I am an Uighur who faced China’s concentration camps. This is my story.
Varsity, 16 October 2020
Below is an article published by Varsity. Photo Ӧmir Bekali
In early 2017, life looked bright for 41-year old Ӧmir Bekali. A proud father of three, he had a Tourism degree, a small business and several managerial positions under his belt. He was set to lead the Kazakh delegation to the upcoming international Astana Trade Exposition, an event which typically draws in millions.
But in March, a seemingly innocuous trip to promote the event in Xinjiang, northwest China, would ensure he would never attend.
During a short post-work visit to his family in nearby Turpan, on the morning of the 26th March, policemen showed up at the door to arrest him – beginning a near eight month journey of unending physical and psychological torment.
“They shackled my hands and put black fabric [over] my eyes,” Ӧmir says. “I feel my body tremble whenever I remember that moment”.
Ӧmir was born to Uighur and Kazakh parents in Xinjiang, or formerly East Turkestan before the Chinese invasion of 1949. It is now a semi-autonomous region, but for centuries has been home to Uighur Muslims, who make up just under half the population and hold a distinctive culture, religion and language to the country’s majority ethnic Han Chinese.
Economic, cultural and religious discrimination against Uighurs had been brewing for decades. But in 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a new “People’s War on Terror” aimed at fighting regional ‘terrorists’ and ‘separatists’, heralding a new era of mass surveillance, gargantuan police presence and skyrocketing arbitrary imprisonments of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Following his arrest, Ӧmir was thrown into a small police station cell, where he was kept for a week, still with no explanation. He says the room seemed to be built for 12 people, but contained more than 36 others, who, like him, had their arms and legs constantly shackled.
Soon he was transferred to another police station, where he says the authorities subjected him to four “complete” days of torture.
“My feet and my hands were tied up with iron shackles and they beat my hands, they beat my feet … they beat my back and my stomach”, says Ӧmir.
“They put needles in between my nails and my fingers,” he adds, “then they put iron sticks into my sexual organs”.
Ӧmir says he was put into a ‘Tiger Chair’ for long periods, a metal seat-like contraption which restricts movement. Police also hung him from the roof of the cell by his wrists so his feet could not touch the floor, and later smashed his knuckles with hammer-like instruments.
“[Those] scars are still there … whenever I remember those experiences my body shakes”.
Ӧmir thinks his job, which lent itself to significant regional travel, had both aroused the suspicion of the authorities and provided them with the perfect excuse to accuse him of terrorist activities.
“I did not confess anything because I hadn’t done anything,” he says. “Maybe they thought after torture I would just confess something I [had] never done before”.
Soon Ӧmir was moved to a nearby, highly-fortified prison camp, spending seven months locked up, still with no access to lawyers, phones to contact his family with, nor any real explanations for his arrest.
In November 2017, he was transported to his final destination, arriving at one of what China has termed ‘re-education camps’.
Four metre walls and electrical fences surround the complex, Ӧmir recounts, and armed guards patrol the camp at all times of the day and night.
Inside, there are 40 people to a 16 square-metre room. Prisoners as young as 15 and as old as 80 are placed into these cramped cells, he says. Occasionally they are moved to larger rooms, but no-one is allowed outside.
Twenty-four hours a day, prisoners are shackled. Iron chains are tied around their necks, fixed to loose iron blocks that Ӧmir says weigh around eight to ten kilograms, forcing prisoners to always be hunched down. He believes this is just one of the ways in which the camps are designed to instill a submissive posture in prisoners vis-a-vis their captors.
“I stayed in that room with lots of different people, some of them are businesspeople, historians, school professors, writers, singers,” recounts Ӧmir, “they speak much better Chinese than Chinese [people] themselves, and they have more money than Chinese themselves: they don’t need to be re-educated”.
On a typical day at the camp, he says, inmates are woken up at 5am and given a meagre serving of bread and soup. They are then forced to repeatedly sing songs which praise the Chinese Communist party, stress China’s greatness, and show gratitude towards President Xi Jinping personally.
“We sing from when we wake up in the morning ’til lunch and after lunch … we do nothing else, just eat and praise the Chinese communist party,” says Ӧmir.
Prisoners are constantly warned about 48 characteristics considered hostile to the Chinese state, which include growing beards, praying and religious charity-giving, according to Ӧmir. The aim of these drills is clear, he says: “become Han Chinese … forget your religion, forget your culture”.
“[If] you don’t listen to them, or cannot recite Mandarin songs, or roll your eyes, or show just a little bit of discontent with this process,” he argues, then the guards respond with torture.
As Ӧmir often expressed his discontent with his arrest, he found himself tortured once again. He says he was beaten “half to death” and made to stand facing a wall for twenty-four hours without food or drink on some occasions, put in a Tiger Chair for a day in others, or simply placed into solitary confinement in rooms lined with plastic, intended to avoid suicide risks.
“The Chinese government calls [them] re-education camps. Actually there are no re-education camps – all are concentration camps,” he says.
After 20 days, Ӧmir was finally released. His wife had sent endless letters to the UN and Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan, where he was previously naturalised. She had also sat for an interview with Free Asia Radio, all of which pressured two Kazakh Ambassadors to finally visit him and soon after the Chinese authorities to free him.
This is a strikingly different picture to the one China has painted, claiming that the camps provide ‘vocational training’, prisoners can leave at any time and operations are scaling down. But a report released last month found China has built almost 400 new camps since 2017, while new testimonies have emerged alleging slave labour, forced sterilisations and organ harvesting taking place inside the camps too.
“Their goal is just to exterminate all Uighurs in one way or another”, says Ӧmir. China’s labelling of his community as terrorists is a “political game”, he stresses, “we are not violent and we are not radical”.
In 2019, the European Parliament and US Congress passed laws and resolutions condemning these imprisonments, while in the UK, a cross-party parliamentary group is said to be planning new legislation aimed at addressing the humanitarian crisis.
But when 23 countries issued statements to the UN last year denouncing China’s actions, they were met with counter-statements from over 50 – mainly Muslim-majority – nations, who defended China’s human rights policies.
Ӧmir says he is heartened to hear about the UK’s new proposed legislation, and is “grateful to Britain” for considering it. But he laments the international response.
“I want to make it clear that this Uighur genocide is not just [about] religion … it’s a test for humanity, for the whole world,” he says. “I hope the international community takes more drastic actions”.
When asked what Cambridge students can do to help, Ӧmir offers straightforward advice.
“Talk to other people or friends and raise awareness so more people realise the severity of the situation,” he says.
Ӧmir stresses that he “hope[s] students can organise more protests, write more news about Uighurs, and raise the awareness of the general public”. He also suggests donating to charities such as the Hira Foundation in Turkey, which support orphaned Uighur children separated from their parents.
Ultimately, he argues, students represent “the future” of the world’s response to China’s policies.
Soon after Ӧmir decided to speak out, he lost all contact with his extended family back in Xinjiang and says he has no idea if they are even alive. After an 18-month legal struggle, he was granted political asylum in the Netherlands, while his wife and children are living safely in Turkey.
“I am not sure in the future if I can get back to a normal life,” he says. But for now, he insists he will continue to “always endeavour to expose China’s brutality and what is happening in the concentration camps”.