‘It Went on For Four Hours, Just to Film a Single Video’: Uyghur Former Camp Instructor

Qelbinur Sidik describes how her ex-husband was forced to smear her testimony about abuses she saw in Xinjiang.
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‘It Went on For Four Hours, Just to Film a Single Video’: Uyghur Former Camp Instructor Qelbinur Sidik prepares a lesson in her office in Urumqi, in an undated photo.
elbinur Sidik

Qelbinur Sidik, 51, is one of the few people to relate their experiences working at a facility in the vast network of internment camps in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since early 2017. A well-respected instructor who began teaching children Mandarin Chinese at the No. 24 Elementary School in the XUAR capital Urumqi in 1990, Sidik was forced to teach the language at a men’s camp known as Cang Fanggou between March and September 2017, as well as at a women’s camp at a former nursing home in the city’s Tugong district between September and October of that year. Sidik, who now lives in the Netherlands, estimates that the two camps held around 3,000 and 10,000 detainees, respectively.

Sidik recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that at the end of last year, her ex-husband Tursun Ismail said neighborhood-level police officers had forced him to make videos claiming she was never an instructor in a camp and dismissing as “lies” her testimony providing rare insights into the management of the XUAR’s camp system. He said he was also coached to dismiss her claims that authorities forcibly inserted an intrauterine device (IUD) and later sterilized her before she was able to obtain permission to leave China for the Netherlands in October 2019. Ismail urged her to turn herself in to the Chinese Embassy and warned her that refusing to do so could have bad implications for her family members back home. Sidik told RFA in October last year that she had received a phone call from Ismail eight months earlier requesting a divorce, which she believes he did to save himself from the political fallout from her decision to leave the country.

While the videos her ex-husband claims were made have yet to surface publicly, his experience fist a pattern by authorities in the XUAR who work to discredit those exposing abuses in the camp system. State media routinely films XUAR-based relatives of former camp detainees who have fled abroad in which they dispute the testimonies of their loved ones and rebuke them for their activism overseas. Such testimonies last week led outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to label China’s policies in the region as “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”—a designation which was quickly rejected by Beijing. On Monday, the official Global Times reported that “many residents from Xinjiang began to post videos of themselves telling stories of their own lives to refute Pompeo's ‘genocide’ claim,” while praising the Communist Party for improving their lives and telling Washington to butt out of China’s affairs. And on Tuesday, the Associated Press suggested the response had been orchestrated, reporting that a mass text had been sent to XUAR government employees ordering them to "choose a Uyghur employee with good Chinese/Mandarin language skills" who can record a video with a message such as "I firmly oppose Pompeo’s anti-Chinese remarks, and I am very angry about them" before stating that they "love the party, the country and Xinjiang." Sidik expressed concern over China’s smear campaign but said she would not be swayed from telling the truth about what is happening in the XUAR.

Right before the new year, [my ex-husband] messaged me and said … that he needed to talk to me immediately. I turned on video chat and asked him what it was he wanted from me, and he told me that the government was visiting him daily. He said if I would go and report myself to the Chinese Embassy, they would then call the authorities [in Urumqi] and I would be able to safely travel back and forth [between Urumqi and the Netherlands], and that they would stop visiting him.

[He said] the secretaries and directors of the neighborhood police station brought [the videographer] in, a young Uyghur guy. They spent an hour coaching him on what to say. They filmed and started over a number of times, and it went on for four hours, just to film a single video. He said things like, “My name is Tursun Ismail, I work at such-and-such place. My wife is Qelbinur Sidik. She’s retired from the No. 24 Elementary School. Our daughter went to the Netherlands to study.” He told me exactly what he said. “She went to the Netherlands and wasn’t able to come back because she got sick. My wife, Qelbinur Sidik, never taught in a camp or ‘school.’ It’s all a lie, because we are living so safely and freely here. There are no such places here to round people up and take them in. My wife, Qelbinur Sidik, never had an IUD forcibly inserted, and she was never forcibly sterilized as a condition for being able to leave for the Netherlands. These are all lies. [The government] protects our daughters and wives so well.” He told me very clearly about all of the things he said.

Qelbinur Sidik speaks with her ex-husband Tursun Ismail via video chat in December 2020. Qelbinur Sidik

He even told me that if I don’t respond, if I don’t treat him well, he will go everywhere and talk about me. He told me they want me to come back. And then he told me that in order for him to live in peace, I needed to go report to the embassy, and then go back [to Urumqi] ... He’s selling me out to save his own life.

‘They’re not giving up’

I worry day and night, because I’ve not spoken with my siblings once since coming [to the Netherlands]. I’ve seen the videos they’ve made of other people’s relatives … and I’ve seen the many actively speaking out here, the way they get quiet [after one of these videos] … There are so many people who are, tirelessly and without glory, working on behalf of our homeland and our people. There’s so much pressure, so many things being said, so many challenges. But even when their relatives are pressured, they’re not giving up. These wonderful people continue speaking of the Uyghurs’ plight.

If you want to know exactly why I’m trying to get ahead of this, well, the whole world already knows well about what China is doing. The international community knows about all the different things they’re doing, but there are still many countries that are staying silent. I’m worried that were a video like this to go public in such a context, people might say, “Well look at what her husband said, he said she’s lying” … I think it’s necessary for me to speak out to prevent this. God willing, I will not give up on this.

Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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