‘I took a business trip to China. Then I got shackled to a chair.’ The heartbreaking stories of Uyghurs in exile

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ISTANBUL, TURKEY—They brought her to a small, windowless room.

Jalilova Gulkbahar says there were dozens of other women hunched over, their wrists shackled to their feet.

She recalls screaming.

A camp worker rushed over to urge her to stay quiet.

“Please don’t scream. Breaking rules will be punished,” the worker whispered in Uygher.

Gulkbahar, a businesswoman and grandmother of Uyghur heritage, was detained in May 2017, and says she spent the next 15 months in that 375-square-foot room, part of a Chinese internment centre, sickness, hunger, sexual harassment from guards and gruelling interrogations in an underground cell.

Hers is one of the stories now emerging from Uyghurs of their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government.

Since 2014, more than one million members of the Uyghur ethnic group have been taken to massive internment centres in China’s far west Xinjiang region, according to the UN.

An extensive network of specially constructed complexes and repurposed prisons is part of a long-running suppression of Muslims in China that has seen thousands jailed on vague charges, mosques and graveyards demolished, and children separated from their parents, according to researchers.

The Chinese government first denied the existence of the camps, then described them as voluntary “vocational training centres” that provided job training to improve economic standards and prevent violent religious extremism.

Canada has accepted 2,169 asylum claims from mainland China since the beginning of 2015 including some who are Uyghurs, according to public case files. The Immigration and Refugee Board does not track the ethnic or religious background of claimants.

Meanwhile, an estimated 35,000 Uyghurs have sought a safe haven in Turkey. Many Uyghurs in the country live in a state of limbo without passports or work and permanent residency permits.

On a recent visit to Turkey, the Star spoke to several Uyghurs-in-exile, about their experiences, their fears and their hopes.

These are their stories, in their own words.

Each week inside the Xinjiang internment camp, grandmother Jalilova Gulkbahar watched propaganda videos and wrote letters praising the Communist leadership of Chinese president Xi Jinping, hoping that good behaviour would lead to her release.

The businesswoman: Jalilova Gulkbahar, 55, speaking through a translator

I was born and raised in Kazakhstan. I speak Uyghur and the Russian language. In 1996, my husband and I divorced and I had to support my kids, so I started a company buying women’s accessories in Xinjiang and selling them in Kazakhstan. On one of my regular business trips, I was woken up in my hotel when three plainclothes police officers showed up and took me to the police station.

They took my passport and phone away. Then they shackled me to a tiger chair (a steel chair with heavy bars preventing movement) and kept asking me what my ethnicity was. I told them I’m a foreigner and free to go wherever I want to, and they were so unhappy about the answer. At 11 p.m. at night they brought me to the camp.

First, they stripped me naked and searched all over my body, then gave me a yellow tunic and a small cup to pee in. They also took a blood sample, took my fingerprints and used machines to scan my eyes and face. I asked for a lawyer and they said, “No lawyer for you.”

At the camp, the low-level workers were Uyghur and the managers were Han Chinese. They gave me a Chinese name and an ID number. I worried that if the Kazakh embassy was looking for me they wouldn’t be able to find me with my new Chinese name.

Each room contained about 45 women, from young teenagers to seniors as old as 80. We used a toilet in the front, and up on the wall was a television that showed Xi Jinping’s speeches every Friday afternoon. They rotated us women between different rooms so we couldn’t get to know each other.

We did not take showers inside the camps. Because we weren’t able to shower, our hair had bugs. So one day they took us to get our hair removed. We were able to exercise once every 10 days, but we had to exercise naked. We only had mantou (white buns) and vegetable broth to eat.

One young woman became mentally broken. When she was taken away for questioning, she came back and couldn’t stop screaming. They took her away again and her bones were broken and her skin was black and blue. She screamed even more. They locked her hands to her feet and she had to use the toilet like that. She couldn’t stop screaming and crying.

Three months later, I was taken for questioning. The guard called out my name during morning roll-call and I was very scared. They put a black bag over my head and took me somewhere underground. They asked me to sign a form in Chinese. I kept refusing and said I couldn’t read it.

Jalilova Gulkbahar shows a picture of a "tiger chair," a device the Chinese state uses to confine suspects and interrogate them.

A police officer said if I refuse to sign, he’ll put his penis in my mouth.

I often fainted during questioning. My health wasn’t good. I went to the camp hospital several times. One time I was in the hospital, I overheard nurses talking about an inmate who died. When guards brought her to the hospital, she was near death and they said her body felt so soft, like she didn’t have bones. I thought it must’ve been the girl who was screaming.

People don’t even treat animals like this. I later found out my children were writing letters to the Kazakh government and the president of Russia and the United Nations. They didn’t give up. I don’t know if the pressure helped, since no government or UN official ever reached out to me but, somehow, I was freed while the other women were not.

They (the guards) first took me to the camp hospital to check my body and the doctor said the lack of sunlight and fresh air made my body develop a full rash. I went from 50 kilograms to 35 kilograms in those 15 months. On the hospital bed, they tried to take the shackles off my feet but the metal was stuck to my skin. I was scared and started crying. A nurse said, “Don’t cry, they are releasing you. Keep quiet. You can cry after.”

They wanted me to look normal. Maybe if I looked horrible when I returned home it would make the Chinese government look bad. They took me to a hair salon and dyed my very short hair black and put makeup on me. Then they took me to the airport but I wasn’t able to call to let my children know I was coming home.

I moved to Istanbul because Kazakhstan shares a border with China and I do not feel safe there. I want to speak out and tell people about what happened. I don’t think I’m brave. Every day in the camp, I thought I was going to die.

Yusupjan Sulaiman fled China in fear of arrest after police questioned him for travelling abroad. He now lives in Istanbul and hasn't heard from his family in years.

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The singer: Yusupjan Sulaiman, 39, speaking in English

My hometown is Urumqi. I studied English for three months then went to Chengdu (in southwestern China) to pursue my music career. That’s where I met many foreigners and had a good time and heard about what life was like in Western countries.

But when I returned home, the military police were everywhere. There was a huge crackdown after the attacks. (About 200 people, mostly Han, were killed in clashes between ethnic Han Chinese and Uyghurs in 2009 in Urumqi). I felt really uncomfortable. They looked at us all like terrrorists. I didn’t want to stay.

I tried to apply for a visa to go to the U.S. twice in 2015 and failed twice. A travel agent suggested that I travel elsewhere before trying to go to America, so I spent time in Dubai and Istanbul, because it was easy to get visas for those places.

My local police station called me. A Chinese officer asked me on the phone, “Yusuf, are you back? Where did you go?” I said, “I went to Dubai and Istanbul, but I’m back in Chengdu now.” He said, “Next time you go out, first you let us know.”

I was really scared. I was worried something bad would happen to me like the other Uyghur people who disappeared. I gave up everything, forgot about the 30,000 yuan ($5,600) I had lent to friends and packed a little bag and went back to Turkey the next day. It was June 29, 2016.

One day after I arrived in Istanbul, police called me on WeChat and asked, “Why did you go out? Why didn’t you tell us? When will you come back?”

First, he was nice and I told him I just wanted to stay for a little time. They didn’t stop. They found out my Istanbul phone number and kept calling on my WhatsApp. They tried to convince me by saying they would give me a job.

The police went to my parents’ home. They put my dad on the phone. I could tell he was so scared. His voice was shaking. I didn’t know what to do. If I returned home and got arrested I don’t know if that would help my family. I tried to reach out to my family members on WeChat and then my WeChat account got shut down.

I got a new phone number and I haven’t heard from police or my family since then. My friends told me my family members, including my brothers, were taken away by police, and then I lost touch with my friends, too. I told them to get out of China, but they didn’t listen to me.

I couldn’t sleep at night and only sleep during the daytime. I worry there are spies following me in Istanbul. I know there are Chinese spies here. I keep having nightmares.

Turkey is not a democracy. The Turkish government is getting closer to China and the local people here are becoming less friendly to us as more of us come here. I sing at Uyghur weddings sometimes to make some money, but the locals don’t accept us even though I can sing in Turkish, too. I want to go to a free country, like Canada, and get help from a democratic country to look for my family. I know it’s hard, but it’s the only hope to find my family.

Abdurehim Parac is a Uyghur poet who was jailed in China without trial.

The poet: Abdurehim Paraç, 40, speaking through a translator

I was a hardworking student. I studied economics at Kashgar University. But one day I went to an event organized by students at my school about pan-Turkic culture. That’s when my troubles began.

In 1997, police arrested me and sentenced me without trial to three years in prison. I never found out what crime I committed, but the officers had interrogated me about my activities at the university. In 2000, I was released and I tried to get my life back to normal.

I married in 2008 and later had four kids with my wife. I started a business in Urumqi selling bed sheets and textiles. We were happy. Then the 2009 riots happened. I was detained for one month and then, after that, police always closely monitored me and my family. We were very worried about our children’s safety.

In 2014, we decided that I would try to escape with my second-oldest son and then arrange to get the rest of the family out. We used illegal human smugglers because we did not have passports and didn’t have other ways.

I became separated from my 11-year-old boy. I arrived in Istanbul and couldn’t find him. The smugglers said he was brought to Syria because he was needed there. They stole him to become an extremist.

Of course, the Turkish police didn’t help me. They detained me in an immigration centre for seven months to investigate whether I was a terrorist and then they let me go. I have no recourse. Although I haven’t been deported back to China, I have no ID, no permanent residency and no passport.

My only income is from writing. Last year, I published a book of Uyghur songs. Six days after publication, Turkey police detained me again for questioning. I have just published another book and worry I will get in trouble again.

There are more Uyghurs in Istanbul now. We’ve started bookshops and we want to preserve our language and culture and teach the children about our homeland.

I have no expectations for Western countries. I just hope people can know about our struggles. If there is one thing I can ask the Canadian government for, it’s to help find out what happened to our families. Help our children. Give them scholarships, and let them study in your universities. Uyghur children can still have a good future.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. With a file from the Associated Press.

Joanna Chiu

Joanna Chiu is a senior journalist for Star Vancouver covering both Canada-China relations and current affairs on the West Coast. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu





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