Gulbahar Jelil was told not to mention the stench and sickness that hounded her and pervaded her crowded cell. She was not to mention that 30 women were forced to share a 14-square-meter space. She was not to talk about their starvation diet, how detainees received only about 600 calories per day — equivalent to two or three plain bagels — and that she had lost close to 100 pounds over the course of her internment.
“You will eat more food now, since you will soon be released,” they said. They told her that the food she had been given and the filth she had lived in — a cell with an open-air toilet and 30 unwashed bodies pressed together — were a thing of the past. It was a nightmare that she should put behind her.
This, and more trauma, Jelil described in painful detail in an 82-minute interview that aired last month on the Turkey-based channel Pidaiylar Biz. Filmed in Turkey less than a month after her release, Jelil broke down in tears numerous times over the course of the interview. “I want the whole world to hear about this oppression,” she said.
Jelil grew up in Kazakhstan but identifies strongly with her Uyghur heritage, and because of this — and the stories she heard from women between the ages of 14 and 80 in the detention centers — she felt compelled to speak out. This was why she had come to Turkey, where Uyghurs have a great deal more freedom to speak freely.
“I am a Uyghur woman,” she said in the Pidaiylar Biz interview. “My blood is Uyghur. I want to speak to the Chinese police who detained me for suspecting I was a terrorist. Why did they not release me after three months or six months? Why did they detain me for one year, three months? What kind of investigation was this? What wrong have I done? I want answers. Why did they say I was acquitted? Why? I want answers. What did I do? They said I was a terrorist. Why did they torture me?”
Jelil, whose nationality is Kazakhstani, recounts how it began: Last year, she was asked by a business associate, an ethic Kazakh Chinese citizen, to go to Ürümchi to pick up some consumer goods that she planned to sell in Almaty — a shuttle trade business she had been involved in for nearly 20 years. When she arrived, she was immediately detained. Jelil did not know that authorities had forced her business partner, also detained, to invite her. As in other cases reported by the Associated Press of Kazakhstani citizens swept up in the “transformation through education” system, the authorities told Jelil that her citizenship status did not matter. They took her Kazakhstani passport away and replaced it with what looked like an official Chinese ID card that had her image. They said it proved she was a Uyghur from Xinjiang. They forced her to memorize her new ID number. They told her to confess her crimes.
“I told them you can kill me, you can do whatever you want. I’m just a businesswoman,” she said. “They tried to force me to confess, but I did not admit to their accusations.” They told her she had wired 17,000 yuan ($2,500) from China to a company called Nur, which was based in Turkey. She told them she had never heard of this company and that their story made no logical sense. “Why would a Kazakhstani citizen come to China to wire money to Turkey?” she said. They told her, “We will let you think this over.” They shackled her hands and feet, placed a shroud over her head, and took her to the Number 3 Detention Center in Ürümchi. After three months, she was transferred to the Number 2 Detention Center in Ürümchi before being held in a women’s prison in the north part of the city.
“For one month they punished us by giving us only water and steamed buns…They said, ‘You are forbidden to speak Uyghur, only speak Chinese.’ They would feed us only if we spoke Chinese. ‘Xiexie! Xiexie!’ I said.”
In each of the three detention centers, the women were given three tiny meals a day: One small steamed bun and watery cornmeal soup for breakfast, one small steamed bun and watery cabbage soup for lunch, and one small steamed bun and watery cabbage soup for dinner.
This diet was identical to that received by another detainee, Mihrigul Tursun. As reported by The Telegraph, she was held in a detention center in Cherchen County, 750 miles south of Ürümchi, on the other side of the desert. She also described a starvation diet of steamed buns and watery soup. Over the course of her detention, as more than 60 women crammed into her cell, she said they received smaller and smaller rations.
Jelil, in her interview, said that on one occasion the prison guards gave them uncooked steamed buns, which they could not eat. “It just stuck in our mouths,” she said. “We just put them to the side. We buzzed the police (on the intercom) and told them we cannot eat these. They told us, ‘This is a detention center, this is not your home. Don’t you know this? At your home you can say this is cooked or not cooked. Here you just eat what we give you. Maybe you are too full so you are being picky.’
“They punished us by giving us only steamed buns and water for one week. No soup. And then they accused us of speaking Uyghur. For one month they punished us by giving us only water and steamed buns. They also punished other cells, not just ours for this. They said, ‘You are forbidden to speak Uyghur, only speak Chinese.’ They would feed us only if we spoke Chinese. ‘Xiexie! Xiexie!’ I said.” (Xiexie is Chinese for “thank you.”)
Xinjiang detention centers, spaces where suspects are held prior to receiving prison sentences or indefinite terms of detention in reeducation camps, strip away the human dignity of detainees. They dehumanize detainees, reducing them to numbers who speak a handful of Chinese words. For Jelil, life in the detention center revolved around saying “I’m here” (到 dào) and “thank you” (谢谢 xièxiè), and stumbling through the lyrics of patriotic songs for a country to which she had no legal ties.
Jelil said that, in each of her three Ürümchi detention centers, the cells, which were seven meters long and two meters wide, were crammed with at least 30 women each, who sat on narrow concrete benches. There was a toilet on one end. Since there was not enough room for everyone to lie down side by side, a dozen or more women stood while others slept in shifts throughout the night.
What made the conditions even more intolerable was that the women were not allowed to wash on a regular basis. “We could only have showers once per week over a 40-minute period,” Jelil said. “All 30 of us women had to finish in that period of time. They gave us just one bar of soap. We had to divide it into 30 pieces. We used a comb to divide it into 30 pieces. Each person only had one minute to shower. We had barely enough soap to wash our hands and face. Each time, two people showered together. We just walked in together. It was not really possible to wash with that amount of soap. Because of our filthiness, we had many sores all over our bodies.”
Jelil observed young women screaming, hitting their heads against the wall, smearing feces on the wall, refusing commands. Those women soon disappeared, she said.
Jelil and Tursun both noted that in detention centers, no space was free from the gaze of closed-circuit cameras. Detainees were not permitted to speak to each other. For most of the day, they were expected to simply stare at the wall. The only exceptions were the periods when they received political and Chinese language instruction from a monitor and were given pens and paper. They were only permitted to write and speak in Chinese.
Both women also noted the widespread use of psychiatric drugs in the detention centers. Jelil said, “They gave pills to every inmate. We all sat quietly. It (and the lack of food) made us subdued. You cannot even think about your children or your parents. You go in and out of consciousness. You can think of nothing. It is as if you’ve spent your whole life in prison. It is as if you were born there. No thoughts come into your head.” Jelil said these pills also stopped their menstrual cycle.
Some of the women in these spaces cracked. They fainted from hunger, had seizures, and suffered mental breakdowns. Jelil observed young women screaming, hitting their heads against the wall, smearing feces on the wall, refusing commands. Those women soon disappeared, she said. The Uyghur “sisters,” as Jelil referred to them, that remained in the cell told each other to “pray on the inside.” Tursun said more than nine women died as a result of prison conditions during the time she was held.
Soon after Jelil was disappeared in May 2017, her children back in Kazakhstan began petitioning for her release. On a daily basis they sent letters to government officials in Kazakhstan and China. Eventually, Kazakhstani officials were able to pressure the Chinese state into releasing her. She said, “At first they told them there was no such person. They could say this because they had given me a Chinese ID and made me a Chinese person. Then they said I was a terrorist, but because they couldn’t prove this, eventually they had to let me go.”
When the day came for her release, Jelil told the guards the same thing she had been trained to say: “Dao.” I’m here.
“They put the shroud over my head,” she said. “I held out my hands. They put the shackles on me. They brought me to the prison hospital to give me a physical. It seemed like the police consulted with the doctor, who said that I couldn’t be put on the airplane (back to Kazakhstan). They gave me vitamins and injections. They wanted to give me some nutrition. I had lost so much weight and was so weak. Two days later, my police officer came for me. She said, ‘Gulbahar.’ I said, ‘Dao.’ She asked, ‘Why aren’t you happy?’ And I said, ‘Why should I be?’ She said, ‘You are acquitted.’ She took the shackles off.”
Recounting this at the end of the 43rd minute of the interview, Jelil began to wail softly. For nearly a minute, the sounds of her crying filled the studio. Her interviewer looked down at the paper in front of him, his hand pulled up to his face.
Darren Byler is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, where he studies the aesthetics and politics of urban life in Chinese Central Asia. His writing has appeared in Guernica, Time, the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications.