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Exclusive: Uighurs’ Testimonies of Atrocities Inside Chinese Camps

Fatimah Abdulghafur, a 39-year-old Uighur woman
Fatimah Abdulghafur, a 39-year-old Uighur woman. Her family has been missing since 2017.

“They are forced to drink alcohol and eat pork inside the camps. All Islamic practices are prohibited such as praying, reading the Quran or fasting during the month of Ramadan, they have to praise communism and the president Xi Jinping only.”

In June 2017, Fatimah Abdulghafur, a 39-year-old Uighur woman, got a call from her mother and sister, who told Fatimah that “they came to take them to the hospital.” Fatimah told Citizen Truth it was a code to let her know that Chinese police had arrested what remained of her family.

“I didn’t hear from them since then. I don’t know anything about my father, my mother, my brother and my sister” she said. Fatimah has not seen her father, mother, brother or younger sister or heard news from them since 2017.

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Fatimah Abdulghafur (white shirt) with her family before her mother, father, brother and sister went missing in 2017. Only Fatimah and her sister in the yellow shirt are not missing.

Fatimah’s story is just one among the hundreds of thousands if not millions of stories of Uighur families that have been broken up and forcibly detained in Chinese detention camps.

Since 2016, multiple reports have revealed that Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs), a Muslim sect in China and other countries, are being held in concentration-like camps in Eastern Turkestan, which is the modern day Xinjiang province in northwestern China. Although Uighurs are one of the 55 ethnic minorities officially recognized by China, the reports claimed Uighurs are being taken away from their homes regardless of their age, gender or profession.

Voices from all over the world have called for the closure of the Chinese camps and for China to grant the Uighur people freedom to practice their religion and way of life. Citizen Truth spoke with three Uighurs who have been impacted by the Chinese camps.

What Previous Reports Say About Uighur Detention Camps

The Xinjiang province is home to 21.81 million Chinese citizens, as of 2010 data. According to China, 8.68 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, making it the largest ethnic group in the province, while Uighurs’ sources say the number exceeds 15 million.

Uighurs in the detention camps are denied the right to practice their religion. They are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, to speak Mandarin Chinese and to recite praises for the Communist Party, according to the Independent.

Other reports said that more than 10 million Turkic Muslim minorities outside the camps in Xinjiang are subjected to a dense network of surveillance systems, checkpoints and interpersonal monitoring that severely limits their personal freedom. Many Uighurs said that police officers seized their passports, and constantly checked their IDs and cell phones. Some reports revealed that the police force Uighurs to download an app that allows the government to monitor them.

A U.S. commission called the camps “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

China is harshly criticized by Western governments and human rights groups for the incarceration. At first, the Chinese government denied completely the existence of camps, but eventually, Chinese officials admitted that there are indeed camps in Xinjiang, claiming that they are for education only, in order to fight extremism among Uighurs.

On October 16, 2018, Chinese state television featured a program where detainees were shown inside camps learning Mandarin and receiving training in industrial production. Some of them announced in an interview that they regret their past religious and ethnic beliefs; they also showed an admiration for the Chinese political system.

Expanding Camps

An investigation by ABC News featured new research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which identified the expansion of 28 of the detention camps. The research showed that since the beginning of 2017, the 28 camps have expanded their footprint by more than 2 million square meters. The same study published satellite “before and after” pictures of many existing camps. The pictures unfold how camps are expanding in many of Xinjiang’s cities, such as Kashgar, Urumqi and Hotan.

One of the prefectures in Kashgar increased in size from 3,700m2 in 2016 to 122,000m2 in 2018; another in Hotan went from 37,900m2 in 2016 to 102,000m2, based on satellite pictures, and in Urumqi, new facilities have been built such as one that appears in pictures that spans 526,500 m2.

A Campaign for Uighurs

Rushan Abbas, a Uighur American and the director of a Campaign for Uighurs, told Citizen Truth in an interview that U.S. State Department official Scott Buzby estimated the number of Uighur detainees is from 800,00 to more than 2 million, while Dr. Adrian Zenz, a researcher specializing in China’s ethnic policies, assessed that 1.5 million Uighurs are detained.

Rushan Abbas, a Uighur American and the director of a Campaign for Uighurs.

Rushan Abbas, a Uighur American and the director of a Campaign for Uighurs. (Photo: Rushan Abbas)

As for the number of camps, she mentioned that it’s not too clear, but that Reuters has tracked 39 camps while the BBC tracked 44 sites for camps.

Abbas added that since April 2017, millions of Uighurs have been rounded up by the Chinese authorities and sent to concentration style “re-education” camps. She said that these camps are a result of a repressive Chinese policy intended to assimilate and socially re-engineer the Uighur people.

Some of the main atrocities committed inside the camps are deprivation of food and sleep, forced medication, organ harvesting and torture leading to brutal deaths. Abbas told Citizen Truth China cremates dead bodies to leave no evidence. Abbas considered it a warning sign that there has been evidence that massive crematoria are being built throughout the region by the detention camps. “This goes for a culture that doesn’t believe in cremations,” she added.

Citizen Truth reported in 2018 that the U.S.-backed broadcaster Radio Free Asia (RFA) wrote that “between March 2017 and February 2018, the XUAR government listed 5-10 million yuan (U.S. $760,000 to $1.52 million) tenders for contractors to build nine ‘burial management centers’ that include crematoria in mostly Uyghur-populated areas throughout the region, according to a report listed on the official website of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).”

Uighur Children Targeted Too

In the midst of this humanitarian tragedy, children of Uighurs are being targeted by the Chinese too. Abbas told Citizen Truth that children are forcibly separated from their families and put into state-run orphanages where they are taught to pledge their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and to deny their own Uighur culture and religion.

“If something is not done, an entire generation may be deprived of their ancestral language, culture and ethnic identity,” Abbas stated.

Abbas has lost loved ones inside the concentration camps, including her in-laws (a 69- and 71-year-old farmer and housewife) and three of her sisters-in-law and their husbands. They have all disappeared since April 2017. She said that they have no idea where her husband’s 14 nieces and nephews are, who range in age from 3 to 22 years old. “We fear that many of them were sent to orphanages in inner China,” she said.

Additionally, her sister, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, and her aunt were abducted on September 11, 2018. She said that was a tactic by Beijing to silence her and stop her activism for the Uighurs’ human rights, especially since it happened only six days after a speech she gave at the Hudson Institute in the United States.

Rushan Abbas (left) with her sister Dr. Gulshan Abbas. Rushan has not seen her sister since September, 20018.

Rushan Abbas (left) with her sister Dr. Gulshan Abbas. Rushan has not seen her sister since September, 20018. (Photo: Rushan Abbas)

“My sister speaks fluent Chinese, was a medical doctor working at a state-owned hospital before she retired due to personal health issues. Now, she is in the camps, involuntarily, and forcefully making clothes. Unfortunately, she is an example of more than 2 million Uighurs who are undergoing forced indoctrination, forced to do slave work and to denounce their religion,” Abbas added. Abbas’ insight paints a clear image that these vocational training centers are not for teaching Uighurs’ trade skills as China proclaims. Her sister didn’t need to be jailed and taught any trade skills.

The massive detention has resulted in a decrease in the number of Uighur young males. Uighur young women are being forced to marry Chinese men.

“Women are being forced to marry Chinese men with government gratifications such as money, house and jobs for such inter-marriages. Neither the girls nor their families are able to reject for fear of repercussion,” Abbas stated.

The Disappearance of Fatimah’s Family

Fatimah Abdulghafur, who shared with Citizen Truth the story of receiving the code phone call from her mother and sister in 2017, has lost virtually all of her family. She now lives in Australia but had left Xinjiang in 2010 to pursue her studies in Europe.

Citizen Truth asked Fatimah if she would like to record a video statement for us to share with our readers. She recorded the below video.

It all started as Fatimah remembers at the end of 2016, in Korla City, Xinjiang, where police took her father, a 66-year-old retired driver, to an unknown destination. A few months later, they took away her 33-year-old brother in Kashgar City, Xinjiang, where he lived.

She said that first, police with civil uniforms came to the house saying that they wanted to have a talk, and then they searched the house. Consequently, they came again to arrest and take away Fatimah’s remaining family members. That is when she received the phone call from her mother and sister warning her that her family had been taken to the detention camps.

When we asked Fatimah what life is like inside the concentration camps, she described it as a “Gulag,” where a large crowd lives in a restricted place. “They are forced to drink alcohol and eat pork inside the camps; all Islamic practices are prohibited such as praying, reading the Quran or fasting during the month of Ramadan, they have to praise communism and the president Xi Jinping only,” Fatimah stated.

Fatimah recalled these Chinese officials’ attempt to assimilate the Uighurs’ identities when she was still a student at college, saying that they were constantly checking who was fasting during Ramadan at the school dorm. “Even teachers were watching us like a hawk, at sohoor time when Muslims eat before beginning their fasting at dawn, they watch the lights of rooms if ever are on [sic] means someone is fasting,” she said.

She said that wearing a headscarf or praying was impossible to even think of; they had to swear that they were atheists and that they would be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. As a consequence, she denounced God in that period of her life as a student because it was abnormal to believe in any religion. She pointed out that other Muslim minorities are suffering from the same Chinese oppression, such as Kazakh people, Kyrghyz, Tajik, Hui Muslims. She said that even Buddhists in Tibet and Christians are oppressed. She thinks that China is worse than North Korea when it comes to forcing Communism on people, and that the crackdown on Muslims led by Xi Jinping is far worse than the “culture revolution” of Mao Zidong in the seventies.

Fatimah told Citizen Truth about her efforts to find her family; she said she worries about them because other Uighurs had some news about their relatives inside camps but she has not heard anything. She contacted The New York Times and United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and they told her they would try to find out about her missing family. She also reached the Chinese Embassy in Sydney, Australia, and they told her that they knew nothing about her family.

Fatimah, along with many Uighurs, keeps hoping to hear from her family, especially her father who is old and doesn’t have the strength to endure this suffering, as she said. “I am a loving daughter that looks about her missing family, I’m not an activist,” she added.

A Missing Aunt

Another Uighur girl of 22, who chose to stay anonymous for safety reasons, told Citizen Truth that she left Xinjiang in 2016 to pursue her studies in a European country. It was there where she learned that Chinese authorities had taken her 45-year-old aunt, Gulbahar Ibrahim, from Urumqi City, Xinjiang, where she lived, and held her in a concentration camp in 2017.

Gulbahar Ibrahim has been missing since 2017. Citizen Truth spoke with her niece who believes her Aunt is being held in a Chinese detention camp.

Gulbahar Ibrahim has been missing since 2017. Citizen Truth spoke with her niece who believes her Aunt is being held in a Chinese detention camp.

“My aunt was an administrative employee, a mom of a son. She went to Turkey. When she came back, they took her to the camp. Police thought that she was a suspicious person because she had visited a Muslim country. Anyone from Uighurs who visit a Muslim country will be taken and sent away to one of those camps without further questions,” she said.

“We don’t know anything about my aunt. We tried to find out but she went completely missing. My grandfather is sick, I really wish that she can show up and return to her family,” she added.

The anonymous young girl told Citizen Truth about her best friend’s story, as well. According to her, she visited Japan, and when she came back, she was sent away for a week in a concentration camp.

“She was beaten with sticks there just because she traveled abroad. She thought that she was going to die. She told me that while crying on the phone.”

“I would say to Muslims stand up for Uighur because we are facing discrimination. In China being a Muslim is a sin, pay attention to Uighur situation, the whole religion is forbidden, we can’t learn our own language and the camps are expanding,” she expressed.

China’s Crackdown on Muslim Minorities

In addition to the detention camps, several reports revealed recently that the Chinese are using technology to recognize and track Uighur individuals. Abbas explained to Citizen Truth that “normal religious activities” in Islam are banned, and labeled as “religious extremism.” Then, under the pretext of the “People’s War on Terror,” China developed a surveillance and police state, complete with DNA collection, ubiquitous cameras, facial-recognition software and GPS tracking devices on vehicles, as well as QR codes on Uighur homes.

“The tragedy unfolding today is beyond comprehension,” Abbas stated.

Some believe that the motivation behind China’s detention of Uighurs involves more than just “fighting extremism thinking” and could be related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In a speech Abbas gave at Indiana University, she said, “Today, the entire population of East Turkestan has become the victim of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative as the final solution for the imperialistic Chinese dream of ‘Made in China 2025.’ Hudson Institute’s Dr. Michael Pillsbury stated in his book ‘The Hundred-Year Marathon’ that ‘The primary driver behind these ethnic cleansing practices is designed to accelerate ‘China’s secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower.’  The occupied land of East Turkestan lies in the strategic heart of this blueprint for world domination.”

Victims of the Chinese policy against the Uighur minority include Muslim mosques. Using satellite imagery to compare before and after pictures, Bahram Sintash, a Uighur activist, has documented demolished mosques in Xinjiang. He maintains a website which has a list of demolished mosques and shows before and after satellite imagery confirming their destruction.

Sintash estimates that about 30 percent of mosques, approximately 5,000 mosques, were completely demolished, and 80 percent of domes and towers were removed or demolished from mosques in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Sintash created the map below which pinpoints some of the locations of the demolished mosques.

The Keriya Mosque in Hotan, southern Xinjiang, was built in 1237, nearly 800 years ago. In 2017, it was listed as a piece of Chinese architecture heritage, yet it was demolished by Chinese authorities between November 2017 and May 2018. A satellite picture of the mosque shows clearly the destruction of the Keriya Mosque.

Satellite imagery shows a demolished area where the Sanshihangza Mosque in Urumqi once stood. Bahram says that it was destroyed between April 14th, 2018 and May 15th, 2018.

The Chinese government has also ordered that all places of worship, including mosques, must fly the national flag. In Kashgar, caretakers of mosques were required to fly the national flag atop the buildings, and replace the Islamic verse of “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God” with “Love the Communist Party, Love the Country” in yellow writing on mosque walls, according to the turkistantimes.com.

Inside the Xinjiang detention camps, some Uighurs have committed suicide or contemplate suicide as a result of the psychological toll stemming from the brainwashing they receive and the forced denial of their own identity, according to an article in The Independent. One former detainee said that the worst part of the detention was the self-criticism and the forced repetition concerning the dangers of religion and the opposition of extremism.

A Uighur reporter for Xinjiang TV known as Eldost told The Independent that he was recruited to teach Chinese culture and history in an indoctrinated camp. When he went to sleep in a room with 80 detainees, the last thing he would hear is their crying every night. He described that as the saddest experience of his life.

In order to decrease international criticism, Chinese authorities organized several trips to the Xinjiang reeducation camps for journalists. Rob Schmitz, a correspondent of  NPR Shanghai, was in one of the government-led trips to Kashgar last April.

When Schmitz visited the Kashgar city vocational education and training center, he was told that 1,500 people between ages 20 and 40 live and study there. Schmitz asked some of the students why they thought they were there. A woman told him it was because she wouldn’t allow her children to take part in an ethnic song and dance event, and another man told him because he didn’t allow his wife to work. The general answer was that they had extremist ideas and that they didn’t know when they could leave the camp.

Chinese officials denied that there was torture inside the Kashgar camps. Du Bin, a Chinese government official on the media tour which Rob Schmitz attended, told him that holding Muslims inside vocational camps was a preventive measure that the Chinese government is taking. It’s a key to fight terrorists, he expressed. Schmitz mentioned that he couldn’t have a real talk with the Uighurs outside the camp because he was followed by police officers when he went for a walk in the streets of Kashgar. He said that Uighurs were avoiding eye contact with him, as well.

As this Ramadan marks the third one banned for Uighurs, many in the diaspora are trying to raise awareness about their missing families on Twitter and YouTube and call on the world to take immediate action and close the camps; they use the hashtags #metoouyghur and #theyarenotnumber to raise awareness.

*This article was updated after its publishing to include photos from Rushan Abbas.

Amina Elidrissy

Amina Elidrissy is a freelance writer who was a former local journalist and photojournalist in Algeria. She is passionate about sharing people's stories and making their voices heard through her work.

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