The women have found refuge from Chinese authorities across the border in Kazakhstan, their ancestral homeland. But they remain haunted by the stories of abuse they carry with them.
One reported being raped. Many said they were subjected to sexual humiliation, from being filmed in the shower to having their intimate parts rubbed with chili paste.
The allegations come as China expands a years-long crackdown on its Muslim minority, which includes not only Uighurs but also Kazakhs and other ethnic groups.
While the experiences described could not be independently verified, local rights groups and lawyers say they are common and reveal a wider pattern of abuse directed specifically against women, aimed at curbing their ability to reproduce.
In December 2017, Gulzira Mogdyn, a 38-year-old ethnic Kazakh and Chinese citizen, was detained in Xinjiang after a visit to Kazakhstan because WhatsApp was found on her phone.
She was placed under house arrest and examined by doctors at a nearby clinic, who discovered she was 10 weeks pregnant.
Officials told her she was not allowed to have what would be her fourth child. The following month, Ms Mogdyn said, doctors “cut my foetus out” without using anaesthesia. She still suffers from complications.
“Two humans were lost in this tragedy – my baby and me,” Ms Mogdyn said during an interview on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.
She received her Kazakh citizenship in July and says that has emboldened her to speak out. She is also pressing Beijing for a response: either financial compensation or, at least, an apology.
Others are still constrained. A Kazakh woman with close relatives remaining in China was forced to undergo two abortions, in 2016 and 2017, while living in Xinjiang, her lawyer said.
Aiman Umarova, a Kazakh human rights advocate and US State Department honouree, said her client is seeking refuge in a Kazakh city and does not wish to be identified for fear of retribution.
Ms Umarova sees the women’s stories as forming a pattern.
“Sexually violating women, including stopping them from reproducing, has become a weapon for China against its Muslim population,” she said.
The US government and human rights groups estimate that between one million and three million Muslims have been detained in Chinese “re-education camps” since 2017, most of them Uighurs.
The Washington Post spoke with two men, including an Australian citizen named Almas Nizamidin, who suspect that their wives, both Uighurs still in detention in Xinjiang, were forced to terminate their pregnancies at a camp in 2017.
Under China’s one-child policy, abortions and contraceptives were encouraged – and often enforced – by officials tasked with keeping the population down. Exceptions were granted for ethnic minorities, who were allowed one more child than Han Chinese.
The policy was abandoned three years ago, but that has not prevented the recent move to curb ethnic populations, said Leta Hong Fincher, a scholar and expert on gender equality in China. “There is a clear tightening of control over the reproductive rights of ethnic minorities,” she said.
In addition to mistreating detained women, rights groups and experts say Beijing has pursued a campaign to erase Muslim culture in Xinjiang, by pushing interethnic marriages and sending Chinese officials for “home stays” with Muslim families, part of efforts by president Xi Jinping’s government to assimilate ethnic minorities.
All of this amounts to genocide as laid out by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, said Rushan Abbas, founder and executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for Uyghurs.
“And as with so much in Chinese culture, women are being targeted, as they are viewed as less valuable,” said Ms Abbas, who said her sister was abducted in Xinjiang a year ago and has not been heard from since.
Some allegations extend further back. After the Urumqi riots in 2009, which analysts say triggered the harsh security measures now in place across Xinjiang, Islamic studies student Ruqiye Perhat was held in various prisons for four years.
There, the Uighur woman says, she was repeatedly raped by Han Chinese guards, resulting in two pregnancies.
“Any woman or man under age 35 was raped and sexually abused,” she said through an interpreter from Turkey, where she now lives. Both pregnancies were forcibly aborted while she was in prison, said Ms Perhat, who is now 30.
Several female former detainees said they suspect that when younger and unmarried women were taken from their packed cells at night – to be returned the next morning or not at all – they were raped by guards.
“They’d come in and put bags on the heads of the ones they wanted,” said Gulzira Auelkhan, a 40-year-old woman in the Kazakh village of Akshi who spent 18 months in the camps.
In May, an open letter written by a former guard at a Xinjiang camp appeared to support the women’s claims. His account, which was posted by activists, has not been independently verified.
The ethnic Kazakh man, called Berik, said Chinese officers would watch women in their cells through a monitor before selecting one to take out. “There are two tables in the kitchen, one for snacks and liquor, and the other for ‘doing things’,” he wrote.
Other women contacted by The Washington Post described widespread sexual harassment at the camps, echoing public comments last month by Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh woman wanted by China for disclosing information about the camps. Kazakhstan allowed her to resettle in Sweden in June.
Several said they were forced to shower and use the toilet in groups, in rooms outfitted with cameras. Ms Auelkhan said female guards used chewing gum to pull on her pubic hair. Married women offered conjugal visits were ordered to swallow unknown pills afterward.
Ground chili peppers mixed with water in small glass jars were given to several women before showering. Once naked, they were ordered by female guards to smear the liquid on their genitals.
“It burned like fire,” one woman recalled.
Asked to respond to the allegations, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry referred The Washington Post to a government paper released last month on plans to combat terrorism through education and training, including a section on “protecting trainees’ basic rights”.
“You wouldn’t raise such questions if you had carefully read the white paper,” the ministry said in a faxed response.
In July, when the United States was in the middle of a trade war with China, secretary of state Mike Pompeo called Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs “the stain of the century”. But elsewhere, the response has been tepid. Even Muslim-majority countries have stood by China.
Kazakhstan’s government has been among those hesitant to condemn the abuses attributed to its powerful eastern neighbour.
The country’s stability and resources have earned it the moniker of “buckle” of Mr Xi’s flagship Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and Beijing’s affluent reach is visible in Kazakh cities.
But activists say Kazakhstan’s reluctance to upset China could be changing given the deluge of information coming out of Xinjiang, which is home to some 1.5 million Kazakhs.
Former detainees now living in tumbledown villages dotted about the golden steppe on the Kazakh side of the border are increasingly speaking out, even those with relatives in China.
“I didn’t want to talk about this for a long time. But if I don’t, who will?” said Rakhima Senbay, 32, standing in her friend’s house near the town of Taldykorgan. Although still a Chinese citizen, she has called Kazakhstan home since she was released from a camp late last year.
Shortly after Ms Senbay, who has four children, was detained in Xinjiang in late 2017, also for having WhatsApp on her phone, a female Chinese doctor forcibly fitted her with an intrauterine contraceptive device.
“I told her I didn’t want it, but she said it’s a must for all women going to the camp,” Ms Senbay said.
Gulzhan, a Kazakh activist who uses only her first name, said seven women have told her the same thing happened to them.
“That’s since I started four months ago,” she said. “Imagine how many more are out there.”
Categories: Human Rights & Social Issues