While we admire and promote Sayragul’s testimony, we should also remember Peyzulla, who was ruthlessly killed by the Chinese, as Bitter Winter was the first to reveal.
by Kok Bayraq
Some four years ago, on April 3, 2018, a hero trying to escape the iron cage was killed by Chinese weapons. His goal to expose a genocide to the world was halted by the power of China’s accusation that he was a horse thief. He did everything in his power to save himself and to expose the oppression, but no one could save him, and now few remember him. After the fourth anniversary of his death, through this memoir that proposes a comparison with another hero, I would like to pay my respects to the deceased dissident.
During the first week of April 2018, two people were on the verge of rescuing themselves near the Khorgas border in East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang): Sayragul Sauytbay and Peyzulla Utuq—martyrs of mass detention centers, so called “transformation through education camps,” labeled “vocational training centers” by the CCP.
Sayragul’s heart was pounding at the line of the border with the worries that her fake passport would be noticed, while Peyzulla was concerned that his feet would be visible and his breathing heard in the graveyard where he was hiding.
Before escaping, Sayragul had been compelled to be a “teacher” and Peyzulla was a “student” in separate camps; both were not allowed to contact their families, and were subject to torture.
The raiding operation for Peyzulla, which started on March 27, 2018, widened to the entire Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture at the third day of the operation. More than ten thousand combined personnel of the armed forces and local residents took part in it. To help residents recognize Peyzulla, they were informed that he was wounded and had a white bandage around his neck. The cause of the wound was not mentioned, likely a state secret.
At that days, a warrant notice circulated on social media stating that Peyzulla Utuq was a horse thief, who had escaped from a hospital on March 26, 2018. Actually, the hospitals, party schools, and sanatoriums were used as supplemental camps during the first years of mass detention. The notice also stated that anyone who would provide tips on Peyzulla’s whereabouts that would lead to his capture would be paid 100 thousand yuan. Notably, the market price of a horse in the region was 5–10 thousand yuan.
That he had been a camp inmate was not mentioned, but those capable of thinking understood that so many officers and resources would not have been mobilized to capture a common thief. The CCP wanted Peyzulla because, had he managed to escape abroad, he would have become another powerful witness of the atrocities perpetrated in the camps.
On April 2nd, Peyzulla Utuq decided to leave the graveyard where he was hiding, to purchase bread rather than die of hunger. He was noticed by a resident who was eager to claim the large reward.
On April 3rd, the Chinese police found and besieged Peyzulla at the graveyard, but it was unclear whether he was killed or captured.
Based on language advantage, the Uyghur Service of Radio Free Asia launched a follow up investigation to the raiding operation in the prison-like region and aired four stories about Peyzulla Utuq.
Unfortunately, the RFA’s English section did not translate any of the four Uyghur news articles written about Peyzulla perhaps because it was worried for the fact that he had been labeled a “horse thief,” even though there was no proof to substantiate that accusation.
How had Peyzulla Utuq escaped? What caused the wound to his neck? Did it happen inside or outside the camp? The mystery continued.
Only Bitter Winter, thanks to a local citizen journalist who reported at great risk from inside China, revealed six months later that Peyzulla had been shot dead on the day of the siege at the graveyard and detailed his escape journey. In the article, Peyzulla’s name was spelled as Pazil.
To this day, the incident has received little international attention, and China has never publicized the story beyond the leaked arrest warrant. It is understandable why China is nervously hiding the facts. Extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses in East Turkestan should be silenced at any cost. To do so, a chief witness such as Peyzulla was silenced permanently. China’s attitude is not at all surprising. But why did the international media, with the sole exception of Bitter Winter, so carelessly ignore this incident? Is there no value in reporting this story?
In response to the last question, the different fate of Sayragul and her work and achievement accomplished abroad loudly answer, “No.”
On April 5th, Sayragul Sauytbay crossed the border escaping the guards. She eventually got political asylum in Sweden. She became a chief witness at various international events about the Uyghur genocide.
Sayragul was given an International Woman of Courage award in March 2020. In early 2021, she won the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award. Precisely the fate of Peyzulla proves that those awards were fully deserved. If Sayragul Sauytbay’s false documents had been exposed, her fate would have been death, either through being shot or through a life sentence in jail. Had Peyzulla lived to testify, perhaps he would have received even more awards and might have been able to make an even greater impact than Sayragul. Because in the camps he was a “student,” and “students” there are abused and tortured even more than those like Sauytbay who are compelled to become teachers.
Sayragul Sauytbay was called a cheater by Chinese officials when she presented the facts of the genocide at the Uyghur tribunal. She was able to exonerate herself by co-authoring two books with Alexandra Cavelius, the first of which was called “The Chief Witness.” Another chief witness, Peyzulla, Utuq had no chance to say that he was not a horse thief. He was a victim of the camp system, and a hero to all Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims who tried to expose the genocide by escaping the camps.
The comparison shows that the neglect of Peyzulla Utuq by the media did not happen because his story was worthless. It happened because the CCP presented Peyzulla’s case as a common incident of petty criminality, and some Western media believed the CCP or at least had some doubts about Peyzulla.
These two heroes, Sayragul and Peyzulla, had the same origins but different destinies. The lack of publicity for Peyzulla’s story proves that propaganda and slander, even when they do not fully convince local people, can cast doubt on heroism abroad. While the truth cannot be hidden forever, its revelation can be postponed. Through this postponement, the assassins buy time they use to kill more people. Thus, while murderers and dictators may know the immorality and evil of slander, they will never stop using it to get what they want.