No less important than recognizing a genocide: fighting the current one
President Biden's recognition of the Armenian Genocide is an important step in the struggle against mass atrocities – genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes. But it's far from being enough and it won't do much for those who are being persecuted, discriminated against and murdered in places like the Chinese Xinjiang province, the Tigray region in Ethiopia and Myanmar.
About a week before the outbreak of World War II Adolf Hitler met with his army commanders at his Bavarian Alps headquarters. At this meeting he spoke about exterminating the Poles by mercilessly killing men, women and children. There are some who say that this speech also included the rhetorical question: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’’
That statement has served as a warning and an illustration of the famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But that’s only one reason why it’s important. Another one is that the denial of a genocide is a part of genocide itself. It conceals the crime, exonerates the murderers and erases the victims’ existence as a group.
For those reasons, last week, many praised the U.S. president for recognizing the Armenian genocide and criticized other countries, including Israel, for not doing so because of political and economic interests. As justified as the criticism may be, and as positive as the declaration by President Biden is, we should recall that despite the importance of historical memory, there are other forces that shape the present and the future. Recognition of a genocide that took place over 100 years ago is only the first step in a long journey.
This journey passes through places like Xinjiang in northwest China, the Tigray region in Ethiopia and Myanmar. In China, members of ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs are being sent to “reeducation” camps, in which the prisoners are held without trial in grueling conditions and suffer from cruel indoctrination, torture and rape. In addition to the camps, testimonies, leaked documents, satellite photos and media reports reveal a series of other steps against the population in Xinjiang: forced labor, tight surveillance, separating children from their parents and a ban on practicing Islam. There is also evidence of medical experiments, organ harvesting and forced sterilization, all almost without intervention by the international community.
In Ethiopia’s Tigray region and in Myanmar local longstanding ethnic conflicts include horrific reports. News from Tigray in the last few months included acts of slaughter, looting, uprooting the population, deliberate starvation by burning crops, and widespread rape. In this round of the conflict the perpetrators are the Ethiopian government with the assistance of forces from Eritrea and Amharic militias. In Myanmar the second half of the previous decade saw tens of thousands of Rohingya people murdered, and hundreds of thousands persecuted and expelled. Testimonies revealed horrific acts such as setting entire villages on fire and throwing their residents into the flames, acts of gang rape, and tossing infants into the river. Since the military coup in February, the situation of the Rohingya may deteriorate even further.
The sad truth is that in the short term, the recognition of the Armenian genocide won’t help the victims in China, Ethiopia and Myanmar. History teaches that acts of genocide were not prevented in Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur or Syria in the 1990s and 2000s despite the universal recognition of the most comprehensive genocide in history – the Holocaust. Nor did they take place due to a failure to recognize the Armenian genocide. Recognition is necessary for prevention, but it’s insufficient. In order to combat present and future genocides at least three additional elements are needed: facts, limits and institutions.
There’s a great deal of discussion about media and public discourse in the 21st century suffering from relativization and multiple narratives. In addition, some of the conflicts that lead to genocide are complex and hard to understand. The terrible result is that the murderers can always paint a picture in which they themselves are the victims. That is how reports are published, based on partial truths, maintaining that the Uighurs are fundamentalists and terrorists, the Rohingya are Muslim invaders and the Tigrayans themselves carried out acts of ethnic cleansing. Only undisputed facts and a wide context can counter the abundance of opinions and propaganda.
But facts aren’t enough. “They shall understand that a limit, under the sun, shall curb them all,” wrote Albert Camus in “The Rebel.” “Each tells the other that he is not God” (translated by Anthony Bower). In a world where Authoritarian leaders and their regimes aim to achieve absolute power, recognition of the past and understanding the present must lead to placing limitations. Wars will probably continue to accompany mankind for years to come. We must recognize that and place clear limitations on them.
This isn’t new – international treaties, institutions, courts and tribunals have tried for decades to place limitations and prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The situation of these institutions has never been worse, but even if they suffer from weakness, political biases and corruption, in the absence of a world power that is committed to putting an end to acts of horror, and is capable of doing so, the international institutions must recognize the past, discover present facts and place limitations. Nothing else will prevent the next genocide.
China experts and activists claim that the repression of minorities in Xinjiang has escalated in recent years, with thousands of Uighur Muslims in ‘reeducation camps’ being murdered and their organs harvested for wealthy Chinese and foreign patients. The Chinese deny all such allegations.
“The interrogation started at 9 P.M. and ended around noon the next day. The five officers didn’t hit me, but there was a sixth man and he beat me and threatened me. ‘I’ll remove your organs,’ he said, ‘and burn what’s left of your body.’”
This is what Huiqiong Liu told Haaretz recently in a video call from her home in Europe. Liu was arrested at her Beijing home in 2001 when she was 29 years old, and taken for “reeducation through labor” as part of the Chinese government’s battle with Falun Gong – the spiritual movement that has been persecuted by the authorities since the late 1990s.
Liu was in the camp for about 18 months, and was imprisoned again between 2005 and 2007. She says that during her first imprisonment, she was taken to a hospital for tests. “I told [a doctor] I have a heart problem, but she said my heart is fine. I asked if they’re planning to take it away from me, and the doctor said: ‘That will be decided by someone at a higher level.’” Liu decided to go on hunger strike. Eight days later, she weighed just 88 pounds (40 kilograms) and the doctors decided that her organs were no longer viable.
Liu says she also underwent blood tests, blood pressure tests, X-rays and ECGs during her incarceration. “Sometimes they would take us to a hospital; other times, a large vehicle full of medical equipment would come to the camp and the checkups would be done in it,” Liu recalls. “They gave us all numbers and the doctors would follow-up on our situation. The doctors only knew the numbers, not our names. Sometimes they would ask for a specific number to be taken to the hospital. Those people never came back.”
Liu says she has another vital piece of evidence: “Before I was taken to the hospital during my first arrest, they gave me a form to sign with my fingerprints,” she recounts. “The form was already filled out but the name and address on it wasn’t mine, it was a name I didn’t recognize. I didn’t want to sign, but they made me do so anyway. They didn’t let me see what it was I was signing, but when I asked other women who were arrested with me, one of them – a woman who was sentenced to death – told me it was a consent form, saying I’m willing to donate my organs after I die.”
‘Harvesting never left’
In recent decades, alongside China’s rising political and economic power, reports have also surfaced of human rights violations and methodical oppression of minorities and opponents of the regime.
During this time, the Chinese authorities have been accused of torture, executions and organ harvesting from tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners and selling the organs to patients in need of transplants. Repression, ethnic cleansing and even genocide of minorities living in the Xinjiang province, northwestern China, has also been alleged.
According to numerous testimonies, minority groups – the largest of whom are the Uighur (aka Uyghur) Muslims, who number some 12 million – are suffering restrictions on their rights and liberties, surveillance and privacy invasions, separation of children from parents and forced abortions. It is believed that more than 1 million members of minority groups in Xinjiang are now in “reeducation camps,” which combine violent indoctrination with forced labor, rape and torture.
A number of international researchers and human rights activists say the oppression of minorities in Xinjiang has only grown worse, and that some prisoners are being murdered and their organs harvested.
Ethan Gutmann, an independent researcher who’s considered a world expert on this issue, unequivocally believes the practice is occurring. “Harvesting never left Xinjiang, it just took a vacation,” he tells Haaretz. “The Chinese Communist Party [CCP] first experimented with the live organ harvesting of death row criminals on the execution grounds of Xinjiang as early as 1994. By 1997, surgeons were extracting livers and kidneys from Uighur political and religious prisoners for high-ranking CCP cadres – small-scale, but it set a precedent.
“The explosion in transplant activity that followed and the use of surgeons as executioners?” he asks rhetorically. “This was fueled by Falun Gong organs. Now China appears to be running out of young and healthy Falun Gong, and, like ‘a dog returning to its vomit,’ the party’s killing machine has returned to Xinjiang.”
Gutmann, 62, authored the 2014 book “The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem,” is co-founder of the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC), a China Studies research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.
The executions and organ harvesting are not sporadic or local, he says. “China’s transplant volume is 60,000 to 100,000 transplants per year. Beijing has no intention of dismantling its vast transplant infrastructure. Over 15 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Hui have been blood tested, compatible with tissue matching. Over 1 million are in camps. So yes, the CCP has created a policy of ethnic cleansing – a potentially very profitable one,” the American scholar asserts.
Matthew Robertson is anothe research fellow at the VOC and a doctoral student at Australian National University, Canberra. He told Haaretz that while China claims to be performing over 20,000 transplants annually, sourced exclusively from voluntary donors, the figures appear to have been falsified, since they conform “extraordinarily closely to a simple mathematical function, and because of numerous artefacts throughout the data sets that are indicative or otherwise inexplicable except for human manipulation.”
According to Robertson, there’s a direct connection between the mass incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the rise in organ transplants. “Over the last couple of years – during the same period organ transplants from ‘volunteers’ are claimed to have grown rapidly – over a million Uighurs have been incarcerated in detention camps and prisons,” he says.
At the same time, he adds, “reports have emerged of Uighurs being subjected to blood tests and other medical examinations consistent with those required to assess organ health, which is a prerequisite for organ matching and transplantation. There’s a history of the use of prisoners, including non-death row prisoners, for their organs. So in the end, it’s very much about where the burden of proof should reside,” Robertson says.
Robertson and Gutmann aren’t the only ones to suspect the Chinese regime. An international tribunal based in London and headed by leading British human rights prosecutor Sir Geoffrey Nice published a report last year declaring that China’s campaign of forced organ harvesting against innocent victims was a “crime against humanity,” constituting one of the world’s “worst atrocities committed” in modern times.
Like the tribunal, law-makers and politicians in countries such as Canada, The US and the UK have begun to shed a light on China's Xinjiang policies, as well as Uighur leaders abroad who are trying to raise awareness. Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, said: "We have real fears that the Chinese government may be cremating the bodies of detainees to hide evidence of torture, execution, and organ harvesting. We are also deeply disturbed by reports of the Chinese authorities collecting blood samples from the entire Uighur population in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), and establishing a DNA database from these samples. We do not know its purpose. But it could be used to match prisoners’ organs with patients who need transplants".
According to Rushan Abbas, the founder and executive director of "Campaign for Uyghurs", China has established “organ farms,” where millions of people are forced to undergo DNA testing and are “prepped for slaughter”, she said in a 2019 speech, “In the beginning of the Holocaust, countries around the world continued to do business with Germany, enabling their economies while millions of innocent people were being attained and held in concentration camps,” she added, “I don’t know what it takes to get the attention of world leaders for action. Don’t let it come to mass executions and gas chambers.”
In the 1990s, Envar Tohti was a young surgeon in a hospital north of the city of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. He tells Haaretz that in 1995, two senior surgeons asked him if he “wanted to do something wild.” In a phone interview from his home in London, Tohti recounts: “They asked me to pick up the largest mobile operation kit and bring assistants, nurses and anesthesiologists to the hospital gate at 9:30 the next morning and join an ambulance, which was in fact just a van with a bed in it.
“The next morning, we assembled at the gate and the chief surgeons told us to follow them in a convey. We drove toward our branch hospital in the western mountain district, but halfway through our journey, we turned left and our driver said we were going to the western mountain execution ground.”
At that moment, he says, “I felt chilly even in the hot summer.” There was a hill at the site, Tohti recalls, and the surgeons told him “to wait there, ‘and come around when you hear gun shots.’ I was scared, wondering why we were here.”
Tohti says he then heard gunshots. “We jumped into the van and drove toward the entrance to the field. There were between 10 to 20 corpses. They had shaved heads and were dressed in prison uniform. Their foreheads were blown up. They were shot in the back of the head. A police officer – I think he was one of the executioners – shouted at us: ‘The one on the far right is yours.’ I was confused. I moved to the location and our surgeons held me and told me: ‘Hurry up, extract the liver and two kidneys.’”
Tohti says he did as he was told. “I turned into a robot trained to carry out its duty,” he says. “The officers and my assistants put the body on the bed already inside the van. The victim was a man in his 30s.”
The senior surgeons apparently kept an eye on Tohti and when he asked to administer anesthesia, he was told there was no need because the man was already dead. “So I started my insertion, a cut designed as an upside-down ‘T’ shape to expose internal organs as wide as possible. My scalpel found its way cutting his skin. Blood could be seen, which implies that his heart was still pumping blood. He was alive! My chief surgeon whispered to me: ‘Hurry up!’”
The operation took some 30 to 40 minutes. When it ended, Tohti says, “The chief surgeons happily put the organs into a weird-looking box and said ‘OK, now take your team back to hospital. And remember – nothing happened here today.’ This was a command. No one talked about it ever since.” The events Tohti recounted happened 25 years ago. But researchers say the situation in Xinjiang has grown much worse since then.
‘Like a monkey’
Abduweli Ayup, 46, is a linguist who now dedicates his life to the education and preservation of the Uighur language and culture, and lives in Europe. He was arrested in August 2013 and incarcerated for 15 months at three different prisons in Ürümqi. Though it’s widely claimed that the “reeducation camps” were only established in 2017, Ayup says the prisons in Xinjiang were operating the same way for years beforehand. “They were at the same places, the same conditions, the same uniform and the same rules,” he tells Haaretz, adding that when he was arrested in his hometown of Kashgar he was gang-raped by other prisoners who were ordered to do so by Chinese officers.
Ayup says that in the first prison, he was the “victim of a cruel prison hierarchy orchestrated by the regime.” There were 17 prisoners in his cell, he says, explaining that he was one of the 12 “low-status” political prisoners forced to wear a yellow uniform. “There was no room for us on the beds, so we slept on the floor close to the toilet, which was a bucket covering a hole in the floor exposed to all. When we slept, the other prisoners’ pee drops fell on us,” he says.
The higher-status prisoners were drug dealers and murderers, Ayup reports. “One was in charge and he could decide to violently punish the others; another would execute the punishments, while a third and a fourth would guard and document them.” He says he witnessed and suffered countless acts of violence, humiliation, torture and sexual abuse.
With lights on 24/7, cameras on the ceiling, a never-ending stench from the toilets and a strict schedule of indoctrination, this was just the first of the three camps where Ayup was imprisoned.
In the second prison, he had an encounter he will never forget. “A man called Abdul Rahman was brought into the cell,” he says. “He was a political prisoner too, accused of separatism. I was shocked because he had a red uniform – the uniform of the people who are sentenced to death. His legs were chained and one of his hands was chained to his legs. Someone told me he has been held like that for two years. He slept in our cell, and I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, he requested that after his death his body be cleansed according to Uighur tradition, but the guards refused. When his arms and legs were finally freed, he couldn’t stand up so he had to walk with his hands. Like a monkey.”
Ayup says that later, when he was finally released and fled to Turkey, he met Abdul Rahman’s wife and a couple of his friends. “His wife said that after the execution, the family was notified but she was only allowed to see his face, not his body,” he recounts. “The family was not allowed to wash the body and they were allowed to visit the grave only a month after the execution.
“Even then, they were told that they were not allowed to plant a flower in the soil beside the grave, as is customary in Uighur tradition, for at least a year,” Ayup continues. “The family were told by workers at the ‘burial administration’ that organs are usually removed from executed prisoners, and that’s why families are not allowed to see the bodies.”
This part of Ayup's account matches the account of Jiang Li whose father was arrested as a Falun Gong practitioner in 2008 and sent to a labor camp in Chongquing in central China. In January 2009, a day after Li visited him and found him healthy, the family was notified that he had died.
"After my father died in prison", says Li, "we were allowed to go and see him. We were only allowed to see the head, not the body. We were not allowed to enter the room with cell phones or cameras. After a physical search, my sister entered first. They opened the refrigerator where they kept the body and opened it just enough to see the head. My sister touched the head and felt it was still warm. She shouted 'he's alive!' and we immediately ran inside, we were able to take out the body and touch the chest. It was still warm. Then about 10 policemen ran in and pulled us out. My sister tried to revive my father but she was pushed away. The whole thing only took five minutes and we never saw our father again".
Top secret files
Dr. Alim (not his real name) worked as a physician at the university hospital in Ürümqi for a decade, before leaving China. “In 2016,” he tells Haaretz, “a new department was opened at the hospital. It was a liver transplantation coordinating department and the department head’s office was close to mine.”
When the department head was out, Alim says, “some of the patients who came to see him stepped over to my office and we sometimes chatted. These were wealthy people, they weren’t local – I remember some of them being from Shanghai, Beijing and even South Korea. When I asked them what they were doing here, they said they were patients in need of a liver transplant and that it took 24 hours between the time they had their checkup and DNA test until a matching organ was found for them.” (The waiting period in most countries is at least a few months.)
Alim says he recalled at least two instances in which he came across files of transplant patients. “In one case, all the information about the person who received the liver was in place – name, age, medical status, and so on,” he recalls. “But in the file of the so-called donor, there was no identifying information and instead of a name there was just ‘XXX.’”
According to Alim, all of the transplant files at the hospital were kept secret and most of the doctors were not given access to them. “In another case, I noticed there was a name on a consent form – but the name didn’t match the name of the person who signed the form. Medical forms don’t include prices, but it was common knowledge that a liver costs a minimum of 100,000 RMB [about $15,000].”
The Uighur doctor also believes there’s a connection between what’s happening in Xinjiang and the hospital transplants. “Many Uighurs disappeared after the massacre of July 5,” he says, referring to violent clashes between rival Uighur and Han Chinese protesters in Ürümqi in 2009, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries.
“Since then, the number of transplants at my hospital grew dramatically,” Alim says. “In 2007-08, there were about 60 to 70 transplants a year. I first saw patients from outside of Ürümqi in 2009, and since then it was around 200 transplants a year. The new coordinating department finally opened in 2016. That was also when I remember all Uighurs in Ürümqi being summoned to local clinics, in order to provide blood and DNA samples and medical data.”
In response to questions for this story, the Chinese Embassy in Israel told Haaretz: “Vocational education and training centers operate legally, and citizen donations are the only legal source for organ transplants,” in China.
Gutmann wanted to look more deeply into claims of organ harvesting in Xinjiang, so he went to Kazakhstan earlier this year and looked for people who had been released from the “reeducation camps.” Once there, he says he drove around in an old car and refrained from using the internet or electronic devices that could reveal his identity.
“I disappeared, and this gave me the freedom to do confidential interviews with witnesses who still had family in the camps,” he says. Gutmann spoke with approximately two dozen people, who all indicated a clear pattern. “Every year, about 2.5 to 5 percent of healthy individuals in the camps simply disappear in the middle of the night. On average, they’re 28 – Beijing’s preferred age for harvesting.” This, he says, explains the “health checks” that Uighurs undergo in Xinjiang.
Gutmann believes at least 25,000 people are murdered every year in Xinjiang and their organs harvested. To streamline the process, he says, the Chinese created “fast lanes” for the movement of human organs in local airports, while crematoria have recently been constructed throughout the province.
One of these was discovered by chance thanks to a job ad in a local Ürümqi newspaper, seeking 50 security guards for work at a crematorium, on a salary of about $1,200 a month – “a small fortune in that part of the world,” Gutmann says. “I don’t know about you, but the presence of 50 security guards in a single crematorium sends a chill up my spine,” he adds.
The majority of the clients for these organs are wealthy Chinese people, according to Gutmann. But the big profit margins come from medical tourists: Japanese, South Koreans, Germans – and Muslims from the Gulf states. “The theory is that they have a preference for organs taken from people who don’t eat pork,” he explains.
Gutmann says the Chinese themselves have admitted that until 2015, they harvested organs from death row prisoners after execution, though they never released precise numbers or admitted that these were political prisoners. He adds that the Chinese have taken advantage of their power on the world stage to silence criticism, and that international institutions such as the World Health Organization chose in 2016 to present the Chinese transplant industry as a case of successful reform.
The problem, Gutmann concludes, is that “they never saw the human rights catastrophe in Xinjiang coming. Now they’re left in an indefensible position.” Anyhow, the researcher says, the phenomenon of organ harvesting is known, but the Chinese have extensive influence in the international medical establishment. Only a handful of doctors and physicians came out as opposers to these Chinese practices, one of them being the Israeli Dr. Jacob Lavee, Director of Sheba's Heart Transplantation Unit, who was the force behind the Israeli transplant law which blocks "organ transplant tourism" from Israel to China.
“Every major media that I can think of in the West has reported on this crime during the last four years,” he says. “Not on the front page perhaps, but as I’m sure your readers are aware, The New York Times didn’t put the Holocaust on the front page until after 1945 either.”
China's Embassy in Israel's responce:
Firstly, regarding the Vocational Education and Training Centers. From 1990 to 2016, separatists, religious extremists and terrorists have plotted and carried out several thousand violent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. Many innocent people were killed and several hundred police officers died while performing their duty. Terrorism and extremism are the common scourge confronting the humanity. It is for the purpose of counter-terrorism, deradicalization and saving those who were deceived by extremist ideas that Vocational Education and Training Centers were built in China, and their operation has always been in strict accordance with the law. In essence, the Education and Training Centers are no different from the deradicalization centers in many countries around the world, and they do not target any specific region, ethnicity and religion.
The Vocational Education and Training Centers fully protect the personal dignity and freedom of trainees in accordance with the basic principles of the Chinese Constitution and the laws on respecting and protecting human rights. These Centers are education and training institutions that deliver the curriculum including standard spoken and written Chinese, laws and regulations, vocational skills, and deradicalization. Trainees can have home visits, ask for leave to attend to private affairs and have freedom of communication. The relatives of the trainees are fully aware of their training through telephone or video chat as well as visiting the trainees.
The number of people participating in Vocational Education and Training programs is not fixed, some in and some out from time to time. It is purely fabricated and baseless to say that there are “around one million or even two million trainees” by some media. Vocational Education and Training centers are special efforts in special times. By the end of 2019, all the trainees of the Vocational Education and Training Centers have reached the training requirements and graduated. Most of them have obtained vocational qualification certificates or vocational skill level certificates and found decent jobs.
In the future, Xinjiang will provide regular and open educational training programs to meet the needs of local people to improve their skills, based on principles of respect for their will, independent decision, categorized training programs and freedom to join or leave.
Secondly, regarding the question about organ transplantation. The Chinese government has consistently followed the WHO guidelines on human organ transplantation. In recent years China has further strengthened the management of organ transplantation. In 2007, the State Council of China promulgated and implemented the Regulations on Human Organ Transplantation, which stipulates that organ donation should follow the principle of being voluntary and for free. The sale of human organs is strictly prohibited in China. Since January 1st 2015, the use of death row prisoners’ organs as a source for transplantation has been completely banned and citizen donation is the only legal source for organ transplantation.
Last but not least, I would like to emphasize that some international forces with ulterior motives have fabricated some lies distorting facts, smeared and attacked China’s policy of governing Xinjiang, in an attempt to contain China’s development. We hope our Israeli friends keep your eyes open and not be deceived by those lies.
Rape, torture and human experiments. Sayragul Sauytbay offers firsthand testimony from a Xinjiang 'reeducation' camp
David Stavrou, STOCKHOLM – Twenty prisoners live in one small room. They are handcuffed, their heads 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 tell 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.
Such is life in China’s reeducation 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 market 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 Uyghur 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, but it was apparent that she spoke in a credible way. 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. Much of what she said corroborated previous testimony by prisoners who had fled to the West. Sweden granted her asylum, because in the wake of her testimony, extradition to China would have placed her in mortal danger.
She is 43, a Muslim of Kazakh descent, who grew up in Mongolküre county, near the China-Kazakh border. Like hundreds of thousands of others, most of them Uyghurs, a minority ethnic Turkic group, she too fell victim to China’s suppression of every sign of an isolationist thrust in the northwest 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 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 it 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. One day, we were invited to a meeting of senior civil servants. There were perhaps 180 people there, employees in hospitals and schools. Police officers, reading from a document, announced that reeducation centers for the population were going to open soon, in order to stabilize the situation in the region.”
By stabilization, the Chinese were referring to what they perceived as a prolonged separatist struggle waged by the Uyghur minority. Terrorist attacks were perpetrated in the province as far back as the 1990s and the early 2000s. Following a series of suicide attacks between 2014 and 2016, Beijing launched a tough, no-holds-barred policy.
“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 contacts with her husband and children after her release. Time passed and the family did not return, but the authorities did not let up. 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.”
The turning point came in late 2017: “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. After an hour’s journey, she arrived in an unfamiliar place that she soon learned was a “reeducation” 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 sq. ft.],” 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. If it filled up, you had to wait until the next 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 Uyghur or Kazakh speakers – Chinese and Communist Party propaganda songs. She was with them throughout the day. The daily routine began at 6 A.M. Chinese instruction took place after a paltry breakfast, followed by repetition and rote learning. 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.
The afternoon and evening hours were devoted to confessions of crimes and moral offenses. “Between 4 and 6 P.M. the pupils had to think about their sins. Almost everything could be considered a sin, from observing religious practices and not knowing the Chinese language or culture, to immoral behavior. Inmates who did not think of sins that were severe enough or didn’t make up something were punished.”
After supper, they would continue dealing with their sins. “When the pupils finished eating they were required to stand facing the wall with their hands raised and think about their crimes again. At 10 o’clock, they had two hours for writing down their sins and handing in the pages to those in charge. The daily routine actually went on until midnight, and sometimes the prisoners were assigned guard duty at night. The others could sleep from midnight until six.”
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.”
Do you know which camp you were in?
Sauytbay: “I have no idea where the camp was located. During my time there, I was not allowed to leave the grounds even once. I think it was a new building, because it had a great deal of exposed concrete. The rooms were cold. Having connections with others was forbidden. Men and women were separated in the living spaces, but during the day they studied together. In any case, there were police who supervised everything everywhere.”
What did you eat?
“There were three meals a day. All the meals included watery rice soup or vegetable soup and a small slice of Chinese bread. Meat was served on Fridays, but it was pork. The inmates were compelled to eat it, even if they were religiously observant and did not eat pork. Refusal brought punishment. The food was bad, there weren’t enough hours for sleep and the hygiene was atrocious. The result of it all was that the inmates turned into bodies without a soul.”
Sins and abortions
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.”
Why were people tortured?
“They would punish inmates for everything. Anyone who didn’t follow the rules was punished. Those who didn’t learn Chinese properly or who didn’t sing the songs were also punished.”
And everyday things like these were punished with torture?
“I will give you an example. There was an old woman in the camp who had been a shepherd before she was arrested. She was taken to the camp because she was accused of speaking with someone from abroad by phone. This was a woman who not only did not have a phone, she didn’t even know how to use one. On the page of sins the inmates were forced to fill out, she wrote that the call she had been accused of making never took place. In response she was immediately punished. I saw her when she returned. She was covered with blood, she had no fingernails and her skin was flayed.”
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 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 it was 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.”
What happened to those who did 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.)
On the other hand, when inmates were really sick, they didn’t get the medical care they needed. Sauytbay remembers one young woman, a diabetic, who had been a nurse before her arrest. “Her diabetes became more and more acute. She no longer was strong enough to stand. She wasn’t even able to eat. That woman did not get any help or treatment. There was another woman who had undergone brain surgery before her arrest. Even though she had a prescription for pills, she was not permitted to take them.”
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 whoever 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 reeducation 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.”
Testimony from others incarcerated in Chinese camps are similar to Sauytbay’s account: the abduction with a black sack over the head, life in shackles, and medications that cause cognitive decline and sterility. Sauytbay’s accounts of sexual assaults has recently been significantly reinforced by accounts from other former inmates of camps in Xinjiang published by The Washington Post and The Independent, in London. A number of women stated that they were raped, others described coerced abortions and the forced insertion of contraceptive devices.
Ruqiye Perhat, a 30-year-old Uyghur woman who was held in camps for four years and now lives in Turkey, related that she was raped a number of times by guards and became pregnant twice, with both pregnancies forcibly aborted. “Any woman or man under age 35 was raped and sexually abused,” she told the Post.
Gulzira Auelkhan, a woman of 40 who was incarcerated in camps for a year and a half, told the Post that guards would enter “and put bags on the heads of the ones they wanted.” A Kazakh guard managed to smuggle out a letter in which he related where the rapes at his Xinjiang camp took place: “There are two tables in the kitchen, one for snacks and liquor, and the other for ‘doing things,’” he wrote.
Journalist Ben Mauk, who has written on China for The New York Times Magazine and others, investigated the camps in Xinjiang and published a piece in The Believer magazine containing the accounts of former prisoners. One is Zharkynbek Otan, 32, who was held in a camp for eight months. “At the camp, they took our clothing away,” Otan said. “They gave us a camp uniform and administered a shot they said was to protect us against the flu and AIDS. I don’t know if it’s true, but it hurt for a few days.”
Otan added that since then he has been impotent and prone to memory lapses. He described the camp he was in as a huge building surrounded by a fence, where activity was monitored by cameras that hung in every corner: “You could be punished for anything: for eating too slowly, for taking too long on the toilet. They would beat us. They would shout at us. So we always kept our heads down.”
Thirty-nine-year-old Orynbek Koksebek, who was incarcerated in a camp for four months, told Mauk, “They took me into the yard outside the building. It was December and cold. There was a hole in the yard. It was taller than a man. If you don’t understand, they said, we’ll make you understand. Then they put me in the hole. They brought a bucket of cold water and poured it on me. They had cuffed my hands… I lost consciousness.” Koksebek also told about roll calls held twice a day in which the prisoners, their heads shaven, were counted “the way you count your animals in your pasture.”
A 31-year-old woman, Shakhidyam Memanova, described the Chinese regime of fear and terror in Xinjiang thus: “They were stopping cars at every corner, checking our phones, coming into our homes to count the number of people inside… People getting detained for having photos of Turkish movie stars on their phones, new mothers separated from their babies and forced to work in factories like slaves.” Later in her testimony she added that children were being interrogated at school about whether their parents prayed, and that there were prohibitions on head coverings and possessing a Koran.
Curtain of secrecy
The Xinjiang region in northwestern China is a very large. Spanning an area larger than France, Spain and Germany combined, it is home to more than 20 million people. About 40 percent of the population is Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority, but the majority in Xinjiang are ethnic minorities, mostly Turkic Muslim groups. The largest of these is the Uyghurs, who constitute about half the region’s population; other ethnic groups include Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others.
Xinjiang became part of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and received an autonomous status. In recent decades, the region has experienced dramatic social, political and economic changes. Formerly a traditional agricultural area, Xinjiang is now undergoing rapid industrialization and economic growth powered by the production of minerals, oil and natural gas, and by the fact that it is a major hub of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is an important part of China’s global economic expansion.
“Since the 1950s, the Chinese government has invested heavily in Xinjiang,” says Magnus Fiskesjö, an anthropologist from Cornell University who specializes in ethnic minorities in China.
“A large part of this investment is managed by a governmental military enterprise called Bingtuan [short for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps], whose activity, together with various economic and political measures taken by the central government, created resentment among the local population. They were discriminated against and were becoming a minority in their own land, because the authorities moved masses of Han Chinese to Xinjiang,” he explains. “The tension between minority peoples and Han Chinese there is not only a result of religious feelings or a specific economic enterprise. It stems from a wide range of Chinese policies that the native population does not benefit from. Tensions reached a boiling point on several occasions, and in some cases deteriorated into organized violence and terror attacks.”
The vast majority of the minorities in Xinjiang are opposed to violence, but radical Uyghurs have at times been able to dictate the tone. Fiskesjö elaborates: “The Chinese government used these conflicts and terror attacks to paint the entire population of Xinjiang as terrorists and to start a campaign of erasing the population’s cultural identity. The Chinese are erasing minority cultures from both the public and the private arena. They are criminalizing ethnic identities, erasing any trace of Islam and minority languages, arresting singers, poets, writers and public figures. They are holding about 10 percent of the minority ethnic groups in modern-day gulags.”
According to Fiskesjö, the Chinese initially denied these claims, but when pictures and documents were leaked to the West, and satellite images showed camps being built all over the region – Beijing revised its story. Officials now admit that there is a legal campaign under way that is aimed at combating radicalism and poverty by means of vocational reeducation centers.
“The Chinese claim that these are vocational retraining camps and that the inmates are not there by coercion is a complete lie,” says Nimrod Baranovitch, from the University of Haifa’s Asian studies department. “I know directly and indirectly of hundreds of people who were incarcerated in the camps and have no need of vocational retraining. Intellectuals, professors, physicians and writers have disappeared. One of them is Ablet Abdurishit Berqi, a postdoctoral student who was here with us in Haifa. I hope he is still alive.”
Baranovitch finds it striking that the Muslim countries are ignoring the Chinese suppression. “For quite a few countries, we’re not only talking about coreligionists but also about ethnic affinity, as the Uyghurs are of Turkish descent. The thing is that many Muslim states are involved in the Silk Road [Belt and Road Initiative] project. In my opinion, one of the reasons for the promotion of that project, whose economic rationale is not always clear, is to facilitate the elimination of the Uyghur problem. By means of investments and the promise of huge future investments, China has bought the silence of many Muslim countries.”
Indeed, last July, an urgent letter about Xinjiang to the United Nations Human Rights Council from the ambassadors of 22 countries was answered by a letter of support for China from the representatives of 37 other states, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait and Bahrain.
One factor that makes it easier for the world to remain silent about the events in Xinjiang is that China has effectively closed off this immense region behind a curtain of secrecy, by means of surveillance and espionage, internet and social-network censorship, travel restrictions and bans on residents’ contact with relatives and others abroad, along with policing, oversight and control on a vast scale. According to Fiskesjö, these efforts are concealing an actual genocide – according to the UN definition of the term from 1948 – even if the measures don’t include widespread acts of murder.
“Children are being taken from their parents, who are confined in concentration camps, and being put in Chinese orphanages,” he says. “Women in the camps are receiving inoculations that make them infertile, the Chinese are entering into private homes and eradicating local culture, and there is widespread collective punishment.”
A charge of treason
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, is reeducation, 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 two-and-a-half years, and I missed them very much. Having already been in a camp, I knew what it meant. I knew I would die there, and I could not accept that. I am innocent. I did nothing bad. I worked for the state for 20 years. Why should I be punished? Why should I die there?”
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 elements 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. The world must find a solution so that my people can live in peace. The democratic governments must do all they can to make China stop doing what it is doing in Xinjiang.”
Asked to respond to Sayragul Sauytbay’s description of her experience, the Chinese Embassy in Sweden wrote to Haaretz that her account is “total lies and malicious smear attacks against China.” Sauytbay, it claimed, “never worked in any vocational education and training center in Xinjiang, and has never been detained before leaving China” – which she did illegally, it added. Furthermore, “Sayragul Sauytbay is suspected of credit fraud in China with unpaid debts [of] about 400,000 RMB” (approximately $46,000).
In Xinjiang in recent years, wrote the embassy, “China has been under serious threats of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism. The vocational education and training centers have been established in accordance with the law to eradicate extremism, which is not ‘prison camp.’” As a result of the centers, according to the Chinese, “there has been no terrorist incident in Xinjiang for more than three years. The vocational education and training work in Xinjiang has won the support of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang and positive comments from many countries across the world.”