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“There was no learning at all.”

What follows is an abridged first-person account of Xinjiang camp eyewitness Nurlan Kokteubai, delivered at the office of the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights organization on November 5, 2019. The summary and English translation were done by Kaster Bakyt. Gene A. Bunin did the English editing and smoothing.

I was born and raised on the Akkoi stud farm in Chapchal County. From September 1979 to July 1997, I worked as a schoolteacher. I myself am a graduate of a vocational secondary school. In 2011, I came to Kazakhstan and obtained a Kazakhstan green card. My wife was also a teacher, but she’s retired now. Our children moved to Kazakhstan too and got Kazakh citizenship here.

In July 2017, my wife was called to go to China, and then I went too since they summoned me as well. I went around August 20, 2017. Some days later – on September 3, 2017 – the village police called me to the police station. I thought that they were going to collect my passport, but when I got there they told me that I had contacted terrorists and that I needed to go to the No. 3 Middle School. Or at least, it had been the county’s No. 3 Middle School until it was changed into a vocational school and later transformed into a re-education “school”. I told them that I could go since I hadn’t committed any crime – I figured they would just interrogate me and then release me.

However, what they did was take me to my cell in that “school” – eight people in one room. There were lines drawn, and criminals were not allowed to step on them. Upon entering the black gate I was searched. My wife had to stay outside the gate and I was taken inside. I didn’t know what the line was and so I just walked on it, prompting a police officer to shout at me to stay inside the line. He told me that the line was for criminals.

I heard from one person that there were about 14000 people there. They were mainly Uyghurs and Kazakhs and a few Hui.

There was a teaching building, and after crossing that building there was the dormitory. The room door was chained in two places and couldn’t be opened widely. There were four bunk beds for eight people, and the inmates were mainly Uyghurs. I asked them when they were going to interrogate us and they said: they aren’t going to interrogate anyone – we came here in April and nobody interrogated us. I started shouting, demanding to know why I ended up there. The police came and told me to shut up.

My heart started to hurt – I was completely innocent and had ended up there for no reason. On September 14, they took me to the hospital. I had never had heart problems before. I went on to spend 8 days in the hospital, with two policemen guarding me at all times, even when I’d go to relieve myself. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. Then I was taken back to the prison.

The document says that the goal is for the learners to study government policies, the national language, law, and vocational skills. These are lies. None of these was available. It was just a prison.

Notice provided to Nurlan’s wife by the Chapchal County Public Security Bureau, which states that he is to undergo education and training (教育培训) at the Chapchal County Transformation-through-Education Center (察布查尔县教育转化中心) as declared necessary by the region’s anti-terrorism measures. The notice specifies that the training will include studying government policies, the national language (Mandarin), law, and (vocational) skills. (source: RFA)

In November, I fainted and the ambulance took me to the biggest hospital in the municipality. After spending some time in the emergency room, I was later taken to another room. After ten days, I was taken back to the prison at night.

There was no learning at all. All we did was watch TV – broadcasts of only one channel, which circulated videos about Xi Jinping’s visits to numerous countries and how he was helping these poor countries develop. Nothing else. We didn’t learn any skills.

We had to line up to go to the toilet and would only be given 5 minutes, the guards standing next to you with their batons. The alarm woke us up at five in the morning, and we would take turns “guarding” each other throughout the night – two people at a time, two hours per rotation. We were given plastic stools and would wear plastic slippers. The stools we’d have to sit still on while watching the TV programs about Xi.

The dining hall was roughly 100 meters from our dorm. There, we’d have to line up again and sing a “red song” before the meal, and then finish our meal in five minutes. The food was good at the beginning – beef and chicken. But later it’d get worse, and we’d mainly have porridge with steamed buns.

On January 10, 2018, I had a heart attack and was taken to the county hospital. This time, I saw how the former epidemic-prevention station had been transformed into a hospital for inmates. I was taken there. While I was there, my wife was allowed to come and look after me. They injected 250 ml of liquid into my cardiovascular system. Back in the prison, we had been divided into three groups and I was in the lightest. I refused the injection originally, but they threatened to transfer me to the strictest group if I insisted. Despite them telling me that a specialist would come to do this, it was done by an ordinary doctor in that hospital. A Han nurse told me to drink at least 5-6 liters of water to be safe, warning me that the medicine could destroy my kidneys otherwise. She did this out of kindness – the doctor hadn’t told me anything.

On January 28, I was taken to the prison again. This time, there was netting erected along the lines intended for criminals. Once a month, we were taken to shower, but because around 80 people had to shower together, it was very difficult to breathe and I’d refuse. In March, they told us to learn 3000 Chinese characters. We stayed on the first floor and didn’t go to the classroom since we were sick, and the instructors gave us beginner-Chinese textbooks.

It was only in March that they told us our crimes. According to them, I was guilty of “being in contact with terrorists”. I was interrogated, during which time they told me that I had visited Kazakhstan many times. I explained that my children were in Kazakhstan and that I was visiting them. They asked me if I had been to Syria. The State Security Bureau checked and found that I hadn’t been to any country other than Kazakhstan. On March 19, they told me that I wasn’t guilty of any crime, and a Kazakh guy there told me that I was going to be released soon. One day, at 3 in the morning, two people came to our cell and woke me up, asking me how many times I had visited Kazakhstan. I signed a document and was released on April 3, 2018. Before leaving the “school”, I was searched and made to promise to not say anything to my family members.

They divided families into three categories: the “safe” households (放心户), the “dangerous” households (危险户), and the “key” households (重点户). My brother’s family was in the “key households” category, with cadres staying in their home for almost entire days. My wife had to give a speech in front of groups of teachers, saying that she regretted her husband having connections to terrorists during his time at the camp.

Then we started attending courses: we had to learn the “three explanations” (三个讲明白) and “six clarities” (六个讲清楚). I gave speeches in front of a crowd four times, expressing regret for my wrongdoings and expressing my gratitude to the Party, while saying that I would fight against the “three evils”. The Han cadres in the village told me that Kazakhstan had become a bridge for Kazakhs going to Syria and becoming terrorists. We also had lessons about the “Chinese dream”, which included Chinese one day replacing English and the RMB replacing the US dollar. One day, a woman named Yuan gave a speech, saying that we were terrorists and that Shonzhy and Zharkent in Kazakhstan were the most dangerous regions for Xinjiang.

I heard that the head of the neighboring village had told villagers at a flag raising ceremony that ordinary people, with the exception of cadres, could still travel to Kazakhstan if they wanted. So I went to the village head and explained my situation, saying that my children were in Kazakhstan, and asked for my passport. In return, he told me that I would remain under house arrest until my death.

Cadres at the village office would collect my recordings of everyday affairs. I had to write down what I did and whom I met with and how my thoughts changed on that day, and then give it to the cadre. One day, two cadres were there – one Han and one Kazakh, named Murat. I asked him about my passport, to which he said that I shouldn’t bring this topic up. Then I started talking in Mandarin and asked the Han what I did wrong, asking him if I had committed any crime, if I had lied or killed someone, if I had betrayed the country. I told them to take me to prison if I had done something wrong. I told them that I was loyal to the Party. I had a heart attack just then, and they had to take me home.

One day, a policeman came and said that my daughter in Kazakhstan was appealing. I told him I didn’t know anything about it. It’s true – I really wasn’t aware. They asked me to make a phone call, and I called my son. They told me what to say and not to say in advance, and so I told him that everything was great. They told me to tell my son to stop the appeals.

On January 21, the police came and told me that I should leave for Kazakhstan on January 24. On the day that I was going to leave, Village Secretary Tian told me that it was not good to say anything bad since we were born and raised in China. He also mentioned that my daughter in Kazakhstan should cherish China for having grown up there. After I left for Kazakhstan, the village cadres wouldn’t stop visiting my wife and asking questions. I arrived in Kazakhstan on January 24, 2019, and my wife arrived in February.

I’ve been suffering from memory loss ever since being released from the camp. Recently, I’ve started seeing blood in my urine. I need help getting a medical checkup. My wife, too, has developed health problems and can no longer walk.

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