Kazakhs Won’t Be Silenced on China’s Internment Camps

Activists are speaking out for those imprisoned in Xinjiang—even if their own government doesn’t like it.

Foreign Policy
Date: March 4, 2019
By: Reid Standiah,Aigerim Toleukhanova

Gulnur Kosgeulet shows a photo of her husband, Ekpor Sorsenbek, who she believes is in a re-education camp in Xinjiang, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 21. (Reid Standish for Foreign Policy)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan—Gulzira Auelkhankyzy remembers little about the January day when she was released from Xinjiang’s vast network of re-education camps. Auelkhankyzy, an ethnically Kazakh Chinese citizen, spent 15 months inside an internment camp, where she was regularly interrogated, forced to give blood, and required to learn Chinese and Communist Party songs. Auelkhankyzy was then coerced into signing a contract and sent to a “black factory” in October 2018, where she worked long hours sewing gloves for a measly wage. By the time Auelkhankyzy was taken to the border with Kazakhstan, she said, she was so exhausted and sick from her ordeal that she can barely remember the crossing.

Now back in Kazakhstan, she has joined the growing chorus of voices speaking out against the sweeping internment program in China’s western region of Xinjiang, where United Nations human rights officials estimate the authorities currently hold a million or more Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities. It’s causing uproar among Kazakhs—and sparking heavy-handed pushback from a government that critics say is more interested in maintaining good relations with Beijing than protecting its own people.

Auelkhankyzy credits her freedom to her husband, who is a Kazakh citizen, and his efforts in lobbying the Kazakh government for help and raising attention to her case on social media and by speaking to local and international journalists. Like many Kazakhs and Uighurs in China, Auelkhankyzy does not read Chinese. When she first learned of her release, Auelkhankyzy was forced to sign pages of documents that she did not understand before having her passport returned to her. She was told by Chinese officials that her relatives in China would face consequences if she spoke about the camps once back in Kazakhstan. Her two daughters and her elderly parents are still in Xinjiang. Despite the threats, however, she insists on speaking out about what she experienced.

“I know how awful these camps are, and I want the world to know about them,” Auelkhankyzy said during an interview in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. “In Kazakhstan I can speak about this, so I am doing it on behalf of those still trapped in Xinjiang.”    [FULL  STORY]