Updated: Sep 12, 2021
The Uyghur Tribunal opened its doors for the third time today, as we heard some harrowing testimony from a number of fact witnesses and survivors of the PRC’s internment camps. With evidence of torture, sexual violence, death, the targeting of family members and the long-term effects suffered by those who managed to escape the horrors of Xinjiang, it’s safe to say that many of us left the room utterly flawed by what we had heard and witnessed.
Gulbahar Jelilova, who was an inmate at one of the camps, was the first witness to testify during today’s sessions. She began by describing the awful conditions of the camp, including a lack of cleaning facilities or water, meaning that many of the women developed lice within the first month of imprisonment. The women’s heads were shaved without their consent, and they were forced to undergo various medical examinations and treatments, including pregnancy tests, ultrasound scans and pills to stop their periods. As we consider the prevention of births as one of the five acts that must be present for a legal determination of genocide, we start to see much evidence of the PRC’s intent to destory the Uyghur population by inhibiting reproduction. Ms Jelilova was taken to hospital on multiple occasions, due to her pre-existing heart problem as well as collapsing from exhaustion: she recalls being handcuffed, shackled and transported with a hood over her head, feeling terrified as she was left in the hospital for ten days.
Ms Jelilova was constantly pressured to sign a document admitting that she was a terrorist, during her entire time at the camp. She experienced interrogation daily, often strapped to a metal chair for twenty-four hours straight and beaten, receiving electric shocks to force her to remain conscious and awake. Despite the tortures of interrogation, Ms Jelilova never signed the document, adamant that she would protect her family from the repercussions of such accusations. Her stoicism and bravery was simply incredible to behold.
Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of Ms Jelilova’s testimony was hearing of the profound physical and psychological effects of her imprisonment and persecution, many of which she is still battling with today, including ongoing heart complications and tuberculosis. Ms Jelilova lost twenty kilos in weight during her period of imprisonment in the camp, and confessed that as time went on, she slowly forgot about her family and could not taste any of her food: it started to feel as though she had been born in that camp, as if she had lived there all of her life. When she returned to Kazakhstan, Ms Jelilova found it difficult to even look at her children, the horrors she experienced unbeknown to them. Her words will stay with many of us:
“I am suffering from this deep pain which is sustained inside me. I am suffering psychologically. I am not normal”
After a gruelling hour of giving evidence and answering the panel’s questions, Ms Jelilova shared that after she escaped the camp, she wrote down the names of as many women as she could remember, who were still imprisoned there. As a Kazakh woman she was able to leave China, and was assured by many Uyghur women in the camp that she would one day be free. These women begged Ms Jelilova to tell their stories, many of them harbouring the knowledge that, as Uyghurs, they might never escape such persecution. Ms Jelilova’s small red notebook containing these names serves as a reminder of the sheer power that the written word holds, and that by simply putting a name on paper, she could honour these stories of resilience, courage and community in the face of horror. Miss Jelilova shared her commitment to giving evidence today: “I don’t care if I die, I don't care if they kill me, I want to tell what is going on. I believe that sacrificing my own life might help save my fellow Uyghurs in the camps”. This serves as a reminder, for many of us, of our duty to bear witness to such stories.
Ms Jelilova shared with the tribunal her belief in the true intent of the CCP to “destroy, disgrace and humiliate the Uyghurs”. With intention to physical destroy a group of people as one of two major components to the crime of genocide, her words may prove to be crucial. Though Ms Jelilova escaped China psychically, it is clear that she will always carry a part of her experience with her. She shared the disturbing words that she heard from Chinese officials upon her departure:
“Remember the good policy of the Chinese government, and forget everything that happened to you in the camp. The arms of China are very long, and will reach you wherever you go”
A second survivor of an internment camp in Xinjiang, Omer Rozi, shared similarly heartbreaking testimony about his physical and mental ordeals during imprisonment. Subject to daily interrogation and horrific methods of torture, including the ‘water prison’, Mr Rozi was hung, beaten, and deprived of food, water and sleep, left to what he described as “only skin and bone”. He was even left in solitary confinement for an entire year. Admitting that the abuse he suffered almost “finished” him, it took Mr Rozi a long time to recover psychologically, with his experiences undoubtedly harbouring permanent residence in his mind.
Mr Rozi shared harrowing details of the effects of his persecution not only on himself, but on members of his family. His cousin, who was arrested after the witness escaped from the camp and fled China, was sentenced to time in prison and subsequently beaten to death. He recalled receiving a video from the CCP (in an attempt to compel him to return to China), in which his brother and sister were seen hanging around one metre from the ground in a room, their screams audible just as the video ended. Mr Rozi has had no communication with his siblings in five years: he has no idea whether they are still alive. Many of his family members disappeared and are still missing, Mr Rozi unaware of where they are or what happened to them. It was utterly heartbreaking to witness Mr Rozi break down in tears as he showed the tribunal photographs of his missing family.
Another day of difficult and distressing testimony drew to a close as we were reminded of the ongoing adversities and battles faced by many survivors of the PRC’s internment camps, whether that be physical or psychological damage, ongoing harassment from the CCP or the targeting of family members. Many of us have left today’s sessions with a newfound gratitude for our mental wellbeing and the safety of our families, recognising our duty to speak out against such persecution. After hearing these horrific stories, nobody can say that we did not know what was going on, and as we look to the final day of this initial set of hearings, it seems that now is the time for the world to act.
Evie is an English Literature undergraduate at UCL, and an avid reader and bookworm. Alongside her work in Holocaust Education, she loves to write about books as a way into better understanding current affairs and contemporary issues. She is currently serving as Publications Manager at Yet Again, and President of Pi Media, UCL's student publication.