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How I Survived a Chinese "Reeducation" Camp: A Uyghur Woman's Story

At the risk of dampening your enjoyment of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games, this week’s book is How I Survived a Chinese "Reeducation" Camp: A Uyghur Woman's Story, by Gulbahar Haitiwaji, coming out February 22nd from Seven Stories Press.

It is a harrowing story, made all the more harrowing by the fact that Ms. Haitiwaji and her family had been living safely in France as political refugees since 2006. But in 2016, China lured her back with a claim that she had an administrative issue from her former oil company job that had to be cleared up.

Her husband had long sensed the repression by China against the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region would worsen, and in 2002 he emigrated, first to Kazakhstan, then Norway, and finally France. It took a year for him to get his asylum papers, and during that time he often lived in Paris homeless shelters, or slept in the Metro or in airport terminals. His wife Gulbahar and his daughters finally joined him in 2006.

Gulbahar still retained a sense of attachment to her homeland. While her husband had quit his job before emigrating, she had arranged a long-term leave of absence before joining him. While her husband sought permanent residency in France, she opted for a renewable ten-year residency permit. In the first years, she made yearly trips back to Xinjiang to visit her family.

By 2016, the repression in Xinjiang had worsened, and she hadn’t gone back to visit for several years. Still, the demand that she come back to deal with these “administrative issues” didn’t seem too outlandish. It was just the way the Chinese bureaucracy worked. And she would have a chance to see her family again. She booked a two-week trip for November of 2016. “They’re bound to ask questions,” her husband said of the Chinese police. “But don’t worry. There’s nothing they can do to you. Your family is in France.”

She was indeed called in for questioning, but it did not go as she or her husband had believed. The police showed her a photograph of her daughter at a Paris pro-Uyghur demonstration. "Your daughter is a terrorist!" They took her passport. For two months she waited for them to conclude their 'investigation' and allow her to return to France.

But then, she was arrested and imprisoned. She would not return to France for over three years.

During those years, she was subject to disgusting food, harsh conditions and frequent interrogations. People taken from her shared cell for interrogation sometime did not come back. She was shackled around the ankles. At one point, she was shackled to her bed for two weeks as punishment for some unspecified infraction.

After six months, Gulbahar was transferred to a reeducation camp, which at first subjected the inmates to long, grueling physical exercise. Those who collapsed during the exercises were dragged away and not seen again. Later, the daily regimen shifted to eleven-hour days of classes and indoctrination. Interrogations continued, now ranging over her life back to the 1980s. In her entire first year of imprisonment, she was only allowed two brief visits from her mother and sisters, and no contact with her husband and daughters back in France.

After two years, she was transferred to another camp, where she was strip-searched, and then imprisoned to await trial. When the trial finally came, it lasted nine minutes, and she was sentenced to seven years. She continued to face hundreds of hours of interrogations, and ultimately forced to make a filmed ‘confession.’

But beginning back in 2017, reports began to leak to the West about the Chinese repression of the Uyghurs, and international outcry was increasing. In 2019, Gulbahar’s daughter went on French television demanding the Chinese reveal what had happened to her mother. Her family was trying everything they could think of to exert pressure for her release.

In the end, the Chinese transferred her to a sort of monitored freedom in the town in which she was originally imprisoned. After nearly three years, she was finally allowed to phone her family back in France, with a dozen Chinese police listening in. And then, suddenly, her sentence was revoked, her passport returned, and Gulbahar was allowed to return to France.

It is a harrowing and shocking story, even if it could have been worse. The Chinese are estimated to have detained over one million Uyghurs in their “reeducation camps.” Many have been killed, many have been tortured.

We now return you to your Beijing Winter Olympic programming.