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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.

“The camps are bad, but this school system that will produce even more lasting damage.”

Uyghur and Han students at a high school in Atush, Xinjiang perform military drills in 2019.

The “bilingual” education system introduced over the past decade in Xinjiang is better characterized as an attempt to transform minority education systems in the region. There have been frightening consequences for Uyghur culture.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals.

In March of this year, Kaiser noticed that his 15-year-old sister Abida began to interject Chinese phrases into their Uyghur conversations. Up until that time they had never spoken Chinese with one another. The words she used signaled her “quality” (素质 sùzhì) as an educated young woman. They often ended with the soft-toned drawn-out particle “a” (啊), as in phrases such as “tǐng hǎo a!” (挺好啊) — “Pretty good!”—  or “wǒ xǐhuān’a” (我喜欢啊), “I like (it).”

The siblings didn’t speak frequently, because it wasn’t safe for them to talk. Kaiser was attending college in North America while Abida was just finishing middle school in a small town near the city of Kashgar in southern Xinjiang. Usually they spoke only when a mutual friend who lived in a nearby city visited the family and allowed Abida and their parents to make a WeChat call on his phone. Ever since Kaiser’s younger brother was taken to a “reeducation” camp in 2017, it had become too risky for the family to contact Kaiser directly from the village.

When Kaiser asked Abida why she started using these “cute” Chinese phrases, she said it was because all of her classmates did this at school and she did Chinese-language homework every day after school, so Chinese was always on her mind. She told Kaiser that she felt a lot of “pressure” (Uy: bıssim) to speak only in Chinese throughout most of the day. As she spoke, she began to cry. At the end of the school year there would be a major Chinese test. If she did not pass it, she would not be allowed to go on to high school. Instead, she would be sent to a vocational school where she would be trained in Chinese and political ideology before being sent to work in a factory. Essentially, her education would end if she didn’t pass the test. She felt as though her entire life hung in the balance. For as long as she could remember, she had dreamed of becoming a doctor. It was a lot of pressure for a 15-year-old.



As scholars have long noted, the “bilingual” education system that was introduced over the past decade in Xinjiang is better characterized as an attempt to transform Xinjiang minority education systems, moving away from the maintenance of local native languages and traditions toward a Chinese-medium education. One of the ways this was ensured was through the removal of Uyghur students from their home communities through a “boarding school” (Uy: yataqliq mektep) system. First, nearly all schools above eighth grade became residential schools, where students are held behind walls except on weekend home visits. Then, beginning in 2017, many elementary schools and nurseries also became residential schools. Uyghur children of all ages are increasingly separated from their parents and raised in a non-Muslim, Chinese-speaking environment.

The Chinese test Abida was talking about was in fact a “senior high school entrance exam” (中考 zhōngkǎo). Since 2017, as reeducation internment camps were built across Xinjiang, this exam — like China’s college entrance exam — has been dramatically reformed. In the past, the exam, a prerequisite for all students who move from a local residential junior high school to a residential high school in a larger town, was offered in either Chinese or the local language of minority students.

Beginning in 2017, entrance exams at all levels of the Xinjiang education system began to change. For minority students taking a test in their non-native language, the bonus points they received was slashed from 50 to 15. Now, so-called bilingual education evaluations stressed that ethnic minority students should “master and use the nationally used language and writing system,” i.e., Chinese. Furthermore, only in some cases would the ethnic minority literature portion of the test be offered in the native language of minority students. The announcement that guided this reform stated plainly that one of the primary goals of the exam was to send more minority students to Han-majority schools, while also having schools with a high number of minorities receive more Han students.

Another primary goal was to separate students from the regular high schools into a “secondary vocational training enrollment plan” by using a minimum admission grade. In the context of Xinjiang, this meant that as early as the age of 15, Uyghur students were being directed down a path that would lead them to forms of assigned or coerced factory work as “surplus laborers.”

Beginning on September 1, 2017, primary schools across the region began to change their “bilingual” curriculum to a Chinese-only “mode 2” program in anticipation of these Chinese-language exams. An announcement published by the education department of Bortala County, a county in a prefecture near Abida’s home, noted:

From the first grade through all primary and junior high school grades, all classes will be taught in the “language and writing system used by the country” (国家通用语言文字 guójiā tōngyòng yǔyán wénzì), while at the same time an ethnic language literature course will be added. In the end, only the national language (i.e., Chinese) will be taught. Chinese language class will be increased from seven class periods to nine periods per week in order to further strengthen students’ oral communication and literacy training and to improve students’ listening and speaking ability in Chinese.

Counties across the region worked to implement similar measures under the auspices of a region-wide 2017 directive titled “The Standard Plan for Bilingual Education Curriculum in the Compulsory Education Phase of the Autonomous Region” (自治区义务教育阶段双语教育课程设置方案 zìzhìqū yìwù jiàoyù jiēduàn shuāngyǔ jiàoyù kèchéng shèzhì fāng’àn). In Kashgar City, an even more intensive program of Chinese language immersion was set in motion. In the northern part of the region in Ghulja, similar steps were taken. As a Xinjiang teacher told Amy Anderson via WeChat, “We have to try to teach 6 year-old kids who have never heard Chinese before fully in Chinese. Often the kids can’t even read even up to grade 3. The education system is a disaster.”



Back in Abida and Kaiser’s small village, this new education regulation meant that Abida was thinking in Chinese every waking minute. She said she loved her native language, but she did not have time to speak it and she had few opportunities to read it. As she told Kaiser, her sole Uyghur “literature” class centered on translations from Chinese that focused on the political rhetoric of “ethnic solidarity” (民族团结 mínzú tuánjié).

As a recent report from Christian Shepherd of the Financial Times notes in explicit detail, the Uyghur education administrator Tashpolat Tiyip and editor Satar Sawut were given suspended death sentences in 2017 for their role in creating Uyghur-language textbooks used in the only Uyghur literature class in the “bilingual” system. They, along with more than 80 other intellectuals, were charged with plotting to “secretly act to split the motherland.” A state-produced film titled The Plot Inside the Textbookswhich was screened in classrooms across the region, accused them of sourcing much of the content of the curriculum from Uyghur literature rather than Chinese sources. Instead of sourcing 60 percent of the text in Chinese sources and 10 percent from foreign sources and then translating them into Uyghur, they had drawn nearly 60 percent of the content directly from Uyghur sources. Furthermore, using a keyword search, the word “China” had appeared only four times in one elementary school text.

Although all of the texts included in the curriculum had been previously approved by Chinese state censors, the film alleged that the actions of Uyghur educators were done for “the purpose of separatism” and “inciting ethnic hatred.” It alleged that the curriculum had “severely poisoned” the minds of Uyghur students and resulted in “endless heinous crimes,” such as violent terrorism and separatism. Rather than emphasizing Uyghur differences, the last remaining Uyghur-language class that remained part of the curriculum should emphasize Chinese national identity (中华民族 zhōnghuá mínzú) and opposition to pious forms of Islam. In 2018, Uyghur officials began to make statements that it was no longer patriotic to speak Uyghur.

Earlier this year, the police and other state workers began a process of fully eliminating Uyghur-language materials from Abida’s environment. In another 2019 video chat with his father, Kaiser found out that his collection of Uyghur literature books that he had left for Abida had been confiscated by the police, despite the fact that all of them had previously been approved. His father told him that there were no Uyghur-language books left in their village.



In June, Abida took her high school entrance exam. After several weeks of waiting, she saw the announcement. She and six other young people from their village had passed. More than 25 of her classmates had not. According to the announcement, out of their entire county, which had a population of 229,000 in 2010, only around 3,000 students passed the test. She told Kaiser that she was both relieved and saddened by the results. She was sad that so many of her friends were being sent down another life path.

Nearly every family in their village was missing a working-age person. They were either in a reeducation camp or had been assigned to work long hours on an industrial park assembly line in the city. For most students, being sent to vocational high school meant a life of factory work.

She also knew that life at the residential high school would not be easy. It was located over an hour away from her village in the county seat. Unlike before, when she could visit her parents once per week, now she would only be able to come home once every two weeks. Sometimes, when there were arbitrary restrictions on travel because of a national holiday or congress, it would be even longer.

From Kaiser’s perspective, what his sister is going through is an echo of the colonial systems in North America and Australia that he has read about in school. The Xinjiang school system is stealing a generation of Turkic Muslim children from their native societies. As studies of such systems have shown, residential schools produce forms of cultural genocide by concentrating and systematizing the destruction of native languages, religions, and traditional knowledge. Kaiser said, “The camps are bad, but it is things like this school system that will produce even more lasting damage.”

In September, Kaiser had another video chat with his mother and sister as they were visiting a nearby city and had a more secure way of calling him. Abida said that life at the new school was hard. Everyone spoke in Chinese all the time. She said she had heard that the classrooms and dorms had microphones that could identify each student based on their voice signature. She was afraid that the system would detect her if she spoke in Uyghur. She said that she and a few of her Uyghur classmates still spoke to each other in Uyghur in whispers when they walked around the sports field outside and when they were sure they were alone in the bathroom. Before she hung up, she promised Kaiser that no matter what, she would never forget her native language.

This article first appeared in the news journal SupChina on October 2, 2019.

The Xinjiang Ketchup Shirt

Are you interested in finding ways to stand with Turkic Muslims in their struggle for human rights in Northwest China? One of the ways to amplify knowledge about their struggle is by wearing it, making it a part of your everyday life.

Many of the retailers who sell us clothes and tomato products are complicit in the oppression of Muslims in China. This shirt helps draw together those connections.

Follow this link to find out more about how you can support the project. Below is a bit more about this effort from it’s creator, Joxkun.

In addition to cotton, Xinjiang is also a major producer of tomatoes. Our research shows that 1/4 of the world’s tomato paste supply originates in Xinjiang. Several years ago, Juxkun had the idea to redesign a series of ketchup bottle and cans of soup in such a way to position them as an Indigenous Uyghur product.

Things have changed since then. In May 2019, the Wall Street Journal published a report about western companies’ entanglement in a system of compelled labour connected to Xinjiang’s well-documented Re-Education Camp system.

A cute idea changed into a project for self-care in the face of grief and despair. With the help of some friends and graphic designers, Juxkun produced a ketchup label that would incorporate this information concisely into an impactful image. This “Xinjiang Ketchup” T-Shirt is the result.

“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.