Rahima Mahmut is strong. Very strong. But she is also scared, which is why she wants her words to go to higher places and travel faster.
More than anything, she just wants people to know, to understand the horrors she sees behind those five Olympic rings.
They are horrors that make her voice tremble across a harrowing conversation. Horrors that make her eyes moist. Horrors she claims are intensifying in a spiral of atrocities and oppression, but whose alleged perpetrators, the government of China, are being legitimised by sport. Scrubbed clean by curling brooms, you might say if it wasn’t so gravely serious.
Protestors have called for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games being held in Beijing
It is a popular phrase these days, sports washing. But it is one that can detract from the details of awful testimonies and claims.
They are the testimonies of people like Mahmut, if you believe her. And the claims that up to one million Uyghur Muslims are detained arbitrarily in hundreds of camps in the Xinjiang region, if you believe Human Rights Watch.
They talk about crimes against humanity on a mass scale and of torture, forced labour, sterilisation and rape.
Of children removed from families. Of Chinese authorities systematically persecuting Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims on an escalating scale since 2017. Of ‘cultural and religious erasure’ and ‘Orwellian surveillance’. Of abuses in Tibet and Hong Kong. They are lies, say the Chinese government, and politics, say the International Olympic Committee.
So Mahmut wants to tell a story about her brother. She cannot say for certain if he has been detained, nor if that has been the fate of eight other siblings in Xinjiang, her homeland in the north-west of China which she left in 2000. She cannot even determine if they are alive or dead.
But as a prominent activist for the World Uyghur Congress, she wants to speak for families like hers who, she says, are living in a terrifying, unending darkness.
It has been claimed by Human Rights Watch that up to a million Uyghur Muslims are being detained across hundreds of camps in the in the Xinjiang region of China
By the time she finishes her story, she will make a comment that ought to draw a deep breath from anyone who plans on watching these Winter Olympics in Beijing.
‘The Berlin Olympics in 1936 – the signs were there,’ she says. ‘They were criminalising the Jews. The Holocaust hadn’t happened by then but it could have been prevented. Now we have all this information about what is happening in China. There is drone footage, classified documents that have been leaked, academic research, survivor testimonies.
‘We have this now. The world cannot say it did not know.’
Mahmut is speaking from her home in London. Aged 51, she uses her story as one example in a far wider discussion that has become her life’s work.
‘I have lost contact with my sisters and brothers since January 2017,’ she says. ‘My answer is I have no idea if they are in a camp or alive. My last conversation with my brother was in January 2017.’
Those were the early days of the escalation of a clampdown in Xinjiang that had begun many years earlier against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, according to human rights organisations.
It is widely cited that a key point in the alleged persecution was the launch in 2014 of the ‘Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism’ by the government of president Xi Jinping, who is held up as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Pointing to official statistics, Human Rights Watch say that by the end of 2017, arrests in Xinjiang were accounting for nearly 21 per cent of all arrests in China, despite the region holding only 1.5 per cent of the national population.
Amnesty International published a 160-page report last year, honing in on ‘extreme measures taken by Chinese authorities since 2017 to essentially root out the religious tradition under the guise of fighting “terrorism”.’
Satellite imagery has shown the rapid emergence of hundreds of camps that are officially described as re-education facilities. Human Rights Watch estimate as many as a million are interred there, others suggest substantially more.
On the ground, the limited testimonies of survivors paint a picture of appalling terror, of being detained arbitrarily for months or years amid ‘indoctrination’ and atrocious abuses that contravene international law.
Protestors in support of Uyghur Muslims speak of terror and abuse that contravenes the law
Dr Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, told Sportsmail: ‘Over the years we have written about everything from pervasive restrictions on the practise of Islam, all the way to enforced disappearances, and in the last couple of years we have documented mass arbitrary detention. People are being rounded up simply for being Uyghur, not for committing a crime.
‘High-tech surveillance is being used to track behaviour as part of the basis for detaining people. Last year we concluded that all of these policies taken together constitute crimes against humanity.’
It would be easy to dismiss the allegations as problems in a far-off land, a standard pre-Olympics morality narrative before the ice skating and snowboarding starts.
That is why it is essential to listen, which takes us back to Mahmut and her brother.
‘After two or three months of trying, I couldn’t get hold of anyone,’ she says. ‘But on January 3, 2017, I called my brother repeatedly. In the end, he picked up. After saying hello, it was strange because he did not say (the Muslim greeting) “assalamu alaikum”. Instead he said “wei”, which is very much a Chinese way of answering. I asked why no one was answering for months and he just said, “They did the right thing”.
‘Then he said, “Please leave us in God’s hands and we’ll leave you in God’s hands”. My tears were falling and I didn’t know what to say. We have not spoken since, nor to any of my family there.
‘Around then I learned people were being taken away. There was not any information so you must understand the confusion. I have thought about it all so much and I understand what he meant. If anyone even answered my phone call by mistake or not knowingly, then I would put them in danger.’
Her brother’s name? ‘I wouldn’t want to give too much to you about him,’ Mahmut says, her voice wavering.
Protestors in France demonstrate near the National Assembly in Paris with metal chains
She believes, as an activist, she has been monitored by the Chinese government for years. ‘I’m already very worried about him. I don’t know if he or any of my siblings are alive. There is no escape for people living there. There are many, many families like this. It is painful.’
The rest of Mahmut’s claims come from her work with the Uyghur World Congress.
‘At the Congress we have more than 10 camp survivors,’ she says. ‘They were all in very different facilities and their account is almost exactly the same on the way people were treated, from food deprivation to how crowded it was, chained all the time. Rapes became systematic.
‘China is always saying these are actors, well paid by the US or the World Uyghur Congress. But you can watch the Uyghur tribunal on YouTube and see their accounts.
‘Millions of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and many other Turkic Muslims are enduring intense, unspeakable terror. Families are being torn apart, children taken away, millions of women sterilised and forced abortions. It is happening now.
‘In late 2019 there were three data leaks. If you followed the news, one was 407 pages – detailed information about these camps. They confirm these are not so-called re-education camps or vocational training. These are prisons, places for indoctrination. Many, many, many innocent people are disappearing.’
At this point, we return to sport.
‘Repeatedly the World Uyghur Congress has given the International Olympic Committee detailed information about what is happening and requesting that a country committing such atrocities shouldn’t be honoured to host the Olympics,’ Mahmut says.
‘Yet the IOC completely ignored the call from the World Congress, from Hong Kong and from Tibetans. You have this Games that celebrates bringing athletes together. There will be ceremonies and happy faces as if everything is normal. The world is giving this to Beijing knowing what is happening.’
The Beijing Games is being run as a ‘closed loop bubble’ with stringent testing of athletes and there will be no tickets sold to spectators due to the Covid situation at this time in China
How did we get here? How did they get there? It is relevant to note the bidding for these Games started with a three-way race between Norway, Kazakhstan and China. When Norway dropped out, it left Beijing up against Almaty ahead of the vote by the IOC in 2015.
To think, almost seven years on, one of those cities started 2022 in a state of emergency amid civil unrest and the other is accused of crimes against humanity. If these are the answers, then perhaps it is time for the IOC to find a new equation around how the Olympics are allocated.
That Beijing won is at best a curiosity. The National Alpine Ski Centre in Yanqing, roughly 50 miles north-west of Beijing, had just 2cm of snow between January and March 2021. For context, London and Madrid had more, so there will be 300 snow guns coating the slopes to even get the show going. The Covid situation makes the logistics even more complicated. There will be a ‘closed loop bubble’, stringent testing and no tickets are being sold to spectators, so only a hand-picked few will watch in person.
Those are unique challenges of the era, but more troubling is the advice being followed out of necessity by Team GB and many journalists to travel with temporary ‘burner’ phones and devices. That is because China is akin to an ‘Orwellian surveillance state’, according to Human Rights Watch’s Dr Richardson.
Neither are they seen as especially tolerant of dissent, as we have seen most recently through the saga of tennis player Peng Shuai, which throws open the question of what would happen if an athlete uses the platform of the Games to raise concerns about human rights. Sportsmail knows of at least one who intends to do so.
So it may be an Olympic-scale understatement to say these Games are troubled. But as ever the show rolls on, with activists worried that many of the terrifying stories and allegations will soon melt away in the public consciousness, like the fake snow.
In the course of our conversation Mahmut suggests Sportsmail speaks to the World Uyghur Congress president Dolkun Isa. Now based in Germany, having fled China in 1994, he says his mother recently died in a camp and that two of his brothers have been given long prison sentences for no crime.
Sportsmail spoke to 13 major partners of the 2022 Games about claims around the alleged mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims and not one strayed from empty corporate platitudes
China have long labelled him a terrorist, which he puts down to his ‘peaceful’ human rights activities, and he is endorsed by Dr Richardson. ‘If he is a terrorist I’m the Easter Bunny,’ she says.
So that is the backdrop to these Games. The IOC evidently do not see any issue, with their flimsy claim to be ‘beyond all political disputes’. In the view of Dr Richardson, they are ‘putting fingers in their ears and chanting in a childlike fashion “a force for good, a force for good”.’
Certainly there has been no obvious outcry from their major partners who, as ever, keep the lights on.
Sportsmail emailed all 13 of them on Monday – Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Omega, Allianz, Toyota, Visa, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, Intel, Bridgestone, Atos, Alibaba Group and Airbnb.
We asked for their position in relation to accusations of serious human rights violations and only Allianz, Atos, Intel, Omega and Toyota replied. None strayed from corporate platitudes.
Maybe it is easier to say nothing. Maybe we should expect better. Maybe we have been here before.
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