‘They Treated us There as
They Might Treat Animals’
A Uyghur former inmate of a political ‘re-education camp’ recounts life inside the secret facility.
A Uyghur businessman in his forties from Korla (in Chinese, Kuerle) city, in the XUAR’s Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture, was imprisoned for a month in 2016 and detained for another month in 2017 at a re-education camp after traveling to Malaysia and Turkey—two countries blacklisted by China’s government because of the perceived threat of religious extremism. He recently spoke on condition of anonymity with RFA’s Uyghur Service from exile in Turkey about his experiences at the two facilities.
RFA: Tell us about the first time you were taken into custody.
Businessman: I spent 42-43 days in Malaysia, taking courses, conducting business and vacationing. I didn’t meet with anybody there. I met with a few people [from the Uyghur exile community] here and there in Turkey … When they started to tell me, “you did such and such in Malaysia, and you did such and such in Turkey,” I knew they were trying to set me up.
There were many interrogation sessions [while I was jailed from March 18 to April 18 in 2016] … The first two days, they put me on the iron chair 24 hours a day. They didn’t let me lie down. I was sitting up the whole time … My hands were just like this. The manacles were right here on my wrists. I couldn’t move my hands. The shackles were on my feet. The iron from the lock pressed down on my skin … “It is too painful, I cannot bare it—please release little bit,” I asked. [The guard] said, “stand up,” and made me stay standing without moving … That was a kind of torture, but when you see how others were treated, that counts nothing.
The second time I was detained [from March 18 to April 18 in 2017], I was in a re-education camp—that was tougher. The attitudes were far worse than the first time.
RFA: Did they tell you the reason for your arrest?
Businessman: Every single [Uyghur] who travels abroad is considered a criminal now … In December 2016, I returned home to get some financial support. All Uyghurs who traveled abroad between 2014 and that time had been put on a blacklist created by the government.
When I entered the cell, it was as if I had called people up to share a meal. The people I saw were my neighbors, like a shop owner next door, a classmate, a childhood friend from a long time ago, an acquaintance, my friend’s father. Most of them were people I know. Out of about a dozen people, I knew all but two of them.
RFA: You mentioned that the other camps were at maximum capacity. Is it because they have arrested so many Uyghurs?
Businessman: Yes, that’s right. One of the toughest things in the camp is that hygiene is very poor. More than 30 people get a tiny amount of powdered soap. They don’t let us bring clothing or money. They left us there like animals. Our clothes were filthy and had a foul odor. When the guards came to open the vents in the cell—there were two vents, one on each side—there was no bigger humiliation than seeing them cover their noses with the bottom of their jackets because the odor was unbearable. That’s when we realized how bad we smelled—when we saw them doing that. It was so humiliating.
The cell was no more than 10 square meters (110 square feet) … Sometimes they would release someone, but they would bring others in a few days later. At maximum, there would be 12 people in the cell.
The food was much worse than the jail I was in—you only get steamed bread. When I was at the jail, we were able to buy food, soap and other toiletries … At this place, we only got what they gave us.
RFA: Did anyone ever get sick, become weakened or die because of the lack of the nutrition?
Businessman: No one died … but the cell I was in had two sick people—one had bad diabetes and hypertension and the other one had kidney infections and his back hurt a lot. Those are very ordinary symptoms for the inmates there … They were brought to the hospital for checkups … The inmates had to wear black hoods over their heads. They were dragged and shoved onto the vehicle for transport, like animals … They couldn’t sit like normal passengers, and were pushed down, one on top of the other.
RFA: Do you have beds in your detention cells?
Businessman: There are beds built with soil bricks and mud, with wood panels on top of it and edges connected with iron bars, then covered with straw … We sit side by side [in the cells] for eight hours during the day ... and can only go to the bathroom or drink water … If any of us moves around, [the guards] would see with their closed circuit camera, and we would be harassed and cursed.
RFA: Please describe a day at the camp.
Businessman: We are made to get up at 6:00 a.m. and then spend an hour cleaning our cell and making our beds … We must also finish our breakfast during that time. We stand in formation at the front of the door when they open the kitchen to serve the food. We have to say “reporting” as soon as they open the food service window. If we don’t say “reporting” immediately after the window is opened, they will take the food back without giving it to us, and then we go hungry.
After that, we must stand still while they inspect our cell … While they inspect us we must shout “have a good day” in Chinese and other phrases to praise them.
At 11:00 a.m., we again must “report” for lunch, when they distribute unpeeled potatoes and unwashed vegetables. There is usually dirt residue left at the bottom of the serving trays. From noon until 2:00 p.m. we sleep ... After we get up at 2:00 p.m., we sit until 5:30 p.m. and recite certain passages. Then, they serve food again. We get one-and-a-half hours of rest time, and then sleep.
RFA: What kind of places are the re-education camps?
Businessman: In the beginning, the camps were set up for educating the imams with government propaganda … It was also for people who had previously been detained as political prisoners … they would spend 15 days to a month “educating” people. Then, beginning in the end of 2015, it became very harsh. By 2017, it had changed dramatically. The entry gates are now locked and the walls were covered in barbed wire … The whole world, even our own people, call these “camps,” but they are not camps, they are jails.