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“99 bad things”: A man’s 2-year journey through Xinjiang’s complex detention network

Editor’s preface: Three years after the start of the mass incarcerations in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, there are now dozens of eyewitness accounts testifying to the coercive, violent, and often cruel nature of Xinjiang’s “re-education initiative”. Among these, however, few are as informative, comprehensive, and detailed as Erbaqyt Otarbai’s, a Kazakh truck driver who – following a trip to Xinjiang in May 2017 – found himself caught up in the system for two full years, with the majority of the time spent in detention centers, “re-education” camps, a hospital, an improvised factory, and house arrest. His account – independently corroborated various times over by former cellmates, satellite images, and testimonies for victims that he met along the way – offers a rare and invaluable view of not only the system’s many facets but also of their evolution, from the initial beginnings of the incarcerations, to their intensification, and finally to the authorities’ very visible response to outside pressure, with the facilities being transformed and many inmates being released, yet others being given long prison terms. Much of what Erbaqyt talks about corroborates a lot of the previous reporting and writing that has been done on the topic.

What follows is an abridged and edited translation of his first-person account as given in a 2-day, 5-hour interview to the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights organization in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February 2020. At around 6500 words, it offers an insightful journey through the place – often unpleasant – that Xinjiang has become. As expressed by Amanzhan Seiit, a Kazakhstan citizen who spent only 2 months in detention and temporarily shared a room with Erbaqyt: “If I saw 9 bad things, Erbaqyt saw 99 bad things.”

These are some of them. (Gene A. Bunin)

In the beginning, I thought I might keep silent. However, after thinking about how they’ve destroyed my family, I decided to speak up.

I’m from Qaba County in the Altay region and my wife is from Tarbagatai. We got married in 2009, and I also moved my household registration from Altay to Tarbagatai that year, buying a house there. In 2011, we divorced because of some problems with her family. For the sake of our children, we got remarried in 2013.

At the time, I was travelling back and forth between the two countries, working for a Chinese oil company. My salary was over 270000 tenge and the job wasn’t that hard, but the locals got only 40000-80000, depending on the kind of work. Seeing this, I pointed out that it was unfair and was dismissed. That was in November 2014. Then I started doing various odd jobs – things like driving a taxi and petty trading.

In May 2017, my father got sick. I had applied for Kazakhstan citizenship at the end of 2016, and by January 2017 it was ready – the only thing I had left to do was sign some paper. However, I wanted to go back to China to see my father first. When I crossed the Korgas border on May 23, 2017, two Kazakh guys – one of them was named Zharqyn – came and asked me to hand in my Chinese passport and my Kazakhstan green card. When I told them that I wasn’t planning to stay long, they told me that I could fill out an application form and get the documents back when it came time to return to Kazakhstan. They also asked why I was crossing at Korgas, after seeing my passport and seeing that I had crossed at the Bakhty border before.

I then went to Urumqi so as to fly to Altay and get there quicker. There (in Urumqi), the police checked my documents and my mobile phone.

After visiting my father, I called the police again and asked for my passport back. They told me that I could come to the local police office to pick it up. When I got there, however, they said that I could not get my passport back just then, even after my explaining to them that my house was in Kazakhstan and that I didn’t have a house in China. So, I went back to my father’s house in Altay the next morning, and ended up taking a job as a truck driver for an ore mining company.

On August 17, I got a phone call telling me to come to the police station in Koktogai. When I got there, they took away my phone, after which an Uyghur guy came in and starting speaking to me in Chinese. It was an underground room with the walls made of some soft material. There was a tiger chair in the room. They started interrogating me. One of the interrogators was Han and one was Uyghur.

The first question was why I had gone to Kazakhstan. They also asked if I prayed. I told them that I wasn’t a devout Muslim, as I drank and used profanity from time to time. The whole thing lasted about an hour, after which they said that I could go. When I asked for my phone back, they said that they couldn’t return it to me that day, and would contact me the day after.

I then returned to the truck area and started the trip I was supposed to make. It was around ten in the evening, and there were two other trucks. When we were about 20 kilometers from Urumqi City, my truck got a flat tire and we pulled over. While we were changing the tire, a car stopped by, with the person inside telling me that I needed to wait at the yard where the ore was unloaded. When it was my turn to unload the cargo, the guard there told me that a few policemen were looking for me.

They asked me why I had a household registration both in Buryltogai (Altay) and in Tarbagatai. I told them that my hukou had been in Buryltogai before I moved to Tarbagatai. They asked me to file an application to have my Buryltogai registration cancelled, and asked that I come with them. When I said that my phone was still in Koktogai, they told me that they had brought it with them – they had visited Koktogai and then went to Urumqi to look for me.

They took me to Tacheng City, and we got to the New City police station (新城派出所) at around midnight. There was a tiger chair in the room there, too, and this time I’d be seated in it, with my ankles and wrists shackled. A Kazakh guy there told me that, since there were cameras inside, I couldn’t really ask him whatever I wanted to. Then they started the interrogation, saying that I had installed WhatsApp on my phone. I explained that it was normal to have that in Kazakhstan and that it didn’t work in China anyway. They then asked if I had visited other countries and with whom I had been in contact while in Kazakhstan.

After this, I was handcuffed, shackled, and hooded and taken to the Tarbagatai Regional People’s Hospital. It was about two in the morning then. I was taken to a room and had a check-up, which required my going to a number of other rooms. Being hooded, I couldn’t see the places I was taken to. From there, I’d be taken back to the police station, where they told me that I would be taken to a prison. They took my blood sample before transferring me.

When we got to the prison [pre-trial detention center], the armed staff member there said that they couldn’t just receive everyone and that they only took criminals – the two sides then had a quarrel. The Kazakh guy asked me to wait outside while they discussed – I would hear them mention the “political and legal affairs commission” (政法委) and the “national security team” (国保队). Afterwards, they brought me inside.

One of the staff at the prison was a Kyrgyz guy. He asked me if I knew where I was, then said that it was a prison and hit me over the head with a (metal) stick, leading to bleeding and, later, a scar. As my face was covered in blood, they shackled me with 7-kilo fetters. The people in the cell were real criminals of different ethnic groups – Han Chinese, Uyghur, Hui, and a Kazakh. A cruel Han criminal, the “boss”, asked me some questions.

Later, the Kyrgyz guy would take me to the washroom and ask me to wash off my blood stains. A prison doctor sprinkled some powder on the injuries I had suffered. Then, they gave me a steamed bun and fried carrots and transferred me to Cell No. 12 (the one before was No. 15).

Here, there were Uyghurs, Hui, and Kazakhs. Some were shackled – mainly the Hui but also a few Uyghurs. One Uyghur guy, Dilshat, had been imprisoned years earlier for taking drugs, and now found himself here anew. Another Uyghur guy was there for buying a ticket to Turkey. A Kazakh was imprisoned for studying in Kazakhstan. When they heard that I was there for using WhatsApp, they told me that I wouldn’t be released. At that point, I was still thinking that they wouldn’t hold me any longer than three days.

We were given carrot leaves, potato peels, and other grassy stuff as our meals, together with a steamed bun that was only half cooked. I refused to eat it. They saw this through the camera and were ready to punish all of us, but I told them that it was just me who refused.

The next day, I was summoned to an interrogation room. My passport, green card, phone, wallet, and bank card were on the table, and they asked me if they were mine. They asked for the password to the phone. I pleaded with them to let me wire some money to my wife’s account through WeChat and they let me. When I asked about when I would be released, they said that they didn’t know.

At one point, I was so hungry that, at around four in the morning, I shouted and asked for bread, which resulted in the guard calling some other guards and me being beaten with an artificial-leather stick. Those guys were Kazakh. They said that Ma [a guard’s surname] would come soon and I’d be beaten up. I told them I was hungry. One of them, a guy named Zhalyn, said that I should be more submissive. Again I’d be in the washroom, with them using their electric prods to hit the water as I was washing my face, which resulted in me getting electrocuted and being taken back to the cell. The guys in the cell also told me that I should be more submissive and just always say “yes”, or I’d end up hurting myself.

On November 22, 2017, after I had spent 98 days there, they told us during lunchtime that we would have our lunch at a re-education camp. There were 21 of us – Kazakhs and a few Uyghurs. They called our names and we lined up in the hall. We were hooded, handcuffed with our hands behind our backs, and fettered. There were two auxiliary police officers (协警) holding each of us, and you’d have two people put into each police minivan with four auxiliary police officers. One of them was a Kazakh guy whose name I forget (my memory is not good now, as I was given injections twice). He told me that the camp was better than the prison. At the prison, I had been wearing a yellow uniform, the blue uniforms intended for the real criminals.

At the camp, they took off our hoods and unlocked the fetters, then handed out spoons, dishes, and slippers, before bringing us T-shirts and pants. I was taken to Room No. 8 on the second floor. It was warm there, and there were four beds inside. After some time, two Kazakh guys came in, one eating a steamed bun and the other eating something pickled. I was given some steamed buns and some food. I had weighed 97 kilos before being taken to that prison, but, as I learned from a medical exam, was down to 71 when I got to the camp.

For the first ten days, they’d turn the lights off at midnight, switching them on at around 6:30-7 in the morning, at which point you’d get up. Each day, we would study for 4 hours in the morning, 4 hours in the afternoon, and then do another 2 hours of review in the evening. We learned Chinese pinyin and how to count. Some of the people there were in their eighties, with the youngest being nineteen. Ninety percent of them were Kazakh and a few were Uyghur.

I started having classes after about ten days of my arrival there. The women would sit in the middle row of the classroom, while the older male inmates would sit in the front, together with handicapped people who had problems with their hearing or sight, for example. At night, we had some opportunities for idle chatter, and so I’d learn what they were there for. Some had either visited or moved to Kazakhstan, while others had used WhatsApp, had used their ID cards to help their Kazakhstani clients get a Chinese SIM card, had visited mosques, had prayed, had their marriages officiated in a mosque… There was one Kazakh guy – he’s in Kazakhstan now and I don’t want to say his name – who had ended up there for buying a house for his child in Kazakhstan. We couldn’t really look at each other when we talked. Instead, we’d talk while looking at our books.

They told us that the number of people at the “school” would increase, and that we would start [taking turns] guarding each other at night. They told us that there’d be a new wave of inmates – people who had done business in Kazakhstan or with Kazakhstan, in Turkey or with Turkey. They said that all Kazakhs in Tacheng City might be detained.

We were allowed to shower once a week – a hot shower – and the room was clean. However, starting from the end of November and beginning of December 2017, they would bring at least 20 people, all Kazakhs, to the facility each day. We started hearing that the neighboring rooms were being filled with people and, about six days later, they brought six new people to our room, which until then had been shared by four of us. They told us that we would have to share our beds or sleep on the floor. It was tile flooring, but warm since the heating was just underneath. As there were a lot of old people, I ended up sleeping under the bed. (Those old people are in Kazakhstan now.) We didn’t have enough blankets and pillows, though. Later, they changed the beds to bunk beds, and I would sleep on the top bunk. They stopped switching the light off at night, and we started taking turns guarding each other.

At noon, we’d be given two hours to sleep, after which we’d have to make our beds like they do in the army: square-shaped. If you failed to do so, you would be punished. The food there was better than in the prison. Because 10 people would be staying in a room of 20 square meters, they had us get anti-flu shots.

There was one guy named Tursyn, who was sent to the camp for missing a Monday-morning flag raising ceremony. He was in his late forties. He died in the camp. It was said that he died of a heart problem, but I think that he was beaten to death.

In the prison [the detention center prior to the camp, likely], there was a woman who is in Kazakhstan now. She had to wear 3-kilo manacles. There was a woman named Anargul, who is in Kazakhstan now. We were in the same prison [unclear if he means the camp or the detention center]. Anargul Muhtarhan. She lives in Urzhar, East Kazakhstan. She was a Kazakhstan citizen when she was detained. We were in the same class.

There was another woman, Ainur, who was a Kazakhstan citizen as well.

Orynbek Koksebek, with whom I’d share a room, came in December (2017). He said that he had come to China to visit his hometown. He was a Kazakhstan citizen, and would say that he’d be out of there soon, on Monday, because he just needed to get one final stamp (on some document). I also thought he’d be released, being a Kazakhstan citizen, and so told him to get in touch with my family after he was and to tell them what was actually happening. He promised to do so.

They divided us into three different categories. I was put into “puban” (普班, “the standard class”). They gave us vests of three different colors – yellow for the lightest group, red for the strictest. The other one was sky blue.

Let me return to the classroom. The old men and women sat in the front row. There were about 40 people in our class. Most of them were young – those who were educated, including some teachers. There were those who had worked for the government, even the deputy head of the county. They divided us into three levels – the highest, the middle, and the illiterate (文盲). Orynbek was in the illiterate class. There were bars that separated us from the teachers.

On January 1 (2018), I felt a pain on the right side of my stomach, told the teacher, and then went to the doctor on the second floor. There were Kazakh doctors in the camp. I explained to them how I felt, and they gave me pills. However, the next morning, on the way to the classroom, I felt a stabbing pain in that same area and collapsed. They dragged me into the classroom and called the doctor. A Han doctor came and asked me to leave the room, but I couldn’t walk from the pain. He thought that I was faking it. I explained that no, it was real. Two auxiliary police officers then helped me. Again they’d give me some pills and take me back to my room. I wouldn’t have any appetite for lunch that day.

In the evening, it started to hurt again, and I called the guard so that he could summon the doctor. One came, from the county-level hospital, and asked that I be taken to the hospital immediately. As I was walking down the stairs, I again started to feel unbearable pain. Later, in the hospital, they would tell me that my appendix had ruptured.

I was brought to the hospital by ambulance. Actually, when I was electrocuted and had water poured on me on October 12, 2017 [in the detention center], I remember being taken by ambulance also. When I came to (that time), I was already on my fourth infusion bottle, and would learn that I had been brought there in shackles. I just remembered this – that’s why I thought I’d mention it. Anyway, let me continue with the appendicitis thing.

In the hospital, they decided to do an operation immediately. I got an anesthetic, but it didn’t seem to work, and I could feel the pain. There was something like a mirror on the ceiling there, and I could actually see my internal organs while they were operating on me. I’d be there for five days. They were shocked upon seeing that my intestine had become so thin, and said that I wasn’t eating well. I’d then be fed through a tube in my nose.

My sister, who was living in Shanghai, came to visit me. As it turned out, this was her fourth attempt to do so, and she had been refused all previous times. She then signed a document to get permission to look after me at the hospital. Cadres from the neighborhood administration would also take turns guarding me. All in all, my sister would end up staying with me for about ten days. I was in the hospital from January 2 to January 17, 2018.

A woman from the neighborhood administration was charged with taking me back to the camp. It was called the “Tacheng Prefecture Vocational Education Training Center” in Chinese (塔城地区职业教育培训中心). On our way, I was allowed to buy some candy and cookies, as we were taking a taxi to the camp, although these things wouldn’t be allowed inside. The woman was actually surprised, saying that she didn’t know it was so strict there.

After entering, I’d need to place my feet on this special footprint thing on the floor, standing on it while placing my hands on the analogous handprint things on the wall, while the authorities did a body search. Then they ordered to have me taken away (to my room). That’s when I said goodbye to the woman who had brought me over. I could feel that she was confused, not having really understood the kind of place that she was taking me to. I asked her to take those things (candy, cookies) with her. Without letting me finish, the guards took me to my room, and there I’d see Orynbek and the others.

They told me that they had thought I was released. I then lay on the bed, while Orynbek massaged my arms and legs. Then, they would reshuffle us, and I’d be taken to another room. Here, I had Uyghur and Hui roommates.

Because I had undergone the operation, they would bring me soup with pieces of meat in it – really red meat. I didn’t feel comfortable having soup with meat while everyone else was eating vegetables and steamed buns. So, I asked for a bigger portion, intending to share it with the others. Although I was scolded by the auxiliary police for asking, they ultimately agreed to provide a big portion of soup every day.

After a while, we started to attend classes again and I was once more transferred to another room. That’s where I saw Amanzhan Seiit. There were 10 beds and 16 people, and Aman would sleep on the floor under the bed. He wasn’t the only one who slept on the floor. Luckily, they offered me a top bunk because of my operation. The guy who offered it was an Uyghur man named Away, who had been in the same prison [detention center] as I was before the camp. He told me that he had heard a lot about me and had wanted to meet me. He was the designated person in charge for that room.

At the beginning of March 2018, I was told that a few people from State Security and the Political and Legal Affairs Commission had come to question me. So I was handcuffed and taken to a room where two young people – a man and a woman, both ethnic minorities – were waiting for me. The woman was Kazakh. They ordered me to only answer their questions.

“When did you move to Kazakhstan?” the man asked.

“I first came to Kazakhstan in 2009,” I answered.

“When did you *move* to Kazakhstan?” the woman repeated.

“In 2014.”

Then they asked me where my wife and children were, if they had obtained Kazakh citizenship, and other things along that line. How could I know about those things when I wasn’t even allowed to contact them, I asked? To which the man warned me once more to just give exact answers to his questions.

Then two guards came in and were ordered to handcuff me, with the male interrogator telling me that my wife would be sent to camp as well. I said that there were certain questions I had the right to not answer. He said that I didn’t have any such rights and that he was the law there.

The next day, they suddenly read out a list of names that had both me and Aman on it. We were given black bags that we put our belongings into, including the textbooks. Then our hands were handcuffed behind our backs and our legs were fettered, with each person’s leg chained to another’s. We were hooded and made to kneel, with the auxiliary police greatly outnumbering the detainees – two officers for every one of us. From what I was able to see, there were over ten police minivans and some buses. We were then transferred to another place. It was March 17. There were over a hundred people transferred.

It was really cold in the new place, as the construction had not been completed yet. There, there were only two classes. Arman Duman was there – he was our class head (学习委员). He had been living in Astana and was already a Kazakhstan citizen when they detained him. He’s back in Astana now. Arman and I were in the same class but not in the same room.

The room there housed 40 people, and the beds were triple-bunk, the oldest inmates sleeping on the bottom and the youngest on the very top. There were seven sets of bunk beds in total. The toilet was in the room and, since it was open, we could always smell the stink. There was a TV set, and we would watch Xi Jinping propaganda daily. We were given small plastic stools to sit on. Because there were only two classrooms, the classes there weren’t daily and we would take turns attending.

On April 12, we started hearing rumors that the Kazakhstan citizens would be released. That turned out to be true and they were. On April 17, they suddenly asked me if my family was in Kazakhstan, taking me to the room where we usually got water. We were afraid of being taken to that room because there weren’t any cameras there – that’s where the police would beat you.

Another Kazakh guy, Turdybek, whose wife and kids were living in Kazakhstan, was brought to that room as well. He had moved to Kazakhstan with his family after retirement, and would come back to China to sort out some land issues. A Han official who worked in the camp, Pan, asked him if he needed to go back to Kazakhstan. When Turdybek said yes, Pan slapped him and ordered the auxiliary police officers to take him away. Then it was my turn.

I was expecting the same, but instead he said that he had talked to my sister living in Shanghai when she visited me at the hospital, and asked me if my wife and children really were in Kazakhstan. I said yes, and then explained my situation. He let me return to my room, which woke up the people from their lunchtime nap.

After leaving our room (that day), I was ordered to stand facing the wall. Outside, a car arrived, and I was handcuffed and fettered, with both my hands and ankles chained. I counted the links – there were 7 for the (horizontal) chain linking my ankles and 11 for the (vertical) chain linking the handcuffs to the fetters. I was then transferred to another place, where the people with connections to Kazakhstan had all been gathered in the same room. I remember Erkin Qaidarbek and Erkin Qami, who had been living in Kazakhstan. I was in Cell No. 7. Later, I learned that Turdybek was also brought to that facility. There was also a young guy, 19 years old, named Ekibat. The classes we attended there were similar to the ones in the previous facility.

On September 3 (2018), Ekibat told me to look out the window – there were many cars driving into the compound. As we were watching them, my name was called and they gave me a black bag for all my things. I then went to the classroom to get my textbooks and saw Turdybek. Ultimately, about 80 of us were being taken to prison [still a detention center, most likely]. After having been transferred to and from so many places, I was now being taken to the No. 10 prison cell.

That room was full of people who had ended up there for such reasons as being imams, being religious, or having officiated marriages in a mosque. Later, around October (2018), they started to hold court hearings and to give out prison terms. I was called to a court hearing also. Inside, there were desks arranged in a U shape, with two representatives from the neighborhood administration and police station on the left, two representatives from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission and from State Security in the middle, and with the court representatives on the right. The inmate, handcuffed, would sit on the stool in the middle. And then the process began.

They started by turning on the camera. Then, the neighborhood-administration representative stood up and said: “Erbaqyt Otarbai is from the such-and-such neighborhood and, according to the IJOP platform (一体化系统), has been confirmed to have used WhatsApp, and is thus given a 7-year sentence.” After that, a person sitting in the middle section said that, thanks to the Party, the punishment given was a relatively light one, and then asked me to sign a document. I signed without even looking at what I was signing. They even asked me to have a look, but I just told them it was pointless (“看了有撒用?”). Then, the representative from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission stood up and read the verdict out loud, before informing me that one copy of the document would be sent to my family.

While being taken back to my room by two auxiliary police officers, I was suddenly called by one of the cadres, who told me that my family had come to see me. They had called my parents for the court hearing. My mom wasn’t wearing a headscarf – she told me that she wasn’t allowed to. She was crying, and I calmed her down, saying that 7 years would pass as if they were 7 days. I told her to bring things like socks and clothes next time. Everything would continue without change, however, up until November 23.

On that day, all of the people in our room were taken back to the camp again. Again we were handcuffed and had black hoods put over our heads while they transferred us. This time, I would see major changes in the camp.

There were two new buildings – a three-story teaching building and a 4-story dormitory. The main gate was now at the back of the compound. The rooms were new, with eight people per room. The bunk beds, enough for the eight, were new too. However, the toilet was inside the room and open.

One of my roommates was a guy named Dauren. He had studied in Astana. Another guy’s name was Ertis – he had travelled to Kazakhstan. An older guy, Erzhan, who might have been in his sixties, had been a teacher at a Party school. There was a Hui guy as well. Eight of us in total.

Again we’d have to take turns guarding each other in two-hour shifts every night. For sitting, they gave us small square-shaped plastic stools – red, blue, and yellow in color. There was a TV set that would play Xi Jinping’s speeches. The food was really different this time around, as it wasn’t just the daily congee from before. Now there would sometimes be pilau (抓饭) and other better dishes. We were given (real) clothes. There wasn’t really any Hui there anymore – the majority was Kazakh, with some Uyghurs.

At one point, a tall and skinny Han man introduced himself to us, saying that he was our teacher and telling us to listen to him carefully, so that he wouldn’t have to repeat himself. He then said that they had started six different training courses: in bread baking, pastry making, hairdressing, electrode welding, clothes making, and singing and dancing. We would have to sing Communist songs too, which is something I was quite good at. I applied for the clothes making ones since I figured that it’d be freer there, as it was in a factory.

We were divided into these training classes at the end of November 2018. In my class, there were many women, and the maximum age was capped at 45 (all the classes had certain age restrictions). I couldn’t count all of the equipment, but I think there were about 300 sewing machines, if I’m not mistaken. They were made in Japan and had been brought over from factories that had gone bankrupt. The hall we worked in was very big (about 100 meters by 200 meters), and had been erected really quickly, as evidenced by the metal structuring. The machines were arranged in four long rows. The materials we used were cheap ones.

There were two teachers, one young and one middle-aged. Both Han. They showed us how to sew, which for me was difficult as I was a truck driver and as the instructions on the machine were written in Japanese. One day, the teacher told us that journalists might come to visit soon, and that we needed to tell them that we had come there voluntarily. First, we sewed laces for pants and later were assigned to sew different components of pants for school uniforms.

Sometime later, we were again told that there’d be a “yanpan” (严判, “strict sentencing”). As I had already been given 7 years, that made me really scared. There were rumors that those who hadn’t been called to attend that court hearing for the “yanpan” would be taken to prison, and so I was worried, since I hadn’t been called to attend one.

One day, however, I was suddenly released, together with 11 other people. Among them was a guy whose nickname was “Ding Dan”. His real name was Lü Jian – he was an ethnic Russian and a Chinese citizen. His wife was a Kazakhstani, named Gulnar. There was also Qozharqan, who’s in East Kazakhstan now, and a guy named Erbol. We all had to write a pledge (保证书) that day, promising that we wouldn’t disclose any information (about our experiences). They usually released 20 people a day, though on some days that number could get as high as 100.

It was on December 23, at 3 in the morning, that I was brought to the neighborhood administration for the neighborhood where I used to own an apartment. They took me to a room on the third floor. The head of the administration office showed me which bed to sleep in and told me that they’d bring me other necessities the following day. There weren’t any bars on the windows, and there wasn’t anyone caring when I went to the toilet or anything like that. There were two guards at the gate of the administration building. I couldn’t believe that I had been freed. I couldn’t sleep, thinking about it.

The next day, a Han woman named Wang Yixiang, who was in charge of several neighborhood-administration offices, had a meeting with us. I’d see many other Kazakhs who had been released there also. She said we needed to thank the Communist Party. She also mentioned that we would go back to Kazakhstan as that’s where our families were, but that it could take months to a year, and that we would be free during this time. In reality, however, a cadre from the neighborhood administration would (usually) accompany us.

On the same day, I learned from others that they were being allowed to stay at their relatives’ homes in Tacheng. I then asked the deputy head of the neighborhood administration why I had to stay in the administration dormitory, to which she said that they had tried to convince my parents-in-law to take me in – trying some “ideological work” (思想工作) on them – but that my parents-in-law refused. She even showed me a video of them criticizing me for having violated the law. In the video, they said that I was a criminal who had deceived their daughter, making her leave her job and taking her to Kazakhstan.

So I would stay alone in that room. One room over was the work brigade (工作队), who would monitor around the clock all the cameras installed from the city to the border. My parents helped me financially during this time, sending money whenever I needed it. My phone had been delivered to my parents after I was first taken to prison [detention center], and my dad destroyed it soon after receiving it. And actually, the reason why I ultimately didn’t get a real 7-year prison term was because they couldn’t find that phone, in order to prove that I had sermons stored on there, as well as in my WhatsApp.

After my release, I wouldn’t be allowed to have a phone for the first three months. I also had to prepare food for the five people in the work brigade, as I was ordered to do so. In the beginning, I just helped the cook who was there, but later he left and the cook was now me. After three months, I told the neighborhood administration that I needed a job in order to support myself, and found one as a driver, delivering thin dried noodles (挂面) to different places.

I drove a minivan and the salary was supposed to be 3000RMB per month, though in the end I’d only get 1500RMB. They justified the cut by saying that what I collected from the clients was less than what I should have received, with the losses totaling 1500. Although, at the same time, they also found that it hadn’t been my mistake – they just hadn’t considered that some clients had special discounts.

One day when I needed to enter a park, I learned that my ID card had been blacklisted, but the neighborhood-administration cadres would get it sorted out for me when I explained the issue. I had my status changed from “untrustworthy” (不放心人员) to “trustworthy” (放心人员).

I quit the delivery job. Wanting to go to Kazakhstan, I went to the Bakhty border crossing, about 15 kilometers from Tacheng, having learned that there was a company importing sunflower seeds from Kazakhstan who needed a driver. So I went to meet the employer, whose nickname was “big-headed fish” (大头鱼), and he hired me for 6000RMB. I then got acquainted with a driver from Kazakhstan and asked if it was possible to sneak across the border in their truck. He told me that a Russian named Dima had tried something like that and had been found by border control – actually, that guy had been in the same prison as me.

I worked for a few days, got the pay, and quit, and then finally decided to go to Buryltogai – to my parents’ house – after the neighborhood-administration cadres finally gave me permission. I flew there, with the help of my sister. After spending a night at the parents’, I got a phone call from the Tacheng neighborhood administration at lunchtime the next day. They asked me if I wanted to go back to Kazakhstan, saying that they had received the documents that would allow me to do so. I flew back to Tacheng, this time staying at my friend’s house. I ended up staying for a few days – another stressful experience – with the neighborhood administration requiring me to stay at a hotel on the last day.

The next morning, I was brought to the border with Saltanat and Baqyt – elderly ladies who had also been in camp. They used to be teachers at the No. 2 middle school. After we crossed the border on the Kazakh side and were about to get on the bus there, the Han authorities again warned us not to say anything (about our experiences). As we entered Kazakhstan territory, we saw a crowd welcoming us with flowers. These were relatives of the other inmates.

After a stop at Urzhar, I finally went home. My son Nurtal didn’t recognize me. “Who’s this uncle who’s come to our house?” he asked my wife. I told him that I was his dad.

A human rights organization in Almaty is helping me with getting my health examined now. The doctors said that they found microbes in my blood.


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