A community in China has been oppressed for decades now. The measures taken by the President Xi Jinping to crackdown on the population of the Uyghurs have left several families shattered. Death lurks in every corner of the internment centres that are situated in the Western province of China in Xijiang. The Xi government of China has faced widespread criticism globally, for their actions against the Uyghur community. Several women have been detained in these centres that the Chinese government calls the “re-education centres”. Authorities in charge of these centres call it a “school” where “Uyghurs are transformed through re-education camps”. Well, for first, the internment centres in and around Xijiang are the worst nightmare for every Uyghur who has survived the brutality. They are centres where lakhs of Uyghurs witnessed the most gruesome acts possible with a human body.
Tourists incarcerated, women forced to shove pills in their uterus to limit the process of birth, injecting women with steroids, assaulting detainees and more, these camps are cells where inmates are tormented to pledge their allegiance to China. This is a story of one such Uyghur who returned to China to collect her documents of retirement, after being in exile in France for 10 years. This piece details the horror witnessed by Gulbahar Haitiwaji who left China in 2006, only to return back in 2016 when she was detained in one such “transformation centres” of Baijiantan- a district on the outskirts of Karamay, XiJiang.
Who is Gulbahar Haitiwaji?
Gulbahar is a survivor from the Baijiantan detention centre. Her husband Kerim sensed the rising threat to their community in 2002 and left Karamay where they stayed in China. The family had decided to settle outside China owing to the brutality against the Uyghurs. She was employed with an oil company in Karamay where she worked for 20 years. However, her husband had plans to exit the country. In 2002, he got a job at an asylum in France. He convinced her wife to leave China with their daughters and settle in France.
The couple witnessed movements in France where people protested against the brutality on Uyghurs by China in the detention centres. Gulbahar, Kerim and their daughters were also a part of many such demonstrations that were organised by the French Branch of World Uyghur Congress- body that speaks for Uyghurs in exile.
After having lived 10 years of a peaceful life in Paris where she was employed in a bakery, she got a phone call from the oil company in China, in November 2016. The man on the phone claimed, “You must come back to Karamay to sign documents for your retirement, Madame Haitiwaji.” A sceptical Gulbahar asked, “I would like to grant power of attorney. My administrative affairs are handled by my friend who resides in Karamay. Why should I come back for some paperwork? Why now?” There was a silence on the call, writes Gulbahar in The Guardian, and the man disconnected saying that he would call back.
He called back after two days and claimed, “Granting power of attorney will not be possible. You must come to Karamay in person.” Confused, Gulbahar was assured by Kerim who told her, “They’ll definitely pull you in for questioning, but don’t panic. That’s completely normal.” While she was convinced to travel back to China for her documents, Gulbahar recalled the instances where thousands of Uyghurs were being sent to “schools” that were raised on desert settlements, far away from any human vicinity. The inmates were subjected to forced lessons that included assault by the “teachers”. Gulbahar gathered the strength and flew to China in 2016.
Baijiantan “re-education camp”
She arrived in the oil company to collect her documents. From here, Gulbahar was taken to the Kunlun police station in Karamay where she was escorted to a room. Seconds after she settled on the chair, a policeman placed the photo of her daughter on the table and asked her, “You know her, don’t you? Your daughter’s a terrorist!” Dreaded by the fact that she was in the custody of the Han policemen, Gulbahar replied, “Yes. She’s my daughter. No, she isn’t a terrorist.”
The picture was of her daughter Gulmahar who was posing for a snap in front of the Place du Trocadero in Paris. She was holding a little East Turkestan flag in her hand that remains banned in China. The flag represents the region’s independence for Uyghurs. Gulmahar’s picture was from a demonstration in France that she had attended, against the repression by China on Uyghurs. The Chinese cop wasn’t ready to believe that Gulbahar’s daughter isn’t a terrorist, but she was only a part of the march.
The policemen further questioned her and concluded that her daughter is a terrorist. Tired of the aggression, Gulbahar asked, “Can I go now? Are we done here?” to which one of them replied, “No, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, we’re not done.” Little had Gulbahar sensed that she is already a detainee in Baijiantan re-education camp.
Assaults in classrooms on Uyghur women
She was placed in a room that had nothing except a window covered with metal sheets and a bucket. She says that the guards used to frequently march down this isolated room and the detainees were under strict vigilance. This re-education centre as the Chinese government calls it turned out to be the “school” where Uyghurs are trained by the military to pledge their life to China. Every attempt to plan or even utter words for an escape was a failure.
The room in which Gulbahar was placed had two cameras mounted on the wall, panning every few seconds. Every day the detainees were escorted to a classroom. She recalls that in the class, a woman used to brainwash the detainees and force them to pledge their obedience to the Republic of China. “One day, the teacher slapped a woman in the class who was in her 60s. The woman was fainting of exhaustion and so she had shut her eyes,” says Gulbahar. However, the teacher slapped the woman and said, “Think I don’t see you praying? You’ll be punished!” She was later dragged out from the class only to return back with a self criticising note. “I wonder what was done to the 60-year-old woman, to make her say things she was saying,” Gulbahar recollects.
She further says that every day the detainees were forced 11 hours of such sessions. The teacher signalled and we “Lao shi hao (a teacher)”, she tells. It’s like a warning call for the detainees that the teacher is in. Then we were made to recite a sort of some pledge of allegiance to China that read, “Thank you to our great country. Thank you to our party. Thank you to our dear President Xi Jinping.”
The inmates inside the Baijiantan detention/ re-education camps reviewed what they were taught every night before bed. They were subjected to exams where the detainees have to write such recitals to prove their allegiance to their teachers. Gulbahar and the other inmates were repeatedly assaulted and forced into such sessions where they were asked to forget who they were.
Gulbahar set free after 3 years of torture in Baijiantan
“I was sentenced to 7 years in re-education camp, where I was tormented brutally. I had forgotten who I was, but I did not believe the words I was forced to utter in those classes,” says Gulbahar. In August 2019, three years after her detainment, she was announced to be innocent by a judge from Kamaray.
Today, she says that the guards in the Baijiantan detention centre used to sterilise the women detainees, so they can control the population of Uyghurs in China. She narrates that these centres are no “re-education camps” but are military zones where Uyghurs are tormented until they have accepted what is being preached.