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March 2020 Issue [Readings]

At the Mind’s Limits


From transcripts of interviews conducted by David Stavrou with Sayragul Sauytbay, a Uighur woman from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China, where the United Nations estimates that between one and two million Uighurs were held in internment camps in 2018. When Sauytbay was released in March 2018, after five months of imprisonment, she fled to Kazakhstan and reunited with her husband and children. The family was granted asylum in Sweden, where they now live. Portions of the interview were published in Haaretz in October of last year.

In November 2017, I was ordered to report to an address in the city’s suburbs, to leave a message at a phone number I had been given and to wait for the police. I did this, and when four armed men in uniform arrived, they covered my head and bundled me into a vehicle. After an hour’s journey we arrived at an unfamiliar place. I soon learned that this was a reeducation camp. I was told I had been brought there to teach Chinese and was immediately made to sign a document. I was very afraid to sign. It said that if I did not fulfill my task, or if I did not obey the rules, I would receive the death penalty. The document stated that I was forbidden to speak with the prisoners, forbidden to laugh, forbidden to cry, and forbidden to answer questions from anyone. I signed it because I had no choice, and then I received a uniform and was taken to a tiny bedroom with a concrete bed and a thin plastic mattress. There were five cameras on the ceiling—one in each corner and another one in the middle.

The other inmates lived in crowded sixteen- square-meter rooms occupied by twenty prisoners each. There were cameras in their rooms, too, and also in the corridor. Each room had a plastic bucket for a toilet. Every prisoner was given two minutes a day to use the toilet, and the bucket was emptied only once a day. If it filled up, you had to wait until the next day. The prisoners wore uniforms, their heads were shaved, and their hands and feet were shackled even as they slept. There were twenty-five hundred prisoners in the camp, all of them Uighur or Kazakh. The oldest person I met was a woman of eighty-four; the youngest, a boy of thirteen.

During the day, which started at 6 am and ended at midnight, inmates had to learn Chinese, sing party songs, confess their crimes and moral offenses, and recite Communist Party propaganda slogans like “Thank you to the Communist Party,” “I am Chinese,” and “I love Xi Jinping.”

We received three meals a day. All the meals included watery rice soup or vegetable soup and a small slice of Chinese bread. Meat was served on Fridays, but it was pork. The inmates were compelled to eat it, even if they were religiously observant. Refusal brought punishment. There was no medical treatment, and they gave us pills that they told us prevented diseases, but the nurses secretly told me that the pills were dangerous and that I should not take them. Some prisoners who took the pills were cognitively weakened. Women stopped getting their period and there were rumors that men became sterile.

The only room that didn’t have cameras was the Black Room, which was used to torture the prisoners. Some were hung on the wall and beaten with electrified truncheons. There were prisoners who were made to sit on a chair of nails. I saw people return from that room covered in blood. Some came back without fingernails.

The fate of the women in the camp was particularly harsh. On an everyday basis the policemen took the pretty girls with them, and the girls didn’t come back to the rooms all night. The police had unlimited power. They could take whomever they wanted.

One day, the police told us they were going to check to see whether our reeducation was succeeding, whether we were developing properly. They took two hundred inmates outside—men and women—and told one of the women to confess her sins. She stood before us and declared that she had been a bad person, but now that she had learned Chinese, she had become a better person. When she was done speaking, the policemen ordered her to disrobe and raped her, one after the other, in front of everyone. While they were raping her, they checked to see how we were reacting. People who turned their heads or closed their eyes, and those who looked angry or shocked, were taken away, and we never saw them again. After that happened, it was hard for me to sleep at night.

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March 2020

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