Overflowing toilets in overcrowded cells. Food and sleep deprivation. Forced injections.
As she witnessed horror after horror and was told of others, Sayragul Sauytbay, who says she was a former employee inside one of China’s sprawling network of alleged detention camps in Xinjiang province, vowed to one day tell the world what she saw.
“I knew that all people there were not guilty of anything,” she said. “I could do nothing to help them avoid suffering. That’s why I decided that one day I would publicize what’s happening there.”
Sauytbay shared startling allegations of torture inside the camp during an interview with CNN in Almaty, Kazakhstan. While former detainees have raised the alarm about abuse they say they’ve faced, Sauytbay is one of a very small number of employees to have spoken out in detail.
“China has lied to the international community when it said these are not concentration camps, not prisons, and that they are teaching Muslims skills and trades,” she said. “That’s not true at all because I saw it with my own eyes.”
Sauytbay says she fled her job in a Xinjiang camp in 2018, escaping to Kazakhstan where she was united with her family briefly before being picked up by Kazakh authorities for crossing into the country with forged documents. She is requesting asylum in the country.
Responding to Sauytbay’s claims, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said she had “twisted facts” about the camps, alleging Sauytbay was still in financial debt in China.
In recent years, China’s government has opened a network of camps in Xinjiang. Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, have been sent to the camps in large numbers.
The US State Department estimates that as many as 2 million people could have passed through the detention system over the past few years.
Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other central Asian ethnic groups have also been placed in the camps.
Western governments, including the US, and rights groups have said the camps are nothing more than arbitrary detention centers, designed to eradicate Uyghur culture and Islamic practices from China’s westernmost province.
China denies this. The Chinese government has repeatedly maintained the camps are voluntary “vocational skills education and training centers.”
Some ex-detainees who have managed to leave have told stories of torture and forced political indoctrination, which they claim is due to their Islamic faith.
Policy of sinicization
Sauytbay is an ethnic Kazakh, raised in Xinjiang. In 2016, her husband and two children left the Chinese region for neighboring Kazakhstan, but Sauytbay stayed behind. As a Kazakh who was also a member of the ruling Communist Party, she said her travel was restricted.
She was running a kindergarten when she said the authorities demanded she relocate to one of the camps. Teaching Chinese was ideal for her, they said, because she was fluent in both Kazakh and Chinese.
Upon her arrival, she said she quickly discovered her job would require more than teaching.
“They told me there is a policy of sinicization underway,” she said, referring to the process of making the country’s minorities more like the Han Chinese majority. “They once said, ‘We will turn the best of them into Hans, while repressing and destroying the bad.’ This policy is underway now.”
Sauytbay was told to instruct her classes that they should be loyal to the Communist Party as “Chinese” people.
“They told me to tell them, ‘The Communist Party has led you to this day. The fact that you are living is thanks to the Communist Party. You have made a mistake by failing to know the Chinese language. The lack of your knowledge of the Chinese language is a treachery of the state’,” she said.
This is consistent with the accounts of numerous ex-detainees, including Kairat Samarhan, a former detainee who told CNN he was forced to stand for hours on end, chanting “long live Xi Jinping” in a nod to China’s President.
Sauytbay said there were severe punishments for those who did not make enough “progress” in learning the language or even traditional Chinese terms for things like burials and holidays.
“Those who cannot learn fast enough or meet daily goals are deprived of food. The food itself is so bad. For three meals they give rice porridge, one ladle of it, and one piece of bread … They are also subject to sleep deprivation,” she said.
For those who were not easily taught or who fought back against the ideology, Sauytbay claimed, even darker methods of coercion were used.
The teacher alleged that a friend among the nursing staff told her about injections and medication given to the Uyghur inmates, although Sauytbay never witnessed it herself.
But sometimes after inmates were inexplicably taken out of their cells, they’d come back appearing dazed and more pliable, Sauytbay claimed.
The Chinese government didn’t confirm or deny Sauytbay’s allegations, though an Amnesty International spokesperson said the group had heard similar claims of forced injections.
Beyond punishment, day-to-day life at the camps could be horrific for those inside, Sauytbay said. Rooms where people slept were overcrowded and unsanitary. The toilets and beds were in the same room.
“A bucket with a lid is used as toilet. When the bucket is full, that’s it,” she said.
She said people did not have the freedom to ask guards to use the toilet, or bucket, in another space. “This is a fascist way of torturing people in the 21st century,” she said.
Sauytbay also suspects other abuses, such as sexual violence, may have been committed against some of the female inmates.
“[The guards] take away girls from there and after some prolonged time they bring them back, sometimes in the middle of the night. When they bring them, any normal person can see that what kind of torture they have been through,” she said.
“When they come back, they turn into a different person. I think they do all kinds of torture to them and sexually abuse them.”
She says most of the women who were taken away were young and unmarried, usually around age 20.
Sauytbay gained international notoriety last year after she fled the camp she was working in and made her way to Kazakhstan in an attempt to reunite with her family.
She was captured in May by the Kazakh authorities and charged with illegal entry into Kazakhstan using forged documents to cross the border.
Though the crime is not serious in Kazakhstan, she faced the threat of deportation back to China as she is a Chinese citizen.
Sauytbay and her lawyer argued in court that being sent back would essentially mean a death sentence.
During trial, Sauytbay went into some detail about her time teaching in the camps, describing how she was in a facility predominantly made up of ethnic Kazakhs, totaling about 2,500 people overall. It marked the first time the outside world heard an account from a camp employee.
“I’m a living witness of these concentration camps. That’s why China wants so badly to either get me back or to kill me,” she said.
Kazakh authorities ultimately found Sauytbay guilty but did not immediately deport her. A judge blocked her extradition and gave her a six-month suspended sentence.
Her asylum claim is moving through the court system and has been denied several times already.
Sauytbay and her lawyer told CNN they expected it to eventually reach the country’s supreme court.
But as her legal fight continues, she fears for her life and her family’s safety.
“China will only spare the dead,” she said.