Uyghur camp survivor: ‘The Chinese guards laughed, checking our naked bodies. We couldn’t even cry’

In 2017 the Chinese government started a campaign to ‘re-educate’ the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang. Since then, millions of Uyghurs have been imprisoned in concentration camps, where they are being mistreated, tortured or worse. In Istanbul, The International Angle, spoke with Jelilova Gulbahar (55), on her hardships in a Chinese prison. “They asked me: ‘please, tell the world what is happening. And so, I do.”

Text and photos by Julia van den Muijsenberg

“I was arrested on 22 May 2017. The statement says that I am a terrorist”. Jelilova Gulbahar (55) points at a copy of an official prison document written in Chinese. She wants me to look through it. “The ID number is false,” she explains, “they gave me a fake ID as if I was born in China so that they were able to put me in prison.”

Jelilova was imprisoned in one of the Chinese concentration camps in Xinjiang. Since 2017 the Chinese government is locking away millions of Uyghur people in order to make them obey the Communist state and erase their Muslim religion and culture. I meet with Jelilova in Istanbul; she fled to Turkey as soon as she was released from the camp in September 2018.

They questioned me for hours. They asked me if I pray five times a day.

Jelilova is Uyghur but she was born in Kazakhstan. In 2017 she went on a business trip to the Uyghur Region in China of Xinjiang. As soon as she arrived, Chinese officials arrested her. “They questioned me for hours. They asked me if I pray five times a day, then they asked if my children also pray five times a day.” Jelilova looks through the pile of papers she brought to the interview.

She hands me a picture of a metal chair with handcuffs built on it, and a metal bar going across the chest from the person sitting in it. “For a day and a night, they interrogated while I was locked in this chair. Then they forced me to sign a false confession.”

Forced abortions

After this Jelilova was brought to a prison. The guards took off her headscarf. They shaved her head and gave her a prison uniform. Then they took a blood test and made her do a pregnancy test. “I wasn’t pregnant but they aborted the children from the women who were. I was there, I saw it happen. Really, they did.”

By using props Jelilova illustrates what happened to hear in the camps; how she was tied up with chains.

For a moment she stops talking. She asks for some water. She points at her head and takes a small pill. Ever since her time in prison, she is suffering from intense headaches. She takes a few breaths but it doesn’t take her long to continue her story. She talks fast, with urgency. Even without the translator she is able to bring across her message. Using hand gestures, pictures and props she is determined to tell the world what happened to her; determined to tell what is still happening in China right now.

From her bag, Jelilova takes out a chain and ties it around both of her wrists. She stands up and points at her feet. Calm and explanative Jelilova illustrates how she and forty other women she shared one room with, were tied up in the cell. She nods to check if I understand clearly. I do.

She explains that the room they shared had only the capacity for twenty people to sleep in. “First twenty of the women slept for two hours. Then we switch and the other twenty women got to sleep the remaining two hours.”

One minute of washing

The prisoners were only allowed to sleep four hours a day. The rest of the schedule was crammed: “In the morning we had one minute each to use the bathroom. If we used it longer, we got punished. We had one minute each to use water. If we used more, we got punished. Also, if we spoke Uyghur, we got punished immediately. There were cameras in the room that were spying on us all the time. If the guards heard you didn’t speak Chinese, you got punished.”

A copy of the Chinese prison statement with forged Identification number.

Jelilova has no pictures, no props or even gesturers to describe the punishment. She stares at the table and explains with a flat voice. “There was a dark, small room. Not higher than one meter, and not wider than one meter either. You couldn’t stand nor lie down. I have never been in there but I saw other women go in. some of them I also saw coming out. But others died in there. They stayed in those rooms for days. Ten days was the maximum,” Jelilova takes another sip of water “the ones that stayed longer didn’t survive.”

If we refused, we would get punished.

Apart from not being able to talk Uyghur in the camps, the prisoners are taught to learn the Chinese communist ideology. Every day, at 10 am, after their one minute of bathroom time, Jelilova and the others had to sing Chinese songs. The national anthem and songs that glorify communism. “Long live the communist party, long live” Jelilova mimics. Every Friday at 13:00 pm they watched television. They watched Xi Jinping’s broadcasted speech. “After that, we had to write about what we thought of the speech. Of course only how wonderful we thought it was. If we refused, we would get punished.”

Apart from the official punishments for ‘unacceptable behaviour’ Jelilova says the women experienced lots of violence from the guards. She mumbles something, looking away. The same flat voice as before. Then she is quiet. The translator is quiet for a while as well. Then he says: “She faced rape, you understand ‘rape’?” I do.

Being with too many people in one room bares a health risk. “We were there with women of all ages. They stripped us bare naked and lined us up for ‘health checks’. The guards laughed and made fun of us, checking our bodies. We stood there and couldn’t even cry. The shame froze us.”

Forced pills and injections

Without an explanation, the women were given medication. According to Jelilova, they were forced to take pills on a daily basis and every ten days the prisoners were given an injection. Jelilova still doesn’t know why. A reason might be to prevent an outbreak of diseases. The women were not allowed to shower and often got skin infections.

When Jelilova got out of the camp she went to a doctor in Istanbul for her infected skin. On her phone, she shows me a video of her belly, red and purplish marks. “The doctor said I may have been poisoned.”

Jelilova wrote down the names of all the women she met in the Chinese re-education camps. She promised to tell their story.

Jelilova got out of the Chinese camp after one year, three months and ten days. Her daughter wrote letters to many governments and the embassies explaining the wrongful arrest of her mother and urging them to look into the camps and the fake Chinese identity given to Jelilova.

When she was released, the Chinese officials told Jelilova to keep quit. “‘We will kill you if you tell anything about what is happening in the camps. We will find you anywhere in the world.’ They threatened me.”

But she decided to talk anyway. “I promised.” She says. “All the other women used to say: ‘you might get out one day, Jelilova! You are not born here; you are not supposed to be here.’ They asked me ‘please, tell the world what is happening. And so, I do.”

Then Jelilova shows me the last pictures of the pile. She kisses a grainy photo of a woman in a red headscarf. She smiles, puts the picture to her chest, giggles at me and kisses the picture again. The translator does not need to explain that this was one of the women she met in the camp and she went through all of this with her. One of the women that might still be locked up in the re-education camps in Xinjiang. “I wrote down the names of all the women and I will continue telling their story.”