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Ex-Detainee Describes Torture In China's Xinjiang Re-Education Camp

Nov 13, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2019 12:46 pm

By the time Chinese guards began torturing Kayrat Samarkand inside a re-education camp last spring, he says his life had prepared him for this.

The ethnic Kazakh grew up in the mountains of China's rural Xinjiang region, just miles away from the border with Kazakhstan. When he was 11 years old, his parents died. A man from his village lured the young orphan to a nearby city with the promise of work and then sold him to a criminal gang of ethnic Uighurs, the predominant ethnic minority in Xinjiang, who managed a network of child thieves throughout China.

"There were a lot of other children who had been kidnapped," Samarkand recalls. "Most of the others were trained to be pickpockets. They wanted me to be a beggar, so they injected me with medication that made my legs go numb. They held me down and broke both of my legs."

Chinese citizen Kayrat Samarkand, pictured in a hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan, says he was detained in a Chinese re-education camp in his home region of Xinjiang for months. He says he was tortured and finally released after trying to kill himself.
Rob Schmitz / NPR

Samarkand says they took him, newly crippled, to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to beg on the streets. By the time he turned 16, Samarkand says gang leaders had trained him to sell crystal methamphetamine. That's when police caught him selling drugs, broke up the syndicate and sent him and 40 other kidnapped orphans to a rehabilitation center in the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin. The police paid for multiple surgeries to help heal Samarkand's legs before sending the boy to a boarding school in Xinjiang.

Now 30, Samarkand walks with a limp and still bears the scars of his youth up and down his legs. He says those Chinese police in Guangzhou were the only people who had helped him after his parents died.

That's why, nearly two decades later, when the police from his home village invited him for a meeting, he went straight to the station to see how he could help. It was Oct. 19, 2017.

"They sat me down in a tiny room with cameras aimed at me," Samarkand remembers. "They cuffed me and interrogated me for 72 hours."

Samarkand had spent eight years working in construction in Kazakhstan and had recently returned to China to see friends. He says the police kept asking him what he did in Kazakhstan, whom he met with and how religious he was. He says they were never satisfied with his answers. Finally, they let him sleep inside the cell, but he says speakers installed in the ceiling kept waking him up.

"They woke me up playing the call to prayer," says Samarkand. "I think they were testing me to see if I'm religious. Later on, they woke me up with a recording of a child speaking Kazakh. The child said, 'Daddy, Mommy, please help me! You've seen what the Chinese are doing. They're awful.' Again, I think they were testing my response."

Samarkand says he was transferred to a re-education camp, where people were separated into three groups: those who were religious, those who were suspected of being criminals, and those, like him, who had traveled abroad. All of them, says Samarkand, had one thing in common, though: They had grown up in Muslim families and communities.

They made me wear what they called 'iron clothes,' a suit made of metal that weighed over 50 pounds. ... They made people wear this thing to break their spirits. After 12 hours, I became so soft, quiet and lawful. - Former detainee Kayrat Samarkand

He says he was assigned to cell No. 6 with 15 other detainees. The group was given mattresses and he slept next to the only toilet in the cell.

His description of the routines inside the camp match those of other detainees who shared their stories with NPR.

"At first we have 12 people, but after many days, we reached 28 people," remembers another former detainee, a middle-aged ethnic Kazakh man who didn't give his name for fear of retribution by Chinese authorities.

In addition to living in cramped quarters, he says inmates had to sing songs praising Chinese leader Xi Jinping before being allowed to eat. He says detainees were forced to memorize a list of what he calls "126 lies" about religion: "Religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in no religion, you must believe in the Communist Party," he remembers. "Only [the] Communist Party could lead you the to the bright future."

A typical day at the camp would start at 6 a.m., he says, when detainees were ordered to sing along to songs played over the camp's PA system, praising China's Communist Party. After breakfast in a canteen, he says they were led to classrooms, where teachers taught detainees words in Pinyin, China's Romanized writing system, alongside their Chinese-character equivalents.

They were also given books about Lei Feng, a Chinese soldier regarded as a model of selfless devotion to communism, and were periodically quizzed by teachers on their knowledge of the "126 lies" about religion. Instead of re-educating him, he says his experience at the camp "made me hate the government even more."

He says nobody at his camp was beaten or tortured — just threatened. Samarkand was not so lucky. He says he was tortured after a guard ordered him to make his bed, only to mess it up and order him to do it again. After the fourth time, Samarkand says, he picked up the mattress and threw it at the guard.

"They made me wear what they called 'iron clothes,' a suit made of metal that weighed over 50 pounds," says Samarkand, drawing a picture of the device on a piece of paper. "It forced my arms and legs into an outstretched position. I couldn't move at all, and my back was in terrible pain."

Samarkand says after half a day of standing like this, he did whatever they told him.

"They made people wear this thing to break their spirits. After 12 hours, I became so soft, quiet and lawful."

He says he chanted "Long live Xi Jinping" when ordered to, sang patriotic songs and never questioned a guard again.

Samarkand was finally allowed to leave the camp, he says, after he attempted to kill himself by banging his head as hard as he could against a wall, which only managed to knock him out. He woke up in a hospital.

"They X-rayed my head and gave me some decent food, which I hadn't had in a very long time," he remembers. "Later, they told me that attempting suicide would lengthen my detention by seven years. I began to cry. I sobbed. That changed their minds, and they decided to release me."

Samarkand says they gave him all his belongings, and he walked for hours along the road back to his home village.

"When I arrived back home, nobody in my village would talk to me because they were scared to talk to someone like me who had been in the camps," he says. "The village had changed. There were police everywhere, cameras on all corners and nobody even greeted each other on the street anymore. Traditional patterns of life in the village had been erased."

On March 14 of this year, Samarkand re-entered Kazakhstan.

These days, he works two jobs in the city of Almaty. He says he's planning to get married soon and needs to save money.

When asked if the camps truly "re-educated" him, he tells a story of his first night back in Kazakhstan, where he stayed at a motel near the border.

"People were talking loudly in the next room over," says Samarkand. "There were three Chinese businessmen, all oil company employees. I can't explain it, but I snapped. I wanted to hurt them because they were Chinese. I was so angry. I entered their room and I beat them up."

When the Kazakh police arrived, Samarkand says they arrested him.

He says the police told him they were charging him with assaulting foreigners.

Samarkand says he reached into his pocket, withdrew his Chinese passport and threw it at the officers, telling them: "I'm a foreigner, too."

Dinara Saliyeva contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

China is targeting ethnic minorities from the country's vast northwestern region of Xinjiang. About a million of them, mostly Muslim, are being held inside what Chinese officials call re-education camps - the reason, to prevent religious extremism and to instill a love of the Communist Party. NPR's Rob Schmitz crossed China's border with Kazakhstan to talk with some of the detainees who got out.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: By the time Kayrat Samarkand says Chinese guards began torturing him inside an internment camp last spring, he says his life had prepared him for this. Samarkand, an ethnic Kazakh, grew up in the mountains of rural Xinjiang, just miles away from China's border with Kazakhstan. When he was 11, his parents died. Soon after, a man from his village sold him to a gang of ethnic Uighurs who managed a network of child thieves throughout China.

KAYRAT SAMARKAND: (Through interpreter) They wanted me to be a beggar. So they injected me with medication that made my legs go numb. And then they held me down and broke both of my legs. I could no longer walk.

SCHMITZ: Newly crippled, Samarkand says they took him to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to beg on the streets. Five years later, he says police arrested him, broke up the criminal gang and paid for surgery to help him walk again.

SAMARKAND: (Speaking Kazakh).

SCHMITZ: When I meet him at a hotel in the Kazakh city of Almaty, he walks with a limp. When he sits down, he shows me the scars on his legs. He says those Chinese police in Guangzhou were the only people who had helped him after his parents died. That's why, nearly two decades later, when the police from his home village invited him for a meeting, he went straight to the station to see how he could help. It was October 19, 2017.

SAMARKAND: (Through interpreter) They sat me down in a tiny room with cameras aimed at me. They cuffed me and interrogated me for 72 hours.

SCHMITZ: Samarkand had spent eight years working construction in Kazakhstan. And he had recently returned to China to see friends. He says the police kept asking him what he did in Kazakhstan, who he met with and how religious he was. He says they were never satisfied with his answers. Finally, they let him sleep inside the cell. But speakers installed in the ceiling kept waking him up.

SAMARKAND: (Through interpreter) They woke me up playing the call to prayer. I think they were testing me to see if I'm religious. Later on, they woke me up with a recording of a child speaking Kazakh. The child said, Daddy, Mommy, please help me. You've seen what the Chinese are doing. They're awful. Again, I think they were testing my response.

SCHMITZ: Samarkand says he was transferred to a re-education camp, where they separated people into three groups - those who were religious, those who were suspected of being criminals and those, like him, who had traveled abroad. He says he was assigned a cell No. 6 with 15 other detainees. The group was given mattresses, and he slept next to the only toilet in the cell. His description of the routines inside the camp match those of others who shared their stories with NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: At first, we have the 12 people. And after 10 days, we already reached 28 people.

SCHMITZ: Like this man, a middle-aged ethnic Kazakh who didn't give his name for fear of retribution by Chinese authorities. In addition to the cramped quarters, he said inmates had to sing songs praising Chinese leader Xi Jinping before being allowed to eat. He also said detainees were forced to memorize a list of 126 lies about religion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Religion is opium. Religion is bad. You have - must believe no religion. You must believe in the Communist Party. Only Communist Party could lead you to the bright future.

SCHMITZ: This man said nobody at his camp was beaten or tortured, just threatened. But Samarkand says he was. He says it happened after a guard ordered him to make his bed only to mess it up and order him to do it again. After the fourth time, says Samarkand, he picked up the mattress and threw it at the guard.

SAMARKAND: (Through interpreter) They made me wear what they called iron clothes, a suit made of metal that weighed over 50 pounds. It forced my arms and legs into an outstretched position. I couldn't move at all, and my back was in terrible pain.

SCHMITZ: Samarkand says after 12 hours of standing like this, he did whatever they told him. He says he chanted, long live Xi Jingping. He sang patriotic songs, and he never questioned a guard again. He says he was finally allowed to leave the camp after he attempted to kill himself by banging his head as hard as he could against a wall. He woke up in a hospital and was told he was free to go. On March 14 of this year, he re-entered Kazakhstan.

These days, Samarkand works two jobs. He says he's planning to get married soon, and he needs to save money. When I ask if the camps truly re-educated him, he tells me a story. On his first night back in Kazakhstan, he stayed at a hotel near the border.

SAMARKAND: (Through interpreter) People were talking loudly in the next room over. They were Chinese. I can't explain it, but I snapped. I entered their room, and I beat them up.

SCHMITZ: When the local Kazakh police arrived, Samarkand says they arrested him. He says the police told him they were charging him with assaulting foreigners. Samarkand says he reached into his pocket, withdrew his Chinese passport and threw it at the officers, telling them, I'm a foreigner, too.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Almaty, Kazakhstan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.