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“Because you had to do it very quickly, or you could be punished.”

The following is a summary of the interview with Xinjiang camp eyewitness Tursunay Ziyawudun, done at the office of the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights organization on October 15, 2019. The summary and English translation were done by Kaster Bakyt. Gene A. Bunin did the English editing.

After falling ill, Tursunay went back to China in 2016 for a gall bladder operation. The Kazakh government wasn’t allowing her to stay in Kazakhstan any longer, as she was there on a visitor’s visa and hadn’t been able to get either a residence permit or Kazakhstan citizenship (as she was Uyghur and her husband, though ethnically Kazakh, wasn’t a Kazakhstan citizen yet). She had lived in Kazakhstan for a total of 5 years.

Upon their arrival in China, both she and her husband had their passports taken by the local authorities. She was later sent to a “school” for a month. Four months later, her husband got his passport back, with Tursunay being his “guarantor” so that he could go back to Kazakhstan. She was taken to a camp in March 2018, which she found to be completely different from the “school” she had been taken to before. She originally thought that she would be released after showing the hospital statement attesting to her recent operation, but would be told by the camp staff that her health was relatively fine compared to that of some of the other inmates.

After being taken there, she had to change into a blue uniform. As far as she knows, there are uniforms of three different colors – blue ones for inmates with the least serious wrongdoings, yellow for more serious, and red for the most serious ones (the latter intended for those with “religious crimes”, such as praying five times a day). The facility was like a real prison, with the cell doors made of iron and chained in a way that only allows for them to be opened only partially – she was forced to enter the room by squeezing through this opening.

There were no toilets inside the cells. According to Tursunay:

“During the day, we were allowed to use the toilet in the hall, but were given very little time to use it. At night, we had to use the bucket inside the cell. The first month was awful. We had to hold it until the morning, because we couldn’t go inside the room out of shame, unless it was to urinate.”

They were guarded by female guards with rifles. Tursunay refused to eat anything for a week, but the guards didn’t care. When she fainted, which happened several times, the guards would just take her to her bed. She heard two Kazakh ladies next door shouting to the guards that they were Kazakhstan citizens and wanted an explanation for their detention. They were later taken somewhere and she didn’t hear about them anymore after that.

Tursunay recounts:

“We had to do some stupid activities, such as ‘baotou’ (抱头), which meant having to crouch and grab your head whenever you heard the siren sound. Once, there was an incident in which a woman next door, sleeping on a top bunk, broke her leg after hearing a siren at night and jumping from her bed in terror. Because you had to do it very quickly, or you could be punished.”

After a month, they were transferred to a newly built facility. There, the toilets were inside the cell. However, since it had been erected recently, you could smell the cement, which had yet to dry completely. It was April and the room was very cold and damp, which led to Tursunay getting very sick. The guards took her to the hospital in handcuffs and shackles, which only added to the pain. She saw many injured people at the hospital. Most people had urinary disorders.

She had to wait months before her “crime” was announced, at which point she learned that she had ended up in camp for having stayed 5 years in Kazakhstan.

This camp was in a place called “Zhana Qala” (“new city”), in Xinyuan County. Tursunay recounts that those who were married and had a marriage certificate were allowed to see their spouses once a month.

She was released in December 2018 because her husband was in Kazakhstan.

“There was a sudden change,” she says, “and they released all the people who had family members in Kazakhstan.”

After their release, the former detainees gathered several times to have dinner together. She found that they had changed. It seemed to her that they had lost hope. They started drinking a lot. For her part, she’d often find herself breaking into tears.

When she went to Ürümchi to get a visa for Kazakhstan, the hotels refused to take her unless she went to the police station and registered. Although it was very late when she arrived and said that she could do it first thing in the morning, they still didn’t allow her to stay the night. When she wanted to take a taxi to the district where the Kazakhstan visa service center was, the Uyghur taxi driver wasn’t able to take her – she later learned that only Han drivers were allowed into that district.

Among her relatives, she has two brothers who were taken to the same camp as where she was. Both of them are now suffering from health issues and have urinary disorders.

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