the door for me.
There was a hall there where I sat. Then, some other people also entered. Most of them were wealthy, and people who had taken a pilgrimage to Mecca or intellectuals … Also, anyone who had a history of traveling outside of China.
The place was an “open education” facility … They treated us very rudely. They always told us, “Because we care for you, we opened this school to prevent you from going down the wrong path. If you comes across a sick person, then you also will get infected. Therefore, you should see this as a treatment session for your infection. This ‘hospital’ is open to you free of charge. You must study here every day from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. You will return home when we allow you to return home.”
One day, I was asked to do the cleaning … The person in charge told me very rudely, “If you don’t clean the window then I will put you in a place that will make you really wish you had” … I said, “What is this? I didn’t do anything wrong here.” He said, “If you didn’t do anything wrong, then why are you here? You don’t even realize what you have done?” Basically, what he was saying was that we were criminals … He said, “You think you are pretty brave, huh?” and made a phone call and soon after I heard the sirens of a police car … I don’t know what happened to me that day—I’m not sure if it was that man who I was so upset with, or whether being in Turkey had made me too democratic, but I didn’t want to admit that I made a mistake … I went into the police car … Just like that, they took me from there directly to the closed re-education camp.
Former student: Re-education centers can’t be identified from the outside—what kind of places they are. I passed by one several times, but I never realized it was a re-education center. It looks like an ordinary Uyghur person’s homes in a Uyghur neighborhood, with large gates at the front and a nice large front yard with grapevines. Nobody would think it’s a re-education center. They keep it so secret that people from the community don’t even know what’s in there. People know there is such a place, but no one knew where it is.
I was taken in. When I entered, there’s barbed wire. I have not seen a jail in my life. But when I went in, it felt like a jail. The guards were armed and had electric batons … A notice said that local police could not even come near the facility, and if they did, they would be accused of being “two-faced.”
One police officer—let me call him a police officer, but they were all some sort of Special Forces officers—grabbed my neck and pulled me up while he shouted at me … I have never faced such treatment from anyone … I burst into tears and started to cry … Another one grabbed me by the back of my neck and dragged me to the wall … One of them showed me a baton and threatened me with it, saying, “if you don’t stand still, I will beat you up with this!”
After I stood there for a while … my hands started to shake violently. Then someone came and sat me down. I sat there for two hours or so, but then my legs started to shake … Then they made me stand again for a long time. My legs couldn’t bear it and my muscles went into spasms. I was so uncomfortable, plus I was so embarrassed. Everybody could see me there and I was being humiliated at the front of all the people there for re-education … For the first time in my life, I wished I was dead. In there, right at that time, I wished my life would come to an end.
At that point, they might have thought that I was being an interference and brought over a tiger chair to put me in … They left me outside and said, “she is so white, let her get some sun” … While I was sitting there, they noticed my bag and started to search it … They took all my U.S. dollars and the gold jewelry my mother had put in my bag. After that, their attitude toward me started to become better. I’m not sure if they were wondering why I had dollars and an English book and an iPad in my bag—they started to ask each other “what kind of woman is this?”
At around 6:00 p.m., they brought me to a 40-square-meter (430-square-foot) room with around 60 women inmates … Most of the women were there for religious reasons. Some of them are the wives of men who made a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, while others covered their hair or wore long religious clothing … The mothers could not bear the pain of longing for their kids … Once the evening came, people in the neighborhood would bring their children out and tell them to play in the area … The kids would say, “Mom, I will sing this song for you” … or “I am doing fine, and you take care of yourself” … passing messages like that.
RFA: What was a typical day like for you?
Former student: They open the doors at 7:00 a.m. and we clean the room until 8:00 a.m. After that we clean up the camp ... Then we have breakfast. We must run over to get the food. They will yell and tell us to stand in formation. We all stand ready to be served food … but before breakfast, we’d sing. We’d sing one of the songs, such as “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.” Then we could eat.
Then, we listen to the announcement of that day’s activities and procedures. The employees start to arrive about that time. Only the Special Forces officers stay there with us to guard us, but the others go home in the evening and come in the morning like a normal workplace. The Special Forces … only get permission to go outside once a month, so they yell at us and blame us for not being educated well and keeping them from returning to their homes.
The teachers also come around then … from the propaganda department of the prefecture … One teacher comes in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each class lasts one hour … One talked about the law … He talked about the constitution of the country and other legal policies, and etcetera. One of the teachers was an elderly lady and she seemed to focus on the people’s psychological condition … She seemed to understand the people’s feelings and even said, “I feel bad for you guys. So many of you pretty women are sitting here like this when you are supposed to be out there, getting married, and taking care of your parents, kids, and siblings. But you are here … because, you all made mistakes.”
One teacher taught us all about ethnic unity. He said that Xinjiang’s development and prosperity are all due to the Chinese people. He said Chinese culture is a developed culture and we must learn from that.
RFA: Was there any physical abuse?
Former student: Yes, they beat up the men … using clubs. Most of the time, they used electric batons to beat them. One day, there was a young man wearing nice white clothes. They beat him up so badly that he couldn’t even get up or move. Later, I saw him sitting in that tiger chair I was sitting in.
For the women, if their room is dirty or messy … or one of the sixty beds are not made the correct way … all of us get punished at the same time. They made us do exercises. There were some elderly women among us and they were treated badly—being pushed and shoved around. I didn’t see them beating the women, but I saw them beating the men. Especially if they were younger men.
RFA: How did you get out of there?
Former student: One night, my mother came with my aunt. They shouted my name and I came out. I was so excited and happy to see them. I was praying that if anyone could get me out of that place, it would be my mother … She had talked to some officials from the prefecture and asked for my release … They had allowed her to come and see me. She said that someone from the prefecture would come and see me the following day, adding, “I have tried every way I can. Now, you must be smart when you meet with them. Please use your brain, not just your emotions when you talk.”
The next day … an official came from the township government. He said to me, “I heard that you have been educated very well here, but have you thought of the reason for your detention?” I said I didn’t know why I was being held.
He asked for my opinion on the government’s policies. He said … “I will not take notes from this conversation but you have to convince me that if I free you from here, there won’t be any problems. It will be unacceptable if you do something in the future which is damaging to me and your family.”
The first question he asked was, “Do you pray?” I said no. He just got up and began to leave the room, saying, “Get some more education here.” I said, “Wait, we just started.” But he said, “No, you lied to me and you are not a very good liar … If you say that you don’t pray, no one would believe you. Please be honest with me. I didn’t come here to listen to lies … Tell me the truth. Do you pray?” I said, “Yes … I only pray once a day … My family isn’t religious.”
He said, “Now, do you know what you are here for?” I said, “I thought that because I had studied for so many years, I could be rude to the local government workers. My behavior was out of arrogance, but I have corrected my faults.” He said, “That is better. We may not have travelled abroad like you did, or go to graduate school like you did, but we know what we are doing. Kargilik county is what it is today because of us. You don’t understand us. You left your hometown and travelled to other countries, but we have been working in this region for many long years.”
He told me to go back to my classroom and continue with my education. I went back to the classroom and my eyes were swollen from crying. When I returned, the teacher seemed surprised, as if she thought I was never going to come back. She asked me to talk about my experiences from the four days of being educated in the camp—something I had never been asked before. By the time I was finished, they called me back and said the car had arrived for my departure.
After I left, they brought me back to the “open education” facility … The people there said I was lucky to have got out of that place and welcomed me back. When I had been there previously, the rules were very strict, but on my return things became better … When the head of the facility wasn’t there, they shut off the cameras. They brought us all kinds of nice food, like chicken stew. Every day we watched documentaries such as the regretful statements from Uyghurs who fled to Thailand … and every Monday, we raised the flag and swore an oath of allegiance, saying, “We are the successors of Communism. We serve our country, our nation and our flag.”