Kyrgyz Woman From China Still Lives In Fear After Leaving Xinjiang

3 Min
Kyrgyz Woman From China Still Lives In Fear After Leaving Xinjiang

Aigul first left her native region of Xinjiang, in northwestern China, seven years ago to study at a university in her ancestral homeland, Kyrgyzstan.

Aigul — whose name has been changed for security concerns — has since become a Kyrgyz citizen, but still lives in fear of persecution by Chinese officials, who have been accused of a brutal crackdown against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Aigul says she and several other Xinjiang natives living in Kyrgyzstan were once tricked by the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek to go to China, where they were detained and thrown in prison.

“In 2017, the embassy asked us to help with some border checks, but when we crossed into China we were handcuffed, dark bags were placed over our heads, and they drove us away,” Aigul told RFE/RL.

Aigul says she spent about one month in one of the notorious facilities that Chinese authorities call reeducation camps designed to prevent religious extremism and terrorism. “They call it camps but in reality it’s a prison,” Aigul recalled. “In each small cell they placed 10 to 15 women. We slept on the floor.”

There was no mattress or blanket, and the prisoners were given thin sheets instead, she adds. The cell was damp and cold, and there was a bucket in the corner to use instead of a toilet. Aigul described the food as “some kind of boiled plants.”

“They would also beat us and scold us. I was beaten there,” Aigul said. “We were forced to get up at 5:30 in the morning and sing the Chinese national anthem before going for a one- or two-hour walk inside the prison yard. Then we read and memorized texts praising the Chinese authorities.”

Aigul, who was born and raised in Xinjiang’s Kyzylsuu Kyrgyz autonomous region, says all her cellmates were ethnic Kyrgyz.

Among them were underage girls who had been studying in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. According to Aigul, they were arrested after the Chinese authorities checked their mobile phones and found they had social media and messaging apps that are banned in China such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and Telegram.

Rights activists say more than 1 million Muslims from Xinjiang have been placed in China’s vast network of “reeducation camps.” Many former detainees have talked of widespread torture and rape in the facilities, while some women say they were also forcibly sterilized in prison hospitals.

In a report released in August, the United Nations accused China of “serious human rights violations” against Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, a claim that Beijing denies.

The United Nations said its investigators found “credible evidence” of torture that may amount to “crimes against humanity.”

Not So Easy New Life

Aigul was released from prison after just one month — a relatively short time compared to many others, who spent years behind bars. Some have died or disappeared after being placed in the camps.

Aigul was also allowed to return to Kyrgyzstan to continue her studies because the authorities didn’t find anything they believed was “suspicious,” she said.

But when she came back to China the following year to visit her family in Kyzylsuu Kyrgyz, Aigul was interrogated by local authorities several times.

“They asked me if I performed Islamic prayers, they also asked if other people whom I’m in touch with in Kyrgyzstan performed the prayers,” she said. “I was happy that they didn’t put me in prison this time, but I felt I was under pressure.”

Upon her return to Kyrgyzstan from that trip in 2018, Aigul decided to stay in her ancestral homeland for good. Two years later she became a Kyrgyz citizen.

But it came at a heavy price. Renouncing Chinese citizenship meant Aigul would no longer be able to easily get in touch with her family in Xinjiang.

She recently found out that Chinese police visited her grandmother, checked her phone, and threatened her with prison after she had spoken with Aigul.

During that phone call, her grandmother told her that the family was under surveillance since Aidgul decided to get Kyrgyz citizenship. “My mother was forced to sign a document pledging not to ‘contact my daughter, not to send her money. I’ll cut all ties with her and if I breach this promise, I am ready to be punished,'” Aigul said.

Aigul now works at a government agency in Bishkek and still lives in a student dormitory she can barely afford. Half of her monthly salary of about $125 goes to pay the rent, and the rest is not enough for food and medicine, she says.

Aigul still suffers from a chronic kidney disease that she says she first developed in a Xinjiang prison.

Aigul says she relied on financial help from her parents and struggles to pay her bills since they lost contact. Aigul doesn’t know if she will ever see or even hear from them again###

  • Courtesy: RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service