Taipei, Nov. 3 (CNA) After enduring 15 months in a Chinese "re-education" camp in Xinjiang, Gulbahar Jalilova has a simple message for those willing to put their faith in the Beijing government: you are just being naïve.
Jalilova, who was recently in Taipei at the invitation of the Taiwan Uyghur Association and the Taiwan Friends of Tibet, sees her story as a firsthand example of the dangers posed by China's totalitarian government and a warning to free societies, including Taiwan, that try to engage with Beijing.
But Jalilova is also telling her story for another, simpler reason: "I have a responsibility to my sisters who are still locked away."
In an Oct. 25 interview with CNA conducted in Russian, Jalilova said her ties to China stretch back to 1997, when, as a single mother of three children, she went into business buying clothes in Xinjiang for resale in neighboring Kazakhstan.
On one such trip in May 2017, she was detained at her hotel in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as Xinjiang is officially known.
The officers took her to a police station, searched her phone, and led her to a basement interrogation room, where she was questioned for more than 12 hours about her activities abroad.
That night, without ever learning the charges against her, she was spirited out of the police station to Urumuqi's No. 3 Prison.
The beginning of a nightmare
At the prison, Jalilova said, she was given an identification number. She was told to strip naked for a physical examination, then taken for blood and urine tests, fingerprint samples, and a series of close-up photographs of her face, including several in which she was instructed to smile. She was then issued a uniform consisting of a sweatshirt, sweatpants, and black canvas shoes, and led into a stuffy, windowless room.
Inside the room were about 40 women -- 20 standing and 20 sleeping on their sides, packed one next to the other so as to almost be touching. Each woman had shackles on her feet, while some of those standing had handcuffs connecting a single hand to the chains on their feet.
The shock of that sight, and the terror of what she had experienced in the previous 24 hours were more than she could handle.
"I thought I had entered a madhouse," Jalilova said, "I started crying and saying that I hadn't done anything wrong."
As she stood there crying, a young girl tried to calm her, telling her in a whisper, "None of us have done anything wrong, but you can't cry, because if you cry they will take you to a one-meter cell without lights, and there are rats there."
Massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy
According to Amnesty International, the beginning of the Chinese crackdown in predominantly Muslim Xinjiang dates to July 2009, when ethnic tensions between the region's Uyghur and Han Chinese residents broke out into violence, prompting an intervention by government authorities. The first "re-education" camps were established in 2014, and the program was rapidly expanded before reaching a peak in 2017.
Though the exact number of Uyghurs detained remains unknown, a 2018 report by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination cited credible information that a million or more had been held in so-called counter-extremism centers and another 2 million had been forced into "re-education" camps for political and cultural indoctrination.
Beijing has consistently denied any wrongdoing, arguing that its Xinjiang policy has promoted the establishment of "vocational training centers" necessary to "prevent the spread of terrorism and religious extremism" in the region.
In July, the chairman of the autonomous region, Shohrat Zakir, claimed that 90 percent of Uyghurs in "re-education" camps had been released, and that many had successfully transitioned into new, high-paying jobs.
Jalilova, who has not been able to contact any of her fellow inmates and insists that she never saw a single classroom, has called the Chinese claims "total lies."
According to Jalilova, the youngest person she met in prison was 14, and the oldest was 80. Apart from menial chores and a weekly propaganda video, their days were spent in enforced silence in a 10-by-20 foot common cell, with an open toilet on one end and security cameras on all four walls.
Inmates slept in four-hour rotations during the night, with half standing while the other half slept. At 5:30 a.m. they were woken by the guards, and made to stand in two lines, staring silently ahead until 8:30 a.m.
Meals consisted of a steamed bun and some form of watery soup: a flour-based porridge for breakfast, cabbage soup for lunch, and a green soup with occasional bits of cucumber for dinner. Before each meal, prisoners had to sing five patriotic songs, including the Chinese national anthem which starts: "Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves! With our flesh and blood, let's build a new Great Wall!"
Ironically, these songs provided them a way to surreptitiously trade information and learn about the people around them as they pretended to sing. It was how Jalilova learned that her cellmates were not only Uyghurs, but also ethnic Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tatars, and even Han Chinese.
Jalilova said that while the prison staff was similarly composed, their job types tended to be split along ethnic lines, with administrative posts reserved for Han Chinese, while the "dirty work" of carrying out punishments, and even torture, was delegated to Uyghurs.
(Jalilova sat on these interrogation chairs when she was in prison)
Among the most harrowing moments as a prisoner was when someone was taken from their cell to be interrogated. The guards would slip a black hood over the inmate's head, handcuff her, and lead her away. Some women taken for interrogation never returned, while others came back hours or even days later bearing obvious signs of violence.
It was through one such interrogation that Jalilova first heard the allegations against her.
She was accused of having given 17,000 renminbi (US$2,406) to a Uyghur man with alleged terror connections. Over the course of several interrogations she was read the charges and asked to sign a confession. Each time she refused, and each time she was beaten. On one occasion, a young Kazakh-Chinese officer exposed himself and threatened to rape her if she continued to be uncooperative.
Still, for all that she went through, Jalilova is careful to mention her cellmates who came to unluckier fates, such as a young woman who suffered a mental breakdown after returning from an interrogation, and began taking excrement from the toilet and wiping it on herself and the walls, screaming "Who's a man now!"
Bristling at the memory, Jalilova said: "In prison, that kind of madness was not uncommon."
Release and recovery
When their mother disappeared, Jalilova's children contacted the Kazakh government, but the non-committal response they received convinced them that their country's economic dependence on China would preclude a serious investigation of her case.
They began writing to governments around the world, trying to raise awareness around the issue of foreign nationals caught up in the Xinjiang camp system, finally succeeding when U.N. officials raised her case with the Chinese government.
In September 2018, Jalilova was freed, one year, three months, and ten days after her arrest. But as she made her way back to Kazakhstan, she realized the degree to which her mental and physical health had deteriorated. She had trouble keeping food down, suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, and even had hallucinations in which she imagined she was back in prison.
She decided to seek treatment in Turkey, where she has remained since her release, and where, after a period of difficult deliberation, she began speaking publicly about what she experienced during her 15 months in prison.
From Turkey to Taiwan
Jalilova visited Taiwan from Oct. 23 to 27 on a tour that included public speaking events, media interviews, and meetings at the Legislative Yuan.
On Oct. 26, she spoke at the National 228 Memorial Museum, which is currently hosting a photography exhibition on Xinjiang entitled "A Prison Without Walls -- East Turkestan Today."
Despite her initial wariness about traveling to Taiwan, which she feared was "also China," Jalilova said she came to keep a promise she made to her "sisters" in prison.
Many times during her incarceration, when she felt she was just waiting to die or even considering suicide, the other women would remind her that she was a foreigner, and would one day be able to leave China and tell people their story.
Jalilova insisted that what is happening to Uyghurs in Xinjiang carries an important lesson for Taiwan, and that the two peoples are facing similar threats.
People in Taiwan can look at the situation of the Uyghur people, or people in Hong Kong, she said.
"If you still think you can put your faith in the Chinese government in return for economic gain ... that's just naive" she said.
And if people fail to heed the risks, she warned, "your society, your Taiwan could end up like East Turkestan."
(Jalilova before she was arrested on May 22, 2017; photo courtesy of Gulbahar Jalilova)
(Jalilova taking a photo on the Ketagalan Boulevard on Oct. 25 in front of Taiwan's Presidential Office)