It is the largest mass detention of ethnic minorities since World War II. Possibly more than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities are held in prison camps and detention centers in China’s Xinjiang region. Testimonials shed new light on a regime that would turn to abortions, sterilizations and IUDs to tame Uyghur population growth.
“When will they take my children, when will a bomb go off?” Shehide has not yet processed the trauma. The Uyghur fled the region more than ten years ago because she no longer felt safe there after a period of unrest. “The fear is gone, but I haven’t slept peacefully for a day.” She and her two children eventually managed to reach the Netherlands via Malaysia and Turkey. Here she now works as a cleaner.
The NOS spoke to Shehide, who has been portrayed beyond recognition, about what she experienced in Xinjiang:
Shehide could not say goodbye to her family. “I wasn’t able to say anything to anyone, but found out that my work had posted an ad that I had to return to work immediately. That’s how my family found out I was gone.”
When she decides to have a third child in the Netherlands, she comes to a shocking conclusion. “I couldn’t get pregnant anymore.” The doctor in the hospital told her she had been sterilized. “Only then did I find out that after my Caesarean section in the hospital in Ürümqi, they must have made me sterile.”
According to Adrian Zenz, Shehide’s story does not stand alone. It is not easy to verify, but it is in line with what other witnesses have stated. Zenz collects evidence from Xinjiang for Victims of Communism research institute. According to him, especially after 2017, hundreds of thousands of women have become victims of practices that were supposed to limit births among Uyghurs. He relies on public government documents.
A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs previously dismissed stories about forced sterilization as “plain nonsense”. But Zenz says via Skype, “Two Uyghur places had the goal of performing more sterilizations on average in one year than China as a whole in 20 years.”
‘If only I were dead’
People who have too many children face the threat of imprisonment in camps. Eysa, a Uyghur who had fled and who himself ended up in a camp for trips abroad, tells about how he witnessed a fellow prisoner being tortured. “Because he had too many children. Four to be exact. He has said several times: if only I were dead.”
Under the guise of re-education, Uyghurs are locked up in the camps. But many of the people who end up there have already received good education, says Patrick Poon of Amnesty International. “There is therefore no reason to lock these people up in camps for vocational education.”
She went to the doctor with a huge belly in perfect health, but came back with nothing.
The camps and high-security detention centers in Ürümqi are still being expanded. Building is underway within the high prison walls of a detention center in the north of the city. Factories are also being built.
“But it’s about more than just locking up a million Uyghurs in the internment camps,” says Zenz. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of births in Xinjiang’s two largest regions plummeted by a staggering 84 percent.
Zenz cites testimony from women who claim to have been picked up by paramilitary forces in their hundreds. “An operation was then awaited in clinics to make them sterile.” Shehide, who once worked for the registry office, says she never witnessed abortions. “But I know of a woman in the neighborhood who was six months pregnant. She went to the doctor in perfect health with a huge belly, but came back with nothing.”
For people in the region, talking to foreign journalists is very dangerous. The testimonies come from Uyghurs who have fled the country. “Informers in the neighborhoods are monitoring women to see who is pregnant,” one of them says. “In that case you will be sent to a clinic.”
Many Uyghur women complain of irregular periods and physical complaints, he says, of side effects of the IUD. Beijing maintains the claim that Uyghur birth rates are significantly higher than among Han Chinese, but for the sake of convenience compares different time periods.
“In recent decades, Uyghurs did indeed have more children, but it is precisely in recent years that a state-funded scheme of birth prevention has been adopted,” says Zenz. He cites an Uyghur prefecture that has reduced the birth target to almost zero. “Systematic suppression of birth, targeting a specific group: it is impossible to conclude that this does not fit one of the definitions of genocide,” said Zenz.
Breaking up the Uyghur population in Xinjiang involves the separation of parents and children. Zenz shared Excel documents with the NOS in which you can read how Uyghur children are raised in boarding schools. Of the 85 children from the village of Azhatibage, near Kashgar, one or both parents of eighteen children were in detention. In another eight cases, parents underwent so-called ‘re-education’.
Based on the documents provided by local authorities, Zenz estimates the number of Uyghur children in boarding schools at around 880,000 in 2019, more than twice as many as in the previous year. According to him, the boarding schools should ensure that the children speak Chinese instead of Uyghur, and that they embrace the ideology of the communist party instead of their own traditions. “They don’t kill the Uyghurs, but try to break them”, he concludes.