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Chinese-Kazakh Writer, Businesswoman Struggles To Rebuild Life After Abuse In Xinjiang Camp

Before she was imprisoned in her native Xinjiang, Zhazira Asenqyzy was known as a poet and writer as well as a successful businesswoman.
Before she was imprisoned in her native Xinjiang, Zhazira Asenqyzy was known as a poet and writer as well as a successful businesswoman.

In her hometown of Jeminay in China's northwestern Xinjiang region, 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 her follow ethnic Kazakhs. With three profitable commercial ventures, including a furniture company that employed dozens of workers, Asenqyzy wanted for nothing.

But Asenqyzy's world was turned upside down when she was taken from her family home one early morning in May 2017 and thrown into one of Xinjiang's notorious internment camps.

"I was having breakfast with my family when an [ethnic] Kazakh man, an employee of the Jeminay district security services, called and asked me to come to his office," Asenqyzy recalled. "'Bring your passport with you,' he told me."

Asenqyzy says she didn't worry too much at first, because the authorities often collected residents' passports. But when she arrived at the security department, Asenqyzy was ordered to take off her jewelry and hand it over to an officer along with her mobile phone. Then she was handcuffed and interrogated.

Security officers also raided Asenqyzy's home and private library of about 1,500 books. "They first pick up the Koran and a poetry book by [Shakarim] Qudaiberdiuly, 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 demanded Asenqyzy explain "what links" she had "with this extremist."

"I told them he was a famous Kazakh poet who died some 100 years ago and that all men wore long beard in those times. But the officers wrote down that I resisted law enforcement agents," Asenqyzy said.

The same day, Asenqyzy was transferred to a jail cell without anyone explaining why she was being imprisoned and when, if ever, she was going to be freed. There was no trial and no charges were filed against her.

More than 1 million Muslims -- ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous ethnic groups -- are thought to have been placed without trial in a network of high-security prison camps China has built across its vast western province of Xinjiang. The first information about the camps was leaked in 2017.

Beijing claims the facilities are vocational reeducation centers for combatting extremism. But many former detainees have shared harrowing accounts of torture, rape, unwanted abortion, sterilization, and forced labor in the camps.

'Let Them Die, Nobody Cares'

Asenqyzy, who is now 46, recalls being held at a women's camp where some of the detainees were in their 70s and 80s.

"When I first arrived at the prison, they interrogated me for two days and didn't give me anything to eat," she told RFE/RL. "I became so weak that I nearly passed out. Then I heard the head of the prison saying, 'If she dies here, let her die, nobody cares, nobody will even ask about [her].'"

Asenqyzy says there were no beds or blankets, and the women slept on the concrete floor, covering themselves with "old, worn out, threadbare covers."

The heating system was switched off even during cold nights, she says. Prisoners were never given enough food and were hungry most of the time. "Potatoes, cabbage, and carrot boiled together without being washed first," is how Asenqyzy describes the prison food.

Many prisoners got sick but were they routinely denied medical treatment. She says prison officials punished those who complained about being sick and asked for help. "Once I was forced to stand up for four hours without moving just because I said I had a backache and asked to see a doctor," she said. "I lost consciousness and fell on the concrete floor, fracturing my head."

Even then, Asenqyzy wasn't given any medical treatment. A constant reminder of that painful incident is a lump on her head from where the fractured bones grew together, she says.

Asenqyzy witnessed how prisoners were brutally beaten just for chatting with each other because the guards were suspicious they were "plotting something."

Asenqyzy said the guards would often tell the women "even if we beat you to death, nobody will say anything. We have instructions from authorities."

The detainees were taken once a day to the prison yard, where the guards forced them to do what Asenqyzy describes as a "workout designed for soldiers."

"Obviously, the 80-year-olds could barely stand on their legs, let alone doing such difficult exercises. I saw how old women would fall to the ground after being kicked in the ankles by guards," she said. "They would beat the old women on their shoulder blades just because they couldn't stand up straight."

Asenqyzy recalls there were large TV screens showing Chinese state propaganda all the time. "From the morning till night they would tell us how China will become the most powerful country in the world and that Chinese would become the most important language globally."

Unable To Start Afresh

Asenqyzy was released from the camp in the middle of the night in December 2018 after spending a year and half in prison. She was put under house arrest for another six months.

During Asenqyzy's absence, her private ventures went out of business.

Asenqyzy said she had a furniture company that exported to neighboring countries and another one that produced traditional Kazakh clothes and employed about 30 people, most of them women. Her 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 her elderly mother, siblings, and all relatives behind.

Within three months of her arrival, Asenqyzy was granted Kazakh citizenship under a special repatriation program the Kazakh government launched after gaining independence in 1991.

Kazakhstan, Central Asia's richest country, encourages ethnic Kazakhs abroad to resettle in there. It believes there are some 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs living in China. They make up the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after the Uyghurs.

Many ethnic Kazakhs have moved from China to Kazakhstan since the repatriation program began. Asenqyzy says she is grateful to the Kazakh officials who helped her escape "Chinese oppression."

But Asenqyzy also complains about what she described as being treated with suspicion by the Kazakh security services. Asenqyzy says she has been questioned by intelligence officers several times, including after a visit to Germany.

Despite her entrepreneurial experience, Asenqyzy says she is struggling to rebuild her life in Kazakhstan. Asenqyzy also suffers from health issues that she links to her prison ordeal.

"I have no occupation now," she said. "The camp has broken me mentally, financially, and physically."

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on an interview conducted by Nurtai Lakhanuly of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

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