It has been more than two years since Sayragul Sautbay was released from a re-education camp in China’s westernmost region, Xinjiang. Yet the mother of two still suffers from nightmares and flashbacks from the “humiliation and violence” she suffered while in detention.
Sautbay, a doctor and educator who now lives in Sweden, recently published a book detailing her ordeal, including witnessing beatings, alleged sexual abuse and forced sterilization.
In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, she highlighted other outrages faced by the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, including eating pork, a meat that is strictly forbidden in Islam.
“We had to eat pork every Friday,” said Sautbay. “You purposely chose a day that is sacred to Muslims. And if you refuse, you will be severely punished. “
She added that the policy was designed to bring shame and guilt to Muslim inmates and that it was “difficult to explain in words the feelings she had every time she ate the meat.”
“I felt like a different person. It was getting dark all around me. It was really hard to accept, “she said.
Testimony from Sautbay and others provides an indication of how China has attempted to proceed in Xinjiang by targeting the cultural and religious beliefs of the mostly Muslim ethnic minority, conducting extensive surveillance, and – starting around 2017 – justifying a network of camps opened to counter “extremism”.
#Sayragul #Sautbay published a book about their experiences in the Chinese concentration camp (part 1). Chinese genocidal policy against the indigenous people of #EastTurkistan #Uygurs #Kazakhs #Kirgyz #Uzbeks and #Tatars #IndepenceToEastTurkistan #FreeKazakhs pic.twitter.com/otlXJ9X6QQ
– FreeKazakhs (reeFreeKazakhs) August 20, 2020
However, documents made available to Al Jazeera show that agricultural development has also become part of a policy of “secularization,” which the German anthropologist and Uighur scholar Adrian Zenz says.
According to Zenz, the documents and state-approved news articles support the conversation within the Uighur communities that “active” efforts are being made to promote and expand pig farming in the region.
In November 2019, Xinjiang’s chief administrator Shohrat Zakir declared that the autonomous region would become a “pig breeding center.” One step that Uighurs say is an affront to their way of life.
A news article posted in May that Zenz recorded describes a new farm in the southern Kashgar area that is expected to produce 40,000 pigs each year.
The project is expected to occupy an area of 25,000 square meters in an industrial park in Konaxahar County in Kashgar, which has been renamed Shufu, according to the Chinese-language website Sina.
Ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang say the government is deliberately trying to erase their cultural and religious traditions [File: Diego Azubel/EPA]The agreement was officially signed on April 23 of this year, the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and states that pig farming is not intended for export purposes, but “to ensure the supply of pork in Kashgar”.
The Uighurs make up 90 percent of the population in and around the city.
“This is part of an attempt to completely eradicate the culture and religion of the people of Xinjiang,” Zenz told Al Jazeera.
“It is part of the strategy of secularization to make the Uyghurs secular and indoctrinate them, to follow the communist party and to become agnostic or atheist,” he added.
Beijing has defended its policies in the region, saying the approach is needed to tackle the “three evils of extremism, separatism and terrorism” following the deadly unrest in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009.
It has denied the existence of re-education camps which, according to the United Nations, have held more than a million people, and instead run vocational centers that allow it to “retrain” the Uighur population and teach them new skills.
Like Sautbay, Uyghur businesswoman Zumret Dawut has first-hand experience of imprisonment. She was picked up in March 2018 in Urumqi, the city where she was born.
According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in September, there are at least 380 re-education camps and detention centers in Xinjiang [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]Dawut said the authorities had asked for explanations about her ties to Pakistan, her husband’s homeland, for two months. They also asked her how many children she had and whether they had studied religion and read the Koran.
She says she was repeatedly humiliated and slapped once in the face with a rolled paper after displeasing her interrogator.
Another time, she had to ask the male camp officers to let her go to the bathroom, only to have them handcuffed and watch her in the bathroom all the time.
She also says that she has been repeatedly served pork.
“When you’re in a concentration camp, you don’t decide whether to eat or not. In order to be alive we had to eat the meat that was served, ”she told Al Jazeera through an interpreter.
Zumret Dawut, now in exile in the United States, was detained in her hometown of Urumqi for two months and repeatedly forced to eat pork while in detention [File: Nathan Ellgren/AP)Yet those experiences could not have prepared her for what would happen next.
She and several other female detainees were sterilised to prevent them from having more children. The controversy was reported earlier this year by the Associated Press news agency, drawing widespread condemnation.
Starting them young
Sautbay, who was from the town of Ili, ended up in another camp after authorities learned that her husband and their two children had left for neighbouring Kazakhstan in early 2016.
She had originally planned to join them but by then authorities had confiscated her passport and that of other civil servants.
Because of her medical background and experience in running preschools, Sautbay was assigned to teach her fellow detainees the Chinese language, allowing her to closely observe what was happening to the Uighurs.
She says the practice of making Muslims eat pork went beyond the detention camps.
In one school in Altay, a city in northern Xinjiang, students were also forced to eat the meat and when many refused and demonstrated against their school administrators, the government sent in soldiers to intervene, Sautbay said.
The Xinjiang government also started an initiative called “free food” for Muslim children in kindergarten, serving them pork dishes without their knowledge, she added.
The idea was that by starting them young, the Muslim children would acquire a taste for non-halal food.
The Xinjiang government has also reportedly started feeding Uighur children pork, with the idea that by starting them young, they would develop the taste for non-halal food [File: Diego Azubel/EPA]”China is using and will employ various tactics to force Uyghurs and other Muslim populations to eat pork,” said Sautbay.
Last year, Italy-based AsiaNews stated that government officials had delivered pork directly to Muslim households in Ili during Chinese New Year celebrations, which happened to be the “Year of the Pig,” and insisted that Uyghurs decorate their homes for the year Christmas time.
“Normalize” the forbidden
Arslan Hidayat, a Turkey-based Uyghur rights activist and general secretary of the Uyghur Revival Association, told Al Jazeera that the Chinese government is trying to “normalize” forbidden practices for Muslims whether they breed, eat pork or not Alcohol drinks in Xinjiang.
As part of official state policy, the Xinjiang government also announced in 2018 that all halal restaurants in the region must “operate normally” during Ramadan, unlike previous years when the same facilities were closed during the month-long ritual of fasting.
According to the Xinjiang government website where the memorandum on Muslim food business regulations was posted, the policy was intended to ensure “normal life during Ramadan.”
But Zenz believes the directive meant that the government wanted to ensure that Uyghurs eat and not fast during the day.
He also shared two other official documents in Chinese, showing that the Kashgar government provided money for food for its mostly Muslim Uyghur workers during Ramadan.
Taken together, this represents a pattern of the Chinese government waging a “war on halal,” noted Zenz, referring to the term used in Islam to describe acceptable foods and other daily practices.
In 2018, Reuters news agency also reported on an “anti-halal campaign” in Urumqi “to prevent Islam from permeating secular life and” fueling “extremism.
Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based China expert, spoke to Al Jazeera about China’s general policy towards Uyghurs, saying that the Chinese government is “strong” that many residents of Xinjiang have been “radicalized” in recent years.
Uighur exile groups living in Turkey are protesting in Istanbul to draw attention to alleged violations of law by the Chinese government in Xinjiang [File: Yasin Akgul/AFP]Beijing believes that the only way to address the situation in Xinjiang is to give residents “the education they should have received when they were younger.” So the “training camp”.
“That’s what she is [government] say, and they move people through these educational camps. You teach them skills, language and history, and this is how they deal with it. “
Activist Hidayat notes, however, that even inattentive Uyghurs, including many government employees who tried to adopt a lifestyle similar to that of the Han Chinese, did not escape punishment. They were also sent to the camps solely on the basis of their racial identity, he said.
However, Tangen pointed out that the economic situation in Xinjiang “has improved dramatically over the years” and the people there are doing better.
“People live longer. You have better chances, ”remarked Tangen.
“So there is always this tension between what the West says is your human rights to speak freely, do what you want, and the idea that without economic opportunity and food on the table, rights don’t mean much.”
Regarding the specific allegations of forcing Muslims to eat pork, Tangen said he did not know whether the information was “factual” but that if it did, it was not the result of “central government policies.”
The documents Al Jazeera saw belong to a cache that also lists the alleged sterilization program reported by AP.
“I’m sure there are things that shouldn’t happen. But if I don’t have some facts, it’s impossible to determine the veracity of the allegations, Tangen said.
In a huge bureaucracy like China’s, there could be “some people” who could commit abuse, he said.
“The key is to find these people and punish them.”
The Chinese government has little to say on the matter, although various state-controlled publications have questioned the credibility of Sautbay and Dawut when they alleged other abuses in Xinjiang.
Beijing has also accused the German anthropologist Zenz of “fabricating facts and forging data” and pointing out his links to “right-wing” factions in the US government. Observers from China also asked questions about his “sudden expertise” about Xinjiang and the Uighurs.
Al Jazeera has obtained an official response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry but has not yet received a response. It has also sought comment from the Human Rights Institute of China Political Science and Law University, but has yet to respond at the time of publication.
Dawut, the Uighur businesswoman who now lives in exile in the USA, says she stands by her story of what happened to her in the camps.
Meanwhile, Sautbay, the Kazakh doctor, said that by sharing her ordeal, she hoped to be a voice for those who remain in captivity.
“The days that I spent in the concentration camp are not being erased from my mind, and I’ve had to live with them all my life,” she said.