Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a 56-year-old Uyghur woman, was held in a "reeducation" camp in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. She recounted the harrowing ordeal during an interview with The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward on October 31.
Since her release in August 2019, Haitiwaji has been working with media outlets to raise awareness about the realities of the internment camps. Sharing her testimony can trigger flashbacks of the distressing memories of her time in the camp, but she remains resolute. Beijing continues to persecute the Uyghur ethnic group, yet Haitiwaji is unwavering in her mission, saying, "I will not lose hope." She ardently calls for the international community's decisive action to bring an end to Beijing's detention policy.
Excerpts of the interview follow.
What did you do after being released from the reeducation camp in August 2019 and returning to France, where you had been living?
Following my release, the authorities warned me, "Do not speak of your experiences in the camp. If you do, your relatives remaining in China will face severe consequences." So I led a quiet life, but the anguished faces of the women who were shackled with me remain etched in my memory.
You authored a memoir about your experiences in the camp. What motivated you to do that?
I believed that sharing my experience would lead to improvements in the conditions of the camps. Also, I hoped that using my name openly could deter authorities from mistreating my relatives in Xinjiang.
Is it difficult for you to share your testimony?
Yes, it feels like I'm being transported back to the camp every time. After giving my testimony, I often struggle to sleep for two or three days. I try to cope by listening to music to push those painful memories away.
Has your testimony led to any changes in Uyghur detention policies?
Regrettably, there has been no improvement. Unlike the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, where the truth emerged only after it was over, the current Uyghur issue is different. Technologies like satellites have revealed the construction of new detention facilities, and yet … it's disappointing.
What are your thoughts on the Xinjiang Police Files?
I saw the photos of the detainees. Although tears weren't visible on the women's faces, it looked like their tears were on the verge of flowing. The camp where I was detained also forbade us from crying. Those images reminded me of what it was like to live there.
What are your thoughts on the October 30-31 International Uyghur Forum in Tokyo?
The forum brought together a diverse group of researchers and politicians. I had concerns that ongoing humanitarian crises, like Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Israel's military operations in the Gaza Strip, might divert attention from the Uyghur issue. Nevertheless, I believe that the forum can, to some extent, prevent these situations from overshadowing the Uyghur cause.
What are your expectations of Japan and the world in addressing the Uyghur situation?
I hope for decisive action to stop this genocide. We need concrete action [and not just resolutions]. It's been over four years since my release, and the international response has not been what I had expected at the time. Nevertheless, I will not lose hope. I urge countries involved with China to place their conscience and humanity over money.
If you could, what would you like to say to the Uyghurs who are currently detained?
My hope is for them to endure and remain resilient. There are no other words I can offer.
Are there moments now when you feel happy?
Before my detention, my happiest moments were savoring a cup of coffee after finishing the house chores. Today, I find fleeting moments of happiness when I am with my grandchildren and children.
Progress in addressing the Uyghur cause remains slow despite shocking revelations about the internment camps.
In May 2022, internal documents from Xinjiang's internment camps, known as the Xinjiang Police Files, were leaked after a hacker breached the police server. These documents included photos and a list of over 23,000 detainees. They provide evidence that corroborates the testimonies of survivors like Haitiwaji.
On October 30 and 31, the International Uyghur Forum — a Global Parliamentary Convention with the World Uyghur Congress, was held at the National Diet of Japan. Around 200 foreign politicians and researchers committed to addressing the Uyghurs' human rights situation gathered for the event. Haitiwaji, making her first visit to Japan, participated in a panel discussion. She also shed light on the conditions within the detention camps during a testimonial meeting in Tokyo on November 1.
The forum resulted in a declaration with recommendations and actionable steps to end the Uyghur genocide. However, as Haitiwaji emphasized in her interview, these resolutions and declarations are meaningless unless they are followed by concrete action.
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