August 17, 2020
By Dutch Uyghur Human Rights Foundation
A life story of former Chinese concentration camp teacher
On March 1, 2017, at the start of the mass imprisonment campaign of the Uyghurs led by the Chinese Communist Party, the life of a schoolteacher from an influential family was turned upside down, when she was recruited as a teacher in a “re-education camp”. She speaks about the inhuman conditions, of detention, rape, torture, birth preventio,n and the absurdity of her educational mission. Her witness account, not published previously, confirms all the information that we have been able to collect for three years through rarely released detainees or their families, as well as reports and inquiries carried out by journalists and researchers.
Qelbinur Sidik is a 51-year-old Uyghur woman from Uyghur region, East Turkistan (or Xinjiang Autonomous region in China). She was born into a family of six children in 1969, in Urumqi, the Uyghur regional capital some 3,000 kilometers from Beijing.
She became a Chinese language teacher at the 24th primary school, Saybagh region, Urumqi. And until April 2018, she had worked more than 28 years as a teacher.
The first shock came in 2004 when her Uyghur school was ordered to become “bilingual” – Chinese and Uyghur. But in fact, Chinese language lessons were dominant in the Uyghur school.
As early as 2014, one of her colleagues, originally from Aksu prefecture, had told her about a public judgment near Aksu, 1000 km away south of Urumqi. “I didn’t really pay attention”, says Qelbinur. Then, in 2016, the same colleague told her she had seen her own father, her mother, and her three brothers got arrested by the police. “To each of them, the police would say, ‘You prayed, you will have 10 years in prison. You read the Quran, 8 years in prison!”
Her colleague also confided in her that women were called together as a group to ligate the ovaries. “We thought that things like that couldn’t happen to us”, said Qelbinur.
In 2016, the Uyghur region came under the rule of Chen Chuanguo, secretary of the local Communist Party who had previously raged in Tibet. Under the pretext of fighting the “three demons” i.e. Extremism, separatism, and terrorism, forced assimilation to take a totalitarian turn.
From September to November in 2016, her school began an examination to select best-skilled teachers, they were examined not only in teaching method but also in political ideology, family background and etc. She was selected successfully.
On February 28, 2017, Qelbinur Sidik was summoned to the town hall. As she has responsibilities in resource management, human resources, and databases, this does not surprise her. They told her that they are going to send her to teach Chinese to Illiterates and in – that strange enough- they made her sign a confidentiality agreement. The teacher accepted the mission, which was entrusted to her by the authorities and she went to a secret meeting fixed for March 1, at 7 am.
On March 1, she was taken to a police station located in the suburb of Urumqi city (仓房沟平 顶山小区). “I had to go to a bus stop and call a policeman to pick me up. We rolled up to a
Four-story building on the outskirts, behind a mountain. It was surrounded by walls and barbed wire. We entered via a metal electric door. There were armed police officers, and a dozen employees, administrators, nurses, teachers, directors. I was taken to a room control. An employee shouted: “The lesson is going to start!” On the CCTV screens, I saw ten cells, each of which held ten people. They were plunged into darkness, their windows boarded up with metal plates. There were no beds, just blankets on the floor. In all, there were 97 prisoners. They were locked up on February 14. They still had their hair and beards. Among them, seven women, including three very were old”.
“The adult pupils entered ten by ten in the classroom. They wore chains on their feet and hands. When they were all seated on little plastic chairs, without a table, I was let in. There were a lot of men over 70 with long beards. Normally I have to show them respect. But they kept their heads down. Some were crying. I said: “Salam Alaikum”. No one answered me. I immediately understood that I had said something terribly forbidden.” She looked at the eight surveillance cameras and continued. “I introduced myself, said, “I’m here for you to learn Chinese in Pinyin” I wrote “A, B, C, D…” on the board, all the while praying to God to get me out of this hell alive. They repeat after me, A, B, C, D….” After two hours, Qelbinur asks for a break to get some water. On that day, she still used the same gourd, which she suddenly stares at with dread. A Hello Kitty branded bottle, translucent turquoise blue with hearts and happy characters, silent witness to the hellish scene. At noon, she helps to distribute the meals of the ‘pupils’: “We put the “rice soup” in bowls, but I couldn’t see any rice, only hot water. Each was entitled to steamed bread. To an elderly cell, I added two steamed bread on the sly. After the meal, a policeman appeared saying: “Two steamed bread are missing”. I was terrified then an employee replied that she had counted wrong. I walked over to the kettle to make myself a tea when my colleague rushed over: “No, do not drink, this is the inmates’ water, it is not boiled enough”. It was the longest day of my life.”
Qelbinur had a six-month contract there. The first three weeks she got to know her 97 students. They don’t have a name, just a number printed on their orange shirt. “I had a student who was very handsome, very smart. One of the Uyghur employees knew him. His name was Osman, he was one of the richest men in Urumqi before his fortune was frozen by the state. Every day he begged me: “Mistress, give me a few more minutes to see the light of the sun” because an interstice of 20 cm had been left at the windows in my class. One day
He disappeared. He had high blood pressure, he died of a brain hemorrhage.” There was another boy she was very fond of. “He was active, doing his best in class thinking he could go out quickly from there. He got sick, had an infection which got worse. When they finally took him to hospital, he passed away before arriving.” Osman and Selim died within the first three weeks. “Every day, my students were less numerous. At first, they were in good health. I have seen them wither away. Some couldn’t even walk anymore.”
On March 20, the first floor of the camp filled with new arrivals. “The first detainees were mostly practicing their religion, often elderly. There I saw intellectuals, businessmen or students whose only crime was for consulting Facebook, which is banned in China”. At that time, her educational mission did not any longer make any sense. “They spoke Chinese very well. So, I taught them communist songs and the national anthem.”
“The door they passed through was ajar and barred by a chain halfway up. This forced them to enter at four paws or crawling. I met their gaze, it was excruciating. And every hour they sent me another 100.” Prisoners have the right to go to the bathroom three times a day, on fixed times, and one shower per month limited to fifteen minutes. Weeks go by. She doesn’t tell anyone about the hell she’s in, apart from her husband. “Even my neighborhood has become an open-air prison. I saw the police rushing five young men chatting on the sidewalk and arrested two.”
“My neighbor, a businessman, asked his Chinese business partner to phone his son in Kyrgyzstan to beg him not to come back. During the night, five policemen disembarked at home and handcuffed him, shouting, “You phoned overseas, that’s a huge crime”. It was in May 2017. His Chinese partner was released after three months. But my neighbor never returned.” Of the 600 Uyghur residents of Qelbinur’s community, 190 disappeared in two years. On the first floor, then on the second, Chinese internal migrants move into empty apartments.
In the camp where she works, new inmates keep coming. “After six months, there were perhaps more than 3,000 prisoners. There were 50 or 60 per cell, and they lie side down on the floor to sleep. Every day, two, three, sometimes seven people were called at any time. 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 when I was in class. ” Qelbinur knows one of the police officers of the camp. “He explained to me that there are four kinds of electric shock torture: the chair, the glove, the helmet, and anal rape with a stick.”
On July 18, 2017, the day of a mandatory “free gynecological exam. “At 8 o’clock, the queue was already very long in front of the hospital. When it was my turn, there was no gynecological examination. I was made to lie down and spread my legs, and I was introduced to an IUD. It was terribly violent. I was crying, I felt humiliated, sexually, and mentally assaulted. But I was working in a camp, I knew what was expected of me if I refused. There were girls very young. I haven’t seen a single Han [the majority ethnic group in China]. ” Qelbinur is 51 years old and her only daughter studies, medical biology, in Europe. Having a second child would have not been illegal for her, since China ended the one-child policy four years ago and minorities in Xinjiang province were entitled to three children, until 2016. But Qelbinur is an ethnic Uyghur.
Qelbinur showed us on her phone the summons she received for the annual control visit of this July 18: “All women aged 18 to 59 [the age limit has been extended every year] are considered. If you do not cooperate, you will be punished.” She explains to us, that if an Uyghur woman wants a child, she must obtain three authorizations in the current situation: that of the police, from his employer, and finally from the local town hall.
In September 2017 at the end of her contract, Qelbinur was assigned to another camp, still in Urumqi, but reserved for women. “It was an ordinary building of six floors, right in the city. On the facade, it was written in large letters: “Retirement center.”
“It was a huge camp. There were about 10,000 women with shaved heads, of whom only about sixty were over 60. Most of them were young, pretty, well brought up. These women had been interned because they had studied abroad, in Korea, Australia, Turkey, Egypt, Europe, or in the United States. They had a great intellectual suitcase and spoke several languages. They were arrested when they came back to see their family. I was trembling for my daughter. I had decided to kill myself if China forced her to return.” The inmates do not have a toilet, just a bucket that is only changed once a day week. As in the first camp, each is only allowed one minute in the morning to wash her face, and a monthly shower. “The atmosphere was pestilential. Many were getting sick from the lack of hygiene.”
Every Monday, the 10,000 prisoners make the queue in the infirmary. A nurse makes them intravenous injections one by one, the other takes a blood sample and gives them a white stamp to swallow. A nurse, “who was kind enough”, explains to Qelbinur that they need calcium because they live in the dark, the blood test is used to detect contagious diseases and the stamp is to help them sleep. “I asked myself: Why so much calcium?”
“Once, going up to my classroom on the first floor, I saw a policewoman who was carrying the corpse of a student. We were the only two Uyghur employees, we were talking to each other in the courtyard where there were no cameras. She said to me: “We are involved in birth control. We give them the pill, and there are even contraceptives in the steamed bread. But this student continued to have her period and died of a hemorrhage. Never talk about it.” Unlike the first camp, where most of the employees were from minorities, Qelbinur claims that in the camp for women, all executives are Han men. “A girl of about 20 was called during my class for an ‘interview’. She was brought back after two hours. She was in so much pain that she couldn’t sit up. The policeman yelled at her, then took her away. I never saw her again. A policewoman explained to me that every day the executives brought in four or five girls to rape them in groups, sometimes with electric batons inserted into the vagina and anus.”
In November 2017, Qelbinur in turn began to bleed profusely. “I couldn’t stand what I saw in the camps anymore, this daily horror of which I could not talk. My husband told me to go to the hospital.” Her superior came to see her the same day and asked her if she could find someone to replace her. She advised him to a colleague. “I was hospitalized one month. Since then, I never returned to the camp.”
“In December 2017, a group of young detainees was released in Urumqi. Some had been tortured so severely that we had to amputate an arm or a leg. Others had gone mad “.
In February 2018, after the winter vacation, she returned to her position in elementary school. The following Tuesday, she was dismissed from all her positions. “I had worked with dedication for twenty-eight years, sacrificing my weekends. Before this, we thought that the Chinese government was our government, that it was enough to obey the law. But in fact, it is not important what you do, it is important who you are. While the school had a hundred Chinese employees, the other eleven Uyghur teachers were demoted to gate-guard. And on April 16, 2018, they made us sign documents to leave retired. I was not old enough, but there is no way of refusing.”
A Way out?
Unemployed, weakened, she applied to get her passport (in the Uyghur region, passports are confiscated by the police) to go see her daughter, who’s getting married in Europe. At the last moment, she was forbidden to leave the country. Two days after the wedding date, she was questioned by the police for five days. “They said my daughter was participating in prohibited demonstrations. I was saying no. I was shown her Facebook profile and proof that she watched a banned video.” They demand that her daughter transmits to the information about her life in Europe, her contact details, those of her university. Like many other Uyghur students living abroad, who are subjected to harassment by the Chinese authorities, her daughter sent the requested documents.
In 2019, after bleeding again, Qelbinur illegally removed her IUD with the intervention of a cousin running a hospital. In September 2019, she finally obtained permission to leave China for medical reasons. “I had to visit 23 different administrations”, she said.
“I cried, I felt humiliated, sexually assaulted, and mentally assaulted. But I was working in a camp, I knew what to expect if I refused. There were very young girls. I haven’t seen a single Han Chinese”.
“Each time, I had to make a commitment to go home after a month, otherwise my retirement pension would be deleted. The European Union issued me a three-month visa. My husband also has a visa, but the Chinese authorities demanded that he stay in China while I could leave.” When she arrived in Europe in October, she was depressed, exhausted. “I wasn’t talking to anyone at the beginning, I was very afraid for my family, that my husband would be tortured.” The latter advises her to stay with her daughter a little longer since she has a three-month visa. To the Chinese authorities who harass her, she tells that she is hospitalized. “Then there was the Covid-19, and I couldn’t go home. Finally, I decided to raise my head, and fight for my people. The Chinese government does not yet know that I am not going to return, neither my husband nor I have applied for political asylum.”
Dutch Uyghur human rights foundation thanks Qelbinur Sidik for her courage, in recounting her story.
Interviewed on 22-7-2020
Reported on 20-7-2020