“I Want To Live”A Victim of Repression in Xinjiang Awaits New Life
In China’s Xinjiang region, officials have forced hundreds of thousands of residents into internment camps. Activist Zhanargul Zhumatai describes how she got through her reeducation program – and why she lives in fear of being arrested again.
By Christoph Giesen und Katharina Graça Peters
24.01.2023, 12.31 Uhr
Her mother walks to the front door every morning at 8 a.m. to listen, says Zhanargul Zhumatai. Will the men come back? She herself sometimes sits at the window of the apartment, looking out from the second floor into the smog-shrouded street outside their home in Ürümqi. The last time they picked her up, Zhumatai says, the men were wearing black uniforms and leather boots.DER SPIEGEL 4/2023
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 4/2023 (January 21st, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
Zhumatai says she was interned in camps in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang for more than two years, just like hundreds of thousands others, most of them from the Muslim Uyghur population, but also members of the Kazakh minority. Like Zhumatai.
Now Zhumatai hasn’t dared to go out on the street for days, with relatives setting food in front of her door. After all, she dared to speak out publicly against the injustice that she faces in Xinjiang.
A High Risk
What is happening in Xinjiang is a human rights crime that is largely taking place in secret. Only a few former camp inmates have managed to escape abroad. What the world knows about the camps and the state-organized terror in Xinjiang comes primarily from leaks with the Chinese apparatus, such as the Xinjiang Police Files , which DER SPIEGEL published last year together with international media partners.
But Zhumatai isn’t speaking from the safety of exile. She is speaking directly from Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
It’s the beginning of January and the 47-year-old is sitting in the hallway of her apartment. She knows that it is extremely risky to speak to journalists on the phone. In Xinjiang, even a phone call to relatives abroad can result in long stints behind bars. Authorities in the region have imposed prison sentences of 10, 15 and sometimes even 20 years for even minor putative offenses. The secret verdicts found in the Xinjiang Police Files refer to charges like “planning a terrorist act” or “disturbing of the public order.” Those who grow out their beards or read the Koran are locked away. Zhumatai is also afraid. But she wants to go public with her experiences so that the world will know who is responsible if she disappears.
She says that she and her relatives received calls almost every day from the authorities.
“The police told my brother that I was giving away state secrets. They told me I should check myself into a psychiatric ward or they would come and get me. My relatives begged me: ‘Go to the clinic.’ But I refused. If they want to come and arrest me, then let them. I’m not going to open the door for them.”
Zhumatai speaks Uyghur and seems composed. Her descriptions of her time in the camps and the extensive controls in Xinjiang are consistent with other witness accounts. Activists and scholars who have studied the situation in Xinjiang for years also consider them to be credible. DER SPIEGEL examined letters to the authorities and identification documents.
Zhumatai grew up in a village in Xinjiang, mainly with other Kazakhs, but also Han Chinese and Uyghurs. She says she tended sheep and picked strawberries in her childhood. As an adult, she spent years commuting between Ürümqi and the Kazakh city of Almaty, where she studied journalism, before going on to work for a Kazakh broadcaster. From 2008 on, she devoted herself primarily to the task of preserving the culture of the Kazakh minority in Xinjiang, recording CDs of folk songs and publishing booklets on arts and crafts.
The more intensively she studied Kazakh culture in China, the clearer it became to her that her people were being bullied by the authorities, she says.
The authorities claimed the pastureland of the nomadic minority, forcing the herders to move into newly built housing developments. Zhumatai helped them obtain compensation payments. And she raised the alarm when money once again seeped away to corrupt officials. That, she believes, is what ultimately landed her in hot water.
Hundreds of Thousands Arrested
In the late summer of 2017, Zhumatai received the news that she was to be given a cultural award in Ürümqi. She set out to pick it up, but it was a trap. The men in the black uniforms and leather boots arrested her. The official reason: She had traveled to a so-called “focus country” – the reference is evidently Kazakhstan – and banned software had been found on her mobile phone, Facebook and Instagram. She was locked up.
Hundreds of reeducation camps have been established throughout the region since 2017. Though they are secured with anti-tank barriers, watchtowers and barbed wire, the Chinese leadership has consistently sought to downplay them as vocational training centers. Allegedly, everything was completely voluntary. But Chinese government documents from the Xinjiang Police Files show that a shoot-to-kill order was in effect in the camps. Hundreds of thousands, probably over a million people, have been temporarily detained in them.
According to her account, Zhumatai had to spend the first four months in the camp reading books about terrorism and the dangers of radicalization in order to become a citizen loyal to the state. She says she memorized the texts because she hoped to be released sooner. But she remained locked up for two years and 23 days.
“I took refuge in a dream world,” she says.
“There were 10 to 15 women in one cell. The neon lights on the ceiling burned incessantly. During interrogations, I was handcuffed and shackled so tightly that they cut my skin,” she says.
Zhumatai’s day began at 6 a.m. After exercise and breakfast, classes began at 9:30 a.m. For eight hours a day, they hammered the achievements of the Communist Party into her and the other inmates, and they also sang patriotic songs. Once a week, the women had to take a written test. Daily life in the camp, she says, was difficult to bear.
“I took refuge in a dream world and imagined myself climbing a mountain and screaming it all out – going into the forests around Ürümqi, with their rivers and streams.”
She says that her stomach began hurting as a result of an ulcer. She was repeatedly given the wrong medicine and vomited. Zhumatai says she was often barely able to eat and lost more than 30 kilograms (66 pounds) by the end of her imprisonment.
China’s brutal policy for Xinjiang is tearing families apart. Some married couples haven’t seen each other again to this day. Boys and girls have been separated from their parents and told that mom and dad were attending continuing education courses. Zhumatai says she wasn’t allowed to call relatives during the first 10 months behind bars. It wasn’t until July 2018 that her sister was able to visit her. Starting in May 2019, she was allowed to leave the camp once a week, during which time she had to surrender her passport.
Zhanargul Zhumatai: “My lightness and joie de vivre are gone.” Foto: privat
They released her on Oct. 18, 2019, without telling her why. But the constant surveillance continued.
At the omnipresent checkpoints in Xinjiang, guards scan her ID card and know immediately that she has been detained; it’s all in the database. The company she started to promote Kazakh culture is no longer active. She says that any attempt to revive it is hampered by the authorities. Her attempts to obtain her money that has been seized have also been in vain, she says
She laments that she has constantly been the subject of intimidation and harassment since her release.
“I’m not treated like a human by the officers, I’m treated like a dog on a short leash. My lightness and joie de vivre are gone. I used to go out a lot, I danced, I sang. But I haven’t felt like doing anything since I was in the camp. When I go shopping, I get stopped at a checkpoint. When I tell others what has happened to me, I get called an agent or a spy.”
Zhumatai says she sought care at the hospital because of the stomach ulcer, but the doctor refused her treatment. It was only when she used the ID of a friend who had not been at the camp that she received medication.
She believes the only way out for her is to leave Xinjiang. In 2019, the Chinese government allowed around 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to emigrate to Kazakhstan. Zhumatai says she has tried several times to get her passport back, but each time, the authorities come up with a different reason for refusing to return it. In a letter to the Commission for Politics and Law for the Xinjiang Region in February 2021, she wrote that as a result of the internment, she had “lost everything,” including her freedom, her health, her daily life, her career and her home.
“I lost everything.”
The last time she felt joy was a long time ago: In the summer of 2020, she visited her aunt in northern Xinjiang. In a selfie, she is wearing a heart-shaped earring and smiling, horses grazing in the background. It looks like a happy moment. Otherwise, she says, she has kept to herself.
At the end of 2022, she sought help from friends in Kazakhstan. On December 29, a poet published an appeal to Kazakhstan’s foreign minister on the Kazakh internet portal Abai, asking him to help “our sister.”
An activist living in the United States also became aware of her case. He conducted a two-hour conversation with her and uploaded it to YouTube on December 30. Her story is public now. And that’s how she wants it – she emphasized this several times when asked.
“Since I came back from the camp, I’ve just been vegetating. Instead of dying without having fulfilled my purpose, I am telling my story now. At least then there will be some meaning when I die.”
The police promptly got in touch with her brother, telling him that she was talking to bad people abroad. They said they would apprehend her that day.
Daily Calls from the Police
Zhumatai says the police have called almost every day since then to threaten her. She says she lies awake at night, her heart racing.
Officials with the city administration also check in with her and her sister. They say she should stop talking about compensation for the Kazakh herders. But she isn’t stopping. She records audio messages in Uyghur and Chinese in which she calls on the authorities to ensure “that Kazakh herders and all other peoples living here can build a just and peaceful life.”
One day after her telephone interview with DER SPIEGEL, she received a message from the Kazakh Embassy in Beijing saying they want to help her leave the country. It’s the kind of support that the vast majority of the more than 11 million Uyghurs in the region are not receiving. For them, there is no state that can take care of them or apply pressure on Beijing.
When the invitation letter and visa confirmation from the Kazakh Embassy finally arrived at the Xinjiang immigration office, the documents were full of errors. Her name was misspelled and one of the numerals in her ID number was reversed.
A second invitation arrived three days later, and this time everything is correct. The Chinese authorities are now demanding a copy of her ID card, passport photos, a completed application form, her household registration, several signatures and stamps from different authorities.
On January 18, Zhumatai finally ventured out of her home to apply for her passport. For security reasons, she filmed herself as she visited the authorities. The Kazakh activist in the U.S. later posted the video. In it, Zhumatai can be seen climbing the steps of a mighty administrative building in bone-chillingly cold Ürümqi. There are no police waiting to arrest her.
She will find out in mid-February whether she will receive a passport. And whether she will finally be able to leave for Kazakhstan. Or whether she has to stay in Xinjiang.
Zhumatai sends an audio message. There’s a little noise in the background, but her voice can still be heard clearly. She says in Uyghur: “I’m a human being, I have a soul. I want to live.”
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