How Gulbahar Haitiwaji survived a Chinese re-education camp, and lived to tell the tale
Gulbahar Haitiwaji, Uyghur, 52 years of age, born 24 December 1966 in Ghulja amid the mountains and meadows of China's border with Kazakhstan, stood up to receive her sentence. No lawyer or defence, simply a nine-minute show trial where she was battered by her so-called "crimes".
As a "separatist and a terrorist", she would be locked up in a "re-education" camp for seven years.
Two years to the day had passed since she was cuffed, shackled, and spirited away into police custody on a routine trip back to her homeland, from her adopted France. After months of unspeakable cruelties and privations, this was finally her day in court.
"Punished for speaking at meals, praying or rejecting food, they were made to stand motionless for long periods by masochistic whistle blowing guards. Those who collapsed disappeared, forever"
She was one of the lucky ones, he had said. Her crimes had been worthy of prison but they were giving her a chance to redeem herself. She would be re-educated at state expense. They sincerely hoped she would see the error of her ways.
Those two words "seven years" would define her future. Would she survive? She had been through enough already to question even that.
Gulbahar Haitiwaji's harrowing deep dive into almost three years of incarceration without charge or legal trial in China's troubled North West is a chilling reflection of the terror used by the Communist regime to break a human being and her nation, to crush their spirit and to make them silently disappear.
In How I survived a Chinese re-education camp, Gulbahar recounts three years of madness and Pinteresque interrogators who taunted and teased, beat and humiliated her until she was "dead inside."
As they played with her mind hour after hour with endless repetitive questions designed to trip her up and confuse, she was tricked into signing away her freedom with imaginary charges of terrorism and plots against the state.
Having lived in France with her husband Kerim and two daughters since 2006, but with an elderly mother and family still in Xinjiang, she kept her Chinese passport should she need to return suddenly.
Despite stories trickling out of the homeland of disappearances and clampdowns in 2016, she thought a visit home would be safe following an innocent enough summons from her old work unit to return to sign pension papers.
She could have had no idea that as she waved goodbye to her family on 25 November 2016, this was a cynical ruse to lure her into a black hole of terror, torture and silence from which she would not emerge for three years.
The game of cat and mouse began from the moment she landed. Her passport was confiscated, she was called in for interrogation and shown a photograph of her daughter at a demonstration holding an East Turkestan (Uyghur independence) flag in Paris. However she tried to justify this or explain it away, they had already made up their minds. She belonged to a terrorist network and her entire exiled family was intent on destroying the Chinese state.
Forced to miss her return flight, she was harassed for two months with persistent questioning. Local friends started to avoid her and she lost touch with France.
Making someone disappear was easy. Paranoia, fear and suspicion were rife in the new regional chief's Dystopian state. People stopped asking questions. Duped into returning to her work unit one more time to sign the papers in exchange for her coveted passport, three men entered the room who would change the course of her life for the next three years. She vanished.
This housewife and part-time waitress from France, mother of two and a person as indifferent to politics and extremism as it would be hard to find, had found herself at the top of the Chinese state's most wanted list. The local authorities had moved heaven and earth to catch their prize.
The next three years saw Gulbahar crammed into a stream of foul-smelling, concrete-floored cells with a bucket for a toilet and sometimes as many as 40 women. They were all hostages like her. Piercing fluorescent lights 24/7, filthy uniforms and barely enough food to stay alive, served in one place by a bevvy of deaf-mute cooks who could not repeat what they had witnessed.
She was interrogated to the point of madness, cuffed to metal chairs and barely allowed to see the light of day, assuming every call for questioning to be her last. Once she was punished for no reason and chained to her bed for two weeks. They were all sure they were there to die; it was just a matter of when.
"Freedom has been bitter for Gulbahar. Her captivity has changed her forever. Nagging fatigue, splitting headaches and memories of those left behind hound her"
Surveillance in the so-called "Vocational Training" camps was crushing. A far cry from the happy, smiling, dancing Uyghurs paraded for BBC cameras, CCTV followed them around their bare cells, where there was no furniture, no washing facilities or toilet, mattresses or sheets.
Punished for speaking at meals, praying or rejecting food, they were made to stand motionless for long periods by masochistic whistle-blowing guards. Those who collapsed disappeared, forever. One elderly woman dared to close her eyes briefly and blows were rained down on her fragile frame.
Endless pledges of allegiance, repetition of Communist dogma, president’s speeches and patriotic songs filled their 11 hour days.
"Thank you to our great country, thank you to our dear president Xi Jinping, thank you to our party," they chorused."I wish for my great country to develop and have a bright future, I wish for all ethnicities to form a single great nation, I wish good health to President Xi Jinping, long live president Xi Jinping!"
Nights were spent in terror of sudden visits by guards and sleep broken by the bright lights and the sounds of women pleading for mercy down the corridor.
Long term memories began to fade. Gulbahar's children's faces began to blur, she lost touch with everything she had been and the random cruelties, prisoners vanishing, the insults and the slaps, she no longer found shocking. The constant self-criticisms, confessions and repentance emptied her of who she once was. She felt she was becoming an animal.
Deluges of new prisoners began to arrive as the campaign to sweep up to three million Uyghurs into the camps gathered speed. Distraught women filled the cells. "Ghostly shadows filed to bathrooms, screams of women woke us," said Gulbahar whose weight dropped to 50 kgs. "We were pitiful heaps of sagging, warped flesh. Our faces greenish and swollen," she said, describing the dark shadows that lined their eyes and the shapeless mass of hair left after being hacked with clippers.
They were routinely injected with mysterious substances and their periods stopped. They became lethargic and vague. The protest was futile and punishment for resistance unpredictable and sadistic.
Unable to bear the silence and the not knowing, Gulbahar's family in France fell apart. Her husband was inconsolable. Chain-smoking Marlboros, cigarette butts filled the ashtrays, washing piled high and the once immaculately kept French apartment showed signs of strain. One daughter retreated into her room, but the other, Gulhumar sprang into action. French media came on board as did national papers. A petition attracted half a million signatures and the attention eventually of Macron whose aids raised the issue with President Xi Jinping's entourage during a state visit in 2018.
Had this been the key? Was it no longer politic to keep this "foreign traitor" locked up? Had the Kazakh guard detailed to break her finally given in?
Whatever the reason, day seven after a six-day run of interrogations dawned. She had just been moved to a new camp, brand new and reeking of fresh paint. The Rottweiler-Esque guard who had hounded her for two years would still not let go. But the same questions hour after hour evinced a poker-faced calm from his captive. She had learned how to respond over the months.
The cell door opened, she was hooded, shackled, and, braced for more torture, lead into another room where unexpectedly the restraints were removed. They had rusted so much they had to be beaten off her wrists. She was taken into a bathroom, given a change of clothes, and then in a new twist, forced to make a video confession.
"In 2002 despite a comfortable lifestyle my husband went to live in Paris, France. I tried to stop him but he didn’t listen. He took a wrong turn when he became involved with the France Uyghur Association. My daughter Gulhumar followed her father and was led astray. Rebiya Kadeer is a liar and a terrorist. No matter what happens I will choose China. I am on its side," she was coached to proclaim.
"For now Gulbahar is determined that nothing will rob her of the joy of reunion, of shopping and walking down the street not caring who is behind her or who is listening to her conversations"
This it seemed was the prerequisite for release. Something the Chinese government could hold in reserve against her. She had pictured the "freedom moment" for so long, but when it came she felt empty and stripped of all human emotion. "My mind was dark, it was a shapeless pile of painful memories," she recalls. "And that man had the gall to say I was free!"
But they were in no hurry to let her go yet. Six more months of Orwellian games, filled with uncertainty, were to elapse before she could leave. Full of guilt for having betrayed her family, weary and fearful that one wrong move would see her back in a cell, the video "scene" was followed surreally by a new life in a "gilded cage."
Concrete floors were replaced with a soft mattress and fluffy crimson rug, gruel with more food than she could eat, stale crusts with soft, fresh nan, constant neon lighting with lamps she could switch on and off at will, and stained mugs of dirty water with a delicate teapot filled with mint leaves. Trying to quell the constant refrain of Communist ditties and speeches in her head, she filled her day with ridiculous soap operas on TV.
She was kept as the golden goose guarded by eleven captors who were charged with fattening her up and eliciting all they could about the French "terrorist cell" through daily calls with her husband and daughter. The living room became the HQ of an intelligence operation against her own family. Her only chance of freedom was to play the game and do whatever they told her.
Overjoyed to be back in touch, both sides could hardly contain their joy, but the sting in the tail was ever-present. In heavily scripted conversations supervised by her team of minders, she had to coax her daughter to dismantle a Facebook page full of stories of her disappearance and urge them to eschew every high profile activity concerning her and critical of China. She hoped her husband, reading between the lines, might understand the price of her freedom.
Having to pretend she was alone in the room, a team of officers in fact surrounded her with notebooks, recording and analysing every word. These telephone calls simply prolonged the ordeal.
But as the days went by her leash became longer. Family visits were allowed but everyone spoke in code. Some family members had become "sick", some had been taken to "hospital", and others had had "accidents" rendering them unable to walk, or see. Some were enjoying learning new skills at "school." There was an elephant in the room but the careless talk was risky.
Her freedom was ambiguous, tentative and open-ended. She longed to be home for the birth of her first grandchild, but what would the finale look like? Without permission, she risked all to fly to her sick mother's side, and instead of recriminations, all she got from her captors was sympathy. One of them forced to follow, offered help.
They were also waiting for something too it seemed.
Suddenly she was called back to the police station. The next step it seemed was an official written apology. July had arrived, but her signature was dated from the beginning of her house arrest in March. The next stop was a hotel. Then the passport office and finally "court." On 2 August 2019, just short of three years since she landed, a disinterested judge pronounced her innocent.
Innocent! "Who were these psychopaths telling me one day I had to pay for my crimes with seven years in a concentration camp and the next freeing me with something akin to boredom?" she asked.
Her torment had finished in "indifference."
Her passport was returned and a ticket bought for Paris.
That was the end of it.
Freedom has been bitter for Gulbahar. Her captivity has changed her forever. Nagging fatigue, splitting headaches and memories of those left behind hound her. Suspicions abound about her release and old friends keep their distance. Had she been forced to collaborate? Was she a traitor in their midst? She can understand their fears and the paranoia that grips the diaspora. She too frets about the fate of her own family in the wake of her book.
But for now, she is determined that nothing will rob her of the joy of reunion, of shopping and walking down the street not caring who is behind her or who is listening to her conversations. And of Rafael, her grandson, who represents a new generation of her people, that perhaps one day will be free.
The author is writing under a pseudonym to protect her identity