‘When you sit in a concentration camp, you do not decide whether to eat, or not to eat. To be alive, we had to eat the meat served to us’
Sayragul Sautbay was released from a re-education camp in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang two years ago. The mother of two has been suffering from nightmares and flashbacks from the humiliation and violence she had to endure under detention, reports Al Jazeera.
Sautbay, a doctor and an educator, who now lives in Sweden, has recently published a book detailing her plight while being detained, including witnessing beatings, alleged sexual abuse, and forced sterilization.
In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, she talked about these and other horrors Uighurs and other Muslim minorities were subjected to, including the consumption of pork, a meat that is strictly prohibited in Islam.
#Sayragul #Sautbay released a book about her experience at Chinese concentration camp (part 1). Chinese Genocide policy against the Native People of #EastTurkistan #Uygurs #Kazakhs #Kyrgyz #Uzbeks and #Tatars #IndepenceToEastTurkistan #FreeKazakhs pic.twitter.com/otlXJ9X6QQ— FreeKazakhs (@FreeKazakhs) August 20, 2020
“Every Friday, we were forced to eat pork,” Sautbay told Al Jazeera. “They have intentionally chosen a day that is holy for the Muslims. And if you reject it, you would get a harsh punishment.”
The policy was designed to inflict shame and guilt on the Muslim detainees, she said, adding that she could not explain in words what she felt when she had to eat that.
Similar testimonies provided by Sautbay and others show how China seeks to crack down in Xinjiang by striking at the cultural and religious beliefs of the mostly Muslim ethnic minority, reports Al Jazeera.
China is reportedly forcing Uighur Muslims to eat pork, and planning to turn Xinjiang into a pig-rearing hub. https://t.co/3IshBtAChD— Sadanand Dhume (@dhume) December 4, 2020
It started widespread surveillance, and from around 2017, China reportedly opened a network of camps that it justified as “necessary counter extremism.”
Meanwhile, documents made available to Al Jazeera portray the agricultural development that has also become part of what German anthropologist and Uighur scholar, Adrian Zenz, says is a policy of “secularization.”
As per Zenz, the documents and state-approved news articles back the rumours among Uighur communities that there is reportedly an active effort to promote and expand pig farming in Xinjiang
In November 2019, Xinjiang’s top administrator, Shohrat Zakir, announced that the autonomous region would be turned into a “pig-raising hub.”
The Uighurs said that the move is yet another effort to offend their way of life.
One news article published in May that Zenz recorded describes a new farm in the southern Kashgar area, which aims to produce 40,000 pigs every year.
The deal was formally signed on April 23 this year, the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month and states that the pig farming is not meant for export purposes, but instead “to ensure the supply of pork” in Kashgar prefacture.
The Uighurs make up 90% of the population in the city and the surrounding area.
“It is part of the strategy of secularisation, of turning the Uighurs secular and indoctrinating them to follow the communist party and become agnostic or atheist,” he added.
Beijing has defended its policies in the region on numerous occasions, claiming that the approach was required to fight the “three evils” – extremism, separatism, and terrorism. This came following the deadly riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009.
It has denied the existence of the re-education camps in which the United Nations has said more than one million people have been held, instead saying it operates “vocational centres” that allow it to “retrain” the Uighur population and teach them new skills.
‘Links to Pakistan'
Like Sautbay, Uighur businesswoman Zumret Dawut has first-hand experience of detention. She was picked up in March 2018 in Urumqi, the city of her birth.
For two months, authorities demanded explanations about her links to Pakistan, her husband’s homeland, Dawut said.
They questioned her as well about how many children she had, and whether or not they had studied religion and read the Quran.
She says she was humiliated on multiple occasions and was slapped in the face once with a rolled paper after displeasing her interrogator.
Another time, she had to beg the camp’s male officers to allow her to go to the restroom, only for them to leave her handcuffed and watch her the whole time she was in the toilet.
The U.S. accuses China of forcing ethnic Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, into factory and farm jobs against their will. @nickschifrin reports on how Uyghurs end up as forced laborers, and the larger campaign that has ripped Uyghur lives and families apart. pic.twitter.com/UK7YWw3yJ1— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) December 4, 2020
She too says she was served pork repeatedly.
“When you sit in a concentration camp, you do not decide whether to eat, or not to eat. To be alive, we had to eat the meat served to us,” she told Al Jazeera through an interpreter.
Yet those experiences could not have prepared her for what would happen next.
She and several other female detainees were sterilized to prevent them from having more children. The controversy was reported earlier this year by the Associated Press news agency, drawing widespread condemnation.
Starting them young
Sautbay, who was from the town of Ili, ended up in another camp after authorities learned that her husband and their two children had left for neighbouring Kazakhstan in early 2016.
She had originally planned to join them but by then authorities had confiscated her passport and that of other civil servants.
Because of her medical background and experience in running preschools, Sautbay was assigned to teach her fellow detainees the Chinese language, allowing her to closely observe what was happening to the Uighurs.
Han Chinese academics have long complained about "excessive" Uyghur population growth, which they social instability and extremist religious thinking. But efforts to make the Han population dominant were set back by higher Uyghur birth rates, esp. in 2010s (chart). /3 pic.twitter.com/rwrnezJWii— Adrian Zenz (@adrianzenz) June 29, 2020
She says the practice of making Muslims eat pork went beyond the detention camps.
In one school in Altay, a city in northern Xinjiang, students were also forced to eat the meat and when many refused and demonstrated against their school administrators, the government sent in soldiers to intervene, Sautbay said.
The Xinjiang government also started an initiative called “free food” for Muslim children in kindergarten, serving them pork dishes without their knowledge, she added.
The idea was that by starting them young, the Muslim children would acquire a taste for the non-halal food.
“China is using and will use different tactics to force Uighurs and other Muslim population to eat pork,” Sautbay said.
Last year, the Italy-based AsiaNews alleged that during the Chinese Lunar New Year, which happened to be the “Year of the Pig,” government officials reportedly delivered pork directly to Muslim households in Ili, and insisted that Uighurs decorate their homes for the festive season.
‘Normalizing the forbidden’
Arslan Hidayat, a Turkey-based Uighur rights activist and secretary-general of the Uyghur Revival Association, told Al Jazeera that whether it is breeding pigs, or eating pork and drinking alcohol, the Chinese government is attempting to “normalize” prohibited practices for Muslims in Xinjiang.
In 2018, the Reuters also reported on an “anti-halal campaign” in Urumqi “to stop Islam penetrating secular life and fuelling “extremism.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera about China’s overall policy towards Uighurs, Einar Tangen, a China affairs expert based in Beijing, said that the Chinese government “feels strongly” that many of Xinjiang’s residents have been “radicalized” in recent years.
In Beijing’s view, the only way to address the situation in Xinjiang is to give residents “the education that they should have gotten when they were younger.” Thus the “training camps”.
The Trump administration expanded economic pressure on China's Xinjiang province, banning cotton imports from a powerful Chinese quasi-military organization that it says uses forced labor from detained Uighur Muslims https://t.co/L1qBw3t8SQ pic.twitter.com/JCEq2YS4r5— Reuters (@Reuters) December 3, 2020
“This is what they [government] say, and they are moving people through these education camps. They teach them skills, language, history, and that’s their way of dealing with it.”
But the activist Hidayat notes that even non-observant Uighurs, many of them government employees who had tried to adopt a lifestyle similar to the Han Chinese, had not escaped punishment. They too were sent to the camps, by virtue of their racial identity alone, he said.
The Chinese government has had little to say about the issue, although various state-controlled publications questioned the credibility of both Sautbay and Dawut when they made allegations of other abuses in Xinjiang.
Beijing has also accused Zenz, the German anthropologist, of “fabricating facts and falsifying data” and pointed to his links to “right-wing” factions of the US government. China observers also raised questions about his “sudden expertise” on Xinjiang and the Uighurs.
Al Jazeera has sought an official response from China’s foreign ministry but has yet to receive a reply. It has also requested comment from the Institute for Human Rights at China University of Political Science and Law, but it had yet to respond at the time of publication.
Dawut, the Uighur businesswoman now living in exile in the US, says she stands by her story of what happened to her inside the camps.
Meanwhile, Sautbay, the Kazakh medical doctor, said that by sharing her ordeal, she hoped to be a voice for those who remain in captivity.
“The days I have spent in the concentration camp will not be erased from my memory, and I have to live with it my entire life,” she said.