Database Entry: What They Saw: Ex-Prisoners Detail The Horrors Of China’s Detention Camps
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What They Saw: Ex-Prisoners Detail The Horrors Of China’s Detention Camps

August 27, 2020
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Maybe the police officers call you first. Or maybe they show up at your workplace and ask your boss if they can talk to you. In all likelihood they will come for you at night, after you’ve gone to bed.

For the Uighurs and Kazakhs in China’s far west who have found themselves detained in a sprawling system of internment camps, what happens next is more or less the same. Handcuffed, often with a hood over their heads, they are brought by the hundreds to the tall iron gates.

BuzzFeed News interviewed 28 former detainees from the camps in Xinjiang about their experiences. Most spoke through an interpreter. They are, in many ways, the lucky ones — they escaped the country to tell their tale. All of them said that when they were released, they were made to sign a written agreement not to disclose what happens inside. (None kept copies — most said they were afraid they would be searched at the border when they tried to leave China.) Many declined to use their names because, despite living abroad, they feared reprisals on their families. But they said they wanted to make the world aware of how they were treated.

The stories about what detention is like in Xinjiang are remarkably consistent — from the point of arrest, where people are swept away in police cars, to the days, weeks, and months of abuse, deprivation, and routine humiliation inside the camps, to the moment of release for the very few who get out. They also offer insight into the structure of life inside, from the surveillance tools installed — even in restrooms — to the hierarchy of prisoners, who said they were divided into color-coded uniforms based on their assumed threat to the state. BuzzFeed News could not corroborate all details of their accounts because it is not possible to independently visit camps and prisons in Xinjiang.

In Nursaule’s case, they turned up at her home just as she was fixing her husband a lunch of fresh noodles and lamb.

Nursaule’s husband was watching TV the day she was detained in late 2017 near Tacheng city, she said. She was in the kitchen when there was a sharp knock at the front door. She opened it to find a woman wearing ordinary clothing flanked by two uniformed male police officers, she said. The woman told her she was to be taken for a medical checkup.

At first, Nursaule, a sixtysomething Kazakh woman whose presence is both no-nonsense and grandmotherly, was glad. Her legs had been swollen for a few days, and she had been meaning to go to the doctor to have them looked at.

Nursaule’s stomach began to rumble. The woman seemed kind, so Nursaule asked if she could return to pick her up after she’d eaten lunch. The woman agreed. But then she said something strange.

“She told me to take off my earrings and necklace before going with them, that I shouldn’t take my jewelry where I was going,” Nursaule said. “It was only then that I started to feel afraid.”

Like Nursaule, those detained all reported being given a full medical checkup before being taken to the camps. At the clinic, samples of their blood and urine were collected, they said. They also said they sat for interviews with police officers, answering questions on their foreign travel, personal beliefs, and religious practices.

“They asked me, ‘Are you a practicing Muslim?’ ‘Do you pray?’” said Kadyrbek Tampek, a livestock farmer from the Tacheng region, which lies in the north of Xinjiang. “I told them that I have faith, but I don’t pray.” Afterward, the police officers took his phone.

Tampek, a soft-spoken 51-year-old man who belongs to Xinjiang’s ethnic Kazakh minority, was first sent to a camp in December 2017 and said he was later forced to work as a security guard.

After a series of blood tests, Nursaule was taken to a separate room at the clinic, where she was asked to sign some documents she couldn’t understand and press all 10 of her fingers on a pad of ink to make fingerprints. Police interrogated her about her past, and afterward, she waited for hours. Finally, past midnight, a Chinese police officer told her she would be taken to “get some education.” Nursaule tried to appeal to the Kazakh officer translating for him — she does not speak Chinese — but he assured her she would only be gone 10 days.

Once inside, they were told to discard their belongings as well as shoelaces and belts — as is done in prisons to prevent suicide. After a security screening, detainees said they were brought to a separate room to put on camp uniforms, often walking through a passageway covered with netting and flanked by armed guards and their dogs. “I recognized those dogs,” said one former detainee who declined to share his name. He used to watch TV documentaries about World War II, he said. “They looked like the ones the Germans had.”

“We lined up and took off our clothes to put on blue uniforms. There were men and women together in the same room,” said 48-year-old Parida, a Kazakh pharmacist who was detained in February 2018. “They treated us like livestock. I wanted to cry. I was ashamed, you know, to take off my clothes in front of others.”

More than a dozen former detainees confirmed to BuzzFeed News that prisoners were divided into three categories, differentiated by uniform colors. Those in blue, like Parida and the majority of the people interviewed for this article, were considered the least threatening. Often, they were accused of minor transgressions, like downloading banned apps to their phones or having traveled abroad. Imams, religious people, and others considered subversive to the state were placed in the strictest group — and were usually shackled even inside the camp. There was also a mid-level group.

The blue-clad detainees had no interaction with people in the more “dangerous” groups, who were often housed in different sections or floors of buildings, or stayed in separate buildings altogether. But they could sometimes see them through the window, being marched outside the building, often with their hands cuffed. In Chinese, the groups were referred to as “ordinary regulation,” “strong regulation,” and “strict regulation” detainees.

For several women detainees, a deeply traumatic humiliation was having their long hair cut to chin length. Women were also barred from wearing traditional head coverings, as they are in all of Xinjiang.

From the moment they stepped inside the compounds, privacy was gone. Aside from the overwhelming presence of guards, each room was fitted with two video cameras, all the former detainees interviewed by BuzzFeed News confirmed. Cameras could also be seen in bathrooms, and throughout the building. In some camps, according to more than a dozen former detainees, dorms were outfitted with internal and external doors, one of which required an iris or thumbprint scan for guards to enter. The internal doors sometimes had small windows through which bowls of food could be passed.

Periodically, the detainees were subject to interrogations, where they’d have to repeat again and again the stories of their supposed transgressions — religious practices, foreign travel, and online activities. These sessions were carefully documented by interrogators, they said. And they often resulted in detainees writing “self-criticism.” Those who could not read and write were given a document to sign.

None of the former detainees interviewed by BuzzFeed News said they contemplated escaping — this was not a possibility.

Camp officials would observe the detainees’ behavior during the day using cameras, and communicate with detainees over intercom.

Detainees said there was a shared bathroom. Showers were infrequent, and always cold.
Some former detainees said there were small clinics within the camps. Nursaule remembered being taken by bus to two local hospitals in 2018. The detainees were chained together, she said.
People were coming and going all the time from the camp where she stayed, she said.

Surveillance was not limited to cameras and guards. At night, the detainees themselves were forced to stand watch in shifts over other inmates in their own rooms. If anyone in the room acted up — getting into arguments with each other, for example, or speaking Uighur or Kazakh instead of Chinese — those on watch could be punished as well. Usually they were beaten, or, as happened more often to women, put into solitary confinement. Several former detainees said that older men and women could not handle standing for many hours and struggled to keep watch. The atmosphere was so crowded and tense that arguments sometimes broke out among detainees — but these were punished severely.

“They took me down there and beat me,” said one former detainee. “I couldn’t tell you where the room was because they put a hood over my head.”

Nursaule was never beaten, but one day, she got into a squabble with a Uighur woman who was living in the same dorm room. Guards put a sack over her head and took her to the solitary room.

There, it was dark, with only a metal chair and a bucket. Her ankles were shackled together. The room was small, about 10 feet by 10 feet, she said, with a cement floor. There was no window. The lights were kept off, so guards used a flashlight to find her, she said.

After three days had passed by, she was taken back up to the cell.

Those who did sit through lessons in classrooms described them all similarly. The teacher, at the front of the room, was separated from the detainees by a transparent wall or a set of bars, and he or she taught them Mandarin or about Communist Party dogma. Guards flanked the classroom, and some former detainees said they carried batons and even hit “pupils” when they made mistakes about Chinese characters.