“How I survived”: Remembering Camp Days in Poems


Written by Guldana Salimjan (Yi Xiaocuo)
In conversation with Anar Sabit
Poems by Anar Sabit
Translated by Guldana Salimjan (Yi Xiaocuo)
Header image credit to @Yette.su “Tengritéghim” #APosterADay4Uyghurs Day 343
April 9, 2021

Upon finishing reading Anar Sabit’s story published by The New Yorker, I found myself unable to do any tasks I had planned for the day. I took a long, numb walk in the neighborhood. Cherry blossoms had bloomed on that beautiful and bright spring day, but my heart dropped so deeply into the darkness of what I just read that I couldn’t enjoy anything. I couldn’t feel anything.

It could have been me… being taken and imprisoned in camps for a year had I returned to Xinjiang in 2017 like she did. In fact, I made the trip only several months before (in the end of 2016). However I was lucky to come back to Canada safely. I still can’t forget how nervous I was made to feel at customs in the Beijing airport. The officer studied my passport for an awfully long time and asked me “What minzu (ethnic group) are you?” When I said “Kazakh,” he called his superior for further instructions. He and his female superior officer flipped through my passport again intently as if trying to find some problem. Then she asked me what I studied in Canada. I said, “women and gender studies.” She motioned to let me pass. It was my last trip to China. Starting from 2017, the situation in Xinjiang worsened and I started to realize that it was impossible for me to return anymore.

Like Anar, I am a Kazakh born and raised in Xinjiang. I was also educated in Chinese schools. I strove to be a model citizen in China only to find out I was an outsider no matter where I went, in Beijing, in Urumchi, among Han Chinese coworkers, and among Kazakh compatriots. Like her I traveled to many places and was curious about the outside world as the political atmosphere in Xinjiang became increasingly intense with limited opportunities for native people such as myself. Because of these similarities in our background, her story is so relatable to me that it reads almost like a parallel timeline where I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Before Anar’s story became public, I had read her poems online. They are full of poignant and vivid details perceived from inside the camp and personal experiences such as being on night guard duty, taking yard time, and witnessing the arbitrary detention and suffering of others with her own eyes. When I reached out to Anar to discuss the inspiration for these poems she told me that after what she had experienced in the camp and returning to the free world she had nightmares for an entire year. She has suffered from depression, fear, and low self-esteem. There was a time when she didn’t know if she could go on. Then one day she was advised to channel these traumas through writing. Anar humbly said that she is not really a writer or a poet type, but simply wanted to document what had happened to her and not forget them. As she puts it,

“Most of my poems describe what’s happened in the camp where I stayed. These are real stories and real people. On the other hand, turning these sad memories into poems is my self therapy for the wounds on my heart.”

The New Yorker‘s full length report told Anar’s story from her time being taken from the airport to the camp, her struggle to make sense of what was happening to her, and being closely monitored even months after being released from the camp. Reading her experience I was in awe of her immense mental fortitude to get through the horrors of endless police interrogations and intimidation, also the courage to find a way out of the labyrinthine bureaucracy designed to trap Uyghurs and Kazakhs. She said one of the most soul-crushing things for her was that the police and guards never told her when she could leave but kept saying that she was going to stay there for life. “Many people went mad… because that is a very distressing thing to hear. I tried to think on the bright side, stayed positive and hopeful. Maybe that’s how I survived. We had exercise books from the ‘national language’ class (Chinese language was taught to camp detainees), and we all drew a calendar in the back of the book. I always set a small goal and comforted myself that I will be out in a month, or three months. When the time got closer, I would think, ‘Yeah my time is almost up and I am going out.’ This kept me going for a while.”

Anar described how the conditions in the camp were designed to make the detainees feel grateful for very small, trivial things offered by the authorities. This way they become easily manipulated by those with power. At the same time, everyone was trying really hard to be on good terms with the guards. It was a process of stripping one’s humanity. For example, when the detainees had birthdays, they could get an extra egg with their meals. When it was Anar’s birthday that year, a guard gave her a cheap elastic hair tie. The detainees were also told that if they performed well, they would get more points and get out faster. Because of her fluent Mandarin, Anar was often picked to do the pageant for the leaders as a proof that the transformation program was successful. “We had to do these mindless activities sometimes, like singing red songs and doing dance for the leaders. When we performed well, we could get ‘prizes,’ like we got to take one more shower in the week, or have an apple.” All these experience became materials for her poems later, for example, the poem “The Leader is Here”.

“In traditional Kazakh family education, we were taught by elders ‘jaman boladi, yat boladi, obal boladi.’ In these moral teachings we learned to not do certain things if they will be ‘evil, shameful, or hurt others’. But in the camp you became trained to forget these and you become cold hearted.”

I can never imagine the mental toil Anar had to go through to survive. She reflected on the simple, down-to-earth Kazakh family education that we both grew up hearing many times: do not do things that will be evil, shameful, or hurt others (“jaman boladi, yat boladi, obal boladi), for example, do not pull grass, do not to step on a door’s threshold, do not to spit in water, be respectful, be generous, and do not talk back to elders. These nature taboos and moral protocols are important in Kazakh communities. It taught us humility, modesty, and compassion. But to survive a place like the camps in Xinjiang, where the police control your life, withhold your passport indefinitely, or humiliate you and degrade you to nothing, one has to become a different person that is always on high alert and suspicious of others. She said, “After a long time in there, you don’t trust anyone, except people in your very little group. One becomes hardened and numb. You will stop having sympathy toward others.”

Through Anar’s story and poems we see there is no lack of the ugliness of humanity inside the camp but there are also moments of care and mutual support in this difficult time. In the Kuytun Public Security Bureau headquarters, she encountered the first explicit violence in the camp system. While being ushered to the bathroom, she accidentally saw an interrogation room in which a Uyghur man was locked in a tiger chair. Then she was taken to another room for hours of interrogation while hearing the electrical torture of the man across the hall. This incident later inspired her to write the poem “Nowhere to run.” Several of her poems depict the pain and suffering other detainees had, for example the women called Kem, Zulfi, Bati, and the older women she called “aunties” who had trouble learning Chinese characters. In the camp cells, these women supported each other, the young would volunteer to take the top bunk beds to block the glaring light for the elders lying on the bottom beds (the lights are always on in these camp cells). Anar reminisced the first day when she arrived, she didn’t have any spare clothes to change into as the police had taken all her belongings. An older woman in the cell took pity and gave her a pair of underwear and long johns that the woman’s husband had packed for her. Anar was really touched by her kindness.

The state reduced the Indigenous women to vocational trainees or slave workers in need of “reeducation,” but through Anar’ poems one is shown that these women were once free and had a life and dreams. Now, in her words, they are like “birds trapped in burlap sacks.” In The New Yorker write up, one midnight when the women were transferred and packed onto a bus, Anar consoled a girl who was crying next to her. She said, “I saw a street that I used to walk on, and I started thinking of my previous life.” This remark best illustrates the sudden loss of freedom for many men and women in the Uyghur and Kazakh regions. In her poem “The Trainee Uniform,” this stark contrast was shown through the images of grey detainee clothes and a white dress. Several poems are dedicated to the fellow women, for example, “Who are They?” “She Went Mad,” “Bati.” In the poem “How Can I Forget,” Anar felt devastated thinking about how the women with who she went through the horrors together might still be trapped in the camp with no end in sight.

For me, witnessing from afar a genocide targeting my people, while translating these poems I was reminded of Primo Levi’s words, “We must be listened to: above and beyond our personal experience, we have collectively witnessed a fundamental unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected, not foreseen by anyone. It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.” In the cold cruel world where Xinjiang somehow became an information battlefield for politicians and propagandists, let the voices of the survivors not be erased, particularly the ones who struggled against all odds to break free.

 


她们是谁?

从布满铁栅栏的教室里,

传出钝拙的读书声。

她们忧虑的眼神中透着绝望。

没有人在意 

她们曾是医生,记者或者母亲……

如今她们只是,

“决不姑息”铁拳下的

牺牲品。

Who Are They?

Voices weary of reading,

stumbled through the fences of the classroom,

Despair revealed in their anxious glances.

No one cared about that

they were once doctors, journalists, or mothers……

Now they are merely,

sacrifices

under the iron fists of “Absolutely No Mercy”.*

August 16, 2020

*”Absolutely No Mercy” was a quote from Xi Jinping’s speech in 2014. Xi called for an all-out “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism” using the “organs of dictatorship,” and showing “absolutely no mercy.” See New York Times article on Xi’s secret speeches and party documents on Xinjiang.


放风

高墙和蜿蜒的铁丝网内,

扛着长枪的守卫在楼顶徘徊着。

被禁锢在阴暗骚臭的囚室八个月后,

“古丽”们终于在深蓝制服的包围下,

呼吸到了新鲜的空气。

 

阳光,很温暖

安抚着心灵的伤疤;

清风拂去脸颊上的泪珠。

一个声音刺耳地传来

“你们要感谢党和政府”。

 August 2020

Yard Time

Above the high walls and barbed wire fences,

armed guards patrol back and forth.

After being stuck in the dark and stinking cells for eight months,

“Guli(s)”* enveloped in a swarm of dark blue uniforms

finally breathed fresh air during yard time.

Sunshine, so warm

soothes the scabs of the spirits;

Breezes drying the tears on their faces.

A piercing voice echoes

“You should be grateful for the Party and the government”.

*Guli古丽is Chinese transcription of a common Turkic name (Gul) for women, meaning “flower.” This is a common phrase used throughout Xinjiang as derogatory term often used to describe women from Turkic Muslim groups.


值班

夜,一片漆黑。

屋内的强光透出铁丝网,

向自由伸去,被黑夜吞噬。

菜地边那颗枯小的白杨树

颤抖着凌弱的身躯。

每晚如期而至的值班,

伴随强光下幽怨的入睡声,

折磨我每根脆弱的神经。

偶有姐妹们起夜的动静,

打断我思念自由的思绪。

尿液味

和责骂,恐吓

早如家常便饭。

唯有这漫长漆黑的夜,

啃噬我们的信念和希望。

一阵凉风穿透铁丝网,

吹响了几页国语课本。

那张夹在当中的悔过书,

在嘲笑我们的懦弱和屈服。

我把头转向黑夜,

任凭它继续无肆地

凌虐那颗小白杨。

Night watch

Night, a pitch black veil.

The glaring light from our cell penetrates the iron fences,

to reach for freedom but engulfed in the dark night.

By the vegetable plot a tiny poplar tree

Its withered frame trembling.

Every time during my night watch,

the bitter sound of sleeping under a glaring light,

tortures each of my fragile nerves.

Only the occasional sound of sisters’ stirring,

punctuates my wandering thoughts of freedom.

The smell of urine

and words of abuse and threats

are already our daily bread.

But these long dark nights,

are nibbling away our faith and hope.

A cold wind blew through the fences,

fanned the pages of the national language book.

That letter of confession between the pages,

laughs at our cowardice and submission.

I turn my head to the dark night,

and let it persist unabated

to oppress the tiny poplar tree.

August 2020


学员服

面无生色的古丽们,

被松遢的灰色学员服罩住,

犹如麻袋中的鸟儿。

前胸后背的两道荧光条,

昭示着她们阶下囚的命运。

有谁知道?

古丽们最大的心愿

是穿上一条白色连衣裙,

走在回家的路上,

即使路上布满荆棘。

August 2020

The Trainee Uniform

The Guli(s) with their ghastly pale faces,

standing shrouded in grey trainee uniforms.

They look like birds trapped in burlap sacks.

Two fluroscent strips on the front and back,

marking their destinies as prisoners.

Who would know?

The Gulis’ biggest wish

is to wear a white dress,

and walk down the road home,

even though the road is covered in thorns.


新疆不美

请不要再说“美丽的”新疆。

那片土地已积满哀怨愁苦,

熟悉的音乐和舞蹈,

已绑架为谎言的俘虏。

强颜欢笑的伪装,遮不住

“决不姑息”的残忍,

“断代断根”的恐怖,

“应收尽收”的霸道。

粉饰太平的闹剧,藏不住

“两所一中心”遍地丛生,

“劳动力转移”奴役民众,

“民族一家亲”逼良嫁汉。

请不要再说“美丽的”新疆。

停止为魔鬼辩护的恶行,

撕下那些无耻的面具,

直面丑陋的新疆吧!

August 2020

Xinjiang Is Not Beautiful

Please stop saying “beautiful” Xinjiang.

This land is already filled with grievances and sorrow,

and the familiar songs and dances,

are already kidnapped and held captive by lies

Fake smiles and costumes, can no longer cover up

the cruelty behind “Absolutely no mercy,”

the horror of “Break the lineage break the roots,”

and the hegemony of “Round them Up.”

The absurd theater of whitewashed peace, can no long hide

the profusion of “Two stations and one center,”*

people’s enslavement in “Labor power transfer,”

forced marriages to Han in “One intimate family of ethnicities.”

Please stop saying “beautiful” Xinjiang.

Stop defending evil deeds for these devils,

take off these shameless masks,

and face ugly Xinjiang!

* “Two stations and one center” 两所一中心 means 看守所 (kanshou suo),拘留所 (juliu suo) and 教育培训转化中心 (jiaoyu peixun zhuanhua zhongxin: center for transformation through education and vocational training). The former two are both pre-trial spaces before one is sentenced and sent to prison. They are used interchangeably in speeches.


领导来了

领导来了。

她们如木偶般被摆弄着,

唱歌,跳舞,悔过

便是她们此刻生命的全部。

谁在意她们的清白,

善良和温顺?

圈入酷厉的种族清洗中

便是她们的不幸。

领导来了,

露出了炫耀功绩的得意。

The Leader is Here

The leader is here.

The girls are manipulated like marionettes,

to sing, to dance, to confess

These are everything in their lives at the moment.

Who cares about their innocence,

kindheartedness or tenderness?

To be rounded up in the cruelty of racial cleansing

It is just their bad luck.

The leader is here,

beaming with self-satisfaction over this dazzling success.

August 2020


一天又一天

管教呵斥的声音,

聒噪刺耳。

她呲牙咧嘴,

如狂吠的恶犬。

随着一击咣当巨响,

囚室的铁门被紧锁。

胆战心惊的一天

终于过去了!

趁夜里

回忆些曾经的美好吧,

明天

又会是惴惴不安的一天

……

Day After Day

The harsh scolding of the officer,

pierces our ears.

She gnashes her teeth and barks,

like a mad vicious dog.

With a loud bang,

the cell gate is shut tight.

A frightening day

is finally passed!

While it’s still the night

Try to reminisce some good old days,

Tomorrow

is another frightening day

……

August 2020


她疯了

临睡前,

阿姨们还在卖力地拼读汉字。

明天的责骂和鄙夷

是否可以少一些?

凯姆拨拉着额前的几缕头发,

眼神变得越发的空洞。

国语课本已被推到一角,

眼泪㓎湿了摊开的汉字本。

突然,她发疯似的尖叫,

躲到角落瑟瑟发抖。

她满脸通红,

眼神里满是恐惧和怨恨。

她抗拒任何人的安慰,

她抵触任何人的帮助,

她如掉入陷阱的小鹿,

孤身一人,奋力抗争。

可陷阱里的小鹿, 

即使生命力再顽强,

终究有疯掉的一天吧。

She Went Mad

Before going to bed,

aunties are still working hard to spell and read Chinese.

Can this reduce a bit of

scolding and contempt tomorrow?

Kem is pulling a few strands of hair on her forehead,

her eyes become emptier and emptier.

She pushed the national language book aside,

and her tears has soaked the opening exercise book.

Suddenly, she shrieks like crazy,

shivering in the corner,

her face is bright red,

and eyes filled with fear and hatred.

She resists everyone’s comfort,

and repels everyone’s help,

like a little deer caught in a trap,

she fought hard all by herself.

Like a little deer caught in a trap,

no matter how strong she can be,

would still gone mad one day.

August 2020


无处可逃

审讯室里没有阳光,

只有身穿黑衣的国保。

空气在日光灯的暴敛下,

显得格外沉闷和压抑。

一个维吾尔男子

被禁锢在老虎登上。

他早已精神萎靡,

耷拉着受尽磨难的脑袋。

电击一波一波地袭来。

他扭曲着双臂仰天惨叫,

疼痛随着神经蔓遍全身,

可他,无处可逃!

我听着这炼狱般的声音,

惊恐万分却不知所措。

空气里弥漫着炙烤皮肉的味道,

可我,也无处可逃……

Nowhere to Run

There is no sunlight in the interrogation room,

only security agents in black uniforms.

The air under the fluorescent lamp,

is extra dull and depressing.

A Uyghur man

tied up on the tiger chair*.

He has already suffered and weakened,

and his head hanging low.

Wave after wave of electricity attack.

He twists his arms and shrieks,

pain creeps through his whole body and nerves,

but he has nowhere to run!

I listen to this hellish sound,

frozen in panic and loss.

The air smelt burning skins and flesh,

and I also have nowhere to run……

August 2020


巴提

巴提紧皱眉头,

蜡黄的脸上布满汗珠。

她痛苦的呻吟,

使得所有人坐立不安。

什么样的鬼地方

会让人脱下拳头大的肠!

什么样的鬼地方

会将受罪的人置之不理!

那段布满血点的肠

早已在我梦里筑巢。

它让我从恐悚中惊醒,

它让我难以忘记巴提!

Bati

Bati frowns her eyebrows,

her face sallow and covered in sweat.

She moans in pain,

making everybody on pins and needles.

What kind of evil place this is

Causing someone to have a fist sized prolapse!*

What kind of evil place this is

Neglecting a person who is suffering!

That piece of blood spotted intestine

has made a nest in my dreams.

It scares me awake from nightmares,

it makes me remember Bati!

August 2020

* According to Anar, many people in the camp suffered from constipation due to long hours sitting on the plastic stools during the political study, lack of fresh food, and exercises.


母亲·女儿·

最痛心的痛

莫过于, 

隔着铁栏杆

看到自己的女儿被羞辱。

最痛心的痛

莫过于,

无法直视

母亲放下尊严苦苦哀求。

女儿也许永远无法忘记,

看见母亲迈入囚室时的心碎。

母亲也许永远无法忘记,

抱着心心念的女儿时的痛哭。

母女之间最亲的爱

集中营里最悲的痛。

Mother, Daughter, and Pain

No pain is worse

Than,

Looking through the iron fences

And see your own daughter being humiliated.

No pain is worse

Than,

Struggling to look away

When your own mother is begging for mercy.

Perhaps the daughter will never forget,

The heartbreaks seeing her mother entering the prison.

Perhaps the mother will never forget,

How she cried and held her beloved daughter.

The love between mother and daughter

Has become to the worst pain in the camp.

September 2020


地震演习

地震演习时,

总有人

不顾抱头蹲下的尴尬,

在人群里寻找熟悉的身影。

爸爸

你威严的气质哪去了,

为什么眼里只有怜惜?

丈夫

你魁梧的身躯哪去了,

为什么神情如此惆怅?

弟弟 

你时髦的发型哪去了,

为什么举止写满忧虑?

儿子啊!

妈妈本想搭救你,

却也被推进深渊…

演习结束后,

一定有人

无暇左右而重复絮叨,

和亲人短暂且无言的对视。

Earthquake Drill

During the earthquake drill,

there is always somebody

ignoring the awkward gestures of “duck and cover”,

and search for their family members in the crowd.

Father

Where is your prestige and dignity?

Why are your eyes filled with distress?

Husband

Where is your strong-built body?

Why is your face so melancholic?

Brother

Where is your cool hair?

Why are you acting so sad?

Son!

Mother tried to save you,

but was also dragged to hell…

After the earthquake drill,

there is always somebody

talking about finding their family members in the crowd,

and silently looking into their eyes

even for a short while.

September 2020


我怎会忘记 

逃离痛苦之营已有两载,

可魔鬼化为噩梦如影随形,

一次次刷新黑色的记忆。

我怎会忘记

铁灰色的天空和阴森的楼道, 

它们曾打碎我对正义的期待。

我怎会忘记

冰冷的铁门和带铁丝网的高墙,

它们仍是我噩梦的落脚处。

我怎会忘记

惨叫的受虐者和凶残狰狞的国保,

它们曾让我迷失对真相的坚持。

我怎会忘记

囚友恶毒的陷害和管教肆意的侮辱,

它们将是我一辈子抚不平的伤疤。

我怎会忘记

昏倒在地的祖菲,

被逼发疯的凯姆,

痛苦呻吟的巴提……

这一切都太难忘记!

我不会忘记

一双双忧郁绝望的眼睛,

和半夜小心翼翼的哭泣声。

我不会忘记

望着儿子照片发呆的母亲,

和去福利院看望孩子的一行背影。

我不会忘记

因风湿手脚变形的大姐,

和背不出“十不准”被惩罚的阿姨。

我不会忘记

趾高气扬的维稳督导组,

和威胁送我们去看守所的恶卒。

我不会忘记

思念母亲的焦虑,

写悔过书的屈辱,

和那划了365道的自制日历。

此刻的我

是自由的,是幸运的。 

可我不会忘记

千万还在煎熬中的她们。

How Can I Forget

It has been two years since I fled the camp of pain,

but nightmares follow me around,

and the dark memories keep refreshing.

How can I forget

the lead gray sky and gloomy staircases,

they crashed my expectation for justice.

How can I forget

the cold iron gate and barbed wire walls,

they were where my nightmares dwell.

How can I forget

the screaming victims and the ferocious officers,

they made me lose my faith for truth.

How can I forget

the betraying cellmates and the abusive officers,

they will be my unhealing scars for life.

How can I forget

Zulfi fainted on the ground,

Kem who went mad,

and Bati moaning in pain……

All of them are impossible to forget!

I will never forget

the sad and helpless eyes,

the silent weep at night.

I will never forget

the mother who stares blank into her son’s picture,

and the line of figures visiting their children outside the orphanages.

I will never forget

the older woman’s deformed arthritis fingers,

the aunties punished for failing to recite “Ten Don’t(s)” rules.

I will never forget

the arrogant and pompous “stability maintenance” supervising team,

and the cruel guards threatened to send us to detention centers.

I will never forget

my anxious longing for mother,

the shame of writing self confessions,

and my self-made calendar with 365 lines.

At this moment

I am lucky to be free.

But I will never forget

that they are still suffering.

September 2020


哭泣是我们的祈祷

戒备森严的教室里,

祖菲昏倒在了地上。

她柔弱的心脏,

已无法承受

无休止的煎熬。

所有人都在哭泣。

为祖菲担忧而哭泣,

为深陷厄运而哭泣。

因恐惧无助而哭泣,

因无法呐喊而哭泣。

管教企图用电棍

剥夺我们哭泣的权利。

可压抑已久的悲痛,

无惧这卑鄙的威胁,

喷涌而化作泪水…

在这禁止祷告的地狱,

哭泣便是我们的祷告!

Crying is Our Prayer

In the heavily guarded classroom,

Zulfi fainted on the ground.

Her weak heart,

can no longer take

this endless torment.

Everyone is crying.

for worrying about Zulfi,

for being deep in this doom.

for being helpless and frightened,

for being unable to scream.

The officers use electric rods

to deprive our rights of crying.

but the long-repressed grief,

has turned into flood of tears,

regardless of the despicable threats…

In this hell where praying is banned,

crying is our prayer!

September 2020


故土

我敬仰的那片草原,

是梦中的一抹绿。

儿时善良的人们,

都已沉默,暗淡……

只有痛苦的过往,

能让我忆起

故土。

Homeland

The grassland I admired,

are waves of green in dreams.

The kind people in my childhood,

are silent and fading away……

Only the painful past

can remind me of

homeland.

October 2020


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