Voices from Xinjiang: At night, they uncuffed my arms but not my legs

A café, empty and closed. Orynbek pauses often to make sure no one is listening behind the door.

I don’t want to spend a long time talking to you.

I was born in 1980 in a village in the district of Chuguchak. That’s the old Mongolian name; the Chinese call it Tacheng. It’s in the mountains that cross into Kazakhstan. Until 2009, there was a border crossing near my village, but I never used it. Until I was twenty-four years old, I never left home. I helped my father in his pasture. We raised sheep and cows. I didn’t get much schooling.

I first came to Kazakhstan in 2004, just to see the country. My younger brother was studying in the arts school in Almaty. He wanted to become an actor. I liked it here, and the next year I decided to come back for good. It was easy back then to cross the border. Kazakhstan was encouraging oralman3 to move, part of its repopulation efforts. I came back, renounced my Chinese citizenship, and became a citizen of Kazakhstan.

In 2016, my father died. He was one of twelve children. [Takes an old passport photo of his father from his wallet and places it on the table.] Most lived in China, but he had two siblings here, my uncles. I decided to go with them to China to the zhetisi, the ceremony that takes place on the seventh day after a funeral, to reunite with his other siblings. The crossing was easy. I saw my relatives at the banquet. We ate lamb and horse. After the ceremony, I came back to Kazakhstan. I had no trouble.

A year passed. In November 2017, I decided to go to China again. My father’s funeral had put me in mind of old friends from my village. I wanted to see some of the people I hadn’t managed to see at the ceremony. This time was different. At the border, I was stopped. They explained that my records of having left China were gone. An official from the Chinese government, an ethnic Kazakh, explained that this was a serious issue. He asked for a document explaining the absence of this document. Well, I didn’t have one. So they took my passport. They told me I was holding dual citizenship. This is a crime in China, they said. I didn’t have the paper in my records that confirmed I’d renounced my citizenship. They said they didn’t have any records at all.

After a long time, maybe twenty-four hours, I was allowed to enter China. I was shaken up by the encounter. I thought that I should probably go directly back to Kazakhstan, but I couldn’t. They had taken my passport and told me they would see about my case. As I was leaving, the interrogator took me aside. If anyone asks why you came to China, he told me, tell them you wanted to settle your registration and check on your citizenship status. Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone that you were trying to visit family or friends. I don’t know if he was trying to help me or deceive me—I couldn’t understand any of it—but later on, I took his advice.

I went to my hometown and stayed with my relatives. The village was unrecognizable. My own family was afraid even to talk to me. It was nothing like the year before. Every day, local authorities would come by and explain to me that I couldn’t leave China until I presented this paper renouncing my citizenship, which I’d been told I would receive soon. One day they asked me to sign a document. They said if I signed it, they would restore my registration, cancel it officially, and I could go back to Kazakhstan. So I signed.

After some weeks, on December 15, the ethnic Kazakh interrogator from the border came to see me. He was accompanied by three Han Chinese men. They said my paperwork had gone through. They were going to take me to the border. But first, they said, you need to be examined by a doctor.

They drove me to a large office building. It was shiny like a hospital and everyone was wearing white medical clothing. But it was also somehow different from a hospital—I couldn’t tell you exactly how. We went from room to room for different examinations. There were several doctors, male and female, and they checked all over my body, from head to toe, the women as well as the men. I don’t speak Chinese. I couldn’t understand what people were saying. I wanted to resist, but I was afraid.

We finally left the facility that wasn’t a hospital, and they drove me to a multistory building surrounded by walls and barbed wire. It looked like a prison. I knew we were in the middle of Chuguchak somewhere, but I didn’t know more than that. When I saw the building, something took place inside of me. I didn’t believe they were taking me to the border. I took my phone out of my pocket and tried to make a call—I don’t even know who I was going to call—but they saw what I was doing and took my phone away. As we entered the building, they told me simply that I had to go through a check-in process here. Afterward, they said, you will be set free. They asked for my shirt. Then my pants. I was left in my underwear.

I was angry and afraid. I didn’t know what to think. I asked them: Should I stay here in my underwear? Without any clothes? They brought me some clothes—camp clothes. I dressed, and as I dressed I kept shouting at them: What are you doing to me? I am a Kazakh citizen! They cuffed my hands behind my back and cuffed my legs together. I said I hadn’t committed any crime. Prove that I committed a crime, I said.

They put me in a room with eight or nine other people, all Uighur or Dungan.4 I couldn’t understand any of them; I don’t speak their languages. There was a single table, a sink, a toilet, a metal door, and several small plastic chairs, the kind of chairs you see in schools, for children. Above the door was a camera. I came to know this room well. For the next week, I didn’t leave it. During the day, I sat in a chair, my arms and legs cuffed together. At night, they uncuffed my arms but not my legs. My legs were always cuffed, with just enough chain to move them if I had to walk, although I wasn’t allowed to walk except in the morning, to wash myself at the sink. I wouldn’t have been able to run if I’d tried. Seven days and nights passed like that.

The other men in the room avoided me. They seemed afraid of me. I don’t know why. But I was the only one whose arms and legs were restrained. The rest of them were free. Every day they left to go somewhere, while I stayed behind. I wasn’t allowed to move from the chair where I was sitting. In the morning I washed my face, but otherwise there was no bathing. I was alone all day. And no one, or almost no one, talked to me.

On the morning of the seventh day, two people came and took me away. We went to a new room, much like the first. We were alone. One of the interrogators was either Kazakh or Uighur; the other was Chinese. The first asked whether I knew why I was there. First of all, he said, you’ve been using dual citizenship, and that’s a crime. Second, you are a traitor. And third, you have a debt in China.

None of it was true. I told them I don’t have dual citizenship. I’m a Kazakh citizen. What’s more, I told them, I don’t have any debts in China. I left a long time ago. I don’t owe China anything and China doesn’t owe me anything. I repeated what the man at the border had advised me to say, that I came only to check on my registration status. I don’t know why I’m here, I told them. I didn’t commit any crime. I asked them to prove to me that I committed a crime.

He told me not to ask questions. We ask the questions, he said. Then the real interrogation began. Tell us who you communicated with in Kazakhstan. What did you do? Do you pray? Do you uphold the Islamic rules? How many times a day do you pray? I told them the truth: I don’t practice Islam, I don’t read the Koran, I don’t have much education. I herd cattle. I’ll tell you what I told them, which is that I didn’t have schooling. I spent two years in first grade and then graduated second grade, and that was it. I was helping my father in the winter and summer pastures after that. My father gave me my education, and that’s what I told them. If you look at the records, I said, you’ll see that I’m telling the truth. But they didn’t believe me. Uneducated people don’t go to Kazakhstan, he said.

Then they asked me all about my property, my cattle. I told them my home address in Kazakhstan. I told them that I was married in 2008 and divorced in 2009, that I had no kids. I told them everything I could think of, my whole life story. I answered all of their questions. But they kept telling me I was a traitor.

They took me into the yard outside the building. It was December and cold. There was a hole in the yard. It was taller than a man. If you don’t understand, they said, we’ll make you understand. Then they put me in the hole. They brought a bucket of cold water and poured it on me. They had cuffed my hands and now told me to raise my hands over my head. But it was a narrow hole and I couldn’t move inside. I couldn’t raise my hands. Somehow, I lost consciousness.

When I woke up, I was back in my room. There was a Kazakh guy beside me. I’d never seen him before. He said, If you want to stay healthy, admit everything.

I slept, I don’t know for how long. When I woke up again, there were two new prisoners. One was Kazakh, like me. He told me he had been detained for traveling to Kazakhstan. He’d gone to visit his wife and child. But I couldn’t find them, he said. The other guy was Dungan. He didn’t speak Kazakh. But the Kazakh guy told me that his mother had died, and that he’d organized a funeral in his village according to Islamic traditions. The police had accused him of being a Wahhabi and had taken him away. I still felt poorly from the hole, where I was told I’d spent the whole morning unconscious. Afterward, I had a fever. But the two Muslim guys—the Kazakh and the Dungan—helped me to recover. They watched over me.

Time passed, and people came and went from the cell all the time. All told, I spent thirty days in that room, including the week before the hole. Every day the men went out and I stayed behind in the cell, although now I had the Kazakh and the Dungan to keep me company. Every few days, four or five men would be moved out and new men would arrive. I remember a guy named Yerbakit, who had permanent residence in Kazakhstan but held Chinese citizenship. There was also Shunkyr, a professional athlete who had never visited Kazakhstan. A third man was called Bakbek. We didn’t talk much. I didn’t want them to get in trouble for talking to me. We didn’t say words like Allah. We never said Salaam aleichum. We were afraid.

Every Sunday our cell was searched. We all had to kneel and put our hands on top of our heads and look down as they tore the cell apart. We could see the guards’ pistols right at eye level. I don’t know what they were looking for. We would joke with one another that we should probably produce whatever it was we’d stolen, so that the searches would stop.

One day they took us all out and cut all our hair. Shaved our heads.

Once I asked my cellmates where they went every day. At first, nobody wanted to say. Then Yerbakit told me they were being taken to political classes. He said they learned Chinese sayings and songs by heart. Not long after that, one of our guards gave me some papers with three Chinese songs to learn myself. The words were in Chinese. I told them I couldn’t read Chinese, and they took the papers away. They gave me a notebook in which someone had written the songs in Kazakh script,5 and they told me to learn them by sound. One of the songs was an anthem. They told me it was the Chinese national anthem. The second was a song describing the current policy pursued by the Chinese leadership, an educational song. I never found out what the third song meant. We all had to learn them. The Dungan guy spoke Chinese and learned the songs quickly, but my Kazakh friend and I had a harder time. We used to cry together. We would hug each other and cry, and try to learn the songs by heart. I believe I will never forget those thirty days.

In mid-January, my two cellmates and I were finally allowed to attend classes with the others. We were placed in classes according to our level. Because I wasn’t educated, I was in a low level, with many women. It wasn’t just men in the camp; there were eighty or ninety women there, living separately. It was a big building, although I can’t tell you how big it was. They would count us off room by room, but never all together. They counted in the morning and the evening, the way you count your animals in the pasture. I remember on the third day I went to class, I found they had cut the women’s hair. They didn’t shave their heads like they did the men’s, but they cut their hair above their ears.

Of course, all the time I attended classes, I didn’t know what I was doing there. I discussed it again and again with my teachers. They said I was to study for a year and a half, but if I was unsuccessful, I would remain there in the camp for five years. I felt I would rather die. On several occasions, I contemplated suicide. Once, I even tried to strangle myself with a shirt in my room, but because there was a camera in the cell the guards came in and stopped me.

While in class, we could write letters to one another. I happened to know one girl, Anar, from my childhood village. At first, she pretended not to know me. There were two other women from my village in the camp who did the same. Then I wrote her a letter. Please forgive me, she wrote back. Of course I know you, but I said I didn’t. I was afraid. Why are you here?

Anar shared a bedroom with another girl, Ainur. The three of us would write letters and throw them to one another under the table during class. We talked through those letters. We made an entire world. In one letter I wrote about my feelings for this girl, Anar. Affectionate letters, you know. But at the end of February I was transferred to another prison. I never saw those girls again, and I haven’t heard anything about what’s happened to them.

Tell me again why you’re asking all of this. Who are you? I believe there are Chinese spies in Kazakhstan. When I was released, they told me: If you tell this story to anyone, you’ll be imprisoned again in China. I am doing this for my people, in the name of my Kazakh people. I’m the only one I know from my part of Xinjiang who has been released. The only one. And if I go back to prison, I won’t be sorry. My only crime in going to China was being a Kazakh. My second crime is that I’m telling the truth.

I don’t know if it’s any use telling you all this.

One day, seven of us were transferred. We were handcuffed and taken to the yard and told we were being taken to another camp. They searched us and cuffed every two people together and put us in a car. As we drove, I had the idea that we were being sentenced to death. Our heads were covered. I thought they were going to kill us. Instead, they only took us to another cell. It turned out to be a former military camp. We sat in more political classes, and my teachers again told me I would stay in this camp until I’d learned Mandarin Chinese. They told me to prepare to study for a year and a half. I was sometimes beaten in this second prison. I was asked to tell them things I didn’t understand. I thought I might be inside for the full five years.

Five days before my release, my interrogations became more frequent. Some lasted through the night into the early morning. During these interrogations, they asked only one question: Why did you come to China? They made me sign papers that they said would determine my fate—whether I would go back to Kazakhstan or remain in China—but I couldn’t understand what I was signing.

One day before my release, they sat me down and showed me photos of my relatives. They asked if I knew any of these people. At first I said no. I was afraid. We will make you remember them, they said. So I told them who they were: My mother, my cousin, my brother, and my father. Even my father was there, although he was dead.

When I saw these photos, I despaired. I thought my family had all been detained. The photos looked just like my own prisoner photos. [Removes from his wallet an ID card with a photo in which his head is shaved, along with two unlaminated versions of the same photograph, and places them next to the photograph of his father.] I didn’t know how else they could have gotten photographs of them all. I couldn’t understand it. My father died in 2016; my mother lives in Urzhar, in Kazakhstan. How did they have these photos of them? My first thought was that somehow they were all in the prison with me. All of my relatives from Kazakhstan, every one.

They waited while I identified each of my relatives. When I got to my father, they tore the photo in half and threw both halves in the dustbin. I cried that night until morning, thinking of my relatives somewhere in the prison, and not understanding anything that was going on.

The next day, they took me to the yard without warning. You will not take your notebook with you, they said—this notebook had all the contacts I’d made in prison—and you will not be able to say goodbye to your friends. They brought me to my cell. When I got there, I saw a prisoner I knew, Arman. He was from Astana. There was a sense of joy in the room. He was being released too. But I didn’t say anything to anyone. Arman and I were cuffed together and taken away by car. It was springtime. They drove us to the border.

Later, I counted the days of my detention: 125 days. Before they set us free, they made us commit ourselves to silence. If you say anything, they said, you will go to prison, even if you’re in Kazakhstan. I believed them at the time. I signed different papers that were placed before me. I was made to recite a pledge to Allah that I would not talk about what happened to me.

I believe that Allah will forgive me this oath I made in his name.

They drove us to the border. So now I’m here in Kazakhstan. And I’m tired.

Now I want you to write the truth without adding any lies.

—Orynbek , 38

Interviewed August 2018