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06 Jan 2020

We could only comfort her with our eyes

It’s hard to read the stories of those who were disappeared into China’s Xinjiang Concentration Camps; their accounts of the brutality they suffered are extremely moving.


It’s another thing altogether when you are sat a few metres away watching the victim break down in tears as they recall their ordeal. It’s absolutely heart-rending.


Towards the end of last year, Safeguard Defenders attended a talk held in Taipei by Gulbahar Jalilova, a Uighur citizen of Kazakstan. She had been invited to speak about the 465 days she spent disappeared, locked up and shackled, in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang from 2017-2018.

During her speech, which lasted for almost two hours, Gulbahar wept over and over again. Her sobs became almost uncontrollable as she described the moment she was told she would be freed. And again when she recalled the moment she was reunited with her children in Kazakhstan.


“My children didn’t know if I was dead or alive. I had simply disappeared.”


During those two hours, members of the audience wept with her; even her translator, Ilham Mahmut, a big bear of a man, kept reaching for tissues and dabbing at his eyes. Mahmut is Chairman of the Japan Uyghur Association and East Asia and the Pacific representative for the World Uygur Congress


Gulbahar, now in her 50s, lives in Istanbul and travels the world tirelessly, telling her story to media, but if her talk in Taipei is anything to go by, her experience is still so harrowing and so raw, that repeated retellings have not helped to lessen the pain.




Her story starts innocently enough.


Gulbahar arrived in Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi, and checked into a hotel in May 2017. As she had been doing for many years, she had come to purchase clothing in Xinjiang to resell in Kazakhstan where she lived. Apart from her business, she had no relatives nor ties to Xinjiang.


On the second day, police banged on her hotel door and took her to a police station. They interrogated her from 9 in the morning to 11 at night. Gulbahar cannot speak Chinese and she didn’t understand what was going. The next day she was moved to a detention centre.


Police used a fake Chinese name on her detention documents. But Gulbahar never had or used a Chinese name. She was born in the then Soviet Union (now Russia) and owned a Kazakh passport. While she was disappeared in Xinjiang, her children wrote to the Russian embassy, the Kazakh government, the Chinese embassy, even the United Nations in a desperate bid to find their mother.


Gulbahar's case qualifies as an enforced disappearance. After police detained her, China never notified her family and they never found out until she was eventually released and she landed in Kazakhstan.


She is also an example of Hidden in Detention. By not using her real name and registering her with a fake Chinese name, police essentially made sure there was no paper trail. That no one could trace her.


She was ordered to undress while the police watched. They gave her a yellow shirt and jogging bottoms to wear and black canvas shoes that were too small for her.


For the next 15 months she was moved to a number of different detention centres.


Wherever she was kept, she shared a cramped cell with dozens of other women. They were given unknown pills; guards would check their mouths afterwards to ensure they swallowed them. They didn’t dare ask what they were.


“We all slept together on a hard surface, there was no mattress, but we never felt the pain,” she recounts, adding she believes the medications were about making their brains feel numb so they would accept the terrible discomfort.


Forced medication is a common way of controlling disappeared human rights defenders in China.


They would keep rotating the inmates into different cells, “so that we wouldn’t get to know each other.” The women were frequently shackled.


They were ordered to strip at intervals. Armed police, some of them men, would watch. If a girl cried and refused, they would be hit by electric batons and told their “thinking was not liberated.”


On Fridays, they had to watch Chinese Communist Party propaganda videos. They were given notebooks and pencils and told to write about their love of the CCP and China and letters of remorse (后悔书).  Gulbahar wrote in Russian and asked her cell mates to help her translate.


Once a month they were made to insert their arms through a small window to be injected. She thinks it was to stop the women from getting their periods.


During interrogation sessions they were shackled, black-hooded and taken to a room where they were strapped into a tiger chair. Sometimes sessions would go on for 24 hours.


Often women would return from these sessions bloody and beaten. One woman came back with her part of her skull bashed in.


“We couldn’t help her. They had turned us into animals. We could only use our eyes to comfort her.”


Mahumut, too, began to weep when he interpreted her account of a woman who returned into their cell who had been driven mad that she had smeared faeces all over her face.


Gulbahar’s voice rose and fell with emotion. She kept wiping her eyes. She wore an electric blue jacket; her hair wrapped in a scarf printed with the blue and white East Turkestan flag.


When they finally released her, the shackles had been clamped on her for so long they had trouble unlocking them because of rust.


Her case is one of many examples of a complete lack of due process. After her release, she was given a document that accused her of assisting terrorist groups, a charge she denies. Gulbahar never ONCE saw a lawyer, and her case NEVER went to trial.


At one point she rises from her chair and mimes shuffling around when shackled. She sits back down, crying and rocking.


Gulbahar was a victim of torture. She was shackled for much of her time, strapped into a tiger chair for hours at a time – in a tiger chair the victim is rendered immobile with their feet, legs and arms restrained. 


At the end of her harrowing talk, Gulbahar held up an exercise book. Inside was written the names of all the women she could remember who were incarcerated with her; some as young as 14 years old. Her sisters.


She continues to speak out about the atrocities in Xinjiang, she says, because she made a promise not to forget and to try her best to save them.




There is now overwhelming evidence – from victim testimonies, leaked Chinese government cables, satellite imagery, and Chinese media and government reports—that China began to build a huge network of re-education camps in 2017. Estimates vary, but around 1 million or more people from Muslim ethnic minorities have been locked up to undergo patriotic education and Chinese instruction.