China says the internment camps in its Xinjiang region are "vocational training centres" that teach skills to ethnic minority populations. But survivors speak of torture, beatings and abuse inside the camps, which will haunt them long after they got out.
Almaty, Kazakhstan (dpa) – Kairat Samarkan examined the dark room. He could hear the breathing of 15 men asleep on mattresses laid on the floor. He was tasked with overseeing his cellmates for the next two hours to make sure they didn't try anything out of the ordinary.
He had been in this hell of a place for three months now. He didn’t understand why he was put there and could not imagine being released soon. His whole life seemed like a string of mishaps that he had somehow managed to overcome – until now.
There was only one way out apparent to the 30-year-old ethnic Kazakh from China. He ran toward the thick wall in front of him and, with all the strength he could muster, banged his head against it. Everything went dark.
The memory of the day Samarkan tried to kill himself still torments him, just like the rest of the four months he spent in a political indoctrination camp in China’s western Xinjiang province. Rights activists say more than 1 million members of ethnic minorities are being held in the camps, as part of the Chinese government’s elaborate campaign to re-engineer their sense of identity and culture and make them obedient to the Communist Party.
The government calls the camps "vocational training centres" where Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities go voluntarily to learn skills that will help them find jobs.
But three survivors of the internment camps interviewed by dpa said they were forcefully taken in, held in "tiger chairs" - hard armchairs with hand and ankle restraints - for interrogations lasting more than 24 hours, beaten, tortured and abused.
Their days consisted of studying Mandarin Chinese, reciting Communist Party propaganda songs, praising President Xi Jinping, and sometimes, being asked to stare at a fixed point for hours.
Sophia, an ethnic Kazakh woman in her early 20s who spent six-and-a-half months in an internment camp in Urumqi and who asked that her name be changed for this story, recalls how she and her cellmates would start their days around 8:30 am.
Loudspeakers would play a tape of China’s laws and regulations while the women tidied up their mattresses and lined up for breakfast. Every day they were served cabbage soup and steamed bread, which they ate out of plastic bowls with plastic spoons they had to be careful not to break because they wouldn’t be replaced.
The detainees had to thank Xi and the party before every meal. After breakfast, the women had to sit straight with their hands on their knees while guards inspected their rooms, often shouting at them.
The women showered in bathrooms equipped with security cameras. They had to undergo full-body checks every week, which were sometimes overseen by male guards, Sophia said.
Once, Sophia became sick with a high fever. She was feeling weak, so she refused to stand up for the morning inspection. The guards took her to another room and beat her.
"Then they put a plaster on my mouth and told me I couldn’t eat for 24 hours," Sophia said. "And they said, 'If you take it off, then we’ll put it on for a week. If you take it off again, then we’ll put it on for one month.'"
Sophia showed a dpa correspondent a medical report showing some of her internal organs were swollen from trauma.
One of her thumbs had been broken. And she had something else from the camp – a receipt showing she had paid 1,800 yuan (270 dollars), for the food she ate there.
Sophia, who has since left China and lives in a neighbouring country, said she didn’t know why she was detained. She had been a student in Kazakhstan visiting her parents in China when state security took her in. By the time she got out, six months later, she said she feared her own shadow.
Other camp survivors described symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares and memory loss.
Orynbek Koksebek, 39, said he couldn’t remember stretches of time from his five months of internment, especially following traumatic episodes. Koksebek, who was born in Xinjiang but has been a Kazakh citizen since 2005, said he was accused of holding dual citizenship and was detained during a visit to China in November 2017.
He said one day in the camp, he told guards he was a Kazakh citizen and needed to be released. They took him outside, threw him in a deep, narrow well and poured cold water over him until he fainted.
During Chinese classes, Koksebek, who only speaks Kazakh, said detainees who failed to answer instructors’ questions were taken to a separate room and punished.
"They said they will make us forget Kazakh, that we would only be speaking Chinese," he said. "There were many men who were crying."
The lasting trauma endured by ethnic minorities in Xinjiang – including by people who have not been inside the camps themselves – will be very severe, said Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany.
The government claims its Xinjiang policies are meant to curb terrorism, separatism and religious extremism after deadly ethnic riots and attacks left hundreds dead in the past decade. But the seemingly indiscriminate crackdown, which sees people sent to the camps for acts such as travelling abroad or installing the banned app WhatsApp on their phones, will fuel their resentment and possibly lead to more unrest, observers say.
"You know that expression: it’s easy to ride the tiger; the hard thing is getting off," said James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University. "What are [the former detainees] going to do? They’re not going to be happy."
Samarkan said when he was growing up in northern Xinjiang, people of different ethnicities co-existed peacefully. That balance has been altered under the crackdown.
After Samarkan was released from the camp, last February, he crossed into Kazakhstan and spent the first night at a hotel, where he saw three travellers from the Han Chinese majority. He started punching them until police intervened. He had so much anger to let out.