In a Dutch refugee camp, Kalbinur shares a room with others and struggles to find a quiet space to speak, but eventually manages it. In her early 50s, she is a teacher whose medical problems stem from her being mistreated as a Uyghur Muslim from China’s Xinjiang province. She is now trying to tell the world what is going on there.
“Initially I had an IUD [intrauterine device, or coil], then they performed a forced sterilisation on me. I bled profusely for weeks,” she says through her translator. Believe it or not, she is one of the lucky ones.
Sitting on the end of a bed, she speaks with a softness about what she saw when she was told to teach at one of China’s “re-education camps”
Officially denied by China until satellite imagery made it embarrassing, up to two million Uyghurs are believed to have passed through, died in, or remain inmates of these gigantic desert campuses, where their only ‘crime’ is to be Muslim.
After spending nine months getting 23 different admin permissions, Kalbinur finally flew to Holland on a one-month visa late last year, to see her biologist daughter who works in a laboratory there. On arrival, she applied for asylum. Her husband is still in Xinjiang, and this is where her voice breaks.
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“After a few weeks, he started pressing me to return. I said I was getting medical attention, but the pressure became more severe. On 20 February, he called me from the police station.
“The words he used, I cannot even tell you, but basically it was ‘you betrayed our country, our connection is cut, I’m divorcing you.’ This was three months after I flew to Europe. He would not do that if he had not been forced to. He had been summoned.
“I have had messages from friends, neighbours, local police, all saying
I should come back. I am harassed constantly.” It is ongoing.
“In October, they took my brothers and sisters and interrogated them for
10 days. They were released on the condition they persuade me to return. On a video call, my elder sister said I was ‘exaggerating’, asking ‘what did your government do to you for you to betray them?’ She said I must come home.”
Why are the authorities so worried? Because Kalbinur is one of the very few eyewitnesses to this “re-education” who can reveal what they saw. First ushered in to teach Uyghur detainees Chinese in 2017, she describes how the horror unfolded.
“On CCTV screens, I saw 10 cells, each holding 10 people. There were no beds, just blankets on the floor. Many were very elderly. They entered the classroom with chains around their hands and feet. Some were crying, all kept their heads down. I said ‘Salam alaikum.’ No one answered. Then I realised I had said something forbidden.”
At lunch, she learned that the inmates’ rice soup contained no rice, and that their tea was not boiling. Over six months, she got to know her students, whose names were replaced with numbers.
“One was very handsome, very smart, he had been rich before his estate was frozen by the authorities. Every day, he asked me to give him a few more minutes to see the light of the sun, as there was a 20cm gap
in my class window. One day he disappeared. I was later told he died of a brain haemorrhage.”
One by one, they stopped coming. “Every day, my students got fewer. They entered in good health, but withered away. Some could not even walk by the end. I saw intellectuals, businessmen and students whose only crime was to consult Facebook.
“The door they passed through was chained, which forced them to crawl on all fours. I met their gaze, it was excruciating. They could only use the bathroom three times a day and have one 15-minute shower per month.
“Outside the camps, even the neighbourhood became a prison. I saw police arrest boys on the street just for talking. One of my neighbours asked his Chinese business partner to call his son in Kyrgyzstan to beg him not to come home. That night, five policemen came to his house and took him away. His Chinese partner was also arrested.” Of her local community of 600, 190 disappeared between 2017 and 2019, and Chinese internal immigrants were quickly moved into the empty apartments.
Inside the camps, she said things were getting worse. “After six months, there were about 50 per cell. They had to sleep side down. The room of torture was in the basement.The screams were spreading all over the building. I could hear them when I had lunch, sometimes in class. A policeman told me there are four kinds of electric shock torture: the chair, the glove, the helmet and anal rape with a stick.”
A policeman told me there are four kinds of electric shock torture: the chair, the glove, the helmet and anal rape with a stick.
Given that the Holocaust happened partly because the Nazis successfully portrayed Jews as sub-human, are the Chinese doing something similar?
“I used to watch films about how Nazis treated Jews and I would cry, feeling the pain of those innocent people. I never thought one day it would be us. I am a witness from two camps, one male, one female. I have seen and heard things beyond the imagination or acceptance of normal
“They are torturing and raping Uyghur men and women. For women, it is gang rape and sterilisation. For men, they use the electric baton.
“I have seen men shackled, hardly able to walk, unable to sit in class from
the pain. It is difficult for me to describe. It is horrific. It is too much.”
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