The story of Chinese-Kazakh Sairagul Sauytbay has gained international attention recently – something she never expected.
Three years ago, Sauytbay faced torture in Chinese detention camps in the Xinjiang area.The 43-year-old Kazakh woman said she was surprised last Wednesday. That is when U.S. first lady Melania Trump gave her the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award in Washington. She was recognized for providing testimony about human rights violations in the Chinese camps.
“I am also thankful to this country and the Trump administration for…sending a strong signal to China to stop its abuses against both Kazakhs and Uighurs who are being oppressed,” Sauytbay told VOA.
She said she hoped her story would help other people in Xinjiang to speak up about the human rights violations they are facing.
“I strongly hope that this award would help raise awareness to the human tragedy in East Turkestan, and other countries around the world also step out and help…the voiceless Uighurs and Kazakhs oppressed in China,” she said.
East Turkestan is a term often used by the Muslim community in China to refer to Xinjiang.
Sauytbay worked as a medical doctor when Chinese officials increased their campaign against minorities in Xinjiang in early 2017.
First, she was forced to work in a camp teaching detainees Mandarin and Chinese Communist Party propaganda. Then, she was detained.
“Chinese authorities confiscated my passport long before I was first detained in 2017,” Sauytbay told VOA.
She explained that she was prevented from moving to Kazakhstan with her husband and two children in early 2016.
She said she was tortured and imprisoned in the detention camps for about six months before her release in March 2018.
She crossed the border illegally into Kazakhstan in April 2018 because of fears that she could be detained again.
“The only dream I had at the time was to unite with my family in Kazakhstan. So, I decided to take the risk to cross the border without legal documents,” she told VOA.
While in Kazakhstan, Sauytbay was jailed for illegal border-crossing. She was denied asylum. Sauytbay and her family later moved to Sweden. There, she gained international attention as a female activist spreading awareness of the Chinese campaign in Xinjiang.
'Continues to inspire'
During the award ceremony, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sauytbay “bravely” gave details of the detention camps. He said her efforts will help other “former detainees and family members to come forward to tell their stories to the world.”
Xinjiang is known as a Uighur autonomous region. About 1.5 million Kazakhs live there. Many Chinese Kazakhs who flee the area go to neighboring Kazakhstan, which shares a 1,770-kilometer border with China
Those who arrive in Kazakhstan say that Kazakhs and Uighurs are facing severe government human rights violations. More than one million people are believed to be detained in the camps.
China has denied the claims. It says the camps are job “training centers” that help the local community get “new skills.”
Chinese officials have said the actions taken in Xinjiang are part of China’s “war” on extremism, terrorism and separatism.
Pompeo visited Kazakhstan in February. He urged Kazakh officials to offer asylum to those fleeing China. He met with Aqiqat Qaliolla, who became a naturalized Kazakhstan citizen in 2018, four years after his move from China. Aqiqat told VOA that he was worried about his family.
“I first lost contact with my family in March 2018. Later, friends told me that my father, mother and two brothers were taken to concentration camps. I also heard that China even sentenced my father to 20 years in prison,” he said.
Immigrating to Kazakhstan
For years, the government in Kazakhstan welcomed Kazakhs living around the world, including from Xinjiang. By 2016, nearly 1 million Kazakhs had gained citizenship in Kazakhstan. It is believed that almost 15 percent have come from China.
The Chinese Kazakhs share a language and culture with Kazakhstan and had strong ties with Xinjiang. China cut those ties in 2017 as it increased its campaign.
I’m John Russell.
Voice of America reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr.was the editor.
Words In This Story
testimony– n.to provide details about something in a legal context
awareness– n.to be conscious of, to know of
confiscate– v.to take without permission
autonomous region– adj.an area or territory that has a limited amount of independence
concentration– adj.a large number of people or things