Interview: ‘As Soon as I Was Taken Inside, I Knew it Was a Prison’

Uyghur internment camp survivor Zumuret Dawut attends an event on global religious freedom on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 23, 2019
Uyghur internment camp survivor Zumuret Dawut attends an event on global religious freedom on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 23, 2019. (RFA)

Zumuret Dawut was born and raised in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).  She married Imran Muhamad, a Pakistani businessman, in 2005. On March 31, 2018 she was summoned by the Scientific Development District Street Committee in Urumqi, and she was interned in what local residents call Bei Zan Prison, the so-called Scientific Development District Re-education Centre. The facility is one of many where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.

She was released from the camp on June 2, 2018, and decided with her husband to go back to Pakistan. However the authorities demanded that they pay a fine of 18,000 Yuan ($3,000) for their third child who was born outside of the family planning limit, before returning their passports. Despite paying the fine, authorities demanded that she first undergo sterilization. She left China for Pakistan in January and relocated to Washington with her husband and three children in April.

She spoke to Gulchehra Hoja of RFA’s Uyghur Service on Sept 20.

RFA: Which camp were you interned in and where is it located?

Zumuret Dawut:  There is one camp in every district in Urumqi. I was placed in the camp in the Scientific Development District. When they detained us, they didn’t disclose any information regarding where we were taken to, what happened to us, or if we were imprisoned, nothing whatsoever. I only heard the term ‘camp’ after arriving overseas.  They term they used sound very beautiful: they say that you have been taken for study.

RFA: So you were not given any food or drink all night long?

Zumuret Dawut:  No, they didn’t even give me water. The place was called Bei Zan, and it is located within the district where I live. It was called a re-education centre, so I was taken there. But first they took me to a hospital, and that is what they do, first take you to a hospital. Only after they removed the black hood from over my head did I realize I was in a hospital.  I saw police in uniform everywhere, also people wearing white coats walking about, so I guessed that I was in a hospital.

RFA: Did they give you a thorough examination?

Zumuret Dawut:  Yes, they drew blood samples first, then X-Rayed my internal organs.

RFA: Were all the people you saw in handcuffs?

Zumuret Dawut:  Yes, they took everyone there in handcuffs. There were so many women undergoing examination.  They tested my eyes, they took finger prints before I was taken to what looked like a prison. As soon as I was taken inside I knew it was a prison. I cried so much and I felt weak, as my children kept appearing in front of my eyes. I was taken to a room and ordered to change into a prison uniform. There were male police officers present. So I asked the female in a pleading tone, ‘can you ask the officers to leave the room please?’ She screamed at me: ‘This is not your house where you get spoiled, in this place we don’t distinguish between male or female, you must change your clothes with them present.’

RFA: How many male officers were there in the room?

Zumuret Dawut: Three.

RFA: Did they watch you while you were changing your clothes?

Zumuret Dawut: “Yes, the female officer beat me shouting: ‘If I order you to take off your clothes, you must do so. This is not your home.’ (she sobbed) I promised myself not to cry before coming here.

RFA: Did the camp authorities give you drugs?

Zumuret Dawut:  We were given medicine every day. After taking it we became numb emotionally. For instance we could not think about our young children or elderly parents, all we can think about is how to get through the day. I felt heavy, as if lifeless. Up until now, after leaving the camp such a long time ago I still didn’t have a monthly period.

RFA: Were you suddenly informed of your release on the day or did you know in advance?

Zumuret Dawut: No, I wasn’t even taken to our district police station. They said, come with us. I didn’t know if they were taking me for execution or to someplace even worse. I had no idea. As they took me with a black hood over my head and in handcuffs, I thought that they might take me outside and shoot me. When they removed the hood, I was outside the police station. On entering and while sitting down I saw my husband, I thought, thank God, I am being released today.

RFA: Tell us how the authorities pressed you to agree to undergo forced sterilization.

Zumuret Dawut: The family planning office gave me a letter and said: ‘Come back on the date stated in the letter and we will offer you a free operation to stop you from becoming pregnant.’ On hearing this my husband pleaded, ‘Does she have to undergo this procedure. I know it will effect her health. As long as she doesn’t have any more children, isn’t that good enough?’ They said, ‘If you don’t comply it will effect your entry back into the country in the future, also your children’s schooling.’ On that day all five of us were taken to the family planning office. There were also many other women being brought there from other districts.

On the day of my operation, I was taken inside the operating room, all I remember was that I was given an infusion. When I opened my eyes, I found myself in a long corridor, along with seven or eight other women. There was no medical staff, doctors or nurses. It was a very cold day, and I was covered with only a thin bed sheet. No one was allowed to visit from outside. When I looked around I heard other women moaning from pain. Once the effect of the anaesthetic wore off, I felt a sharp pain in my lower abdominal. My husband wanted to be with me that day, but they refused. No family members were allowed to accompany anyone.

Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service.

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