Voices from Xinjiang: Why are you refusing to eat this food provided to you by the Communist party?

No matter the occasion, whether an interview or a press conference, Gulzira never lets her young daughter out of sight. She is in her lap now, laughing and squirming.

saw enough while I was there. I want to speak. I want what happened to be published. The thing is, my relatives are against me. They’re my enemies now. They tell me not to talk about these things. Even my stepdaughter is against me.

I remember my parents telling me that in Mao Zedong’s time, there were activists and political events where things got violent. During Mao’s time, they burned Korans and other religious books. They silenced you. We were cut off from family in the Soviet Union. But then Deng came to power and things calmed down. I remember when I was young, at some ceremonies there might be a Chinese state flag, but that was the sum of my political awareness.

In fact, thinking back to my childhood days, I didn’t care about anything. Then I got married. I grew up. Ours was a traditional Kazakh wedding. My father paid a dowry. My face was covered. I was wearing a traditional dress. Now they’re gone, all those clothes. When I think back to these times, I think of how good they were. I can’t understand how all this happened. In 2014, they started taking away schoolteachers. We knew something was happening—it was quiet, but something was changing. That was the year my daughter was born. We got our Chinese passports and went to Kazakhstan to visit my husband’s mother’s family. The three of us came: my husband, my daughter, and I. We came here and decided to stay.

The only problem was my father. Back in Ghulja, we’d been farming corn. My parents had been cattle breeders until the party made them give it up for farming. I can still picture the summer herding pasture from my childhood. But they became farmers, and then when my father turned fifty, he lost the will to walk. Doctors couldn’t find any reason for it. He just stopped. He became an invalid. Eight years later, my mother died, and he was alone.

For years, my husband and I looked after my father. We ran the farm. We would get a loan in the spring, use it to farm in the summer, then we’d collect the harvest in the fall and repay the loan to the bank. It was hard work. We certainly weren’t getting rich. When we came to Kazakhstan, we gave up all that and became hired hands, milking and herding someone else’s cattle. At last we got our permanent residence permits. After that, I would go to China to check on my father. We tried to support him from afar. My brother looked after him.

In 2017, I heard from my brother that our father was dying. No treatment was possible. [Starts to cry] I went back to see him. I was still breastfeeding my daughter at the time, but I decided to wean her and leave her with my husband. Yes, I was still breastfeeding her at three years. [Laughs and shakes her head] What can I say? My life is strange. I took an overnight bus. At Khorgos, the Chinese authorities stopped me. They checked my papers. Something was wrong. They notified the police in Ghulja, and soon enough the local police came to Khorgos and interrogated me. They were stern. They told me I would never return to Kazakhstan, then took me to my village in a police car. It’s fifty miles to the village, and—let me tell you—it was the longest drive of my life. I was thinking to myself, Shit, and I was crying. Stop crying, they said.

They took me to my brother-in-law’s house. The next morning, I went to the local police station. I went to see the head of the Fourth Unit of the Dolan Farm, in Ghulja County. I asked him to give me back my passport. He refused. You’re going to study for fifteen days, he said. The man is himself Uighur. Everyone’s caught up in it.

I still hadn’t seen my dying father. I asked them to let me visit him. Don’t worry, the mayor said. It’s only fifteen days. At the time, I thought they were probably right. Why would they lie to me? My father would live for at least another two weeks. So I asked permission—I was still in the mayor’s office—to get my clothes and things from my brother-in-law’s. He refused. They drove me straight from the mayor’s office to the camp.

At the camp, I was given a uniform: a red T-shirt, black trousers, Adidas trainers, and some Chinese-style slippers. That was all. They also gave me a shot. They said it was a flu shot. Then, after a month in the camp, they took a blood sample. After that, they would take a blood sample every once in a while. You never knew when it might happen. I don’t know what they were doing, what sort of experiments…

I saw many Kazakhs brought into the camp while I was there. When I asked them what they’d done, they told me they’d visited family members in Kazakhstan, made phone calls to other countries, things like that. As for me, we had some security officials in the camp who told me that Kazakhstan was on a list of the twenty-six most dangerous countries, not to be visited. As a result of your visit, they said, you will be reeducated for a year—that’s when I learned the truth. Not fifteen days but a year! I tried to tell them about my travel permit. They didn’t care. You are a Chinese citizen, they said, so we will reeducate you, as is our right. Do what we tell you and write what we tell you. The interrogations began. They asked for my full biography, including all of my relatives’ names, especially any relatives in prison or abroad. My brother’s name is Samedin, and they wanted to know why he had been given a religious name. When you’re in a camp, they’ll keep asking you the same questions, over and over, all throughout your stay. Nineteen times: I counted. They interrogated me nineteen times.

From July to November I was living in one reeducation facility, the first of several. There were eight hundred women there. I didn’t see any men except for some of the security officers. We were about fifty women in a classroom, plus three teachers and two security guards. There were cameras in the classroom, and in every other room, 360-degree cameras running twenty-four hours a day and filming everything. The classes were what you’ve heard. We were made to say things like “I like China” and “I like Xi Jinping.” We were told our first priority should be to learn Chinese. Then we could work for the government or get a job in mainland China. Even then, we knew this was ridiculous. I saw disabled old women in the camp. Deaf girls. Were they to get a factory job? I remember two women who had no legs. How could they work? But the instructor would say that even without legs, your eyes are healthy. Your heart is healthy. You’ll be fit for work anyway.

When we weren’t in class, we lived together in a long hall, a kind of shed. Each shed housed thirty-three women. We were obliged to make our beds every morning, just like soldiers in the army, not a wrinkle. Once, the inspector didn’t like how I’d made my bed. He took my bedsheets over to the toilet in the corner and threw them in. It was the same if we were too slow—we had only three minutes to make our beds in the morning. Otherwise, into the toilet.

Should I be saying all this? I don’t know. In any case, my name is everywhere. I’ve said it all before. I’m not trying to visit China anymore, not even to see my family. Most likely I’ll die here.

In November, they took me to a new camp, a medical facility—it looked like it had once been a hospital, a new one—but they’d turned it into a camp. From the outside, it looked good. Once in a while, when some inspector from the Central Committee—or, anyway, from outside Xinjiang—came, they tried to spruce it up. If you looked close, you could see barbed wire on the fences outside, which they tried to disguise by also adding fake vines, and they put fake flowers in every window to hide the fact that they were barred. As soon as the inspector left, they removed these decorations. This was one of the Professional Reeducation Centers of the Ghulja region.

In the second camp, they let me talk to my relatives. Once a week you could talk to them on the phone. And once a month they could visit. We would be brought into a room with our relatives on the other side, beyond a wall of wire mesh. The guards would remove my handcuffs. We spoke through the screen.

Mostly we ate only rice and steamed buns—plain, empty buns—at every meal. Probably they put some additives into the dough for nutrition, I don’t know. We never, ever felt full. Once, there was a Chinese holiday and they made us eat pig meat. I mean, they forced us to eat pork. If you refused to eat, as I did once or twice, they put you in cuffs and locked you up. You are not mentally correct, they would explain. Your ideology is wrong. You people are going to become friends with Chinese people, they said. First we are going to destroy your religion, then we will destroy your extremist nationalist feelings, then you will become relatives of China. We will visit your weddings, and you will visit ours. And at our weddings, you will eat pork. They would handcuff you to a chair and reprimand you.

Why are you refusing to eat this food provided to you by the Communist Party? You would sit for twenty-four hours in that chair. They called it the black chair or the lion chair. After the first refusal, you got a warning; after the second, you got the chair. The third time you refused, they took you to another facility, one where it was said conditions were harsher. I didn’t refuse a third time.

I was lodged with mostly Uighur women. I think they didn’t want me to be able to communicate with other Kazakhs. There was only one kind of interaction they encouraged. My husband was in Kazakhstan, but for those women who had husbands available, they could meet them once a month for two hours at the camp for marital visits. A room was provided. They were left alone. The husbands were told to bring bedsheets. Before seeing the husbands, the women were given a pill. A tablet, I mean. And sometimes, at night, the single women, taken… [trails off].

I shouldn’t even say “encouraged.” They were forcing every woman who had a husband to meet with him. Even an old woman had to lie in bed for two hours with her husband. They would shame the old women. Don’t you miss your husband? And afterward, they would take the women to bathe. As for the pill they received, I think it was a birth control pill. They didn’t want any births. If you were pregnant when you came to the camp, they performed an abortion. If you refused, they took you to a stricter place, one without visits with relatives. That’s what I heard.

From November until July, I was in the hospital-turned-camp. I remember one time they made us burn a pile of prayer rugs they had collected from people’s homes. While we worked, they asked us questions: Why does your brother have a religious name? Do you have a Koran at home?

In July, they transferred me to a third camp. This was an ordinary school they had turned into a reeducation camp. What I remember most about this camp was that there were no toilets. We had to use a bucket. And, as I said, there were fifty people in a class. Here, too, they would interrogate us, asking us about our husbands and children. Sometimes they would take away three or four women at a time. These women would never come back. Other women would soon arrive to replace them.

In August, I went to a fourth and final facility—we were transferred overnight—where I lived for the remainder of my detention. They kept promising to release us eventually. If you behave, they said, in a month we will teach you a vocation. If your ideas improve. They never did teach us a vocation, but on October 6, 2018, some ethnic Kazakh officials came to the camp. One of them said that good news was coming, and the next day, about 250 women were released. Of these, 150 or so were Kazakh. I know because they separated the Kazakhs from the others and counted us. While we were separated, they told us we had to keep our mouths shut. They said: We have to make our two countries friends. You will be treated in a friendly way, but dangerous ideas are coming from Kazakhstan, so once you’re back in Kazakhstan, say only good things about the camp. There was a threat implied here. When one member of a family is taken for reeducation, others often follow. My husband’s younger brother was taken. It was a spiderweb. They are taking everyone inside.

When I was released, I was taken back to Ghulja, my husband’s village, where the authorities held a ceremony for me and some of the other women from the village. There was a Chinese flag, a podium. They made each of us speak. We had to say nice things about the camp. They told the local population about my achievements. You see, they said, Gulzira is now well educated. She will now work as a teacher for you.

I went to my father’s village at last. I was able to see him. But even here, my sister-in-law was made to spy on me. The authorities asked her to watch me and listen to what I said. I spent five nights at my father’s house. Then they gathered all the women in the area who came from Kazakhstan and told us we were going to work at a factory.

While all this was happening, my husband was working toward my release. Together with Atajurt, he was uploading videos about my detention in China. But I wasn’t aware. I was taken back to my husband’s village and was forced to begin work at a factory. I’d thought I would be sent back to Kazakhstan, but the people I asked were saying contradictory things, and in the end, I was sent to the factory, a kind of sweatshop, I suppose, making gloves. I was told the factory made handbags and some clothes as well, but I only ever worked on gloves. The products were exported abroad, we were told, and sold to foreigners. You made some money, but if you stopped working, they sent you back to the camp. So there wasn’t much of a choice. They told me to sign a contract agreeing to work at this factory for a year. In the end, I worked there for a month and a half. It was piecework. I earned one jiao7 for every glove I finished. All told, I made more than two thousand gloves and earned 220 yuan.8 So, you see, it was like slavery.

One good thing, maybe the only good thing, about the factory was that we were allowed to have our phones again. We could call our loved ones. After more than a year, I finally got to hear my husband’s voice. One day I took a photo of the factory on my phone and sent it to my husband. He showed it to Serikzhan, who published it. They took away my phone. Then they interrogated me. They asked all the same questions they’d asked me many times, and more, all night long. But it worked. They let me go. They took me back to my husband’s village. His relatives were angry with me because of what my husband had done. What have you done? they asked. You’re international news! My relatives wrote messages to my husband. Stop complaining, they told him. You should praise the country! You should thank the government and the party!

I was taken back to my father’s place in January. I saw my father again, probably for the last time. Now he needs care like a child. The police told my father and the relatives that I’d better not speak about the camp, or else my father would be arrested. They took photos of us all drinking tea together. Back at the mayor’s office, I had to write a letter thanking the party for reeducating me for a year and a half. Then, at the border, they interrogated me for another four hours. Finally, they let me cross.

Probably this is a lasting consequence of the camp: I always feel tired. I have no energy anymore. Doctors say I have kidney problems. I’m just happy my husband was here. It’s because of him I was released. There were women in the camp who didn’t have anyone outside China to help them. They were taken to the mainland to work in factories. What has become of them?

I think until Xi Jinping dies, life for Kazakhs in Xinjiang will not change. It’s like it was in Mao’s time. But I will dedicate my life to helping them. Even if it means my family has turned against me. Even my stepdaughter, who was herself detained in the camps, tells me to stop complaining. But I won’t. You can come talk to me anytime. But I don’t know my phone number. My memory is bad. It’s gotten bad since I was in the camps. My focus. And I forgot one other thing: We were allocated only two minutes for going to the toilet in the camps. If we couldn’t do it in time, they beat us with a stick. I suffered five or six beatings because sometimes I was slow. Only in the head. They always targeted our heads.

Gulzira, 40

Interviewed April 2019