Rescapée du Goulag Chinois (Survivor of the Chinese Gulag), a book by Gulbahar Haitiwaji, an Uyghur detained by communist authorities as an alleged terrorist, details her 32-month ordeal of cold-iron shackles, interrogation and brainwashing sessions in one of China’s notorious internment camps in Xinjiang.
Haitiwaji’s experience started with her extralegal incarceration, wretched food, and brutal living conditions from her disappearance in January 2017 to her release and return to France in August 2019.
She disappeared in January 2017, around the time authorities were believed to have begun detaining 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of “religious extremism” in a vast network of internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Born in Ghulja (Yining) in 1966, Haitiwaji relocated to France in 2006, joining her husband who had moved there four years earlier.
While her husband and two daughters took French citizenship, Haitiwaji decided to keep her Chinese nationality so that she could return home to see family members and is living in France on renewable 10-year residency permits.
In November 2016, she returned to the XUAR for a two-week trip upon the request of her former work unit to sign papers related to her retirement.
However, she said that once she returned home, authorities confiscated her passport and on Jan. 29, 2017 locked her in a detention centre.
“They locked me up in the detention centre on accusations of having committed the crime of organizing people and disturbing the social order, but I’ve never done such a thing,” she told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“Later they showed me a photo of one of my daughters with the [East Turkestan] flag wrapped around her at a protest [against repression in the XUAR]and told me my daughter was a terrorist,” she added, using the name preferred by Uyghurs for their homeland.
“They detained me on accusations that my husband had gone to France and sought political asylum, that he’d taken part in [political]organizations, that I was the wife of a terrorist, the mother of a terrorist.”
Haitiwaji spoke about the conditions and treatment in the camp, in the XUAR’s prefectural-level city of Karamay (in Chinese, Kelemayi) including the ways she was interrogated, the brainwashing sessions, prohibited from using the Uyghur language, and the presence of cameras throughout the facility.
“Our clothing was very thin and we had shackles on our ankles—it was so cold. The lights were on 24/7 in both the detention camps and the cells … Our food was also horrible,” she said.
While in the camp, Haitiwaji said she received shots from the camp staff on two separate occasions, a detail in line with accounts given by other survivors, who have in some cases described more frequent and regular series of shots or blood withdrawals.
The authorities told her and her cellmates that the shots were to prevent the flu, but following the treatment, many of the younger women detained there stopped menstruating, she said.
Eventually, Haitiwaji was found “innocent” of the charges against her and on Aug. 21, 2019, she was able to return to France.
Upon her arrival, Haitiwaji spent a period focusing on her physical and mental health. She told RFA that she has given anonymous testimony about her ordeal to French government agencies as well as to human rights organizations in Europe and throughout the world.
Ultimately, she decided that writing a book about her experiences in the camp would be the best way for her to go public with her story and she began the work in early 2020. Her book is co-authored by French journalist Rozenn Morgat and was published in French on Jan. 13.
“In writing this book, I want to tell people about what happened in the camp in Karamay, about the difficult days that came upon me,” she said.
“Ultimately, with my book … my hope is that the Chinese government will let up on the pressure it’s putting on Uyghurs, that it will close the camps. That this book will have an impact and that people around the world will care even more once they hear [my story].” (Source: RFA)