Uyghur survivor of China’s detention camps testifies to their brutality

Tursunay Ziyawudun Tursunay Ziyawudun at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. | Campaign For Uyghurs | Twitter @CUyghurs

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A two-time survivor of China’s detention camps in Xinjiang described suffering physical and sexual violence at the hands of camp guards, in her July 14 testimony at an international religious freedom gathering in Washington, D.C.

Tursunay Ziyawudun, 42, of China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, spoke at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. on the morning of Wednesday, July 14. She described how she was imprisoned in camps in the province on two separate occasions. 

“My experiences in these Chinese camps have left indelible scars on my heart,” she said. 

“I have come to see it as my duty to be the voice for those people who are in the camps, those who died in front of my own eyes, and those who are being held unjustly in prison,” she said, her voice quivering with emotion. Her testimony was translated with subtitles.

According to the U.S. State Department, since April 2017 China has set up a network of internment and detention camps in Xinjiang, imprisoning more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, and some Christians. Detainees have been subjected to political indoctrination, torture, physical and psychological abuse, forced sterilization, and forced labor. 

The current Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has said that China is committing genocide in the region. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said that genocide is occurring there.

The Uyhgurs are an ethnic minority in northwestern China, and are mainly Muslims. Most of the camp detainees are Uyghurs. 

“Millions of Uyhgurs are suffering, and they are alive only because they have the hope and belief that there is justice in this world,” Ziyawudun said. “My people, who have been experienceing a genocide for the past five years, are waiting for help from you and from all of humanity.” 

“I bow humbly before you and once again ask the whole world, and all of humanity, to save my people from this oppression,” she pleaded with audience members. 

The summit is a gathering of religious and civic leaders, featuring testimonies of survivors of religious persecution, as well as speeches and panel discussions on promoting religious freedom globally.

Regarding her two stints in the detention camps, Ziyawundun said her second stint “was even more inhumane than the first.” 

Ziyawudun said that life in the camp was lived in a constant state of fear, and that she was able to hear other detainees being tortured. 

“On several occasions, the Han police and guards took me out of the cell and into interrogation, and they beat me,” she said. “They used whatever oppressive methods they wanted.”

The “Han” people are the majority ethnic group in China. Uyghur women have reported that they were forced into marriages with Han men after their Uyghur husbands were taken to the camps. 

One time, Ziyawudun said, she and a woman in her 20s were taken by camp police officers and brought to “a man in a suit, wearing a mask over his mouth.” 

“They raped the young woman,” she said. “Three Han police officers raped me as well.” 

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This system of rape was commonplace, as the police “were always taking girls out of the cells like this” and “did whatever they wanted.” 

“Sometimes they brought some of the women back near the point of death,” she said. “Some of the women disappeared.” 

“I saw some of them bleed to death with my own eyes. Some of them even lost their minds in the camp,” said Ziyawudun. 

Her second detention began in March 2018, she said, and lasted for nearly one year. She said that she noticed “many new buildings in the camp” as well as camera systems and armed guards. 

“Sometimes they showed us propaganda films,” said Ziyawudun. “Sometimes they taught us Chinese law, sometimes they taught us Chinese ‘red’ songs, and sometimes they made us swear oaths of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.” 

The Chinese Communist Party alleges that the camps are “re-education” camps aimed at combating terrorism. 

Ziyawudun said she was only able to speak about her experience since she arrived in the United States, through the assistance of the U.S. government and the Uyghur Human Rights Project. 

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Another survivor of China’s detention camps, Gulzira Auelkhan, testified before a congressional commission on Tuesday. She told members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that her detention camp had an organized system of forced prostitution and rape.

Auelkhan said she was arrested in 2017 for immigrating to Kazakhstan, and said she was sent to four different camps. She was allowed to leave China for Kazakhstan in January 2019.

In her time in the camps, Auelkhan said she had no privacy and reported being beaten with electric batons if she or others took more than two minutes to use the restroom. Detainees would be punished by being forced to sit in the painful “tiger chair,” at times for 14 hours. If they fainted, guards would douse them with cold water to revive them. Detainees were forced to eat rice, study Mandarin Chinese, and the laws of the Chinese Communist Party.

Also at Wednesday’s summit, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, condemned China’s “genocide” in Xinjiang. 

“Xi Jinping’s genocide includes the forced disappearances of millions of Uyghurs into concentration camps, the forced sterilization of Uyghur women, forced abortion of their precious babies, and state abduction of Uyghur children into orphanages far from home to be reared with non-Uyghur upbringing.  All of this fits the definition of genocide,” he said.

“The Chinese Communist Party is today systematically erasing Islam in western China—bulldozing mosques and shrines, severely throttling all religious practice, and forcing camp detainees to renounce their faith,” he said.

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