Former Uyghur detainees say they were ‘forced to eat pork’

Uyghur Muslims who were former detainees have claimed that the forcible feeding of pork is rampant in Chinese re-education camps and detention centres.

Sayragul Sautbay was released two years ago from a “re-education camp” in the region of Xinjiang.

Sautbay, a medical doctor and educator who now lives in Sweden, recently published a book in which she detailed her ordeal, including witnessing beatings, alleged sexual abuse and forced sterilisation.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, she shed more light on other indignities to which the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities were subjected, including the consumption of pork.

“Every Friday, we were forced to eat pork meat,” Sautbay said. “They have intentionally chosen a day that is holy for the Muslims. And if you reject it, you would get a harsh punishment.”

She added that the policy was designed to inflict shame and guilt on the Muslim detainees and that it was “difficult to explain in words” the emotions she had every time she ate the meat.

“I was feeling like I was a different person. All around me got dark. It was really difficult to accept,” she said.

She added the practice of making Muslims eat pork went beyond the detention camps.

In one school in Altay, a city in northern Xinjiang, students were also forced to eat the meat and when many refused and demonstrated against their school administrators, the government sent in soldiers to intervene, Sautbay said.

The Xinjiang government has also started an initiative called “free food” for Muslim children in kindergarten, serving them pork dishes without their knowledge, she added. The idea was that by starting them young, the Muslim children would acquire a taste for non-halal food.

Uyghur businesswoman Zumret Dawut also told Al Jazeera of her first-hand experience of detention. She was picked up in March 2018 in Urumqi, the city where she was born. She too said she was served pork repeatedly.

“When you sit in a concentration camp, you do not decide whether to eat, or not to eat. To be alive, we had to eat the meat served to us,” she told Al Jazeera.

Zumret Dawut, who is now living in exile in the U.S., also told the channel that she was detained for two months in her hometown of Urumqi and was repeatedly forced to eat pork while in detention.

In November 2019, Xinjiang’s top administrator, Shohrat Zakir, said that the autonomous region would be turned into a “pig-raising hub,” with a new farm in the southern Kashgar area which aims to produce 40,000 pigs every year.

The project is expected to occupy a 25,000-square-metre (82-square-foot) area in an industrial park in Kashgar’s Konaxahar county, renamed Shufu, according to the Chinese-language website, Sina.

The Uyghur Muslims make up 90 percent of the population in the city and the surrounding area.

Beijing has defended its policies in the region, saying the approach is needed to fight the “three evils of extremism, separatism and terrorism”, following deadly riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009.

It has denied the existence of the re-education camps in which the United Nations has said more than one million people have been held, instead saying it operates vocational centres that allow it to “retrain” the Uyghur population and teach them new skills.

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