Qelbinur Sedik has witnessed wanton cruelty, gratuitous violence, humiliation, torture, and death meted out to her people on an unimaginable scale — but has been forced to keep the crushing secret until now.
When she first arrived in Europe, she was so traumatized she could barely speak about her ordeal. Then she found the Dutch Uyghur Human Rights Foundation (DUHRF), where people patiently listened through her many tears. The DUHRF wrote down her story, drawing also on an earlier interview by Laurence Defranoux for the French publication Liberation, calling it “Qelbinur Sidik: A Twisted Life.” Through it, she now feels ready to tell the world what she saw in the internment camps of Xinjiang.
This account is based on excerpts from the memoir, Laurence Defranoux’s interview, and my own interviews with her.
Her personal story begins 51 years ago in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China. A middle child in a family of six children, she remembers her childhood warmly. Her parents emphasized honesty and education, and each child grew up to become a valued member of society, some even taking government jobs.
She started her teaching career in the Chinese language department of Number 24 Primary School in the Saybagh region of downtown Urumqi. By April 2018, she had worked there for 28 years. But as a rookie teacher in 1990, with life before her, she could never have envisaged the tidal wave of destruction that would engulf her people and its culture.
Rumblings of change had already started in 2004, when schools were ordered to become bilingual in both Mandarin and Uyghur, but Qelbinur — as a Chinese teacher in the capital where most schools taught in both languages anyway — took little notice. Rumors spread via friends in 2016 that people had been arrested for praying also made little impact. When a colleague confided in her that women were being called together in groups for sterilization procedures, she found it hard to take in.
“We thought that things like that couldn’t happen to us,” she said.
But gradually the signs were impossible to ignore. Once Chen Quanguo was imported to govern Xinjiang, after quelling Tibet, the tide of surveillance, mass arrests, compulsory health checks, removal of children to state orphanages, and dismantling of the culture and religion was unstoppable.
From September to November 2016, Qelbinur’s school began selecting its best teachers, not only for teaching skills but for their political ideology and family background. She passed with flying colors.
On February 28, 2017, as Qelbinur recounted in her memoir, she was summoned to the town hall. She was told she would be teaching Chinese to “illiterates,” but strangely, for this mission she was made to sign a confidentiality agreement. A secret rendezvous was fixed for March 1, at 7 a.m., where she was told to wait at a bus stop and call a police officer to pick her up.
Remembering the story as if it were yesterday, she described the scene awaiting her after her journey.
“We rolled up to a four-story building on the outskirts [of Urumqi], behind a mountain. It was surrounded by walls and barbed wire. We entered via a metal electric door. There were armed police officers, and a dozen employees, administrators, nurses, teachers, directors. I was taken to a control room,” she told DUHRF.
“An employee shouted: ‘The lesson is about to start!’”
In front of her were CCTV screens on the wall where she could see 10 cells of roughly 10 people each. “They were plunged into darkness, their windows boarded up with metal plates,” she said. “There were no beds, just blankets on the floor.”
She made out a total of 97 prisoners, who had been locked up since February 14. She noticed they all still had their hair and beards. Among them she picked out seven women, three of whom were extremely elderly.
She waited for what would happen next.
“The adult pupils came into the classroom 10 by 10, chained hand and feet. When they were all seated on little plastic chairs, without tables, I was let in. There were several men over 70 with long beards. Normally I have to show them respect. But they kept their heads down. Some were crying. I said: ‘Salam alaikum’ [a religious greeting among Muslims]. No one answered me. I immediately understood that I had said something terribly forbidden.” She looked at the eight surveillance cameras and continued.
“I introduced myself and said, “I’m here for you to learn Chinese in Pinyin.” I wrote “A, B, C, D…” on the board, all the while praying to God to get me out of this hell alive. They repeated after me, A, B, C, D….”
After two hours, as Qelbinur recounted to Defranoux, she asked for a break to get some water. She still has the bottle she used for water in the classroom. As she recounted these events she stared at the container with dread — a translucent, turquoise “Hello Kitty” brand bottle scattered with hearts and happy characters. A silent witness to the ghoulish scene.
Lunch arrived at noon and she helped to distribute the watery rice gruel and a statutory single steamed bun. She tried to add another bun each for two elderly inmates but nearly got caught out when a policeman noticed two missing. Terrified, she was rescued by a colleague owning up to having miscounted. When she tried to make herself tea, she was told the prisoner’s water was not boiled enough for human consumption.
“It was the longest day of my life,” Qelbinur said.
She struggled through the first six-month contract. The first three weeks she got to know her 97 students and the numbers printed on their orange shirts.
One student stood out: Osman. He had been one of the richest men in the capital Urumqi, before his fortune was frozen by the state. He was handsome and smart. Qelbinur recalls him begging her to let him stay a few more minutes after class to enjoy the sun’s rays piercing through the 20 cm chink in her window. One day he disappeared and she was told he had died of a brain hemorrhage.
Another youth, Selim, tried hard in class, hoping to gain early release. He too died of an untreated infection before he could get to a hospital. Both young men died during her first three weeks.
The numbers in her classes dwindled daily. “At first, they were in good health,” she said. “I saw them wither away. Some couldn’t even walk anymore.”
On March 20, the first floor of the camp filled with new arrivals. Whereas her first group had been religious and often elderly, the second group were intellectuals, business people, or students whose Chinese was perfect. Their crime, it seemed, was consulting Facebook, banned in China.
Her educational mission was now beginning to make no sense at all. Her task with this group was to teach them communist songs and the national anthem.
She described how the students were humiliated as they were forced to enter the classroom on all fours, crawling under a chain that kept the door ajar. “I met their gaze; it was excruciating,” she remembers. Every hour she was sent another group of 100.
The regime for this batch was no less demeaning. Prisoners had the right to go to the bathroom three times a day, at fixed times. They had one 15 minute shower per month.
Qelbinur told the DUHRF that she was forced to live a secret double life. The weeks went by and she confided in no one but her husband. As the network of camps — and random arrests to fill them — accelerated, so did the crushing web of surveillance outside that kept track of every movement, every face, and every voice of those who were still free. Police checks and roundups were commonplace. Everyone was waiting for a knock on their door. “Even my neighborhood became an open-air prison,” she said, telling how one day she saw police pounce on five young men chatting on the sidewalk, and arrest two of them.
Simply calling overseas became a crime. In May 2017, her neighbor was taken away handcuffed by a gang of five policemen one night for asking a Han Chinese colleague to call his son in Kyrgyzstan, begging him not to come home. The Han workmate was released after three months, but nothing more was heard of the neighbor.
Of the 600 Uyghur residents of Qelbinur’s community, 190 disappeared in two years. Chinese migrants started to fill the empty apartments.
Back at the camp, new inmates kept arriving. After six months she estimated, there were more than 3,000 prisoners. They were crammed 50 or 60 per cell and groups of two or three, sometimes up to seven, were called out for interrogation during the day.
The torture room was in the basement.
A police officer colleague at the camp told her about the methods used. “He explained to me that there are four kinds of electric shock: the chair, the glove, the helmet, and anal rape with a stick.”
“The screams echoed throughout the building,” she said. “I could hear them during lunch and sometimes when I was in class.”
Amidst this turmoil, suddenly in July 2017, Qelbinur received a summons from the family planning department for the much vaunted “free” annual gynecological check up. She still has the message on her phone. Despite being 51 and long past child-bearing age, the check up was compulsory for all women between 18-59. The warning was self-explanatory: “If you do not cooperate, you will be punished.”
“I was working in a camp. I knew what would happen if I refused,” Qelbinur remembered.
When July 18 came, by 8 a.m. there was already a long queue outside the hospital. All the women were Uyghur; “there was not a single Han Chinese among them,” Qelbinur recalled
When her turn came, there was no promised gynecological examination. Instead she was forcibly fitted with an IUD. Detailing the violent and humiliating procedure to DUHRF, she painted a horrific picture. “I was made to lie down and spread my legs, and the device was inserted. It was terribly violent. I was crying, I felt humiliated, sexually and mentally assaulted.”
The irony was that with a single daughter Qelbinur would have been allowed a second child. Despite a complicated rigmarole of obtaining three authorizations from the police, her employer, and the local town hall, it would have been possible.
Her camp ordeal was not yet over. In September 2017, at the end of her first contract, Qelbinur was assigned to a women’s facility in Urumqi. As she approached the unremarkable six story building she noticed the words,“Retirement Center” written in large letters over the gate.
“It was a huge camp,” she recalled. “There were about 10,000 women with shaved heads, of whom only about 60 were over 60. Most of them were young, pretty, well brought up.”
It was a camp for those who had studied abroad in Korea, Australia, Turkey, Egypt, Europe, or the United States. All highly educated and speaking several languages, they were detained on arrival in Xinjiang after returning to visit their families. Qelbinur suddenly feared for her own daughter, who was studying overseas. “I had decided to kill myself if China forced her to return,” she said.
Sanitary conditions at this camp were vile, Qelbinur recalled. The air reeked from a single toilet bucket in each cell that was emptied once a day. One minute was allowed for face washing in the morning and showers rationed to once a month.“The atmosphere was pestilential,” she said. “Many were getting sick from the lack of hygiene.”
Monday mornings brought a 10,000 strong queue for the infirmary. Each inmate was injected intravenously with a mystery substance, their blood was taken, and they were given a white pill to swallow.
A nurse “was kind enough” to explain that the detainees needed calcium (the injected liquid) because they lived in the dark, the blood test was used to detect contagious diseases, and the pill was to help them sleep. But Qelbinur had her doubts. “I asked myself: Why so much calcium?”
One unforgettable day as Qelbinur was going up to her classroom she passed a policewoman carrying the corpse of a student. They stopped to talk to each other in a courtyard without cameras. “We were the only two Uyghur employees,” she explained. The policewoman told her that she worked in the birth control unit, where they gave out contraceptive pills and even put them into the steamed bread so that the girls would not notice. She said that inexplicably the student she was carrying had continued to have her period and died of a hemorrhage. She swore Qelbinur to secrecy. “Never talk about it,” the woman warned.
Qelbinur told me that after she arrived in Europe, she could barely complete a sentence at first as she recounted the suffering she witnessed firsthand. She would break down and sob inconsolably. Members of the DUHRF waited patiently and suggested she write her own personal diary of events when she could bring herself to.
One distressing journal entry recounted when a girl of about 20 was called out of her class for an “interview.” Qelbinur described with great difficulty how the girl returned two hours later. “She was in so much pain that she couldn’t sit up,” she said. “The policeman yelled at her, then took her away. I never saw her again.” A policewoman working in the camp explained that every day four or five girls were taken out and gang raped by the executives, “sometimes with electric batons inserted into the vagina and anus.”
Unlike the first camp, where most of the employees were Uyghurs or from other minorities, Qelbinur claimed that in the camp for women, all the executives were Han Chinese men.
By November 2017, Qelbinur was beginning to suffer the effects of the IUD and began to bleed profusely. She also said she could no longer bear what she was witnessing in the camps. “I was forbidden to talk about this daily horror to anyone.” Her husband advised her to check into a hospital and she was forced to recommend one of her colleagues as a replacement. She spent a month in the hospital.
Qelbinur never returned to the camp, but still kept her ear to the ground for news of her former “students.” She was distraught to hear about a group of young detainees released in Urumqi in December 2017: “Some had been tortured so severely that they had to have an arm or leg amputated. Others had gone mad.”
As her body began to mend, she returned to her old job in February 2018, but it was not the happy reunion she had been hoping for. Within a matter of days, she was summarily dismissed. She was devastated.
As told to the DUHRF and Defranoux, she complained that her 28-year teaching career, during which she had worked loyally beyond the call of duty, seemed to have counted for nothing. “Before this, we thought that the Chinese government was our government, that it was enough to obey the law. But in fact, it is not important what you do, it is important who you are,” she said bitterly.
The 11 Uyghur teachers were demoted to man the school gates, and 100 Han Chinese teachers took the reins. On April 16, 2018 they were forced to sign documents agreeing to early retirement. “I was not old enough, but there was no way of refusing,” Qelbinur said.
Unemployed, with her health in tatters, she applied for a passport to attend her daughter’s wedding in Europe. At the last moment, she was forbidden to leave the country.
Two days after the wedding date, she was questioned by the police for five days. The daughter was accused of taking part in illegal demonstrations and Qelbinur was shown a prohibited video on her daughter’s Facebook page. They demanded that her daughter send them information about her life in Europe, her contact details, and those of her university. Like many other Uyghur students living abroad, who are harassed by the Chinese authorities, her daughter complied.
In 2019, after bleeding again, Qelbinur illegally removed her IUD with the help of a cousin running a hospital. In September 2019, she finally obtained permission to leave China for medical reasons, but to do so had to run the gauntlet of 23 different departments.
“Each time, I had to make a commitment to return home after a month,” she said, “otherwise I would lose my my retirement pension.” Both she and her husband were issued a three-month Schengen visa, but authorities refused to let him leave.
Once she arrived in Europe in October 2019, Qelbinur told me, the events of the past three years caught up with her. She was exhausted, traumatized, and overwhelmed and became depressed. Every time she thought of her family she would cry and for four months she was silent. During this time every single family member deleted her from social media, her husband disowned her, and she felt cast adrift.
Despite the fact that she could not talk, neither could she forget and the events haunted her day and night. “The knot in my heart was always there,” she confided. She was afraid to speak out and deeply burdened with the weight of what she had been through. A relative told her that she had been spared by God to tell the story, but she had no idea what to say or where to start.
Eventually, she contacted the Dutch Uyghur Human Rights Organization, which helped her through many tears to piece together the events. “Finally, I decided to raise my head, and fight for my people,” she said defiantly.
Qelbinur Sedik has seen what no other human being should have to see. But she is not a lone witness. Thousands like her still work in the internment camps of her homeland, witnesses to the same ghastliness she was privy to. She is unique because few have escaped to tell their story.
Even after arriving in Europe in 2019, the emotional scars linger painfully. She might have fled the physical horror, but she would never consider herself fortunate. Her flight was bittersweet.
Ruth Ingram is a researcher who has written extensively for the Central Asia-Caucasus publication, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, the Guardian Weekly newspaper and other publications.
Update: An earlier version of this article did not reference Laurence Defranoux’s interview which formed a basis for the DUHRF memoir. The Diplomat regrets that error.