Information about the internment camps that the Chinese government has set up in the Xinjiang region of the country is sparse and often hard to come by. The failure of the Chinese government to be transparent about its activities over the last couple of years has largely fueled this dearth of information. Chinese officials previously obfuscated the nature and purpose of the detention centers in Xinjiang, going so far as to completely deny the existence of Uyghur detention camps, until mounting international pressure forced the government to make certain preliminary admissions about its “re-education centers.” As more and more Uyghurs are interned, however, questions about the conditions of these “re-education centers” or camps are arising with little-to-no answers.
Earlier this month, Foreign Policy editor, James Palmer, addressed this problem during a forum hosted by the Asia Society, stating “in China, all of my Uyghur sources are gone,” before breaking down into tears. “I can’t talk to people, because they’re gone. I cannot reach them. Even Han Chinese in Xinjiang who were sources…have been arrested.” Palmer went on to state that he and other fellow journalists “stopped trying to reach Uyghur sources at all because even the act of contacting them was likely to put them at risk of being sent to the camps.”
Palmer also noted that Uyghur students living abroad have told him that they are being threatened by Chinese authorities, who say they will imprison their families unless they return home. “[I tell them] you will be sent to the camps anyway, and your parents will be sent to the camps anyway, because you have had contact with foreigners, and that is seen as being one of the most dangerous possible things [by the Chinese government].” These fears have kept many Uyghurs from returning home, while their families are imprisoned in unknown locations.
One such student is twenty-nine year old Mihrigul Tursun, who is now a refugee living in Washington, D.C. She previously lived as a student in Egypt and was arrested and tortured upon returning to China to visit her family in 2015. According to CBS News, Tursun “said she was interrogated for four days in a row without sleep, had her hair shaved and was subjected to an intrusive medical examination” by Chinese authorities. Tursun “was immediately detained and separated from her infant children,” which resulted in the death of one of her three children, while “the other two developed health problems.”
Tursun was arrested two more times in 2017, “and spent three months in a cramped, suffocating prison cell with 60 other women, having to sleep in turns, use the toilet in front of security cameras and sing songs praising China’s Communist Party.” CBS News notes that Tursun told reporters at an event at the National Press Club that “she and other inmates were forced to take unknown medication, including pills that made them faint and a white liquid that caused bleeding in some women and loss of menstruation in others.” She claims that “nine women from her cell died” from torture and mistreatment. The torture was so severe that Tursun says she begged prison authorities to kill her.
Stories like Tursun’s are grim, and leave many wondering what the Uyghurs ever did to deserve such oppressive torture and humiliation. There are potentially hundreds of thousands of others like Tursun, who have endured and continue to endure industrial-scale persecution, but from whom the world will never hear. Perhaps most disconcerting is that uncovering even the most basic details about the conditions of the camps in Xinjiang—from how many Uyghurs have been interned and tortured, to which among them are dead or alive—has been left largely to guesswork.