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How China is destroying Kazakh culture

Nadine Wojcik
August 5, 2020

The former Kazakh camp inmate Sayragul Sauytbay speaks out about the oppression of Muslim minorities in China — and has received death threats for doing so.

Sayragul Sauytbay
Sayragul Sauytbay Image: Regina Recht

When you meet bright-eyed Sayragul Sauytbay, it's hard to believe that this energetic woman has been through hell. To this day she is still being harassed by the "long arm of China," she says. Although the former civil servant and director of several pre-schools has now been granted asylum in Sweden, she continues to receive death threats from Chinese callers. Yet she is not intimidated: "I feel obliged to tell the world my story," Sauytbay told DW.

Sayragul Sauytbay with her book in German
Sayragul Sauytbay presented her book in German this summer in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Sohn

In 2016, Sayragul Sauytbay became entrapped in the cogs of the Chinese apparatus of repression. "Her extraordinary strength should not hide the mental agony that has afflicted her," says Alexandra Cavelius, who together with Sauytbay wrote The Chief Witnesss: Escape from China's Modern-Day Concentration Camps, to be released by Scribe Publishers in English simultaneously in the UK, the US and Australia in May 2021. The German version was released in June this year.

The book is a haunting eyewitness account by Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national who fled China's notorious internment camps, where countless Muslim ethnic minorities are held.

"During the interviews, she sometimes had to tie her head around with a cloth so that the horrible images wouldn't make her feel like her head was exploding," Cavelius told DW.

It has been four years since Sauytbay, born in 1977 in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, was imprisoned in a Chinese re-education camp in Xinjiang province. Official statements by the Chinese Communist Party portray these camps as educational institutions where potential Muslim terrorists are taught Chinese language and culture.

Up to 1 million Muslims detained

However, Sauytbay, who trained as a doctor before becoming a teacher and being appointed a senior civil servant, reports of mass rapes, mock trials, suspected drug experiments — and a "black room" where she was imprisoned. That's what she calls a space in the camp that contains an electric chair, in which inmates are tortured — and says she herself she was tortured to the point of unconsciousness there.

The camp is located in what is officially called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, described by Sauytbay as the "largest open-air prison in the world." Human rights organizations estimate that there are some 1,200 such camps there containing 1 million internees of China's ethnic minorities, including the Kazakh and Uighur ethnicities.

A suspected reeducation camp for Muslim ethnic groups in the Xinjiang region of China
A suspected reeducation camp for Muslim ethnic groups in the Xinjiang region of ChinaImage: AFP/G. Baker

Speaking of a "cultural genocide," anthropolgist Adrian Zenz says, "Something unprecedented is taking place there. The systematic internment of an entire ethno-religious minority is probably the largest since the Holocaust," Zenz told the German public news program tagesschau.de in 2019.

Xinjiang strategically important 

Since ancient times, the Kazakhs have been at home not only in Kazakhstan, but also in Mongolia and northwest China. Sayragul Sauytbay grew up as one of nine children. Initially, the family and their animals lived as pastoral nomads in harsh nature.

The family settled on a riverbank together with other families in the 1980s. One day, Han Chinese appeared in the village and opened up general stores. Before the locals even realized it, the newcomers had the command in the area. Dams and huge factories were built, and the river, the former lifeblood of the Kazakhs, turned into "a stinking trickle."

Satellite photo of reeducation camp in China's Xinjang region
Satellite photo of reeducation camp in China's Xinjang region Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Planet Labs

China was on the advance, with the major economic Silk Road project running through the northwest region of the country. "Xinjiang" means "New Frontier" and is extremely strategic geopolitically. Around one-fifth of China's coal, gas and oil reserves are located here. For the ethnic groups there, however, it has remained "East Turkestan" or "Uyghurstan" — a rejection of the Chinese perspective reflected in the name "Xinjiang."

Read more: Exclusive: China's systematic tracking, arrests of Uighurs exposed in new Xinjiang leak

Brutal 'cultural exchange'

But back to Sauytbay, who by 2016 at the latest, realized just how dire her situation was. Her son's mouth was taped shut in kindergarten because he spoke Kazakh. Her husband and their two children left Kazakhstan, and Sayragul was to join them shortly afterwards.

She would not see her children for a long time. First, the authorities confiscated the passports of the Muslim ethnic groups. Then a "friendship service" was initiated: eight days a month, Kazakhs, Uighurs and other ethnic groups are to live with Han Chinese in order to learn their culture.

Suspected reeducation camp from afar
Beijing does not deny the existence of the reeducation camps, but presents them as educational institutionsImage: AFP/G. Baker

What looks like a harmless exchange program is described by Sauytbay in her eyewitness account The Chief Witness as a state-imposed form of torture. Most are exploited as household slaves. Muslims are forced to eat pork. The women must share the bed with their hosts. As if this were not degrading enough, the Han Chinese are required to take photographs of each bit of work their "guests" perform and send them to the authorities. Or to post them on social media for entertainment.

Surveillance, torture, rape

When the first reeducation camps opened in 2016, hardly a day went by without someone disappearing — the reasons were incomprehensible, seemingly arbitrary. Sayragul Sauytbay tells us that, like so many others, she had a small bag with the bare essentials hanging next to her door. Always at the ready.

Eventually, she was picked up as well. As a teacher, she was forced to teach the camp inmates in Chinese and also teach them propaganda songs. Her solitary cell consisted of bare concrete and five cameras on the ceiling. Other internees, on the other hand, were crammed into 16 square meters (172 square feet) with up to 20 people. The inmates wore handcuffs and uniforms; their heads were shaved.

As a trained physician, Sauytbay was forced to work in the infirmary and witnessed how the inmates were given medication without any symptoms. She suspected that experiments were being performed, and that women were being sterilized. At an assembly, she witnessed guards raping a young woman in front of 200 inmates. Anyone who expressed emotion was subjected to further torture.

Severe trauma

Sauytbay's release from the reeducation camp after five months was just as arbitrary as her detention there had been. Courageously, she fled to Kazakhstan, where she met up with her husband and two children again after two and a half years. Yet since she crossed the border illegally, she was not granted asylum there.

Instead, Sweden agreed to take in the family. How does she experience the newly gained freedom? Sayragul Sauytbay bursts into tears at the question. The 43-year-old is so grateful — and at the same time so sad that she is not even allowed to contact her relatives. Her children go to school in Sweden; she and her husband are learning Swedish.

Her trauma runs deep. In her book she writes: "Ever since I was in the prison camp, I sometimes can't get up from bed. This is because I had to sleep on the cold concrete floor for so long. My limbs and joints hurt from rheumatism. Before, I was perfectly healthy; now, at 43, I'm a sick woman."