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Story Publication logo August 28, 2020

What They Saw: Ex-Prisoners Detail the Horrors of China's Detention Camps


Yiwu, Hami prefecture. Image courtesy of Google Earth. China, 2006.

A BuzzFeed News investigation based on thousands of satellite images reveals a vast, growing...

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ALMATY — 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.

In response to a list of questions for this article, the Chinese Consulate in New York said that "the basic principle of respecting and protecting human rights in accordance with China's Constitution and law is strictly observed in these centers to guarantee that the personal dignity of trainees is inviolable."

"The centers are run as boarding facilities and trainees can go home and ask for leave to tend to personal business. Trainees' right to use their own spoken and written languages is fully protected ... the customs and habits of different ethnic groups are fully respected and protected," the consulate added, saying that "trainees" are given halal food for free and that they can decide whether to "attend legitimate religious activities" when they go home.

China's Foreign Ministry did not respond to several requests for comment.

Nursaule’s husband was watching TV the day she was detained in late 2017 near Tacheng city, she said. She was in the kitchen, when there was a sharp knock at the front door. She opened it to find a woman wearing ordinary clothing flanked by two uniformed male police officers, she said. The woman told her she was to be taken for a medical checkup.

At first, Nursaule, a sixtysomething Kazakh woman whose presence is both no-nonsense and grandmotherly, was glad. Her legs had been swollen for a few days, and she had been meaning to go to the doctor to have them looked at.

Nursaule’s stomach began to rumble. The woman seemed kind, so Nursaule asked if she could return to pick her up after she’d eaten lunch. The woman agreed. But then she said something strange.

“She told me to take off my earrings and necklace before going with them, that I shouldn’t take my jewelry where I was going,” Nursaule said. “It was only then that I started to feel afraid.”

After the police left, Nursaule called her grown-up daughter to tell her what happened, hoping she’d have some insight. Her daughter told her not to worry — but something in her tone told Nursaule there was something wrong. She began to cry. She couldn’t eat a bite of her noodles. Many hours later, after the police had interrogated her for hours, she realized that she was starving. But the next meal she would eat would be within the walls of an internment camp.

Like Nursaule, those detained all reported being given a full medical checkup before being taken to the camps. At the clinic, samples of their blood and urine were collected, they said. They also said they sat for interviews with police officers, answering questions on their foreign travel, personal beliefs, and religious practices.

“They asked me, ‘Are you a practicing Muslim?’ ‘Do you pray?’” said Kadyrbek Tampek, a livestock farmer from the Tacheng region, which lies in the north of Xinjiang. “I told them that I have faith, but I don’t pray.” Afterward, the police officers took his phone. Tampek, a soft-spoken 51-year-old man who belongs to Xinjiang’s ethnic Kazakh minority, was first sent to a camp in December 2017 and said he was later forced to work as a security guard.

After a series of blood tests, Nursaule was taken to a separate room at the clinic, where she was asked to sign some documents she couldn’t understand and press all 10 of her fingers on a pad of ink to make fingerprints. Police interrogated her about her past, and afterward, she waited for hours. Finally, past midnight, a Chinese police officer told her she would be taken to “get some education.” Nursaule tried to appeal to the Kazakh officer translating for him — she does not speak Chinese — but he assured her she would only be gone 10 days.

After the medical exam and interview, detainees were taken to camps. Those who had been detained in 2017 and early in 2018 described a chaotic atmosphere when they arrived — often in tandem with dozens or even hundreds of other people, who were lined up for security screenings inside camps protected by huge iron gates. Many said they could not recognize where they were because they had arrived in darkness, or because police placed hoods over their heads. But others said they recognized the buildings, often former schools or retirement homes repurposed into detention centers. When Nursaule arrived, the first thing she saw were the heavy iron doors of the compound, flanked by armed police.

“I recognized those dogs. They looked like the ones the Germans had.”

Once inside, they were told to discard their belongings as well as shoelaces and belts — as is done in prisons to prevent suicide. After a security screening, detainees said they were brought to a separate room to put on camp uniforms, often walking through a passageway covered with netting and flanked by armed guards and their dogs. “I recognized those dogs,” said one former detainee who declined to share his name. He used to watch TV documentaries about World War II, he said. “They looked like the ones the Germans had.”

“We lined up and took off our clothes to put on blue uniforms. There were men and women together in the same room,” said 48-year-old Parida, a Kazakh pharmacist who was detained in February 2018. “They treated us like livestock. I wanted to cry. I was ashamed, you know, to take off my clothes in front of others.”

More than a dozen former detainees confirmed to BuzzFeed News that prisoners were divided into three categories, differentiated by uniform colors. Those in blue, like Parida and the majority of the people interviewed for this article, were considered the least threatening. Often, they were accused of minor transgressions, like downloading banned apps to their phones or having traveled abroad. Imams, religious people, and others considered subversive to the state were placed in the strictest group — and were usually shackled even inside the camp. There was also a mid-level group.

The blue-clad detainees had no interaction with people in the more “dangerous” groups, who were often housed in different sections or floors of buildings, or stayed in separate buildings altogether. But they could sometimes see them through the window, being marched outside the building, often with their hands cuffed. In Chinese, the groups were referred to as “ordinary regulation,” “strong regulation,” and “strict regulation” detainees.

For several women detainees, a deeply traumatic humiliation was having their long hair cut to chin length. Women were also barred from wearing traditional head coverings, as they are in all of Xinjiang.

“I wanted to keep my hair,” said Nursaule. “Keeping long hair, for a Kazakh woman, is very important. I had grown it since I was a little girl, I had never cut it in my life. Hair is the beauty of a woman.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “They wanted to hack it off.”

After the haircut, putting her hand to the ends of her hair, she cried.

A perimeter fence at the entrance to what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Image by Thomas Peter/Reuters. China, September 4, 2018.
A perimeter fence at the entrance to what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Image by Thomas Peter/Reuters. China, September 4, 2018.

From the moment they stepped inside the compounds, privacy was gone. Aside from the overwhelming presence of guards, each room was fitted with two video cameras, all the former detainees interviewed by BuzzFeed News confirmed. Cameras could also be seen in bathrooms, and throughout the building. In some camps, according to more than a dozen former detainees, dorms were outfitted with internal and external doors, one of which required an iris or thumbprint scan for guards to enter. The internal doors sometimes had small windows through which bowls of food could be passed.

Periodically, the detainees were subject to interrogations, where they’d have to repeat again and again the stories of their supposed transgressions — religious practices, foreign travel, and online activities. These sessions were carefully documented by interrogators, they said. And they often resulted in detainees writing “self-criticism.” Those who could not read and write were given a document to sign.

None of the former detainees interviewed by BuzzFeed News said they contemplated escaping — this was not a possibility.

Camp officials would observe the detainees’ behavior during the day using cameras, and communicate with detainees over intercom.

Camps were made up of multiple buildings, including dorms, canteens, shower facilities, administrative buildings, and, in some cases, a building where visitors were hosted. But most detainees said they saw little outside their own dorm room buildings. Detainees who arrived early in the government’s campaign — particularly in 2017 — reported desperately crowded facilities, where people sometimes slept two to a twin bed, and said new arrivals would come all the time.

Dorm rooms were stacked with bunk beds, and each detainee was given a small plastic stool. Several former detainees said that they were forced to study Chinese textbooks while sitting rigidly on the stools. If they moved their hands from their knees or slouched, they’d be yelled at through the intercom.

Detainees said there was a shared bathroom. Showers were infrequent, and always cold.

Some former detainees said there were small clinics within the camps. Nursaule remembered being taken by bus to two local hospitals in 2018. The detainees were chained together, she said.

People were coming and going all the time from the camp where she stayed, she said.

“She told me to take off my earrings and necklace before going with them, that I shouldn’t take my jewelry where I was going. It was only then that I started to feel afraid.”

Surveillance was not limited to cameras and guards. At night, the detainees themselves were forced to stand watch in shifts over other inmates in their own rooms. If anyone in the room acted up — getting into arguments with each other, for example, or speaking Uighur or Kazakh instead of Chinese — those on watch could be punished as well. Usually they were beaten, or, as happened more often to women, put into solitary confinement. Several former detainees said that older men and women could not handle standing for many hours and struggled to keep watch. The atmosphere was so crowded and tense that arguments sometimes broke out among detainees — but these were punished severely.

“They took me down there and beat me,” said one former detainee. “I couldn’t tell you where the room was because they put a hood over my head.”

Nursaule was never beaten, but one day, she got into a squabble with a Uighur woman who was living in the same dorm room. Guards put a sack over her head and took her to the solitary room.

There, it was dark, with only a metal chair and a bucket. Her ankles were shackled together. The room was small, about 10 feet by 10 feet, she said, with a cement floor. There was no window. The lights were kept off, so guards used a flashlight to find her, she said.

After three days had passed by, she was taken back up to the cell.

Residents at the Kashgar city vocational educational training centre attend a Chinese lesson during a government organised visit in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Image by Ben Blanchard/Reuters. China, January 4, 2019.
Residents at the Kashgar city vocational educational training centre attend a Chinese lesson during a government organised visit in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Image by Ben Blanchard/Reuters. China, January 4, 2019.

The government has said that “students” in the camps receive vocational training, learn the Chinese language, and become “deradicalized.” Former detainees say this means they were brainwashed with Communist Party propaganda and forced to labor for free in factories.

State media reports have emphasized the classroom education that takes place in the camps, claiming that detainees are actually benefiting from their time there. But several former detainees told BuzzFeed News that there were too many people to fit inside the classroom, so instead they were forced to study textbooks while sitting on their plastic stools in their dorm rooms.

Those who did sit through lessons in classrooms described them all similarly. The teacher, at the front of the room, was separated from the detainees by a transparent wall or a set of bars, and he or she taught them Mandarin or about Communist Party dogma. Guards flanked the classroom, and some former detainees said they carried batons and even hit “pupils” when they made mistakes about Chinese characters.

Nearly every former detainee who spoke to BuzzFeed News described being moved from camp to camp, and noted that people always seemed to be coming and going from the buildings where they were being held. Officials did not appear to give reasons for these moves, but several former detainees chalked it up to overcrowding.

Among them was Dina Nurdybai, a 27-year-old Kazakh woman who ran a successful clothing manufacturing business. After being first detained on October 14, 2017, Nurdybai was moved between five different camps — ranging from a compound in a village where horses were raised to a high-security prison.

In the first camp, “it seemed like 50 new people were coming in every night. You could hear the shackles on their legs,” she said.

Dina Nurdybai in her sewing workshop at her home in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on February 25, 2020. Ekaterina Anchevskaya/BuzzFeed News. Kazakhstan, 2020.
Dina Nurdybai in her sewing workshop at her home in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on February 25, 2020. Ekaterina Anchevskaya/BuzzFeed News. Kazakhstan, 2020.

Nursaule never expected to be released.

“It was dinner time and we were lining up at the door,” she said. “They called my name and another Kazakh woman’s name.” It was December 23, 2018.

She was terrified — she had heard that some detainees were being given prison sentences, and she wondered if she might be among them. China does not consider internment camps like the ones she was sent to to be part of the criminal justice system — no one who is sent to a camp is formally arrested or charged with a crime.

Nursaule had heard that prisons — which disproportionately house Uighurs and Kazakhs — could be even worse than internment camps. She whispered to the other woman, “Are we getting prison terms?” The two were taken in handcuffs to a larger room and told to sit on plastic stools. Then an officer undid the handcuffs.

He asked if Nursaule wanted to go to Kazakhstan. She said yes. He then gave her a set of papers to sign, promising never to tell anyone what she had experienced. She signed it, and they allowed her to leave — to live under house arrest until she left for Kazakhstan for good. The day after, her daughter arrived with her clothes.

Nearly all of the former detainees interviewed by BuzzFeed News told a similar story about being asked to sign documents that said they’d never discuss what happened to them. Those who didn’t speak Chinese said they couldn’t even read what they were asked to sign.

Some of them were told the reasons they had been detained, and others said they never got an answer.

“In the end they told me I was detained because I had used ‘illegal software,’” Nurdybai said — WhatsApp.

A giant national flag is displayed on the hillside of the peony valley scenic area in the Tacheng region, in northwest China, on May 13, 2019. Image by Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images. China, 2019.
A giant national flag is displayed on the hillside of the peony valley scenic area in the Tacheng region, in northwest China, on May 13, 2019. Image by Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images. China, 2019.

Nursaule’s daughter, who is in her late twenties, is a nurse who usually works the night shift at a local hospital in Xinjiang, starting at 6 p.m. Nursaule worries all the time about her — about how hard she works, and whether she might be detained someday too. After Nursaule was eventually released from detention, it was her daughter who cared for her, because her husband had been detained too.

Like for other Muslim minorities, government authorities have taken her daughter’s passport, Nursaule said, so she cannot come to Kazakhstan.

Snow fell softly outside the window as Nursaule spoke about what had happened to her from an acquaintance’s apartment in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, where a cheery plastic tablecloth printed with cartoon plates of pasta covered the coffee table. Nursaule spoke slowly and carefully in her native Kazakh, with the occasional bitter note creeping into her voice, long after the milky tea on the table had grown cold.

But when she asked that her full name not be used in this article, she began to weep — big, heaving sobs pent up from the pain she carried with her, from talking about things she could hardly bear to remember or relate, even to her husband.

She was thinking about her daughter, she said, and about what could happen if Chinese officials discovered she spoke about her time in the camps. It is the reason that she, like so many former detainees and prisoners, has never spoken publicly about what was done to her.

“I am still afraid of talking about this,” she said. “I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t bear it.”

“It makes me suffer to tell you this,” she said.

“But I feel that I have to tell it.”


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