“The camp broke me – spiritually, materially, and physically.”

Zhazira Asen.

The following is a translation of a first-person eyewitness account from Zhazira Asen, a businesswoman and writer who spent a year and a half in camp. It was published in Kazakh and Russian by Radio Azattyq in July 2022, and was likely subject to some editorial changes when prepared for presentation (although this isn’t explicitly stated).

It was the morning of May 3, 2017. Our family was drinking tea at home. A Kazakh guy from the Jeminey County Public Security Bureau called and asked me to go see them.

“Bring your passport,” he told me.

I had previously heard of locals having their passports confiscated, and thought that they were planning to take my passport, as they had done with others. As soon as I got there, I was made to take off my necklace, beads, and earrings, with my phone being taken away.

“We have new rules now,” they explained. “Leave everything at the entrance. You’ll pick it up when you leave.”

Then they asked me for the password to my phone, turning it on and checking the content. When I went inside, they handcuffed me and started an interrogation.

Zhazira Asen, prior to arrest.

Then they went to my home. There were roughly a thousand and five hundred books in my personal library. Among the first one that they grabbed were the Quran and Shakarim’s book, asking where they had come from.

“What’s the connection between you and this Wahhabi?” they asked, holding Shakarim’s book.

“He’s the younger brother of the world-famous Abai,” I said. “He’s a poet and an educator.”

Then, starting to laugh, I added:

“Everyone wore beards like that back then. He died 100 years ago.”

They wrote down that I “did not cooperate”.

To this day, I still haven’t been able to find out why they put me in a camp and why they freed me. That was because there were three questions that you weren’t allowed to ask upon arrival in camp: “Why was I detained?”, “When will I leave?”, and “Why are the detention conditions here bad?”

They had blue and red plastic chairs there. We’d sit on them. Above us hung a large screen, which was constantly showing Xi Jinping’s visits to Africa and Saudi Arabia, together with China’s accomplishments. From morning to night, they would tell us:

“We will be the foremost country in the world. The foremost language in the world will be Chinese. So make sure you study the language well. In the future, you will be proud to have been born on Chinese soil.”

An illustrated reconstruction of camp inmates watching programs about Xi Jinping (from the VR film “Reeducated“).

In the camp, there were innocent youth, middle-aged mothers, and elderly women. None of them knew why they ended up detained in a camp. Once a day, we would be taken out into the yard for an hour and a half and made to do military exercises. You know that 80-year-olds can barely move their legs, let alone do such exercises. I saw 70- to 80-year-old women fall after a kick to the ankle.

“You’re not doing it correctly,” they’d criticize them, hitting them on the shoulders because the elderly “couldn’t stand straight”.

The camp had a dark room without windows.

“We’ll lock you in that room if you don’t follow orders,” they’d scare us.

There was also a metal chair there that they called a “tiger chair”. They’d shackle your arms and legs and leave you sitting in that chair for 72 hours. We’d sleep on concrete. The blankets we were given to put under us were so thin that they were transparent in some places. They turned off the heating on purpose, which led to my developing pains in my lower back. Once, I was forced to stand motionless for four hours because I said that my back hurt and I needed to see a doctor. It was then that I lost consciousness and fractured my head during the fall. The fracture spot grew back together in such a way that when I press there now I can feel a bump.

Zhazira Asen, prior to arrest.

We were really not getting enough food, and what we got was reminiscent of animal fodder. Potatoes, carrots, and cabbage were chopped up and boiled, without being washed beforehand.

There were two young Kazakh girls in the camp with us, who were childhood friends. Once, they were sitting together and talking. The guards ended up beating them cruelly, kicking them.

“What are you planning? We have an order from above. Even if we kill you, there’ll be no action taken against us.”

That’s what they said while beating them.

During my first day at camp, I cried a lot. I felt weak and fell, because they had been questioning me without giving me anything to eat for two days. But I retained consciousness and heard with my own ears the prison director say:

“If she dies, then she dies. They won’t get anything for it.”

I wasn’t just a writer, but did commerce too. I had three different businesses: the import-export company “Qyrmyzy”, which shipped home furniture to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia, the cooperative “Selbestik”, which produced ethnic Kazakh clothing, marriage items for young women, and souvenirs for tourists (I had around 30 people working for me there, and was trying to get housewives involved in business), and I also had a small shop dealing in industrial goods.

The first page of the short story “Diary”, written by Zhazira and published in Altai Ayasy (“Altai Region”).

It’s interesting to see the Chinese authorities say, when justifying their actions to other countries, that they’re sending to the centers those people who don’t know Chinese and don’t have professions, where they then re-train them and give them a vocation, while teaching them Chinese. However, among those in camp were teachers, government workers, and even those who had done all of their basic education in Chinese. This makes their claims of “teaching them language and a trade” sound inappropriate. For example, I had three different businesses and speak Chinese fluently. If what the Chinese authorities say is true, then why did they intern me in a camp?

On December 23, 2018, they started freeing us from the camps. I was freed at midnight on December 25. After that, I’d be under house arrest for six months. On June 3, 2019, I left behind my 60-year-old mother and two younger sisters and, as if fleeing, crossed the Kazakhstan border at Zaisan.

The Chinese government is a communist system. With an artificial god.

“We’re your gods, as is Xi Jinping,” they say. “Walk the path of Marxism-Leninism. Study the ideas of Mao Zedong. We are the ones who can raise you to the heavens or relegate you to hell.”

And that’s why all the ethnic minorities want to run away from there.

The first page of the short story “Tower”, written by Zhazira and published in Shugyla (“Radiance”).

I am grateful to the Kazakhstan authorities for the concessions they made – not only to myself but to everyone who was able to escape the Chinese oppression. Before I ended up in camp, I had a visa to Kazakhstan that was valid for a year, but I wouldn’t be able to cross in time, as I spent a year and a half in camp and the period of validity expired. However, Kazakhstan would still issue me a three-year visa. They must have thought it worthwhile to allow me to come, even if it was only a single Kazakh woman. Moreover, they granted me citizenship within three months following my arrival.

When I first arrived from China and settled in Nur-Sultan, I got a call from a guy who said that he was from the National Security Committee (NSC). He wanted to talk to me about what I experienced at the Chinese camp. We met at a café and talked for almost four hours. I recounted everything that had happened to me, that I had seen, that I had felt. Then, I’d finally ask him:

“Why are you asking about this? Do you want to help the Oralman detained in China?”

“No,” he answered. “We can’t interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

I’m not occupied with anything these days. My business waned while I was in camp. The camp broke me – spiritually, materially, and physically.

We were carefully monitored by the law-enforcement officials during the January events as well, and those who had spent time in camps especially. There are people here who present themselves as staff of the “National Security Committee”. They don’t give them names or phone numbers. They can detain you anywhere and ask you incomprehensible questions: “What do you know about the January events?”, “Did Oralman take part in them?”

Honestly, I felt insulted. Because when we lived in Xinjiang, we’d be treated like stepchildren, but after returning to our ancestral homeland we are being oppressed for having been born and raised in China. So where should we go then?! Will there ever be a day when we can live free of worry? For example, in May I went to Germany for the second summit of the East Turkistan national council. The organizers themselves contacted me to ask if I could talk about my camp experience. I agreed. Then, after I returned, I got a call from an “NSC staff member”, who didn’t bother to present himself and asked:

“Why did you go to Germany? Why didn’t you ask us for permission? What was said there?”

Zhazira speaking at the summit in Germany, May 2022.

Why should I ask them for permission to go abroad? Am I a person who committed a crime and hasn’t finished serving her sentence? Dozens of people leave Kazakhstan to go abroad every day. Do they all get the NSC’s blessing before doing so?!

After arriving in Kazakhstan, I underwent a medical examination with the help of the International Legal Initiative organization. I recently underwent surgery.

Since leaving the camp, I’ve noticed that I tend to forget events and occurrences. And it isn’t just me, as this kind of forgetfulness has been seen in everyone who’s been in camp. While we were in camp, we were given an unknown injection. At that time, they told us that they were giving us “vaccination shots against infectious diseases”…

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