Built To Last: A BuzzFeed News investigation based on thousands of satellite images reveals a vast, growing infrastructure for long-term detention and incarceration.August 27, 2020
“People are living in horror in these places,” said 49-year-old Zhenishan Berdibek, who was detained in a camp in the Tacheng region for much of 2018. “Some of the younger people were not as tolerant as us — they cried and screamed and shouted.” But Berdibek, a cancer survivor, couldn’t muster the energy. As she watched the younger women get dragged away to solitary confinement, “I lost my hope,” she said. “I wanted to die inside the camp.”
People detained in the camps told BuzzFeed News they were subjected to torture, hunger, overcrowding, solitary confinement, forced birth control, and a range of other abuses. They said they were put through brainwashing programs focusing on Communist Party propaganda and made to speak only in the Chinese language. Some former detainees said they were forced to labor without pay in factories.
BuzzFeed News interviewed 28 former detainees from the region, many of whom described being blindfolded and handcuffed . . . Most recalled being frequently moved from camp to camp — a tactic that many believed was meant to combat overcrowding in the first generation of makeshift facilities. At the beginning of the campaign, hundreds of people were arriving on a daily basis. New batches of detainees always seemed to be coming and going.
Some former detainees described sleeping two to a twin bed, or even sleeping in shifts when there was not enough room to house all the detainees. Almost all said they received meager quantities of rice, steamed buns, and porridge, and little or no meat or other protein.
Orynbek Koksebek, a 40-year-old ethnic Kazakh, was first detained relatively early in the campaign, around the end of 2017. At first, he slept in a room with seven other men, and everyone had a bed to themselves. But within a few months, he began to notice more and more people arriving. “One day I saw a pregnant woman in shackles,” he said. “Another woman had a baby in her arms, she was breastfeeding.”
By February 2018, there were 15 men in his room, he said.
“Some of us had to share blankets or sleep on the floor,” he said. “They told us later that some of us would be given prison sentences or transferred to other camps.”
Camp officials regularly forced detainees to memorize Communist Party propaganda and Chinese characters in classrooms. But some former detainees said their facilities were too crowded for even this — instead, they had to sit on plastic stools next to their beds and stare at textbooks, sitting with their backs perfectly straight while cameras monitored them. Camp guards told them there were too many people to fit in classrooms.