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Book cover for How I Survived a Chinese "Reeducation" Camp
Book cover for How I Survived a Chinese "Reeducation" Camp

The first memoir about the "reeducation" camps by a Uyghur woman.

“I have written what I lived. The atrocious reality.”
— Gulbahar Haitiwaji to Paris Match

For three years Gulbahar Haitiwaji was held in Chinese detention centers and “reeducation” camps, enduring interrogations, torture, hunger, police violence, brainwashing, forced sterilization, freezing cold, rats, and nights under the blinding fluorescent lights of her prison cell. Her only crime? Being a Uyghur.

China’s brutal repression of Uyghurs, a Turkish-speaking Muslim ethnic group, has been denounced as genocide and reported widely in media around the world. In 2019, The New York Times published the “Xinjiang Papers,” leaked documents exposing the forced detention of more than one million Uyghurs in Chinese “reeducation” camps.

The Chinese government denies that these camps are concentration camps, seeking to legitimize their existence in the name of the “total fight against Islamic terrorism, infiltration and separatism” and calling them “schools.” But none of this is true. Gulbahar only escaped thanks to the relentless efforts of her daughter, with the help of the French diplomatic corps. Others have not been so fortunate.

In How I Survived a Chinese “Reeducation” Camp, Gulbahar Haitiwaji tells her story, describing the insidious nature of oppression, the dehumanizing effects of torture and brainwashing, and the human drive to survive — and resist — under even the most horrific circumstances

Book cover for How I Survived a Chinese "Reeducation" Camp
Book cover for How I Survived a Chinese "Reeducation" Camp

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“Gulbahar’s story is a truly powerful representation of resilience. As the Chinese Communist regime is actively seeking to undermine the values of freedom and democracy across the globe, we need only read testimonies like this one to know what the future world order will look like if the Chinese Communist regime is allowed to continue unchecked. Despite her suffering, her courage in the face of genocide shines through. May every person who reads it be inspired to confront these modern-day horrors and be an upstander just as Gulbahar has been.”

A viscerally affecting memoir from a Uyghur woman who “endured hundreds of hours of interrogation, torture, malnutrition, police violence, and brainwashing.” By 2006, Haitiwaji and her husband, Kerim, began to realize that she and her fellow Uyghurs were being incrementally stripped of their civil rights in her native region of Xinjiang. They moved to France, where life was difficult but livable. Although the couple had been well-paid engineers at an oil company in Xinjiang, they scraped by in Paris, with Kerim working as an Uber driver and the author as a baker and cook. In 2017, pressure by her former employer about her work pension convinced them that it was safe for her to return to sign required paperwork. Not long after she arrived, she was apprehended and interrogated. Photos of her adult daughter in Paris at an anti-Chinese protest for Uyghurs convinced police that she was dangerous. She was branded as a “terrorist,” a fate that has befallen many Uyghurs, who are Muslim and fiercely wary of Chinese authoritarianism. Languishing without a trial for a year, she was eventually sentenced to seven years of “reeducation.” In this urgent and eloquent narrative, the author fashions harrowing depictions of daily humiliations at the camps (so-called “schools”), including rote memorization, senseless interrogation, and violence. After more than two years, pressure by her daughter, who publicized her mother’s ordeal, raising alarm to the highest levels of the French government, agitated Xinjiang authorities. In order to secure her release, Haitiwaji was forced to confess to crimes she hadn’t committed. Despite her courage in the face of a brutal ordeal, it appears that she was one of the lucky ones: Many of the women she met in prison never made it out, and thousands still suffer based on the flimsiest of charges simply because of their ethnicity. A taut, moving, powerful account of an ongoing human rights disaster.

“Gulbahar Haitiwaji’s beautifully written account of brutality in the Chinese government’s “reeducation camps” is a remarkable feat—accessible to all readers, deeply human despite the inhumanity detailed, and unsparing in its details of bleak efforts to destroy Uyghur identity. One constant throughout the book, and clearly throughout her life: Haitiwaji’s extraordinary courage.”

“The book is most valuable as testimony. For Uyghurs, Haitiwaji explains, the camps are 'a kind of urban legend,' made mythic by silence: “If no one talks about them, then the camps aren’t real.” Her memoir, dedicated 'to all those who didn’t make it out,' contributes to a rich and painful body of memory-keeping that grows all the time.”

blog — February 22

“My thoughts would get tangled up like a ball of yarn”: Read an excerpt from Gulbahar Haitiwaji’s memoir, How I Survived a Chinese “Reeducation Camp”

Gulbahar Haitiwaji’s How I Survived a Chinese “Reeducation” Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story is the only book of its kind, a testimonial by a Uyghur woman who spent years in a “reeducation” camp, got released thanks only to a years’-long campaign of the French diplomatic corps, and now has made the brave decision to recount her experience with the world in this book. There are unanticipated delights in Haitiwaji’s story, as we get to know her and other Uyghur people and something of their culture and traditions—all now being dismantled and destroyed by the national government’s systematic onslaught that has sought to make them extinct except as servants of the larger nation’s economic goals. You don’t see the mass murder we usually associate with genocide, but rather something subtler, and sinister in a different way: the removal, one by one, of all the things by which we each know ourselves. In the chapter that follows, Chapter 11, from midway in the memoir, you will read about some of the methods, from forced sterilization under the subterfuge of “vaccinations,” to the insinuating intimacies of warders and “tutors,” to the emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene, to the memorization of lies, to the constant threat hanging over Haitiwaji of her coming trial. This is an important book, in part because China’s success amounts to an invitation to other nation states to study and employ the same methods.

—Dan Simon

Chapter 11

November 20, 2017
Baijiantan, Karamay

I had been a prisoner in Xinjiang for a year. And for almost half that time, I’d been stuck in Baijiantan. My mother and sisters came back on October 3, but since then, I hadn’t seen a single familiar face. I hoped nothing had happened to them. Prison had become my only reality. The only horizon I had was the line of barbed wire that cut us off from the rest of the world. Everything I’d known before—my family, being a wife and a mother, France—floated around in my head like another woman’s story. A woman I no longer was.

My health was deteriorating despite my diligent efforts to maintain my body, which was soft and sore from lack of exercise. I did stretches during brief respites in my cell, early in the morning and late at night. It’s not that we were underfed; quite the opposite. But still, I was visibly losing weight. I think they put something in the food. There was something strange about its taste, its consistency, as if someone were sprinkling invisible seeds on our plate. Were they drugging our meals?

Maybe it was just the passing of time that was wearing me down, but I began to realize that I was losing my memory. My thoughts would get tangled up like a ball of yarn.

In the daytime, our line of prisoners would drag itself across the linoleum like a single big sleepwalker in blue pajamas. Sometimes, one of us would faint. A guard would take her away and bring her back a few hours later. When this happened, we barely even noticed. Plenty of things we had once found shocking were now the norm. Slaps, insults, fellow prisoners getting heart attacks or vanishing altogether: all of that was daily life here. The arduous pace of life in detention—with its succession of classes and meals that were just as hard to swallow—was so exhausting that I couldn’t even manage to think anymore. The teachers gave us each a diary. In our rare moments of “free time,” we were to write down our thoughts: our dreams, our memories, our “sins.” Every three days, the guards would collect these notebooks. Our teachers would read them over, trying to worm their way into the troubled intimacy of our hearts. Did they really think I’d divulge the slightest truth in those pages? Writing procured me no solace because all those pages written in the pallid light were just lies. A smokescreen to fool my teachers and their destructive “reeducation” efforts. Inside, I laughed at the idiotic sentences I had written. But deep down, I knew that the constant self-criticism I’d been reduced to was, with every passing day, moving me further away from the Gulbahar I’d once been.

While Baijiantan slumbered, I remained awake. It was the only time I had to think. At night, eyes wide open in the dark, I prayed with all my strength: I am innocent. I am innocent. I am innocent.

Soon, life changed at Baijiantan. It all began on October 18, with the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party. [1] For three days, a wave of excitement had swept through the ranks—not only through the guards and the teachers but through us, as well. Xi Jinping was preparing to give his big speech to an audience of the nation’s leaders, with an eye to being reelected for a second five-year term. And we were going to watch him on TV, from our classroom. As in Uyghur households on the eve of Eid, the camp gave itself a thorough cleaning. Everything had to be impeccable.

The guards had always demonstrated a paranoid sense of hygiene. That was one of the first things I learned here: each detainee, each room had to be irreproachably spotless. When we weren’t in class, we would be found on our knees, armed with soap and rags, sponging the floor. The slightest bit of overlooked dirt would be met with reprimand or punishment. Baijiantan had to be the very image of our obedient souls: the more it gleamed with unsettling cleanliness, the better our “reeducation” was going.

But this time, we had to work twice as hard. Nothing was too good for the president of China. Big red-and-gold banners just like the Party’s snaked across the walls. The teachers set up TV screens in every classroom. The closer we got to the eighteenth, the more our monotonous daily routine took on a new interest: some prophesied that Xi would hail the efficacy of programs meant to combat terrorism, of which the “reeducation” camps were the backbone. He might even ease up on the rules inside the camps. Our living conditions might improve. The most exemplary among us might even enjoy the freedom we so longed for. Our hopes lent us energy as the camp dressed up in Communist colors. An air of near-celebration floated in the foul-smelling, windowless hallways. All this mise-en-scène was, of course, part of our own “reeducation.” We were tasked with retaining, from this moment of “shared joy,” the greatness of our collective father. It was laughable. But short of being released — a pipe dream I’d buried in a corner of my mind — the prospect of seeing our living conditions get even a little bit nicer kept me from foundering completely.

And then the day came. On the morning of the eighteenth, we were all seated at our desks. We had even laundered our blue uniforms for the occasion. The scent of soap mingled with that of sweat in the room where the only light came from the flat-screen TV. Advertisements played on a loop. The tension rose. At last, the live broadcast from Beijing began. Beneath the heavy crimson curtains of the Great Hall of the People, the president of the People’s Republic of China strode to the podium to thunderous applause from his thousands of loyal supporters.

So this was Xi Jinping. I’d seen the man before in photos, paintings, and on TV, but I’d never really given him a good look or listened to what he had to say. As I’ve said before, politics isn’t really my thing. Boxed in by the TV screen, this miniature version of him seemed harmless enough. His round face and black jacket, buttoned up around a plump torso, gave him a good-natured air. I remember his speech was very long and vehement. I also remember patriotic songs ringing out all over camp. The minute his speech ended, our teacher beat time and, at the top of our lungs, we sang of the glory of Xi and our great nation:
Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China.
The Communist Party toils for the nation.
The Communist Party, of one heart, saved China.

And indeed, after his reelection, life in Baijiantan changed. But sadly, not in the ways we’d hoped.

The first thing they did was ban free time. Weekends did not exist here. We worked all week, from sunrise to sunset. Each day was exactly like the last. And while it had been that way for months, Saturdays and Sundays had always stood out — although they’d had their share of chores and classes, on those nights, the guards might let us out of our cells for a few hours, depending on their mood. During these rare bits of respite, we could visit our friends in neighboring cells. Sure, it was still life in prison, but it was a bit of life all the same.

I learned a great deal about the camps during these let-ups, when the guards looked leniently on. Everywhere, conversations were abuzz over handfuls of dice and dog-eared decks of cards. While songs in Chinese rang out in the corridors, the latest lowdown on Baijiantan made the rounds among us like a game of telephone. Recently, one topic had dominated all discussion: vaccination. We had all been forcibly subjected to vaccines.

One morning, our warders had led us one at a time into a makeshift infirmary where a small team of Hans in lab coats was waiting. I shouted and protested wholeheartedly for hours, but I was given no choice. “You must be vaccinated, Gulbahar. You’re fifty years old, your immune system isn’t what it used to be. If you don’t do this, you might get the flu. I’m getting a shot too, just like you,” said one of the superintendents, pointing to the syringes and other paraphernalia sitting beside a medical exam table. Out of fear of reprisal, I signed a document giving my permission, then let one of the lab-coated men jab the vein in my arm. I was so stupid. Now I know that woman was lying. During our free time, many women confessed to me, ashamed, that they were no longer having their periods. They reported that their menstrual flow had stopped shortly after the vaccinations. The younger women, most of whom were engaged to be wed, wept and grieved, for they had hoped to start families once they were released from camp. I, who was past menopause, tried to comfort them, though a horrific thought was already growing inside me: were they sterilizing us?

Ever since the National Congress, we hadn’t been allowed to smile at each other, or even exchange glances. “Lower your head. Don’t you know that looking at others is forbidden?” the guards shouted. If a line of prisoners passed by, I looked down and grew absorbed in studying my hideous black slippers. The same rules applied at the mess hall and the bathroom in the morning. Why strip us of our last remaining freedoms? Every day, new prisoners arrived at the camp. They filled the cells beside mine. I saw their fearful faces. I wanted to reach out and reassure them, wanted to shout, “Watch out! Don’t get vaccinated!” But what was the point? Their turn would come, no matter what, and I’d just be punished. So I kept my mouth shut. There were more of us than ever at Baijiantan, and yet never had I felt so alone.

But something strange was brewing outside, I could feel it. The chaos of Xinjiang ricocheted off the walls of the camp, its distant echo making its way to our ears. The guards, more nervous now, mentioned official inspections. We were told that people from Ürümqi, local Party cadres, would be coming to the camp to check on “hygiene and the content of the instruction.”

“The best students will have to respond to their questions,” the guards warned. I was one of these. What a farce! A tissue of lies, those answers! We were ordered to learn them by heart. Were I asked for my opinion, I was to say: “The training center makes me very happy. I am being taught a trade and am very well fed. I am paid a small salary. I am provided with enough to feed and dress myself on a daily basis.” All this was, of course, untrue. We were given barely enough to clothe and bathe ourselves. The only thing we were even given here was an earful about how Uyghurs were terrorists and should confess to their “crimes.” Why were they ordering us to lie like this? Did they have something to hide?

Meanwhile, a few weeks after the infamous Congress, we were each assigned an individual “tutoress.” As if we weren’t already bent double by the thick textbooks we had to learn by heart, sessions with these women further burdened our hellishly paced weekly schedules. My tutoress was named Mihray. I met her in a visiting room, where, each time, she sat waiting for me with my “file” right under her nose. She was a young Uyghur woman with a mass of brown hair pulled back in a strict bun on the nape of her neck. Her gentle voice invited trust, so I told her about everything: my arrest, my family in France, my innocence. She besieged me with questions, and I did the same: “When will I be released? May I see my family? May I call them, please?” Softly, sweetly, she would parry my demands: “Patience, Gulbahar.” And yet, Mihray was wary—things had changed since the Congress—weighing my words carefully and reading in them potential evidence of insolence. Oh, the irony of fate! Mihray was the only person I had to talk to. But the more we were muzzled, the more our sessions began to seem like police interrogations. When I asked her when I’d be able to leave this place, her face twisted in a pout of displeasure: “Gulbahar, you must repent. You must confess. Why do you keep asking when you’re getting out of here? How can I ever trust you? Who’s to say that once you’re released, you won’t go back to your old ways?”

One day, as if to reward me, she finally said, “You must wait for your trial.” My trial? Now, after months without a trace of a lawyer or even an official charge, they were telling me I was going to be tried? At that moment, I gave up hope. After the trial, I would be sentenced, and it would all be over. My only outlet was prayer. God alone could hear me now. I had no idea what was going on outside, but my premonition proved to be right: something was going on. Every day brought with it a new minibus full of women. Baijiantan was a factory now swarming with hundreds of prisoners. Out there, Uyghurs were being arrested left and right. The police were, seemingly, racing against the clock, as if someone were trying to thwart their grand “reeducational” project. They were trying to make us disappear even faster than before. And if we didn’t die of exhaustion here, the “trials” we were promised would be the end of us. Would they sentence me to death? I wouldn’t bet much on the life of a Uyghur woman who’d fled to a foreign land.

1. The Nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in Beijing from October 18 to 24, 2017.

2. Lyrics from the Chinese revolutionary hymn “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China” (1943). 

Born in 1966 in Ghulja in the Xinjiang region, GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI was an executive in the Chinese oil industry before leaving for France in 2006 with her husband and children, who obtained the status of political refugees. In 2017 she was summoned in China for an administrative issue. Once there, she was arrested and spent more than two years in a re-education camp. Thanks to the efforts of her family and the French foreign ministry she was freed and was able to return to France where she currently resides. 

Gulbahar Haitiwaji

Born in 1966 in Ghulja in the Xinjiang region, Gulbahar Haitiwaji was an executive in the Chinese oil industry before leaving for France in 2006 with her husband and children, who obtained the status of political refugees. In 2017 she was summoned in China for an administrative issue. Once there, she was arrested and spent more than two years in a re-education camp. Thanks to the efforts of her family and the French foreign ministry she was freed and was able to return to France where she currently resides.