ALMATY, Kazakhstan — It was snowing the day that she stepped out from the heavy iron gates of the Chinese internment camp where she had spent much of the 39th year of her life. Tursunay Ziyawudun was free — but the beauty of the soft snowfall blanketing the farmland only made her empty and sad. She thought, she later said, that she had lost the ability to feel.
Ziyawudun, 41, is one of just a handful of Uighur Muslims who have made it out of one of China’s now-notorious camps for Muslim minorities and gone abroad — to neighboring Kazakhstan.
After nearly 10 months locked up without ever being charged with a crime, Ziyawudun was released in December 2018. In Kazakhstan, Ziyawudun thought she was finally safe after months of nightmares, interrogations, and ritual humiliations at the hands of camp officials. Her long hair was lopped off, she was forced to watch endless hours of state propaganda on television, and every second of her life was filmed by security cameras. Each night, she had struggled to sleep, terrified she might be raped.
Her husband is a citizen of Kazakhstan, and she was initially granted a visa to stay. Things were looking up. But last year, she was given some terrible news — she must return to China to apply for a new type of Kazakh visa if she wanted to stay.
The Kazakh government says this is a procedural matter, but Ziyawudun knows that returning to China will likely mean she will be sent back to captivity.
China has locked up more than a million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in hundreds of internment camps in its far western region of Xinjiang. The campaign, which the Chinese government says exists to combat extremism and “reeducate” the population, has been condemned by the US, the EU parliament, UN authorities, and global human rights organizations. Kazakhstan, which borders Xinjiang, is a destination for thousands of ethnic Kazakhs fleeing the campaign. However, Uighurs like Ziyawudun have limited rights to settle there.
Ziyawudun is one of a small number of former detainees who have spoken publicly about their experiences in the camps despite being explicitly told to keep quiet by Chinese officials. Because the Chinese government heavily restricts movements and access for independent journalists in Xinjiang, it is difficult to verify many of the details that she describes. But her story dovetails closely with accounts of other camp survivors from the same prefecture interviewed by BuzzFeed News, ranging from the appearance and structure of the camp’s buildings to the everyday tasks and activities that took place inside.
Ziyawudun also provided identification and immigration records, including correspondence with Kazkakh immigration authorities, to BuzzFeed News as a means of corroborating her story.
Ziyawudun told her story in the bedroom of a cramped apartment in the city of Almaty — a few hours from the village where she now lives. Wearing dark jeans and a soft blue headscarf, Ziyawudun’s voice was hoarse from the dry cough she was battling. But still, she spoke for hours. At first her tone was acerbic, skeptical that there was any point in talking to a journalist. She was quick to laugh at the absurdity of life inside the camp, where Communist Party of China films were termed “education” and having lived abroad amounted to proof of “unreliability” as a citizen.
But when she spoke about the precariousness of her new life in Kazakhstan — and the possibility she might be sent back to China to face internment again — her body heaved with sobs. “I am terrified,” she said. “If I am going to be sent back to China, I have already made up my mind. I will kill myself.”
Ziyawudun was born in the summer of 1978 in a tiny hamlet in Yili, a part of Xinjiang where ethnic Kazakhs are the dominant minority group. Of about 300 households in the village, her family, who raised cattle on their small farm, were among only five Uighur homes, but she never felt like an outsider. Her village was surrounded by hills, and nearby there was a spring with water so pure you could drink from it.
After she got married, she moved to Kazakhstan with her husband, an ethnic Kazakh from the same region as her, and ended up living there for five years. There, she worked at a medical clinic. She crossed the border back to China in November 2016 with her husband and was immediately detained and interrogated for half an hour. The police made it clear, she said, that it was because she was Uighur. Later, when she got to her brother’s hometown, the local police called her into a station again — this time to have her iris scanned, her voice recorded, her saliva swabbed and fingerprints taken. On her way home, she was stopped at a roadside checkpoint and an actual alarm went off, likely signifying she was on a government blacklist.
“I was terrified and ashamed. People were surrounding me, looking at me like I was a criminal,” she said. “In retrospect, it was a sign that I would be taken to a camp.”
Police also seized her passport, as well as her husband’s — a common measure taken to prevent Muslim minorities in the region from traveling.
Months passed without further incident, but then in April 2017 police called her to a meeting. It turned out to be a lecture in a big conference hall with other Uighurs and Kazakhs from the area. Government officials told everyone present that they needed to “get some education.”
From there, the police drove them to a place that they called a “vocational training school.” At the time, Ziyawudun was terrified — but in the context of the many worse things that followed, the facility now seems tame to her.
“To be honest, it wasn’t that bad,” she said. “We had our phones. We had meals in the canteens. Other than being forced to stay there, everything else was fine.”
In the evenings, the instructors taught the detainees to do traditional Chinese dances in the yard of the building, she said. Sometimes there were lectures — an imam working for the state might come in and talk about how important it was to avoid “extreme” practices like wearing headscarves.
Ziyawudun was released a few weeks later. She was relieved, but her husband was panicking. He had heard from relatives that the situation was changing — for the worse. They would later learn that that year was the first of the government’s campaign that would see hundreds of thousands of Muslim minorities swept up into internment camps for reasons ranging from listening to religious sermons to downloading WhatsApp. Ziyawudun’s husband went back and forth to the local police station, begging them to return their passports.
Finally, months later, police relented. One of them could return to Kazakhstan for good, the police said, but the other had to stay as a kind of “guarantor.” If the person who left criticized the Chinese government while abroad, the one who stayed could be locked up as punishment, or worse.
Ziyawudun’s husband is significantly older than her, and as an ethnic Kazakh, he would have an easier time staying in Kazakhstan. She let him go instead of her. Anyway, she thought, there wasn’t much to worry about. Her stay in the previous camp had been strange but brief. Whatever came next, she thought, she was strong enough to handle it.
On March 9, 2018, the police came for her again — she needed, in their words, more “education.”
But the compound where she was taken now looked completely different.
When the police car pulled up at the building, she saw a newly built, menacing entrance with huge metal gates, guarded by armed police. Brick walls towered above her, and loops of barbed wire circled the top.
Inside, an area where before there had been trees and grass was the site of a new five-story building. She found out later that it was meant for the most serious offenders.
Many people were being processed into the compound that day. “There were hundreds of people, young and old, men and women,” Ziyawudun said. She saw women wailing, demanding to know what would become of their young children.
Police told the women to take off their necklaces and earrings. Nothing metal was allowed in the compound, even zippers on their clothes. Ziyawudun said it was the scariest day of her life.
A group of women filed to a dormitory building in the compound — a different building than the one where she had stayed before — flanked by armed guards. Each room, she saw, had a heavy metal door on the front. There was a communal bathroom in the hall, and bathroom breaks were restricted to just three minutes. At night, they had to use a bucket inside the room. It was humiliating.
Ziyawudun thought if she became ill, she might be released. The last time she had been detained, her sentence had been cut short, she thought, because of her health. So she refused meals of watery soup and boiled cabbage for four days. On the fifth night, she fainted from hunger. The guards woke up an official to ask what to do. When the official came, she only said, “Why did you wake me up? She’s fine, she won’t die.” After that, Ziyawudun started eating.
Once in a while, detainees would be taken to an interrogation room to be grilled about their pasts, often for hours. “They told me I was an ‘unreliable’ person,” Ziyawudun said with another bitter laugh. Her interrogators asked her whether she had ever worn a headscarf and how long she wore her skirts. They asked her why she had spent so much time in Kazakhstan.
Aside from the interrogations, everyday life in the camp ranged from stultifyingly dull to terrifying and bizarre. Many days, inmates were forced to sit on plastic stools beside their bunk beds, with their backs perfectly straight and their hands on their knees, watching endless state television programs extolling Chinese President Xi Jinping. On another day, she remembers, two women began screaming and banging on the door for guards to let them free, saying they held Kazakh citizenship. They were taken away, and Ziyawudun never saw them again.
There seemed to be hundreds of people in the compound — including the men who lived on other floors — but Ziyawudun couldn’t be sure, since she was never allowed inside other buildings. For the most part, she and the other women on her floor weren’t allowed outside at all.
Ziyawudun’s health started to deteriorate from the cold and bad food. She became anemic. But the hospital building in the compound was even more terrifying. There, she saw men come in with bruises from being beaten and scars she thought were from electric batons.
Ziyawudun’s dorm room had three cameras, which guards used to monitor the women at all times.
One day in June or July of 2018 — Ziyawudun doesn’t remember exactly when — one of the guards told the women they must all have their hair cut short. Ziyawudun expected a hairdresser to come. Instead, it was just a woman with a pair of scissors. She chopped each detainee’s long hair to chin length. It was never explained why — but other female detainees interviewed by BuzzFeed News said this also happened to them. For many women from central Asian cultures, wearing your hair long is not just a style but a symbol of a woman’s beauty and pride. The experience of having it hacked off, for Ziyawudun, was devastating.
Nobody discussed rape in the camp. All conversations were monitored by guards or surveillance cameras. But it was on Ziyawudun’s mind all the time. If she were raped, she knew, there would be no one to tell about it, no place to report the crime. After all, she had landed in the camp because authorities felt she was “unreliable.” If one of the women were raped, who would believe them? She had never felt more vulnerable in her life.
Sometimes at night, she said, younger women would vanish and come back with no explanations.
In the darkness of the room, she would hear them quietly sobbing.
“Nobody can talk about this openly,” she said.
The real torture, she discovered, took place in silence, in the inmates’ minds.
“I wasn’t beaten or abused,” she said. “The hardest part was mental. It’s something I can’t explain — you suffer mentally. Being kept someplace and forced to stay there for no reason. You have no freedom. You suffer.”
In December 2018, one of the guards came into the dorm room and asked if anyone had relatives in Kazakhstan. Ziyawudun raised her hand. She didn’t know if this was why — nobody told her — but a few days later, on Dec. 26, 2018, she was released from the camp.
The relief she expected never came. “I didn’t feel happy at all. I had so many friends inside. I felt very sad for them.”
For a long time, she was under effective house arrest, having to check in with the police if she wanted to visit friends or family. After a while, for reasons that are still unclear, the police returned her passport to her. She believes it is because her husband campaigned for her in Kazakhstan.
Ziyawudun’s asylum-seeker status in Kazakhstan will likely last until mid-May, according to her lawyer.
Ziyawudun is afraid that she, like other Uighurs, will be detained again at the border if she returns to China. The idea of returning made her shake with anxiety, and as she spoke about it her voice broke. She stood up and began to pace around the small room.
Her lawyer, Aina Shormanbayeva, said she’s not optimistic given Kazakhstan’s history when it comes to asylum cases.
“It's more likely that it’s no. We are ready to appeal to the court, frankly speaking,” she said.
“This is an issue of gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang. Kazakhstan should recognize these violations and provide refugee status,” she added.
Ziyawudun said she feels helpless.
“I am not a Kazakh,” she said. “My position here is different. The whole society is raising the issue of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang. Nobody is raising my situation other than myself.”
“I have really lost all my hope,” she added. “I get so angry and emotional. All I can do about this is let people know.” ●