Courtesy of Cornell University

Tursunay Ziyawudun, pictured above, spoke to Cornell community members on Monday.

March 8, 2022

Survivor of Chinese Concentration Camp Urges for Solidarity with Uighur Women on International Women’s Day

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Editor’s Note: This article contains mention of torture, abuse and sexual violence. 

In a March 7 webinar, coinciding with International Women’s Day, Uighur Muslim and Xinjiang concentration camp survivor Tursunay Ziyawudun spoke on the human rights violations against women she witnessed and survived during her two detentions. The event was hosted by the University, moderated by Prof. Allen Carlson, government and facilitated by Prof. Magnus Fiskesjö, anthropology.

“While some women celebrate [International Women’s Day], Uighur women are suffering,” Ziyawudun said. 

An outspoken advocate for Uighur human rights, Ziyawudun was among the million Uighur Muslims currently held in the Chinese government’s extra-legal arbitrary detention centers, where minority populations are subjected to abuse for the purposes of “re-education,” which instates renunciation of their faith and forced indoctrination. 

When asked by Carlson to expand on the contradiction between the Chinese government’s harsh policies and their intention to garner loyalty, Ziyawudun responded that the intention was nothing short of genocide. 

“The intention is to just delete people. Our language had been disappeared from the schools, even before these concentration camps,” Ziyawudun said.

Ziyawudun was first held in April 2017 in a detention that lasted one month; her release was prompted by a necessity for medical care. Ziyawudun described the second time — a period of over nine months beginning March 2018 — as unimaginable. She was placed under house arrest for nine more months, before being allowed to go to Kazakhstan, and shortly after left for the U.S.

Ziyawudun’s words were translated by Rizwangul NurMuhammad grad, whose brother has been held in arbitrary detention by the Chinese government for the past five years.

“If I talk about everything I experienced and witnessed, it’ll take me hours,” Ziyawudun said. “Let me just tell you that it has left a deep scar in my heart and memory.”

Ziyawudun said the detainees were subjected to inhumane practices including forced undressing, physical assault, starvation, crowded living quarters and invasions of privacy. Elder Uighur women were not exempt from this treatment. 

“We didn’t have any control of any movement, anything, it was very scary,” Ziyawudun said. “After 10 p.m., we would start to hear women screaming. We couldn’t dare to close our eyes because we always feared that we could be taken into torture anytime.”

Ziyawudun said that women detainees, including herself, were frequently subjected to torture, sustaining serious injuries and bleeding from the trauma.

“Some of the women disappear for several days and come back,” Ziyawudun said. “Some of them disappear forever.”

Torture and the constant police surveillance in the camps created an enviroment of fear and silence, a cause of mental anguish for the women.  

“They didn’t speak anything. They just stared and didn’t say anything,” Ziyawudun said, adding that any expression was met with further brutality. “We weren’t allowed to cry, we weren’t allowed to speak.” 

An organized system of sexual violence, including rape, forced use of birth control and forced sterilization is common in the camps and has been documented by many former detainees. In her remarks, Ziyawudun recounted witnessing the sexual assault of a younger woman who was taken into questioning along with her. 

“She was raped in front of my eyes. I was not exempt. I was also raped. They questioned me, they tortured me. They raped me,” Ziyawudun said.

During a hospital visit, Ziyawudun witnessed the extent of torture upon male detainees as well. She likened their tortute-induced injuries to that of soldiers in a warzone. 

“My heart is as if it’s slashed with a knife, it were painful and horrible memories I’ve had,” Ziyawudun said, speaking through tears. 

However, Ziyawudun said over time she has become courageous, mentioning that although the genocide has been ongoing for five years, the Uighur people have been facing discriminatory policies ever since the Chinese government came into power. 

“We won’t stay quiet,” Ziyawudun said. 

She called for all those who stand for justice, to stand up with Uighurs and to fight in any capacity against the Chinese government. 

Ziyawudun told attendees that fear tactics have been key to China’s oppression of prisoners’ hope in the camps.

“[In the camps] they told us, ‘don’t expect any help from outside of the world, don’t even daydream that the U.S. will come and help you and support you.’ They put fear in our hearts and minds in that way, too,” Ziyawudun said. 

The treatment of Uighur Muslims has drawn some international involvement. According to Ziyawudun, the United Nations has not provided her practical or specific help, but pressure from the United States government has increased visibility and proven effective. 

Fiskesjö urged people to demand the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights to publish a pending report regarding findings from the concentration camps. He suggested that Michelle Bachelet should propose a UN tribunal to prosecute actors of the ongoing genocide. 

Ziyawudun mentioned that action could be taken to promote family reunions between Uighur community members in China and abroad. 

Ziyawudun also acknowledged solidarity among Hong Kongers, Tibetans and Uighur Muslims owing to their common mistreatment by the Chinese government. 

“We all are facing female rights violations by the Chinese government; we have a common ground where we stand against Chinese oppression and human rights violations,” Ziyawudun said. 

NurMuhammad urged people to combat misinformation and Chinese state propaganda. “Even though the Chinese government has declared that the camps have closed and the training has finished, it has not,” she said, holding up a picture of her brother. “If that’s the case, where’s my brother? He was detained in January 2017, where is he? Where are the millions?”
Fiskesjö shared a list of actions people can take, and another by the Uighur Human Rights Project, the organization which assisted Ziyawudun’s resettlement in the U.S.