A photo of Gulbahar Hatiwaji
Gulbahar Hatiwaji begins her story during November 2016 in France where she had been residing for 10 years. It was then she received a mysterious phone call from a man who was not familiar to her. Through the static the man had asked her to return to China in order to sign documents for her retirement. Prior to her move to Europe, she worked for an oil company for more than 20 years in Xinjian province of Western China. When Hatiwaji asked to grant power of attorney to a friend to sign the papers for her the request was denied.
An all-familiar chill began to take over in fear of what returning could mean for her. Hatiwaji was conflicted as she had established a stable life in France with her husband and two daughters. Assylum was granted to the family when Hatwaji’s husband Kerim decided to leave Xinjian in order to establish a better life for them. Opportunities were scarce In Xinjian for a Uyghur. Kerim learned this firsthand as he once lost a high held engineering position to a Han who had held no experience or education in the field. Just one of the many prejudices presented ended up being the last straw for Kerim.
Published on January 12, 2021, Gulbahar Hatiwaji’s firsthand account of surviving a re-education camp was absolutely heartbreaking and a true survival story. For two years Hatiwaji went through unspeakable travesties of torture, emerging only as a shell of who she used to be. Her story serves not only as a cautionary tale of systematic discrimination of the Uyghur people, but an outcry to stop the travesties that continue to occur within China’s walls.
Who are the Uyghurs? And why should you care.
The people of Uyghurs (also spelled Uighurs, Uygurs, or Uighurs) are a Turkic ethnic group with origins from Central and East Asia. They are considered native to the Xinjang Uygher Autonomous Region of Northwest China and one of the country’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. Contrary to their long-established history in the region they are rejected as indigenous people by China.
In the past, the Uyghurs traditionally inhabited the Taklamakan Desert and Tarim Basin. Gradually the population embraced Islam religious practices during the 10th Century. Today 80 percent of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs reside within the Tarim Basin. However, as of 2015 it is reported over a million Uyghurs have been detained in Xinjiang “re-education” camps. The practice of establishing these camps were headed by General Secretary Xi Jinping’s administration, who seek to preserve the Republic’s national ideology.
The justification of the recent actions towards the Uyghurs followed an increase of domestic attacks occurring between 2013 and 2014, which militant Uyghur groups took credit for. In a deranged effort to quell these actions from occurring again, China began to implement laws aimed towards the religion of Islam. Men are now prohibited from growing out their beards and women are not allowed to wear the traditional headscarves. The demolition of mosques soon followed, as this too hindered the mission for unification. Taking away the Uyghur identity was only the beginning for the sinister agenda about to unfold.
China is on the brink of committing one of the deadliest genocides known in the 21st century. Every day more families are at the mercy of a regime that seeks to eliminate its history. Disguising a hopeful promise of bringing its nation’s people together behind the decisive and silent demise of the Uyghur.
Image of Gulbahar and her husband Kerim
The Han population of China is regarded as the favored population of Xinjian, often times leaving native Uyghur to not hold any proper esteem economically and financially. This longstanding tension between the Han and the Uyghur would result in the decisive decision to rid the country of any remnants of Uyghur culture and history.
Life was good and stable for the Hatiwaji family in France. Hatiwaji held a job in a bakery and cafeteria in the business district of Paris, La Defense. But the thought of not being able to see her mother and family who still resided in her hometown was something she could not easily shake. She agreed to return to Xinjiang to sign the documents, putting aside any doubts she held. Sign the necessary documents and go. Sounded easy enough. Unfortunately, this split decision to throw caution to the wind would be something she would come to regret.
Days upon returning, Hatiwaji was quickly brought in for questioning by Chinese authorities. This was a fact that she already anticipated while discussing her husband prior to her return. However, it became apparent that these were not just some routine questions. What would soon follow would be the beginning of the mental torture she would endure for the next two years.
Sitting in the bleak and poorly lit room, Hatiwaji was taken aback at what the officers held in front of her. It was a photo of her daughter in attendance at a demonstration holding the East Turkestan flag. This particular event was held for Uyghurs in exile and repression in Xinjiang by the French branch of the World Uyghur Congress. Hatiwaji could not deny that it was indeed her daughter in attendance, but what she could not attest to were accusations of her daughter being a terrorist.
Image of Hatiwaji’s daughter during a 2019 interview.
Unfortunately, it would not matter what she said. What would come next even she could not comprehend. Hatiwaji would now be admitted into a “re-education” camp. She had heard of these would be camps by hearsay. Institutions that would brainwash an individual, break them down in the worst way possible. Still, all the speculation could not help her endure her new reality.
Within the freshly painted walls and newly established buildings of Baijiantan she became one of many numbers who would reside. Number nine to be exact. Each day spent would bring about new horrors, each one more insidious than the next. Hatiwaji would be put through grueling physical vigor akin to military training. Meals would be forced upon in fear of punishment. Many of these meals would contain pork or any non-Halal foods. One of many methods used to diminish the Uyghur identities from its prisoners.
In time the women of this institution would be provided classes on Chinese history. In actuality, lectures that went on for 11 hours a day. These courses would paint a rose-colored history of China void of any violence or wrongdoing. Glorifying long passed dynasties and rulers as a foundation for the greatness China proclaims today. Endless days of more of the same eventually broke down the last of Hatiwaji’s resolve. The breakdown was so great that at one point, Hatiwaji herself become convinced that her family were indeed terrorists. A personal travesty she still tries to atone for until this day.
Hatiwaji’s days felt numbered. The day she thought to be her last ended up being a cruel sterilization process that began with her captors shaving her head and injecting her with “vaccines”. These vaccines were really a concoction that would make her unable to bear any future children.
Two arduous years finally passed. On August 2, 2019 a brief trial was held for Hatiwaji where a judge from Karamay pronounced her innocent. At this point numb to her reality, her regained freedom could not even move her.
Uyghur protest in Amsterdam.
It is reported that an estimated 1 million Uyghur have been taken into these re-education camps as of 2017. A staggering number of 85 camps have been identified within Xinjiang. Despite an outcry from the United Nations to halt this cruelty, China vehemently denies that there is any wrongdoing on their part. Well in the steed of North Korea, China seeks to unify any and all of their citizens at all costs. Obliterating anything or anyone that does not fit within that vision. Maintaining their vice grip on its people with every nook and cranny under heavy surveillance and a virtually totalitarian dictatorship. It is a nightmarish, warped version of unification resulting in a massacre of an entire population happening before our eyes.
Hatiwaji’s account is just one of many that is happening to the people of Uyghur. May it raise awareness to this very real humanitarian crisis still occurring. It is with hope that her story will become one of many surviving and reuniting with their loved ones.
Read Hatiwaji’s full story here, at the Guardian
For further education of the Uyghur’s and the ongoing crisis:
- China’s Vanishing Muslims: Undercover In The Most Dystopian Place In The World
- How China Targets Muslims for ‘Re-Education Camps’- and Spies on Their Families