Xinjiang has descended into darkness. Cries of anguish and suffering can be heard from the northwest region of China. Internment camps, known as “re-education camps” to some, but concentration camps to others, are thought to be housing some of the most brutal human rights violations seen in recent memory. Families have been torn apart. Mothers have lost sons, daughters have lost fathers. While the world looks to China with despair, the Uighur population faces the threat of eradication.
Forced abortion, sterilisation, and torture are just some of the human rights violations of which China has been accused. It is believed over one million Uighurs have been detained and placed in “re-education camps” or prisons. Jevlan Shirmemmet lost both his parents and brother when they were taken to the camps in 2018. “We just need hope”, he says. “My mother… our family members [are] now in hell. Not in prison… [it] is hell”.
With the continuing threat of complete annihilation haunting the Uighur population, stories of gross abuses are being leaked to the outside world. One doctor talks of the brutal treatment of women within the indoctrination camps. “In 20 years I participated in at least 500 to 600 operations, including forced contraception, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, and forced removal of wombs”. Such actions, she claims, were on behalf of the Chinese government.
Ruqiye Perhat spent four years in prison after being arrested in 2009. She says any woman or man under the age of 35 was “raped and sexually abused” while in detention. She details frequent personal sexual abuse at the hands of Chinese guards, resulting in two abortions while in prison. In a particularly harrowing account, Kazakh and Chinese citizen Gulzira Mogdyn tells of her forced abortion following her arrest in 2017. After being found 10 weeks pregnant, her foetus was cut out without any anaesthesia.
Despite such distressing accounts of abuse and violations of human rights, China denies any wrongdoing. The camps believed to be facilitating such heinous acts are described as ‘training centres’ designed to help prevent extremism in the region. In 2017 a statement from the Chinese Communist Youth League read: “The training [within the camps] has only one purpose: to learn laws and regulations… to eradicate from the mind thoughts about religious extremism and violent terrorism, and to cure ideological diseases”. It added: “If the education is not going well, we will continue to provide free education, until the students achieve satisfactory results and graduate smoothly”.
However, activists and former detainees claim such detention centres are designed to help curb China’s Muslim population. Gulnar Omirzakh, a Chinese-born Kazakh who was forcibly fitted with an intrauterine device after giving birth to a third child, says: “God bequeaths children on to you. To prevent people from having children is wrong… They want to destroy us as people”.
Interrogation and torture is believed to be widespread within China’s so-called ‘training centres’. Following a visit abroad to see his father, Mehmet was imprisoned for 16 months. “The torture was relentless”, he says. “They used a white water pipe and hit the soles of my feet and bottom over a hundred times. Next day I had blood when passing water”. Mehmet claims officers told him he had not yet felt the severity of the pain enough. “They beat me with a twisted wire and pipe nonstop. There was no place without bruising”. He adds: “They tortured me for three hours; I couldn’t cope any longer so I begged them to take me down from hanging. Then they placed me on a chair facing backwards and hit my bottom. After screaming and begging for so long I passed out”. Mehmet is just one of thousands to experience such harrowing abuse.
Gulbahar Jalilova, who spent over a year in a crowded underground prison cell, speaks of detainment alongside forty other women. She details the horrific methods in which authorities abused her, one of which being the now infamous ‘tiger chair’. “They put five kilos of chains on me and I was interrogated for 24 hours… my legs were tied with this chain and my feet got swollen. The chair was made of metal and it was squeezing me”. Jalilova was also injected with various unknown substances while being forced tablets to stop her periods. “This isn’t indoctrination”, says Dr Erkin Sidick, President of the Uyghur Project Foundation, “it’s eradication”.
The Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, described allegations of abuse as “false”, claiming the Muslim group receive the same treatment as any other ethnicity in his country. However, chilling drone footage which emerged earlier this year depicted prisoners being blindfolded and led to trains. Despite verification by numerous security services, Xiaoming claimed he “did not know” what the footage was and said: “sometimes you have a transfer of prisoners, in any country”. Such a response should come as no surprise. Chinese President Xi Jinping has frequently denied any violations of human rights, most recently claiming interned Uighurs are simply taught the “correct” outlook on China. In a speech during a CCP conference on Xinjiang in late last year, Xi said: “The sense of gain, happiness, and security among the people of all ethnic groups has continued to increase”. He further claimed the ‘education’ guides “all ethnic groups on establishing a correct perspective on the country, history and nationality”, while adding: “practice has shown that the party’s strategy for governing Xinjiang in the new era is completely correct”.
Furthermore, a shocking report released in December 2020 suggested half a million Uighur Muslims are being forced to handpick cotton through a ‘coercive labour scheme’ in Xinjiang. The leaked government documents suggest workers are under police surveillance alongside ‘military style management’ and ideological training.
It is also believed Uighur families are being separated by authorities. Sakandar Hayat travelled from Xinjiang to his native Pakistan alongside his son Arafat to celebrate Ramadan in 2017. After three weeks, the duo rushed back to China after receiving a call claiming his wife, an ethnic Uighur, had been detained. Upon arrival at the Chinese border, 19-year-old Arafat, a Uighur like his mother, was arrested to be questioned on their activities in Pakistan. “Don’t separate us”, Hayat begged. “Question him in front of me. I’ll be silent and he will speak the truth”. The authorities refused, telling him he would have his son back in a week. He wouldn’t see Arafat again for two years. During that time, Hayat was repeatedly denied a visa to China while also having his two daughters, aged 7 and 12, sent to an orphanage in Kashgar without his consent. Hayat would not hear word of his family’s whereabouts until 2019, when he was provided an all-too-familiar response from Chinese officials: his son was receiving an “education” to combat what Beijing labels “extremism, separatism, and terrorism”.
Hayat’s native Pakistan, frequently a vocal critic of the mistreatment of Muslims, has faced widespread criticism for its silence on the Uighur situation. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently claimed he does not “know much about the scale of abuse” while acknowledging his country is indebted to China: “They came to help us when we were at rock bottom”. Any criticism from the Pakistani government has also been retracted, with the most recent incident occurring following comments from religious affairs minister, Noor-ul-Haq-Qadra, who slammed Beijing for battering Uighurs in the name of counterterrorism. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi contradicted such comments by claiming the media were simply “trying to sensationalise” events in Xinjiang with Imran Khan declaring such abuse is “nothing compared to what’s happening in India, in Kashmir”.
The future looks bleak. China is facing widespread condemnation, with Donald Trump’s administration imposing sanctions on Beijing and Boris Johnson’s government accusing the CCP of “egregious” human rights abuses. However, condemnation means very little to those facing torture, forced sterilisation, and countless other injustices on a daily basis. With birth rates in Muslim-majority regions declining by as much as 60%, it is plain to see the Uighur population of China face demographic genocide. To talk of prevention of a crisis is to talk of inaction. Facing genocide, the likes of which has not been seen for a significant number of years, it is fair to say the Uighurs are already in the midst of a crisis. As the number of disappearances rise and the birth rates fall, more families are subjected to unimaginable pain and sorrow. Praying for survival, for justice, and for a reunion with loved ones, the community is now left with nothing but hope. But, much like the Uighurs themselves, even this is beginning to disappear.