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Abortions, IUDs and sexual humiliation: Muslim women who fled China for Kazakhstan recount ordeals
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Gulzira Mogdyn, 38, pauses as she tells her story in a cafe on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan. She said Chinese authorities aborted her fourth child in January 2018 after she returned to China from a visit to Kazakhstan. (Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)
ALMATY, Kazakhstan — 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.
Some said they were forced to undergo abortions in China’s Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, others that they had contraceptive devices implanted against their will while in detention. 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 chile 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.
Mogdyn, who now lives in Kazakhstan, speaks on the phone at a bus stop on the outskirts of Almaty. She is seeking financial compensation or an apology, or both, from China for her forced abortion. (Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)
Officials told her she was not allowed to have what would be her fourth child. The following month, Mogdyn said, doctors “cut my fetus out” without using anesthesia. She still suffers from complications.
“Two humans were lost in this tragedy — my baby and me,” 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 the 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 State Department honoree, said her client is seeking refuge in a Kazakh city and does not wish to be identified for fear of retribution.
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 U.S. government and human rights groups estimate that between 1 million and 3 million Muslims have been detained in Chinese “reeducation 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.
Men leave the local mosque after Friday prayers in Baidibek Bi, near Kazakhstan’s border with China. Several families in the town have relatives who have been detained in “reeducation” camps in China’s Xinjiang province. (Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)
All of this amounts to genocide as laid out by the U.N. 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 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 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.
Gulzira Auelkhan, 40, makes tea in her home in the Kazakh village of Akshi. Auelkhan was held in the camps in Xinjiang for 18 months. (Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)
Auelkhan (center) visits with Gulnar Kosdaulet, 46 (left), and Akbar Yenkelesh, 77, in their home in Akshi. Kosdaulet’s husband, Sarsenbek Akbar, 45, is in a camp in Xinjiang. Yenkelesh, her father-in-law, holds up a photo of his son. (Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)
Auelkhan’s 5-year-old daughter Bayan takes an afternoon nap in her home in Akshi. (Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)
“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 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. 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 chile 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 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.
People pass the abandoned, Chinese-funded LRT project in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s capital, part of China’s Belt and Road initiative to re-create trade along the former Silk Road. Local corruption has led to the project’s suspension for now. (Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)
Kazakhstan’s government has been among those hesitant to condemn the abuses attributed to its powerful eastern neighbor. The country’s stability and resources have earned it the moniker of “buckle” of 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.
Rakhima Senbay, 32, stands outside a friend’s house in a village near Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan. Senbay, a mother of four, says Chinese doctors fitted her with an IUD against her will. (Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)
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 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,” 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.”
A cargo train traverses the southern Kazakh landscape, some 100 miles from the Chinese border. (Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)
Aigerim Toleukhan in Almaty, Emily Rauhala in Washington and Anna Fifield in Beijing contributed to this report.