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A Uyghur woman releases her memoir, detailing 3 years in a Chinese reeducation camp


The Winter Olympic Games end this weekend. There have been outcries against Russian doping scandals and machine-churned snow and, every now and then, mention of China's incarceration of more than a million Uyghur Muslims in detention in forced-labor camps. China has been accused of genocide by some governments and many human rights groups. China denies those accusations and says those camps are necessary counterterrorism measures. Much of the world may turn away.

Gulbahar Haitiwaji has written a scorching memoir as one of the few people who've been able to tell their story. Her book, "How I Survived A Chinese Reeducation Camp: A Uyghur Woman's Story," written with Rozenn Morgat of Le Figaro and translated by Edward Gauvin - and Gulbahar Haitiwaji and her daughter Gulhumar, who will be translating, join us now from Paris. Thanks so much for being with us.



SIMON: You were living in exile in Paris when you were told you had to get back to China. Why?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "I was - been living in France for 10 years at that time when a colleague in Karamay in Xinjiang called me on WeChat and told me to go back to China to make my administrative papers for anticipated retirement. As I never had any political activity in France and I also returned to China several times before, I had no doubts about this special request."

SIMON: You got called in for questions, and they showed you photos of your daughter, didn't they?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "Ten minutes after I arrived to the company, three policemen came from the police station and take me to there. And I had a full day of interrogation there. They showed me a picture of my daughter at the demonstration for the rights of East Turkestan in Paris, which I was not aware of."

SIMON: Gulhumar, let me ask you - that was a picture of you at a demonstration in Paris, right?

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: Yes, definitely. I still remember. That was really a moving day.

SIMON: Boy. But then to find out it was used against your mother must have been hard.

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: Yes, it was really hard and surprising for me. And I never expected China to do that.

SIMON: Look, there is no - Gulbahar, there is no easy way to ask this question. But what were conditions like in that first prison you were in?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "Before they took me to that prison, they took me to the hospital of the city to take some fingerprints. They also take blood samples. After that, they forced me to sign an official accusation of public disorder in the reunion. That was the official name of the accusation. And they gave me their yellow uniform, which is the prison uniform. They put me to a cell - really small. But we were up to 40 women there. Normally the cell is made for nine people only. And all day we spend learning by heart the internal rules of the cell. They also attach us to a metallic chair during all the interrogation. The food is terrible. We only have some rice soup or vegetable soup. The worst part was when I was attached to the bed during 20 days without any reason."

SIMON: You were sent to a reeducation camp. What was your daily life like there?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "There was not a big difference in the camps compared to the prison I'd been just before. The only big difference for me was that we don't have any chain on our foot. But we have to stay 11 hours every day in class. Before starting to eat or when the teacher comes in the class, we have to get up and say really loud three gratitudes - to the country, to the Communist Party and to Xi Jinping. And after a while, they gave to all of us a personal notebook and asked us to note everything - all our true feelings. But we all knew that it was a trap. We only noted our thanks and our gratitude to the system. We can't speak in Uyghur, and we cannot look at each other. We are always in line like robots."

SIMON: Were you worried about your survival?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "The worst part in that journey was not knowing when it will end. That was a really desperate feeling."

SIMON: After two years, you got a trial. How long did the trial last?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: It lasted not more than 10 minutes.

SIMON: What was your sentence?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "In China, my husband - he's a member of Uyghur association, including World Uyghur Congress. My daughter had political activities. As a Chinese woman, I had to report all my family members' activities to China. As I didn't do it, it was like I supported their activities."

SIMON: You were released after three years. You endured terrible crimes. But may I ask, do you think of yourself as one of the lucky ones?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "Millions of our people are still suffering in the camps, and they are not free at all. And compared to them, I feel really lucky."

SIMON: You went through such terrible experiences - hours of interrogation, hard work. What kept you going?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "I think the first thing that saved me from the camps is my faith in God. For me, God never wants anybody to suffer because of unfairness. And the second thing is I always kept believing that I am innocent and one day or another one I will get out of the camp."

SIMON: What do you think about the Olympics being in China?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "For me, China doesn't deserve at all to host such important international events. They are committing crimes against humanity, including genocide against my people. So for me now every participating country to the Games is like supporting the genocide."

SIMON: What do you want the world to do?

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

GULHUMAR HAITIWAJI: "I ask all the Western countries to unite together against China by boycotting the forced-labor products. That would put a really big, economical pressure on China - not only diplomatically. We also need economical pressure on China, too. Make them realize that maybe they have to close the camps."

SIMON: Gulbahar Haitiwaji - her new memoir, "How I Survived A Chinese Reeducation Camp: A Uyghur's Woman's Story" - she's joined us along with her daughter Gulhumar. Thank you both very much for being with us.

GULBAHAR HAITIWAJI: (Non-English language spoken). Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "NATURAL CAUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.