Gulbahar Jalilova breaks the silence and talks about horrific sexual abuse and forced abortions in Xinjiang’s detention facilities for women.
by Ruth Ingram
Young women whose mother’s milk was still leaking from them torn from their little ones while breast feeding, elderly women stripped and frisked in front of male guards, teenagers raped and every prisoner’s body crawling with lice. Just some of the horrors witnessed by Gulbahar Jalilova whose 15 month torment while interned by the Chinese government for offenses she is still ignorant of, has left her traumatized and afraid for her life. She described her ordeal in a recent webinar organized by the International Service for Human Rights in an attempt to raise the volume on behalf of those still suffering in the camps.
There is nothing particularly unusual about Gulbahar, certainly nothing to mark her out as a terrorist or extremist, bent on splitting the Chinese motherland or a danger to the Chinese Communist Party. She describes herself as a normal housewife who engages in small scale buying and selling in China. But she was, it seems, a marked woman and in great danger.
She was not to know this however as she set out innocently in May 2017 on one of her frequent business trips from Kazakhstan, the land of her birth, to Xinjiang, the home of her ancestors. A married mother of four children, of Uyghur descent but born in Kazakhstan, she had been traveling happily back and forth between the two countries for twenty years. But for some reason once the clampdowns, round ups and disappearances started in earnest in 2016, her name entered the wanted list.
No sooner had she arrived in her Urumqi hotel, unpacked her bags and settled down for the night, than there was a rough banging on the door. Three policemen in the hallway told her they had a few questions to ask and would she come with them.
She didn’t taste freedom again for 15 months.
Day one started at 8am as the police scoured her phone for seven hours looking for evidence of her “crimes.” Unable to find anything incriminating, they took her down to the basement where she was put in chains. They started to accuse her of being in contact with certain people. They chastised her for performing Namaz and teaching her children how to pray.
The interrogation lasted until 11pm that night, when finally they gave her a charge sheet written in Chinese for her signature. Asking for a translation before she signed because she was a Russian speaker and unable to speak Chinese, they started to beat her violently with a stick. Then she was moved to Urumqi’s number two prison facility for women.
She was stripped naked and given a yellow uniform. They took a urine sample to check her pregnancy status. All those with a positive result were immediately taken to hospital for an abortion. She was spared this indignity.
After a month in detention with no showers or water for washing, lice infestation was rife and their unbearably itching bodies were scared from scratching. One day, she recalls, suddenly with no warning, they were ordered to line up for their heads to be shaved. She remembers that twice a month they were given unknown pills, every ten days they were stripped, ostensibly for a health check, paraded in front of male police officers and injected with something. “We had absolutely no right to ask what this was all for,” she said. “Whatever they told us to do we had to obey.”
Starvation rations left her emaciated and weak, causing her to lose 20 kilos. Each day they were given 100 grams of water to drink. Hunger haunted them at first, she said, but even these pains disappeared to be replaced by numbness.
Some of the girls returned from interrogations bleeding heavily. They had been “beaten, crushed, humiliated and raped,” she said, sobbing as she recounted the memories, ashamed that these young girls seemed little more than animals to them after the brutality. “They were covered in blood and disfigured so that they were hardly human,” she said. “We had no choice but to think of them like this.”
Prisoners ages ranged from 14-80 years old. “Whatever sin could they possibly have committed, I asked myself,” she said, recalling her pain as she looked around their crowded cell. “It hurt me deeply when I saw these innocent teenagers as young as 14 suffering such horror.” The mental anguish of seeing not only the young teenagers but also the elderly women of 80 was unbearable for Gulbahar.
She described the basement where ghastly acts were carried out. There were certain areas devoid of surveillance cameras where the women were taken to be raped and tortured, she said. No one could see or hear our screams, it was terrifying,” she said, adding that even talking about it now distressed her deeply.
Non-Chinese speakers were beaten and deprived of food, which put her at a particular disadvantage. If she asked one of the girls in Uyghur for a translation, their conversation was picked up by a loudspeaker and they were immediately punished and kept without food for a week.
After her 15 month ordeal, inexplicably and suddenly she was released. So weak she could barely walk, she was first taken to Urumqi’s Number Three Hospital for a check up. There, for three days, her emaciated body was thoroughly examined and apart from vitamin deficiency she was given a clean bill of health. Her captors arranged for her hair to be dyed and her face to be made up before seeing her off back to Kazakhstan.
Just as she was leaving they gave her a piece of paper containing the contact numbers of the Public Security Bureau. The officer left her with these parting words.: “If you ever come back to Urumqi, are in trouble or need us we are here 24 hours a day, adding cynically that he knew she was a smart woman. And if you ever tell anyone what you have seen or experienced,” he warned, “the Chinese government has a long arm… and we will kill you.”
Undeterred but very much broken in spirit and afraid Gulbahar is speaking out. “China is telling the world that we are all lying and that nothing is happening in those camps,” she said. “But I am proof that it is not a lie, and here I have my sentence to prove I was detained,” she said, waving her fistful of documentation complete with the characteristic Chinese government red circular seal.
“Since 2017 Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs have been rounded up and are being got rid of, right from the young bread sellers who are being killed, to thousands of babies being forcibly aborted,” she said. She begged the UN to courageously acknowledge the genocide being meted out on her people, for increased media attention, for Chinese officials to be tried in court and the CCP to be held to account.
“This must stop,” was her final plea.