‘My escape from a Chinese concentration CAMP'
Marie Claire Australia|December 2021
Sayragul Sauytbay was committed to a ‘re-education’ centre in Xinjiang province alongside thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic groups. She tells Damian Whitworth how she survived the horrific conditions, and then went on to expose China’s atrocities to the world
Damian Whitworth

After two days at the internment camp, Sayragul Sauytbay heard the screams for the first time. She had been sent to work as a teacher in one of the centres where China “re-educates” Uighurs and other ethnic groups in the north-west province of Xinjiang. Already she had seen that the “living dead” inmates, with shaved heads, black eyes and mutilated fingers, were chained together in packed, stinking cells.

The sounds of distress resonated through the halls of the “concrete coffin” in which they were housed. “I’d never heard anything like it in all my life. Screams like that aren’t something you forget. The second you hear them, you know what kind of agony that person is experiencing,” she wrote later. “They sounded like the raw cries of a dying animal.”

She learnt that the screams came from the “black room”, a chamber with chains on the wall and no cameras, where prisoners were dragged by guards for a huge range of supposed transgressions. Some prisoners emerged covered in blood; others did not reappear.

Sauytbay knew that if she showed dismay at what she heard, or put a foot out of line, she might end up there herself. Then one day a new group of prisoners arrived, including a grandmother of 84 from a shepherding family in the mountains. Spotting Sauytbay – a fellow ethnic Kazakh – among a sea of Chinese faces, the trembling old woman threw her arms around her and appealed for help. Sauytbay thinks she may have returned the embrace. The old woman was led offand Sauytbay, suspected of conspiracy, was whisked into the black room.

In 2018, Sauytbay, now 44, made international headlines when she spoke publicly about conditions in the camp. China had denied the existence of the centres, despite reports that they had grown into a sprawling network on hundreds of sites.

Now she is telling the full story of her incarceration, the torture she says she experienced, the horrors she witnessed during five months inside, and her dramatic escape from China.

The United Nations has estimated that more than one million Uighurs, Kazakhs (the second largest ethnic group in the region) and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated. There have been reports of inmates being used for slave labour and of the enforced sterilisation of women.

China has said the camps were set up to provide training to combat religious extremism and has denied any mistreatment. In 2019, an official claimed that all those detained had “graduated” and found employment, and attendance at the centres would in future be voluntary. At a press event in London and Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital, earlier this year – described by one attendee as “mesmerisingly crude” – Chinese officials showcased the “wonderful land” of Xinjiang. Young people told of their excellent treatment at the vocational centres where their lives had been transformed.

In March, the United Kingdom, in coordination with the United States, Canada and the EU, announced sanctions against four Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. US secretary of state Antony Blinken said China was committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Genocide is defined in the UN genocide convention as “intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part”.

Sauytbay describes the “concentration camps” as the biggest internment program since the Third Reich, and the indigenous people as “a colony of slaves”. Like others, she refers to the region as East Turkestan and suggests it is the “largest open-air prison” in the world.

One of nine, Sauytbay was born in a yurt to a family of semi-nomadic herders in a valley close to the Kazakhstan border. The family, who practised a very moderate form of Islam, settled with others at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains and built a village. She trained as a doctor, learning to speak Chinese fluently, and then retrained as a teacher. She taught Chinese to Kazakh children and later ran five preschools. After her marriage, to Uali, they had a daughter and son and set up a farm and clothes shops on top of her job running the schools.

From the 1980s, China had begun settling the region, exploiting natural resources, encouraging the mass migration of Han Chinese and suppressing the indigenous culture.

Nowhere was the extension of the control of Uighurs and Kazakhs more insidious than in the drive to silence them. When her son, Ulagat, was three-and-a-half years old, Sauytbay discovered that a teacher had taped his mouth shut because he was caught speaking his native language to other children. “They do this policy of eradication from childhood and it’s really hard for us as parents to see it,” she said. “We are forced to accept this.”

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