I was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan on April 4, 1964. I had been in clothing business for nearly 20 years, buying from Chinese manufacturers and exporting to Kazakhstan.
In May 2017, I received a phone call from my business associate’s daughter, who told me that my order had arrived from inner China, and that I needed to go to Ürümchi as soon as possible to arrange for the shipment to Kazakhstan for the storage charge was very high. I traveled by bus from Almaty to Ürümchi, arriving on the evening of May 21 and stayed in a hotel. The next morning three policemen arrested me in my hotel room. I was taken to the police station and interrogated for a whole day; I was then taken to the No. 3 prison in Ürümchi at around 11:30 p.m. the same day.
My first unpleasant encounter with the Chinese police was on May 22, 2017 in Ürümchi. At 8 a.m. three policemen came to my room, asking where my passport was and when I arrived in Ürümchi. I had been asked these questions before and did not think there was anything special this time around. I fetched my passport from the reception, and they didn't look at my passport at all. I was then asked to go to the national security office.
So I went to the national security office and was brought to a room, and they took my mobile phone. There was a special device that they used to capture everything on my phone including messages. The interrogation lasted from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., after which I was taken to the basement with many interrogation rooms. I was forced to sit in an iron chair, to which my hands and feet were tied, 162 and they began the interrogation. Because I didn’t speak any Chinese, there was another man in his 50s who was doing the translation.
As they found nothing suspicious on my phone, they asked me when I bought my phone. I replied one and a half years ago. They also asked me if I practiced my religion, with whom I had contact, and whether my children prayed 5 times a day, and if I had ever been to Turkey, to which I replied “I live in a free country, it is my business and why do you ask these questions?” They took out a baton and beat me, and said “it is we who ask questions, not you, so you must answer our questions and don’t ask any question.” The whole interrogation was about a document in Chinese, on which I was asked to sign by 11pm. I told them, “I don’t speak Chinese and I studied in Russian, so I will not sign unless you bring a lawyer and a translator.” I was shown an official document from the police, which stated that I came to Ürümchi on May 21, 2017 and on May 22 I was arrested and charged with terrorism. I did not know what was on the paper at the time, and I refused to sign it. They then beat me again with a wooden baton and said if I don’t sign it, they would take me to a place and force me to sign it.
The police accused me of transferring CN¥17,000 (roughly US$2650) from China to an organization referred to as Nur, which was based in Turkey. I told the police that I had never heard of such organization and I had never done such thing. But the police insisted that I was lying, forcing me to confess to their accusations. I refused to admit to any of them, and I told them, “You can kill me; you can do whatever you want. I’m just a businesswoman.” At the end they said, “We will let you think this over.”
As I refused, two people dragged me to a police car. I thought they would take me back to the hotel, but instead they brought me to another place, 163 where there were a lot of military people and I realized I was in a detention center in Liudaowan, Ürümchi.
Two people dragged me to the innermost area of the facility, where I was registered on a computer by a Uyghur woman. They took my Kazakhstani passport and replaced it with what appeared to be an official Chinese ID card that had my photo. They said that it proves I am a Uyghur from East Turkistan. They forced me to memorize my “new” ID number. I was given a Chinese identity card, so I was registered as a Chinese citizen, with a Chinese identity number on it. This is the place for people who have the death penalty. As I was charged with terrorism, I thought I was going to get the death penalty.
There was a periodic “re-registration” of people in the cell. Each time I would give them my Kazakhstani passport number, and they would tell me off and command me to look at the wall for 4-5 hours because I didn’t use my new Chinese ID number. I would have to redo it with the given Chinese ID number.
I was then taken to a room, there I had to take off all my clothes and turn around three times. I had to put my own clothes in a bag, and I was given new clothes, which was military uniform. I was then given a bottle and I was asked to urinate in the small bottle in the corner of the room. Everyone was looking at me when I was doing it. I later learned that this was to check whether I was pregnant or not.
They also took my blood. There was a strange instrument, a piece of wood always moving around taking my photos. The urine test was important to the guards, and if they had found that I was pregnant, they would have made me have an immediate abortion. I saw this happen many times to women held there, for I shared a room with other women, who told me that they were pregnant and forced to have immediate abortions.
Then I was taken to the holding cell 704. It was a very long corridor, and there was an iron gate installed for every 3 or 4 holding cells and the guards had to open the gate to pass through. At the end of the corridor was the cell 704. The holding cells had double doors: the iron outer doors and the inner doors with iron bars, which were chained to the wall so you cannot open them. To enter the cell, you have to lower your head so as not to hit the iron chain. Before I could enter, the police pushed me into the cell. The holding cell was long and narrow in design, with more than 20 women held in it. They were lying on the ground on top of each other as there was not enough space for everyone.
The conditions of all three detention facilities in which I was held were overcrowded and unsanitary.82 There were girls as young as 14 and women as old as 80 held in my cell. There were over 30 inmates cramped in our 14-square- meter cell, and we took turns to sleep every night because there wasn’t enough space for everyone to lie down. A dozen or more stood while others slept in shifts throughout the night. When we wanted to go to the toilet, we had to do it while standing.
I took a look at the ladies that were lying on the ground, who had not combed their hair for a long time, and they all looked as if they had gone mad. I thought I was taken to a psychiatric ward. I was shouting and crying, and one cellmate with good command of Chinese, given the responsibility to be in charge of our cell, asked me not to cry and shout, or else I would be punished. As she spoke Uyghur mixed with Chinese, I did not understand what she was talking about, so I did not stop crying and shouting. Another lady told me to be quiet and not to cry, and “We were brought here as normal Uyghur people and we are not guilty,” she said. I then understood and calmed down.
There was a wooden plank firmly placed on the ground, to which 10 cm wide metal pieces were attached at intervals of 50 cm, and our sleeping position was restricted, so that more people could be crammed into this small cell. We had to lie on our sides to sleep. The metal pieces stuck out of the plank caused pain throughout the night. There were four cameras on the ceiling and we were under surveillance at all time. In all detention facilities in which I was held, there was no area that was not under surveillance.
At 5:30 a.m. we would be woken up by the morning siren, and we must stand up and get ready right away, or else we would be punished. We must sit in three rows towards the wall and sit there until 8 a.m.; at 8 a.m. around 40 inmates would wait their turn to go to the toilet and wash their hands and faces, where each person only had 1 minute to do so. At 8:50 a.m. we would stand in line and start singing communist “red songs” (hongge 红歌 ‘Chinese patriotic songs’) and do some marching until 9 a.m. These activities were routine in the morning. We were not allowed to talk to each another, and most of our time during the day would be spent staring at the blank walls.
At 9 a.m. we would have our breakfast. The food was nothing to write home about, not fit for human consumption: The bread was as hard as stone and often moldy on the inside, while the porridge was made with water and corn flour, which was too watery. A bowl of porridge would be handed to an inmate through a hole in the door in such a rush that half of it would end up on the floor. There were about 3 to 3.5 kg of porridge for 40 people, so each person got about 100 grams of porridge, which was not cooked enough by the way, but we had to eat it anyway because we were hungry.
The breakfast time would be 20 minutes, so we must get ready for the next routine activity at around 9:20 a.m., which was to sing patriotic red songs and the Chinese national anthem until 10 a.m. At 10 a.m. there would be an inspection, where each holding cell would be checked by ten police officers and every inmate would be interrogated. If there was a new inmate, they would ask about it; if someone left, they would double-check. The inspection would end at noon.
When I was first brought to the cell, my feet were not in shackles and I appeared for inspection without shackles. Then the following day at 12 p.m. a person came to the cell door and asked me to put my feet through the door, putting about 5 kg shackles onto my feet, so I lived my whole time in the camp with that heavy shackles attached to my feet. In the cell there were young ladies whose hands were chained to their feet, so they could not stand up straight, and they had to bend when they walked.
There was no water in the cell. When we went to the toilet, we had to clean ourselves with our hands. We were not allowed to wash ourselves regularly. We could only have a shower once a week, and all of us had to finish showering within 40 minutes. They gave us just one bar of soap. Each time two inmates would shower together, and it was not possible to wash properly in such short period of time with only a bar of soap. Due to the lack of hygiene coupled with unsanitary conditions, we developed body sores. No one could take a proper shower, so everyone’s body was full of lice.
Twice a week we would be given some sort of “medication”. We had to take them immediately with the water they gave us, after which we had to show them our hands. They also took our blood samples after receiving these pills.
In the evening between 7–10:30 p.m., we would sing 5 patriotic red songs, and we had to sing them again and again to learn them. During this singing session, I would talk to my fellow inmates from different cells. Everyone said this medication that we were given stopped their menstruation cycle, i.e. no ladies had their period after taking the medication. The pills made us feel disoriented and lose our concentration, you couldn’t even think about your parents or children.
The conditions were tough in the detention centers. I forgot how real food tasted like for my sense of taste got numb after spending quite some time there. We were given three small meals a day: for breakfast, one small steamed bun and watery porridge; for lunch, one small steamed bun and watery cabbage soup; for dinner, one small steamed bun and watery cabbage soup. After some time, I did not know if I was hungry or full as I was in a dreamlike state, traumatized by the situation and felt like I had always lived in the cell.
On one occasion we were given undercooked steamed buns, and we told the prison guard via the intercom that we couldn’t eat the steamed buns. They replied saying, “This is a detention center, not your home. Don’t you know where you are? In your home you can pick and choose, but here you eat what is given. Perhaps you’re too full and that is why you’re being so fussy.”
Following this complaint, they punished us by giving us only steamed buns and water for one week, no soup. And then they accused us of speaking Uyghur. They also punished people in other cells for a similar reason. They said, “You are forbidden to speak Uyghur, only speak Chinese.” They would feed us only if we spoke Chinese.
Three months after being locked up in the detention center, another thing was added to our routine: Female inmates would get an ultrasound. Each time when there was an ultrasound check, the female inmates would be taken to another prison close by. We would be chained together, two and two, and taken to a bus. Normally, my cellmates would come back from the interrogation, but some did not come back.
A number of women suffered serious complications. They fainted from lack of food, had seizure, and experienced mental breakdowns. I saw young women screaming, hitting their heads against the wall, smearing feces on the wall, and refusing the guards’ commands. They were taken away, and some of them did not come back. One young lady, 25 years old, ended up in the detention center because when her sister gave birth in Egypt, she stayed to help her sister for two months. She was often interrogated and asked whether she met anyone in Egypt. They beat her on the head during the interrogation. Two policemen brought her back to our cell, and they told us not to touch her as she couldn’t stand. Someone tried to comfort her and touched her head, and she asked them to stop. She realized her head was like rotten meat, full of bruises and wounds. After 3 days she lost consciousness and was taken away.
There was another lady at the age of 36 from the south of East Turkistan, whose fingernails had been removed. It was unbearable to see her like that. There were a lot of young ladies whose fingernails had been removed during interrogation. Bearing witness to this type of torture left me crying all the time, while my fellow cellmates tried to comfort me. Another lady was brought to the detention center because she came to Ürümchi for work, when she was supposed to stay in the south.
The conditions in our cell were very bad, and the air was toxic due to the toilet. One day a woman lost her consciousness, and the help did not arrive until half an hour had passed. Two policemen and a doctor came, and the police were somehow unhappy seeing one of our cellmates comforting the one who lost her consciousness. The comforter was taken away and brought back a week later, who didn’t talk for several days. I asked her where she had gone for a week. She said she was in the “dark room”. This was the first time I heard about the dark room. Later I learned that this was a dark place, a one-square-meter cage made of iron bars, in which you could not stand but only sit. There was water flowing beneath this cage, in which she was locked up all week long. She had to go to the toilet directly through the holes in the cage. She got steamed buns and some water right through the cage bar. There were a lot of mice around and if she was not careful, they would come and bite her. She would try to sleep but the mice would come and bite her, so she had to stay alert. There was barely any sunlight in the dark room.
Another woman was taken to the dark room and she went insane, so they took her away. Once I was sick and I was in a hospital, where I met a young lady, who asked me which prison I came from. She told me that there was a woman who was brought to her in a chair after having been in the dark room, and was ordered to wash her body. She was almost dead, not reacting to anything and then the police took her away.
Sometimes they would bring women who just had a baby, directly to the detention center. I knew they had a baby recently because they were still lactating. Once I asked one of them where her child was, and I was told that she had given birth the day before and she didn’t know where her child was. She was then given some medication, and she stopped lactating. After taking the unknown medication, there would always be some sorts of negative side effects.
In the first three months of my detention, I was crying all the time and I almost accepted death as my fate. I thought it would be better if I were dead. In order not to establish too deep of a relationship between the inmates, the guards would rotate inmates from one cell to another. I was never in the same cell for more than 5 days. This tactic was used to discourage us from making friends and establishing bonds with one another in hardship, which also made it hard for us to take notice of someone’s disappearance.
One day a lady was transferred from another internment camp to my cell, and she described to me what the conditions were like in her former camp. She was often interrogated, and the interrogation room was on the second floor. During the interrogation, her feet and hands would be chained to the bed and she got beaten with an iron chain until she lost her consciousness. She would be unconscious for a few days, unable to eat and drink. Once she was better after a week, the whole gruesome interrogation would be repeated. She told me explicitly that she was raped during the interrogation. Gang rape was a regular practice during interrogation, according to the other ladies.
After 3 months I was taken to the basement, where they asked me to sign a paper, the same very paper they had asked me to sign when I was first arrested. I saw many policemen there, and I thought to myself that I was going to die and my body started shaking involuntarily. They put a black hood over my head and walked me through a long corridor to a room, and then they removed the hood and chained my hands and feet to a chair with a heavy load. They started interrogating me for the next 24 hours, without taking a rest in between; I could not go to the toilet, for it was a continuous interrogation. Every 2 hours there was a police rotation, and I got very weak during the interrogation and started falling asleep. To prevent me from falling asleep, the interrogators either gave me an electric shock, or beat me with a wooden baton. I still refused to sign the paper. After 24 hours of continuous interrogation, they removed the chains and asked me to stand up. My feet were swollen, and as I stood up, I fell to the ground right away. Then a doctor came to check on me.
I regained my consciousness, and I was brought to room 408 in a hospital. There was only one bed in the room, with a bedcover, a table, and a chair. They asked me to sit on the chair and chained me to it right after. There were three people in the room: one with the laptop, translator, and the interrogator. They asked me yet again to sign the paper. I refused and said I needed a lawyer. They said I had to sign it to get my freedom back. One of the Chinese men took off his trousers and tried to put his penis in my mouth, I said, “Don’t you have a sister or a mother?” The other Chinese man started beating me. The Kazakh man, the translator, asked me “Where did you get the power to ask questions?”
After I returned to my cell, I felt very weak, experienced chest pain, and became unconscious again. I was then brought back to the hospital. It was about 40 minutes to an hour’s drive. On my way to the hospital I tried to remove the hood on my head to see where we were. We were somewhere in the mountains.
During my detention period, I was raped several times, and after each time I would end up in the hospital, where I spent around 40 days in total. The conditions in the hospital were just like the detention center — horrible. There were iron gates and doors with iron bars. There were a lot of young people in this so-called hospital, most of whom had their heads shaved off. They were chained to somewhere while getting checked with ultrasound.
In this hospital there were inmates in uniforms with different colors. Those in orange uniforms, according to a cellmate, would be taken away for “eternal sleep”. I asked my cellmate why they couldn’t just sleep in their cells. She replied, “They will be killed via injection.” I became very sad after hearing that. She also told me that they had to sign a paper before they were taken away. Their family members would not be informed of this. Those in blue uniforms were sentenced to 15-20 years in prison.
I saw a 20-year-old girl in the hospital banging her head against the bed, to which she was chained. When she banged her head, the police would beat her. She did this for two days and then she was taken away. I do not know what happened to her. There was another 25-year-old girl, and every two hours someone would remove her urine and clean her catheter because her kidney was removed. I was given about 20 pills or so every day, and they checked my mouth to make sure I swallowed them all.
Every 10 days the police would come to our cell in the detention center, and we had to remove our clothes and put our hands on our heads. Sometimes the young girls would start to cry and complain. The police would beat them with the wooden baton, and say, “Your mind is not clean.”
After having been detained for one year 3 months and 10 days, I was finally released in September 2018. I later learned that a letter dated May 25, 2017 was sent to my family in Kazakhstan, informing them of my terrorism charges. In May 2017, my family back in Kazakhstan began petitioning for my release. They kept sending letters to the authorities in Kazakhstan and China. In the end, Kazakhstani government expressed their concern over my case to the Chinese authorities, which led to my release.
On August 27, 2018 they took me from the cell and placed the black hood over my head. I was ordered to stretch out my shackled arms. I was taken to the prison hospital where I had a physical check-up. It seemed like the police consulted the doctor, who said that I couldn’t be put on an airplane back to Kazakhstan. I had lost a lot of weight and was very weak. I was kept in the hospital for two days, where I was given vitamins and drips.
Two days later, the police officer responsible for me came and said, ‘You are acquitted.’ She removed the shackles. I was only able to eat in small amounts when I was first given food in the hotel they transferred me to, for my body was too weak to process more food. After 3 days in the hotel, they brought me to the national security office and I had to sign a lot of papers. I was told to thank China for my release. I was not able to recover my personal belongings prior to my arrest. The content of the paper that I had to sign was more or less to the following effect: I was threatened and told not to say anything about the camps, for their “hand is long enough,” and if I talk, I will be killed. They then took me to a hairdresser because my hair was already gray and my face was getting very pale because I hadn't seen the sun in a long time.
The former Xinjiang Chairman Shöhret Zakir (2014-2021) told the state-run Xinhua news agency about the re-education camps: “In the process of learning and training, the trainees will advance from learning the country's common language, to learning legal knowledge and vocational skills.”
In the course of my 15 months’ detention, I was moved from one detention camp to another, from one holding cell to another, and never saw anybody spending any time learning anything.
Subsequently, I moved to Turkey and had three Chinese policemen following me in Istanbul at one point. I was scared and had to hide out at certain points in different Uyghur families. After spending two years in Turkey, I left for France and received no more threats.