by Arielle Del Turco
June 12, 2019
Mihrigul Tursun is a survivor of a “re-education” internment camp in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
It’s incredibly rare to hear from a survivor of one of the camps. Detainees are rarely released. And when they are, they are closely monitored and intimidated by the Chinese government.
The camps appear to be designed to force Uyghur Muslims—an ethnic and religious minority residing in northwest China—to adopt the norms, language, and non-religious tendencies preferred by the Chinese Communist Party. Detainees are subjected to daily communist party indoctrination sessions, inhumane living conditions, and torture. It is estimated that China currently detains at least one million Uyghurs in these facilities.
A Uyghur Muslim originally from Xinjiang, Mihrigul was living in Egypt with her husband following her education. When she had triplets in 2015, she took her babies back to China so that her parents could help her care for them.
When she arrived at the airport in Xinjiang with her two-month-old triplets, Chinese authorities seized her children from her while she was questioned and beaten. Authorities then took her directly to prison where she was held without any idea if or when she might be released.
Following her release from prison two months later, she rushed to pick up her children from the hospital where the authorities had kept them. Upon her arrival, she was informed that operations had been performed on all three of her children. A day later, it resulted in the death of one of her sons. Despite her pleas, she was denied the request to see her son.
Mihrigul was again taken into custody—this time to a “reeducation” camp. There, Chinese authorities repeatedly tortured her. They put a metal device on her head which transmitted electric shocks sending a searing pain which could be felt even in her veins and bones. The pain was so great she begged the guards to kill her—convinced that death would be better than enduring more torture.
She was placed in Cell 210, a small room that held 68 women. One woman in the cell hadn’t been allowed to leave the room in 13 months—not even to shower. Occasionally, women were taken from the cell and never heard of again.
Mihrigul witnessed nine women die in the cell due to the brutal conditions of the camp over the course of her detention. When the police came to remove a body of the deceased, all the women were instructed to lie down on the floor. The police didn’t enter the room to pick up the body. Rather, they used a metal contraption to pick the body up by the neck and drag it out of the cell, as if trash was being picked up off the ground.
At one point, Mihrigul was sentenced to death and the police asked her how she wanted to die.
Thankfully, Mihrigul was released in April 2018 after having been detained for 10 months in total, and she was allowed to return to Egypt to seek medical treatment for her two remaining children who had Egyptian citizenship.
Even today, the nightmare hasn’t ended for Mihrigul. She can’t sleep at night. The images of the nine women who died keep coming to her mind. In her dreams, Chinese authorities want to kill her.
As I write this now, Mihrigul is living in the United States and speaking out on this issue, though recounting these memories is difficult for her. I had the opportunity to hear her tell her story at a conference held by the World Uyghur Congress in Washington, D.C. last week.
It was sobering to hear this testimony. The room was in tears over Mihrigul’s story. Over 1,500 Uyghurs reside in the Washington, D.C. area, and many of them have family members in China who have disappeared and are thought to be in “re-education” camps. Mihrigul’s testimony points to a terrifying possibility of what might be happening to their own family members in China.
China continues to shamelessly deny the true nature of these camps. Chinese leaders try to sell the narrative that these camps are merely “free vocational training” centers. One Chinese leader claimed the camps are “the same as boarding schools.”
Yet, the lies of Chinese government officials will not shelter them from the truth and their false narratives will not absolve them of their human rights violations.
There is ample evidence to prove what is really going on in Xinjiang. Satellite images, Chinese government budget reports, and witness testimonies such as Mihrigul’s reveal the truth of China’s brutal oppression of religious minorities.
The Western world cannot continue to treat China just like any other nation. The blatant lack of respect for human life and freedom is something that can’t be ignored.
The Trump administration has prioritized religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy—that’s something that needs to be taken seriously. The U.S. government must make it clear that there are diplomatic and economic consequences for China’s crackdown on religious minorities.
Americans benefit immensely from the religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution. In contrast, the Chinese government views the beliefs of religious minorities as a threat to the ideology of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Thus, China sends Uyghur Muslims to “re-education” camps to be indoctrinated and tortured and arrests Christians for attending unapproved house churches. As Christians in the United States take notice of the victims of religious freedom violations around the world, such as Uyghur Muslims, we must advocate on their behalf.