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China, the Olympics, and the Uyghurs

Gulbahar Haitiwaji was sentenced to seven years at a Chinese internment camp, but was released in 2019.
Gulbahar Haitiwaji was sentenced to seven years at a Chinese internment camp, but was released in 2019.

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing wrapped on Sunday with fireworks, red lanterns, and a lot of tension still in the air.From the torch lightingthat officially started the competition to the final bow of the closing ceremony, these Olympics will be remembered as one of the most contentious games ever. 

One of the reasons for that tension is the political backlash against China for its repression of the Uyghur population – an ethnic Muslim minority in the autonomous Xinjiang region in northwest China. 

The international community has become more vocal about the reported genocide of Uyghurs.In December, the U.S. barred imports from Xinjiangthat came from forced–laborcamps. And the Biden administration passed sanctionsin response to the alleged abuses. Reports of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs trace back to 2014. The United Nations estimated last year that nearly 1.5 million Uyghurs were held in Chinese internment camps.

Few Uyghurs have been able to flee the abuse and horrific conditions at these camps. For those who have, sharing their stories comes with enormous risk.

Gulbahar Haitiwaji is one of the first people to go public with a firsthand account of what she endured. She was sentenced to seven years at what the Chinese government calls “a vocational education and training center.” But she was released after only two years in 2019.

Her memoir is called “How I Survived a Chinese ‘Re-education’ Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story.” Her daughter,Gulhumar Haitiwaji, interpreted for her mother,whospeaksUyghur:

“There were 40 of us in the room, all women, all wearing blue pajamas. It was a nondescript rectangular classroom — no more than 500 square feet. A big metal shutter, perforated to let the light in, hid the outside world from us. Eleven hours a day the world was reduced to this room. This was called physical education. In reality it was tantamount to military training. Our exhausted bodies moved through the space in unison — back and forth, side to side, corner to corner. When the soldier bellowed “at ease” in Mandarin, our regiment of prisoners froze. he would then order us to remain still. This could last half an hour, often a whole hour, or even several. When it did, our legs would begin to prickle all over with pins and needles. Our bodies still warm and restless, struggled not to sway in the moist heat. We could smell our own foul breath. We were panting like oxen. Sometimes one of us would faint. If she failed to come to on her own, a guard would yank her to her feet and slap her awake. If she collapsed again ,the guard would drag her out of the room and we would never see her again. Ever.”

Copyright 2022 WAMU 88.5

Sophia Alvarez Boyd, Kathryn Fink