The interview: Sayragul Sauytbay

What is the price of speaking out against China’s oppression of the Uyghur people? Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh and Chinese national, talks to Alessio Perrone about being forced to teach propaganda in a concentration camp and fleeing to Kazakhstan.

China’s repression of Uyghur people has gained attention in the West due to shocking accounts of the so-called ‘re-education’ camps. But your newly published book, The Chief Witness, indicates things started much earlier. When did you first realize the situation was critical?

I realized it in 2006, when China launched the so-called bilingual education programme in East Turkestan.* It was called ‘bilingual’, but in reality it enforced the teaching of Mandarin across the region – it was a project to assimilate minorities. In the schools of Kazakh and Uyghur people, the natives of this land, children were forced to learn Mandarin. Everything was done to wipe out their ethnolinguistic identities.

But let me be clear: the oppression of the people of East Turkestan has gone on for decades. On the surface, things might seem ordinary, normal – but they are not normal at all. You have to understand the nature of the Chinese Communist Party: it always thinks long-term and acts strategically. China plans to have the region under total control by 2025 and to fulfil this it has used various methods. In the 1960s, with the Cultural Revolution, very many innocent people perished. In 1989, a high number of students were massacred. From the 1990s, China introduced birth control policies in East Turkestan. Another massacre took place in Urumqi in 2009.

Neighbours spy on each other. Children are forced to report their parents

What are the conditions facing minorities in East Turkestan today?

What is happening is genocide. It is beyond any human rights violation: we live as second-class citizens, under total control and subjugation by the Chinese.

We are witnessing illegal mass arrests and detentions in concentration camps. Security cameras have been installed in the houses of detainees and their families to cut off any communication with the outside world. These mass arrests and detentions are arbitrary as they happen under false pretences. Children are forcibly moved into concentration camps for kids where they are deprived of and uprooted from their culture and their normal environment in order to Sinicize them.

Everything in the region is under total surveillance. East Turkestan has turned into an open-air prison because surveillance cameras and police checkpoints have been set up everywhere to check on us. There is no such thing as privacy. Our IDs are monitored and marked. All our cell phones and laptops are monitored and tapped.

To avoid being detained or forced into the so-called ‘labour move’ – where people are shipped to interior China to work as slaves – people report each other. It’s one way to save themselves. Neighbours spy on each other. Children are forced to report their parents. Statistically, one-tenth of the local population has to spy on someone else to avoid concentration camps or detention.

There is a very sick climate in the region. Every step is surveilled, everything is under constant control and everyone is under constant fear of reprisals.

You had your passport confiscated and were forced to teach in a concentration camp from November 2017, threatened with death if you refused to do the job or talked about it. Where did they take you and what did you see there?

I don’t know where I was taken, I couldn’t see – they put a hood on my head and took me away. They removed the hood when I was inside and told me I would teach Mandarin to the detainees, but I wasn’t able to see the building from outside, only from inside. I only know there were multiple floors.

Inside there were about 2,500 people from all walks of life: male, female, old, young. Our daily routine was that we were forced to teach – and detainees were forced to learn – Chinese propaganda. There was enormous psychological pressure and severe punishment for detainees. I have seen people being deprived of sleep, going hungry and coming under various forms of torture. People were forced to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Everything was done to make them forget their roots, their identity.

You heard and saw people being tortured, raped and deprived of their dignity and were yourself beaten up several times. What gave you strength while you were there?

You know, we are Muslim people and we believe in the Creator. My grandfather and my father taught me to remain strong, persevere and never give up hope. So, I never gave up on my hope. I kept saying to myself: ‘I have to remain alive. I have to see my children. I have to get out of here.’

In your book you wrote: ‘Before all this, I was perfectly healthy: today, at 43, I’m a sick woman.’ How are you today?

I’m not a healthy person. I have to see doctors constantly and I struggle to eat or sleep properly. Every time I speak out about my experiences, I re-live everything I’ve seen in the camp. I go back to my prison term and go through everything again. And I can’t sleep and again, for a long time, I struggle to be myself. My health is in really bad shape.

What has it cost you to talk about your experience?

Since the day I fled to Kazakhstan in April 2018, I have lost all connection with my relatives in the region. Sometimes I’m able to get some news indirectly, through intermediaries. I heard that my 70-plus mother and my sister were taken to concentration camps. One source said they had been detained for a month; another, for three months. Now they’ve been released. I’ve heard that my house is completely bugged with cameras and our cell phones are tapped. So the entire household is under 24-hour surveillance and my family has no means to communicate with the outside world.

You write: ‘Who gave Beijing so much power that they’re allowed to arrest, torture and murder us, unchecked and unpunished? Why is there no end to the constant stream of arrests, day after day? Why does no-one in the world see us?’ I’d like to put those questions back to you: how would you answer them today?

The source of the Chinese Communist Party’s power lies in the continuation of these genocidal policies. This is the power they use.

Despite all the events I mentioned – despite this oppression, despite these massacres – there was hardly any backlash from the international community. None of the people responsible for these atrocities was ever punished – on the contrary: they’ve been repaid with trade and diplomatic relationships. Their standing has increased on the international scene. So, contrary to all values and evidence, they’ve been rewarded for their unacceptable behaviour – it defies common sense.

* East Turkestan is the name preferred by activists for the region China calls Xinjiang (literally ‘New Frontier’). It symbolizes the rejection of Chinese colonialism and identification with other groups of Turkic peoples.

The Chief Witness by Sayragul Sauytbay and Alexandra Cavelius (translated by Caroline Waight) is published by Scribe.

Translation by Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project