Kazakh and Uyghur held in political “re-education camps” in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are being forced to consume pork, despite the dietary restrictions of their Muslim faith, in a bid by authorities to assimilate them into Chinese culture, according to three former detainees.
Since April 2017, authorities in the XUAR have held an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in the camps, which China claims are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Gulzire Awulqanqizi, an ethnic Kazakh Muslim who was held at the Dongmehle Re-education Camp in Ili Kazakh (in Chinese, Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture’s Ghulja (Yining) city from July 2017 to October 2018, recently told RFA in an interview that detainees are told they must eat pork, or face punishment.
Awulqanqizi said she and other detainees were initially given pork at a meal without their knowledge.
“They simply said it was a ‘friendly feast,’ but we could tell there was pork, which we can’t stand to eat,” she said.
Later, Awulqanqizi said, authorities at the camp would serve pork for dinner more regularly, but only after stressing the importance of creating “unity among nationalities” and getting along with members of the Han Chinese majority when detainees are released.
Awulqanqizi told RFA that she vomited after eating pork the first time.
But instead of helping her, camp officials told Awulqanqizi that her distaste for pork was all in her head and threatened to send her to a different camp if she continued to get sick from eating it.
Awulqanqizi forced herself to eat pork whenever it was served until she left the camp last year.
‘Eat or face punishment’
A similar account was told to RFA by Omurbek Eli, a Muslim Kazakh national of mixed Uyghur and Kazakh heritage from the XUAR who was arrested by police in Turpan (Tulufan) prefecture in 2017 while visiting his parents and accused of “terrorist activities.”
Eli was refused legal representation and held at a prison for more than seven months, before being released with the assistance of the Kazakh government, and sent to a re-education camp for nearly a month.
During his time in the camp, Eli said, detainees were made to eat pork every Friday.
“They would give us a kind of food made with rice, but it didn’t look like polo (Uyghur pilaf) or anything, and they would place thumb-sized pieces of pork on top of it,” he said.
“The guards would even ask, ‘Isn’t the pork we gave you delicious?’ But they would also say, ‘You have to eat pork or you’ll face punishment.’”
‘No right to ask’
A Kazakh national named Gulbahar Jelilova told RFA that she also was regularly served pork while detained at a camp in the XUAR from May 2017 to August 2018, though guards never told her it was in the food.
“It appeared once or twice a week in small pieces in our food, but if we separated out the meat when we ate, the guard monitoring us on camera would rush into our cell and yell, 'Why are you wasting the food the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has given you,'” said Jelilova, a businesswoman who now lives in Istanbul, Turkey.
There was one old lady who said she only wanted to eat buns and drink water, instead of the food with pork. She was punished for her refusal and deprived of food for a few days.”
Jelilova said that in several cases, detainees who separated the pork out of their meals were placed in solitary confinement as punishment.
“We had no right to ask what meat was in the food or say we didn’t want to eat it,” she said.
Pork and alcohol
In February, sources told RFA that Chinese authorities in the XUAR were delivering pork to Muslim households during the Lunar New Year holiday, and forcing some Muslims to drink alcohol, eat pork, and display emblems of traditional Chinese culture.
Residents of Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture said officials had invited them to celebratory dinners marking the Lunar New Year at which pork was served, then threatening to send them to a "re-education" camp if they refused to take part.
Photos sent to RFA also showed an official from Ili's Yining city visiting Muslim households and distributing raw pork, in the name of helping the less well-off on the eve of the Year of the Pig.
Pork and alcohol are forbidden by Islam, and the celebration of Chinese festivals has roots in polytheistic folk religion, which includes Buddhist iconography. Muslims honoring such festivals risk committing the unforgivable sin of espousing more than one god.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur and Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.