Database Entry: A Woman’s Journey Through China’s Detention Camps
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A Woman’s Journey Through China’s Detention Camps

December 09, 2019
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Paul Mozur: Ferkat Jawdat is from a Uighur family . . . Many have fled the country to other places, like the United States. Ferkat is one of those, and Ferkat has kind of emerged as an important voice in the United States, trying to raise awareness and talk about what happened, because he and his family got out around 2011. But his mother was not able to follow them, and about two years ago, Ferkat’s mother goes missing. And it turns out she falls into the system of repression, and is pulled into the re-education camps there . . . And it’s been quite a ride, because when we first talked to him, he had no idea where his mother was, and he hadn’t seen her for more than a year. And then after we talked to him, we put out a show earlier this year, and a week later, his mother all of a sudden appears . . . Then he’s able to talk to her for the first time in more than a year and a half. He can talk to her over the phone.

Michael Barbaro: Right, I remember after we published that first episode about Ferkat’s mother, the Chinese government made a show of releasing her from the camp and letting her go to her house. But really, she’s not actually free.

Mozur: Right, so she’s in her house, but she’s being monitored at all times. There’s cameras and checkpoints just outside. You have local government officials and police checking in on her on a daily basis when she talks to her family. They’re monitoring what she says, so she has to parrot this sort of propaganda. And meanwhile, her health deteriorated severely in the camps. When she came home, Ferkat actually thought she might be on her deathbed. So that’s the world she’s living in at this moment.

Mozur: And I called him again last week, because I wanted to talk to him about a decision he made to do something extremely risky in order to save his mother. Over the last few months, Ferkat’s been growing increasingly anxious about how his mother is doing. They talk on the phone nearly every day, but it’s clear that she’s not being honest with him, and he can’t really be fully honest with her. He doesn’t really know how she actually is. He doesn’t know her state of mind. He doesn’t know how bad her health is. And I think most importantly, he doesn’t understand what happened to her, because there’s just no ability to speak honestly about the past couple of years. And so I was talking to him, and he asked if I could go try to see her, see how she is, and also potentially find out what happened to her.

Barbaro: So he wants you to go there and physically check in on her?

Mozur: Yeah, exactly. And what’s important to understand is that we have some stories from people who were in the camps, but very few people who have gotten out recently have been able to talk about it. So this is also a chance to really shine light on what’s happened in the past few years from somebody who was inside. But there’s real risk. It’s really important to understand that by me going there, I put his family under risk. I put him under risk . . . So I told him it would be really, really hard, but I would try to get there and see her. And because it would be so dangerous, Ferkat had to tell his mother.

Barbaro: And Paul, you’ve told me several times just how hard it is to go to this part of western China, where the Uighurs are. So how likely is it that you could actually get to Ferkat’s mom?

Mozur: A real part of me thought it was almost pointless. I felt like I was kind of going to get her into trouble, and do it without accomplishing anything. Because you have to understand, the moment you land in a city in Xinjiang, they check the flight manifests. So they know — if a foreign journalist’s name is on there, they meet you at the airport. They meet you at the baggage claim . . . And if they don’t do that, the moment you get in a cab, they have three cars following you away from the airport to see whatever you’re doing. And I’ve never had that not be the case in Xinjiang, in multiple trips there . . . So given all that, no, I’m not thinking that it’s going to be possible to get there without being noticed and just stride right into the house of somebody who is under close surveillance. But I also thought it was worth a try, because he was so desperate that we had to try.

Barbaro: So how do you plan to get around the authorities in this case?

Mozur: So the longer you deal with this, the more you develop your own little tricks. I take the earliest flight possible, buy it at the last minute, so that they don’t have time to screen the flight. So I arrive in Ferkat’s mom’s town around 7:00 a.m. And it’s always kind of tentative when I come out of the plane, because I’m looking around, saying, O.K., who are the thugs? Who are the guys who are going to follow me this time? And I get out, and I look around, and there’s nobody obvious. It’s dumping rain, so I go and I get an umbrella, and I’m lingering in the store, trying to see that there’s nobody. I walk across the street, and I get in a cab, and the cab goes, and I’m looking behind, and there’s no cars there. Somehow, I’ve gotten through the airport part without anybody picking me up.

Mozur: We pull up to the address that Ferkat gave me, the house of his grandmother. And Ferkat’s aunt answers. And there is his aunt, his uncle and his grandmother. And so they show me into a room. And inside on a raised platform are a bunch of rugs, and there, laying prostrate, is Ferkat’s mother. She’s in a lot of pain, because she’s had a fall recently. She was so weak coming out of the camps that just a few days before, she fell, and they think she fractured her vertebrae. But she insists on sitting up for the interview. And there I am next to her, this person that Ferkat hasn’t been able to see in a decade. And I can see her face, and she looks a lot like Ferkat. They have the same sort of cheekbones and the same eyes. She sort of holds my hand, and she says that I have the smell of Ferkat on me, and that her son is with her, because I’m there and I’ve been sent by him. And she says thank you for coming.

Mozur: And all the while, you’re thinking, how long do we have? Because you know there’s surveillance . . . You know the police are going to come and check in on her.

Barbaro: So what do you do?

Mozur: Well, I get Ferkat on the phone, because he’s going to help me translate and talk to her. And we start asking her questions. And she starts telling us what happened three years ago. Telling the story of the camps. In the beginning, in 2017, for a little while, she was taken to a camp to study. And “study” is the euphemism for being locked away. But she gets spit back out, because she’s quite sick. But then in early 2018, they come for her again. And this time, she doesn’t come out.

Mozur: All of a sudden, she’s effectively in what looks like a concentration camp. And she says conditions are much, much worse there. There’s way too many people. Ten or 20 people in a cell, sometimes. Oftentimes, people will have to use buckets for toilets. She says the guards are much rougher with the people who are there. So there’s more violence.

Mozur: But things get even worse for her, because Ferkat is continuing to speak out about her in the United States. And it gets to the point that he becomes almost so well-known that in late 2018, he actually gets a meeting with the United States secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. And that’s a big deal. It becomes news. And partially because of that, she’s punished. And that means she gets sent to a much more extreme facility. It’s either a prison or a detention center. And there, she says, she was interrogated and tortured, and the guards were extremely rough with her. And we’ve heard reports from other people in these facilities, and they are much, much harsher than other types of camps.

Mozur: During questioning, people can be locked to chairs or chained to walls. And there’s even darker stories of women being sexually assaulted or raped, ghastly stories of isolation chambers, people’s fingernails ripped out. And there are also reports of forced injections. People report that they emerge from the camp system sterile. So there’ve been accusations that potentially there’s forced sterilizations going on as well.

Mozur: And in particular, very important for her, she’s no longer allowed her medications. So she starts having a lot of health problems. The blood pressure’s really out of control. Her face swells. She stops to being able to talk, because her tongue is swollen . . . And nobody is trying to fix this, because this is very much a place where you’re there to be punished.

Mozur: You have to imagine how unique this moment is. She can’t fully sit up, because she’s in too much pain. So we’re lying next to each other, and I’m passing a phone back and forth with her. And she’s telling the story of what has happened to her for the first time. And halfway across the world, on the other end of the phone, is Ferkat. And what he’s hearing for the first time is the truth. He’s finally actually hearing what happened to his mother. And I’m sitting there next to her, and part of me is totally overwhelmed with emotions about this, but a part of me is absolutely terrified of what this could bring for her.

Barbaro: So it’s like the worse the details are that she’s telling you, the more afraid you’re becoming for her, for anyone in that room who is hearing the conversation.

Mozur: I hear voices outside and — Ferkat says, I think you have some company. And I look to the front door, and there’s a curtain covering it, and it gets pulled back by a man I haven’t seen before. And then, as soon as he sees me, he disappears. And what I’m worried at that point about is that the game is up, that we’ve been caught. And so we all go into panic mode. And I need to save these recordings, because if they’re officials, they’re going to want to delete them.

Barbaro: So Paul, what happens once you turn off the recording?

Mozur: Well, everybody’s freaked out. The man who poked his head in, he is a local government official and Communist Party member checking up on her. And he’s ostensibly claiming that he was looking into a leaky roof because it was raining out. But in reality, he’s a part of the surveillance apparatus. And so he quickly leaves, and we know he’s probably going to go report the whole thing, and it’s just a matter of time before the police show up.

Mozur: And so the family is discussing what to do. They have to decide. And it really is informative about the different ways Ferkat and his family see this. So Ferkat says, stay. It’ll help to have a foreign journalist there. No matter what they do, it will be good for you to be there and watch and report on it. But his family thinks the exact opposite. They want me to get the hell out of there, because they think that my presence is the threat and the danger, and the longer I’m there, the more they’re in danger. And so in the last few minutes, we try to get in a last question. Can we see if your mother can answer one or two more questions? Ferkat, can you ask her, tell her that you told me that she taught you to speak out and to speak your mind and to say the truth, and then that’s what you’ve been doing in America. And I just want you to ask her whether she thinks you’ve done right by doing that, whether she believes truly that that is the right thing to do. And so I ask Ferkat’s mother what she makes of what he’s been doing.

Mozur: And she tells him that she’s incredibly proud of him, and that she raised him to be this way, and that she understands why he’s doing this, and that it’s out of love for her that he’s doing this. I think it’s just an incredibly important moment, because Ferkat is doing this crusade, and he doesn’t have support from many people in his community in the United States, because Uighurs there are afraid. But at this moment, she tells him, no, what you’re doing, I know that this comes from the right place, and that we’re trying something here, and I’m proud of you.

Mozur: And when I walk out that door, the usual suspects are there, a couple of sketchy-looking guys who start following me down the street. And I led them around the rest of the day across the city. And I went to the airport, got on a plane and flew out. And then a week later, Ferkat calls me, and he tells me that — The police in the area have told him that if he releases the recordings that we took, they will kill her.

Mozur: And so Ferkat’s saying, please don’t release the recordings. I’m saying, of course . . . We won’t release them at all, if you don’t think it’s right. And over the next few weeks, there’s more negotiations, and they kind of back off that threat, and eventually he says, you know what? Let’s do this . . . Let’s release these recordings. Let’s talk about this. Let’s share it with the world. This is the kind of paradox of speaking out. On the one hand, you have the government saying, if you do this, we will kill your mother. But on the other hand, you know that if you don’t speak out, then maybe nothing will change, and maybe you’ll never see her again. He told me right after my visit, state media ran an article basically citing family members of him calling him the scum of the family.

Mozur: Really so much of what we know about what’s going on in Xinjiang comes from these brief moments of courage and these individuals who are willing to testify and speak out. You can’t subpoena the Chinese government. You can’t go in demanding documents. You can’t get interviews with top officials where they’re going to speak honestly. And so everything is this incredible game of investigation, and a lot of the reporting is just trying to figure out tiny trace things, whatever you can.