What They Saw: Ex-Prisoners Detail The Horrors Of China’s Detention Camps

What They Saw: Ex-Prisoners Detail The Horrors Of China’s Detention Camps

Maybe the police officers call you first. Or maybe they show up at your workplace and ask your boss if they can talk to you. In all likelihood they will come for you at night, after you’ve gone to bed.

In Nursaule’s case, they turned up at her home just as she was fixing her husband a lunch of fresh noodles and lamb.

For the Uighurs and Kazakhs in China’s far west who have found themselves detained in a sprawling system of internment camps, what happens next is more or less the same. Handcuffed, often with a hood over their heads, they are brought by the hundreds to the tall iron gates.

Thrown into the camps for offenses that range from wearing a beard to having downloaded a banned app, upward of a million people have disappeared into the secretive facilities, according to independent estimates. The government has previously said the camps are meant to provide educational or vocational training to Muslim minorities. Satellite images, such as those revealed in a BuzzFeed News investigation on Thursday, offer bird’s eye hints: guard towers, thick walls, and barbed wire. Yet little is still known about day-to-day life inside.

BuzzFeed News interviewed 28 former detainees from the camps in Xinjiang about their experiences. Most spoke through an interpreter. They are, in many ways, the lucky ones — they escaped the country to tell their tale. All of them said that when they were released, they were made to sign a written agreement not to disclose what happens inside. (None kept copies — most said they were afraid they would be searched at the border when they tried to leave China.) Many declined to use their names because, despite living abroad, they feared reprisals on their families. But they said they wanted to make the world aware of how they were treated.

The stories about what detention is like in Xinjiang are remarkably consistent — from the point of arrest, where people are swept away in police cars, to the days, weeks, and months of abuse, deprivation, and routine humiliation inside the camps, to the moment of release for the very few who get out. They also offer insight into the structure of life inside, from the surveillance tools installed — even in restrooms — to the hierarchy of prisoners, who said they were divided into color-coded uniforms based on their assumed threat to the state. BuzzFeed News could not corroborate all details of their accounts because it is not possible to independently visit camps and prisons in Xinjiang.“They treated us like livestock. I wanted to cry. I was ashamed, you know, to take off my clothes in front of others.”

Their accounts also give clues into how China’s mass internment policy targeting its Muslim minorities in Xinjiang has evolved, partly in response to international pressure. Those who were detained earlier, particularly in 2017 and early 2018, were more likely to find themselves forced into repurposed government buildings like schoolhouses and retirement homes. Those who were detained later, from late 2018, were more likely to have seen factories being built, or even been forced to labor in them, for no pay but less oppressive detention.