Concentration Camp Survivor Tursunay Ziyawudun on Her Imprisonment in Xinjiang

Tursunay ziyawudun, before she fled, was one of 1.5 million Uyghurs or other Muslims held in China’s western China “reeducation” centres. She describes them as “worse than prison”—modern concentration camps.

Ziyawudun was a child of what is now the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. However, she refers to it as East Turkestan. A decade ago she was married to a Kazakh man, and they moved to Kazakhstan. She says that the circumstances had changed dramatically when she returned home to her village in Kazakhstan at the close of 2016.

It is home to over 23 million people. 45 percent are Uyghurs. The rest are Han Chinese, who represent the major ethnic group in mainland China. Xinjiang today is a police-state where government forces the people to live under surveillance 24 hours a day. Expressions of Uyghur tradition have been made illegal, and every interaction is under the watchful eye of the concentration camp.

Chinese police detained Ziyawudun for one month in April 2017. She was unwell when she was released by the police. The police had taken her passport and she was not allowed to go back to Kazakhstan. However, her husband got her out. After being arrested for second time in March 2018, she was imprisoned again. She witnessed horrific acts of torture, and was also sexually abused.

Ziyawudun was lucky to make it out of China alive with the help of humanitarian groups—she declined to be more specific, for fear that the path she took will be closed to others—and she still has medical issues stemming from her treatment while imprisoned. Under the Uyghur Rights Project, she is currently living in America. Ziyawudun shared her stories, sometimes through tears with Reason’s Noor in Washington D.C., September 2013.

Attention readers! This interview depicts Ziyawudun’s camp experience in graphic terms.

There are reasonsHow was your daily life prior to you leaving with your husband in Kazakhstan?

Ziyawudun : Prior to getting married, I lived with family. When I was fourteen years old, my father died. However, I had my mom and other siblings, and I had other relatives as well, all scattered around Künas County. It was a normal lifestyle. I owned my own tailoring shop. My husband proposed to me and I was forced to travel to Kazakhstan with him. Aside from that, I didn’t have the intention of traveling overseas.

Before I traveled to Kazakhstan, my husband and I knew. It wasn’t just my family. We all lived under immense pressure, both in our country and in our county. This was unavoidable. We still lived there because it was our home, even under great pressure. Since that kind of condition already existed in my country, after I got married to my husband—he was already a Kazakhstan resident—I left.

How was your life different from that of other ethnic groups in China—for example, from Chinese people who are Han? Did you have to limit yourself from doing things others were allowed? Do you feel that you are under greater pressure than others from China’s ethnic groups?

There are certainly differences in treatment. We live very different lives than the Han Chinese. This is not only me. I witnessed these differences growing up.

My village had a period when they wanted us to move away from our homes. The Uyghur residents were asked to evacuate the area because they said that they planned to develop it. When we moved out they took all our property and land. They gave us little to no money.

The same thing happened to the other Chinese residents of the region. However, the Chinese residents were offered great incentives and rewards. A Han family got two houses and good opportunities for all their members. However, we didn’t get the same kind of treatment that Han Chinese received.

Many Uyghurs had lost their land, and many of their assets, so we appealed the matter to government. But, no one heard us. No one listened and there was no resolution. My mother was upset as a consequence. My mother was upset and told the authorities there were four brothers in her family with six siblings. If the Chinese families had the same amount, her family should also get it. Nothing happened.

Because of the injustices and all that pressure, my mother suffered from brain bleeding. Later, her death was inevitable. She appealed to the authorities about land confiscation and property, but they threatened her with imprisonment if she did not stop doing the same things.

Many of these ways are different from Han Chinese.

You said that Uyghurs were in difficult times before you went, and you managed to lead a relatively normal life. Then you got married and moved to Kazakhstan. You returned five years later and everything had changed.

We lived under surveillance, but we continued to live our lives. We were hopeful. We were solid. We wanted to be happy. That’s how we are, the Uyghur people—no matter how much difficulty we go through, we still find some kind of enjoyment from life. This is how we lived before. When I went back to my home country five years later, it was a completely different experience. It’s hard to explain. You can only describe it as a complete change.

Yes. We had previously been under pressure. We were not allowed to worship or pray in the workplace or public. Although there were rules, they weren’t just saying “Don’t do that.” You shouldn’t do this. The same regulation was present in every house when I left Kazakhstan in 2016 after having lived in Kazakhstan for five years. Every resident was being questioned by the authorities, who went house to house telling them how they should act or restricting their rights.

Originally, Künas County, where I grew up, was a very beautiful place. What I witnessed when I crossed the border, all the way to my hometown, the whole situation, the whole scene, was just—it was like a war zone. You can watch video of the Iraq War or other wars. There are tanks everywhere, armed troops, parades and military exercises. There are a lot of police officers with full guns in the stadium. The stadium is filled with fully armed police. It makes you feel as though there’s going to be a civil war. It was that way. This was the moment I realized it. After two hours of driving, I was finally home and the police arrived to meet me.

Were there signs you could be arrested when you got back to your hometown?

That feeling didn’t exist in me. I thought the situation was better, but it wasn’t until I went to the camp that I realized that I’d be taken into custody. Although they say the camp is called it a prison, I am able to confirm that it is indeed a prison. I didn’t realize how extreme it would be until I was locked up and taken to prison.

Are there any others who were arrested together?

Yes. My older brother, my nephew. Actually, many of these people were from my village. Although I don’t recall all of the names right now, I do remember all names that were lost from my village.

Take us along on this journey. Can you recall the things you did that day?

As I was walking down the street, my husband and me were being accosted by police. Their officers had already taken our passports. The police called us suddenly. The police asked us where we were. We told them that we lived in this and such a place and they replied, “Just remain there.” Don’t move. “We will soon be there.”

Because we did not have our passports, we knew that we couldn’t go back to Kazakhstan. They arrived so we waited there. A police car arrived, and I was told by them that we needed to have a meeting for one hour. Then, a police car came and told me, “You have to come with us for a one-hour meeting.” First, I need to have something and then move on. They replied, “No. They said, “No, no. It is just for a 1-hour meeting.” Two policemen walked out of my car. They made me go in, and then took me off.

They took me to the camp. As they were getting ready to go, I realized I would not be freed. I cried, screamed, and begged the policemen to let me go with them. Why have they taken me away? Please, take me back. It was home to about 800, 1000 people. But nothing came of it. This is how I got detained.

What was the reason you were eventually freed? Did you also know that your husband had been arrested as well?

They did not arrest my husband. They arrested only me. After being arrested, it was about a month before I was released. After being taken to the hospital by the doctor, I was diagnosed with a stomach infection. They released me because I was unable to remain in custody.

After my release, I spoke with my husband, saying, “It’s better if you leave.” Soon after being released, my husband and I went to the station to collect our passports. However, they refused to give us both our passports back. The Kazakh passport would be returned, but not my husband’s. My passport was not returned. Because he’s Kazakh, they would let my husband leave. My husband was told by them that he had only two months left to live in Kazakhstan. If he did not return within the two-month period, they threatened to take me back into custody and keep me in detention. That’s how I was arrested again.

Your husband is not Uyghur, but Kazakh.


This is normal. Is this normal?

Yes. There are several options. They don’t go to jail if your husband is of another country, or if they are foreigners. One person can get married to Han Chinese and the entire family won’t be detained.

There was a time people got arrested because of their religious beliefs—because you prayed, because you did religious activities. Uyghurs were particularly targeted by detention for these reasons. Kazakhs also are targeted but not as severe as Uyghurs.

You were taken to a place—I think the Chinese government calls them re-education camps. It was prison, you said. It was prison, you said.

At the start they called them Re-education Camps. At the start, they didn’t mention that they were concentration camps. The camps were made up of schools, hospitals and other facilities. They made it appear like a prison after they had completed the changes.

What I have been through—it’s worse than prison. So that’s all I can tell you. The prisoner experience is far worse.

Please tell us more about the second arrest. Did the facility you went to second time differ from the one that was used for your first arrest? What was the difference between these experiences?

The Chinese police called me on March 8th, 2018 and said that they wanted to see me at the station. My brothers and I were both taken to this camp by the Chinese police in January and February. This was when I got the phone call. I asked, “Am I going back to the camp?” I was told by the police that you would do some more research.

At the time I lived alone. I explained to the police that it was okay for me to arrange some things. Then I will go on March 10. They said it was okay. On March 10, I was alone and went to the police station. The police then took me to my previous camp. It was totally different when I returned. It was transformed into a prison. The school’s other doors were closed. Only one gate was open. High walls of barbedwire surrounded the camp. The camp’s gate was 100 meters away. There were also police cars everywhere. The place looked like a prison.

It’s claimed to be a school but it’s actually not one. Yes, there are lessons—Chinese lessons only, about two hours a day. Everybody is required to learn Chinese from the very youngest to the very oldest. Interrogations were also common. You will be tortured if you are interrogated. It isn’t like going to school. Interrogation will involve torture.

How did they expect you to respond? Was it to force you into giving them more information? Were there things you needed to mention to make them stop torturing your? Was it intimidation or something else?

That was the question I had at the start. Why would they torture me? “What’s their guilt?” Most of them are innocent. Most of us were Uyghur Muslims. This was the only offense.

Once I was interrogated under torture—I remember clearly; it was with electric equipment—and I overheard with my own ears one Chinese man saying, “Look, we should stop, because she’s going to die.” Another one said, “She is going to die.” It’s just a little too much. A Chinese man replied, “So What?” “So what? If she dies?” Isn’t that our goal? From that I know that torture serves no purpose other than to kill us.

It’s possible to tell me more about their plans if it isn’t too difficult.

It is just horrendous to be interrogated in prison. The interrogation begins with questions. When they first interrogated my, they always wanted to know: How did I get here? What did they ask me about my time in Kazakhstan? What are my relationships with organizations in America? You get hit if you answer the question with a “no” (or “I don’t know”)

Once, as punishment, they made me take a seat on the tiger-chair. I was starved for three or three-and-a half days. It was probably our third day when one of the Kazakh prison guards brought food to me and said I should eat. I felt so angry and upset. I grabbed his shirt, and said to him: “Why don’t you just murder me instead of torturing? I’ll kill you.”

While I was doing it—I don’t know where he came from—one of the Chinese police came in, and I don’t know what he used, but he beat me so hard I fell down onto the floor. His heavy footwear began to kick me in the stomach. He couldn’t breathe and I was unable to move. After all the beatings and kicking I received, my blood started to flow.

In the camps, other than being beat up, I had worse nightmares. Sometimes, I saw girls being brought into the camp. Those girls’ whole bodies were bruised, and the marks—it looked so -horrible. At the time I was unaware of what happened, but the exact same terrible thing happened to me. Nighttime in camps is one of the most terrifying and frightening times.

Another night I was taken. Then they put electric equipment in my vagina and tortured me. I was then gang raped.

Did you ever wish you weren’t Uyghur at times?

Yes, definitely. It scared me to death. While there were many times when I wish I wasn’t Uyghur, it was never my intention to become Chinese.

Sometime I wish I could be Kazakh. They gave my husband his passport back, but they did not give mine. Now I see it as useless. Uyghur is something that I love, but I also consider myself proud to be a Muslim. That’s also how I want to die.

The camp was filled with brave, strong women. One of the stories I have is about a girl who fell and tripped, then another woman came up to help her. She was brave and despite being told by the guards that she would be killed, they refused to kill her. She stood and declared, “Do whatever your heart desires, but I’m going pull her up, she is my sibling.”

She was killed for her courage in front of everyone because of it. Despite all the horrors, I am proud to be Uyghur.

Is it possible to leave Uyghurs that adopt Chinese culture alone?

It’s hard to understand. We are still second-class citizens, even if we became Chinese and gave up on ourselves. They aren’t confident in us. We are not trustworthy, no matter what we do.

I stated to police that I had changed since I was taken from camp. Yes. I agree to it. It doesn’t matter what you have to say. It’s the way I want to live and it’s what my life will look like. But one Chinese policeman told me, “In order to comply—or in order to truly become who you are—you better not go back to Kazakhstan. Do not go to Kazakhstan. You can marry me and become my second wife. This is how they’re insulting.

You won’t go to concentration camp if you marry a Chinese woman. But the only thing those Uyghurs are able to do is save their lives—but not dignity, not honor. They are physically alive, but spiritually, mentally, and just as a person—nothing. They are considered slaves. They are expected to follow the Chinese’s orders and face discrimination. So what am I trying to say is that there’s a distinction. One is living. One is living as a human being.

What is the quality of your American life compared to what it’s like back in your home country?

While I do not think much about my life outside of it, the freedom that comes with being free is so wonderful. This is the greatest happiness I can find here. I am free and have the chance to share what’s going on with my people. It’s clear that people care about the issues facing my people.

It gives me hope. Ich am optimistic about living. We have the potential to make a difference. I think we are finished, even though I was still in Kazakhstan. It’s going to wipe us out. However, after coming to America I felt that I was doing something worthwhile. It makes me feel happy and hopeful that I am contributing to the cause of my people.

Your husband remains in Kazakhstan. Is it possible to speak with him? Are you able to bring him here to the United States of America?

Yes, I talk to him. It is my hope that he will also visit one day. His case is being worked on right now. The case is currently being worked on.

Tursunay, do you have anything more to add that we are not giving you the opportunity?

All I want to say to the world, to everybody—I just wish to scream it sometimes—is that time is passing. It’s a blessing that so many people are concerned about my situation. However, I wish that there were some practical steps. You can speed it up. You can speed up whatever you have been doing.

The following interview has been edited to improve clarity and style. Zubayra Shamseden also translated the interview.