A Chinese-Kazakh writer and businesswoman struggles to rebuild her life after being abused in a camp in Xinjiang
In her hometown of Jeminay in the Xinjiang region of northwest China, Zhazira Asenqyzy was known as a poet and writer as well as a successful businesswoman.
Asenqyzy’s works – published in local newspapers – were popular among his ethnic Kazakh supporters. With three profitable business ventures, including a furniture company that employed dozens of workers, Asenqyzy lacked for nothing.
But Asenqyzy’s world was turned upside down when she was abducted from her family home one morning in May 2017 and thrown into one of Xinjiang’s notorious internment camps.
“I was having breakfast with my family when a [ethnic] A Kazakh man, an employee of the Jeminay district security service, called me and asked me to come to his office,” Asenqyzy recalls. “’Bring your passport with you,’ he told me.
Asenqyzy says she wasn’t too worried at first, as authorities often collected residents’ passports. But when she arrived at the security department, Asenqyzy was ordered to remove her jewelry and hand it over to an officer along with her cellphone. Then she was handcuffed and interrogated.
Locked up in China: the fate of Muslims in Xinjiang
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty joins forces with its sister organization, Radio Free Asia, to highlight the plight of Muslims living in the western province of Xinjiang in China.
Security agents also raided Asenqyzy’s home and his private library of around 1,500 books. “They first take the Koran and a book of poetry from [Shakarim] Qudaiberdiuli, and asked me where I got them from,” Asenqyzy said.
The photo of Qudaiberdiuly with a long beard on the cover of the book made the officers more suspicious and they asked Asenqyzy to explain “what links” she had “with this extremist”.
“I told them that he was a famous Kazakh poet who died about 100 years ago and that all men had a long beard at that time. But the officers wrote that I had resisted the police” , Asenqyzy said.
On the same day, Asenqyzy was transferred to a prison cell without anyone explaining why she was imprisoned and when, if at all, she was going to be released. There was no trial and no charges were filed against her.
More than a million Muslims – Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and members of other indigenous Xinjiang ethnic groups – are believed to have been placed without trial in a network of high-security prison camps that China has built across its vast western province of Xinjiang. The first information about the camps was leaked in 2017.
Beijing says the facilities are vocational re-education centers to counter extremism. But many former detainees have shared harrowing accounts of torture, rape, unwanted abortion, sterilization and forced labor in the camps.
“Let them die, no one cares”
Asenqyzy, who is now 46, recalls being held in a women’s camp where some of the detainees were in their 70s and 80s.
“When I arrived at the prison, they interrogated me for two days and gave me nothing to eat,” she told RFE/RL. “I got so weak I almost fainted. Then I heard the prison warden say, ‘If she dies here, let her die, no one cares, no one will ask on [her].'”
Asenqyzy says there were no beds or blankets and the women slept on the concrete floor, covering themselves with “old, threadbare blankets”.
The heating system was off even on cold nights, she said. The prisoners never received enough food and were hungry most of the time. “Potatoes, cabbage and carrots boiled together without being washed first”, is how Asenqyzy describes prison food.
Many prisoners fell ill but were regularly denied medical care. She says prison officials punished those who complained of being sick and asked for help. “Once I was forced to stand still for four hours just because I said I had back pain and asked to see a doctor,” she said. “I lost consciousness and fell to the concrete floor, fracturing my head.”
Even then, Asenqyzy received no medical treatment. A constant reminder of this painful incident is a bump on her head from which fractured bones have coalesced, she said.
Asenqyzy witnessed how prisoners were brutally beaten just for talking to each other because the guards suspected they were plotting something.
Asenqyzy said the guards often told the women “even if we beat you to death, no one will say anything. We have instructions from the authorities.”
Detainees were taken once a day to the prison yard, where guards forced them to do what Asenqyzy describes as “training designed for soldiers”.
“Obviously, octogenarians could barely stand on their legs, let alone do such difficult exercises. I saw how elderly women fell to the ground after being kicked in the ankles by guards “, she said. “They hit old women on their shoulder blades just because they couldn’t stand up straight.”
Asenqyzy recalls that there were large television screens constantly broadcasting Chinese state propaganda. “From morning to night, they would tell us how China would become the most powerful country in the world and how Chinese would become the most important language in the world.”
Can’t start over
Asenqyzy was released from the camp in the middle of the night in December 2018 after spending a year and a half in prison. She was placed under house arrest for another six months.
During Asenqyzy’s absence, his private businesses went out of business.
Asenqyzy said she had a furniture company that exported to neighboring countries and another that produced traditional Kazakh clothing and employed about 30 people, mostly women. His third business was a store selling manufactured goods.
Asenqyzy no longer had any source of income. She decided to leave China and crossed the border into neighboring Kazakhstan, her ancestral homeland.
Asenqyzy says it was a difficult decision, as she had to leave behind her elderly mother, siblings and all her loved ones.
Within three months of arriving, Asenqyzy was granted Kazakh citizenship under a special repatriation program launched by the Kazakh government after its independence in 1991.
Kazakhstan, the richest country in Central Asia, encourages ethnic Kazakhs abroad to resettle there. He estimates that there are around 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs living in China. They are the second largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after the Uyghurs.
Many ethnic Kazakhs have left China for Kazakhstan since the start of the repatriation program. Asenqyzy says she is grateful to Kazakh officials who helped her escape “Chinese oppression”.
But Asenqyzy also complains about what she describes as being treated with suspicion by Kazakh security services. Asenqyzy says she was interrogated several times by intelligence agents, including after a visit to Germany.
Despite his entrepreneurial background, Asenqyzy says he struggles to rebuild his life in Kazakhstan. Asenqyzy also suffers from health issues that she links to her ordeal in prison.
“I don’t have a job now,” she said. “Camp broke me mentally, financially and physically.”