Title: A look inside the Chinese Prison, as told by a former Uyghur Political Prisoner
By Aydin Anwar
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
― Nelson Mandela
He didn’t want to be anonymous; he had already been interviewed on camera for 19 hours on an Uyghur news station based in Turkey. He walked into our interviewing site, proudly carrying the light blue East Turkistan flag with him. He was going to display it behind himself while being recorded.
I was going to interview Adil Abdulghufur, a recently released political prisoner who spent 18 years of his life in Chinese prison. I had set up the interview so that there were two chairs facing each other. I would sit on one, and he would sit on the other. He sat down for a few minutes and immediately asked if he could move to a sofa or something less formal. He told me that the chairs coupled with the interview questions brought back memories of him being interrogated in the prisons. We transitioned to a sofa.
I started off by asking him what his pre-prison life was like. He started off by going through some brief post-1949-occupation history. He mentioned that in 1953, the Chinese government had confiscated all the assets of the rich. From 1958-1970, China had gotten rid of all the Uyghur scholars. They also killed his mother’s parents. In 1988, Adil had written a poem that demeaned communism, resulting in his first imprisonment that would last for two months. He said he came out of the prison only to be more revolutionary.
A year later, he had attempted to escape to Pakistan but was only caught during his solo on-foot journey, which lasted for 28 days, from Kashgar to Tajikistan. He was sent back to China and sentenced to prison for four more years. During his time in prison, he and several others established an “East Turkistan Allah Party,” which would only be discovered by the Communist party after Adil had been released. They caught him again in 1999, sentencing him to 13 years of prison.
“If I were to speak about what happened during the 18 years of my prison life, I would never be able to finish.” He managed to speak solely on the prison conditions for a total of 1 hour 30 minutes, but below are some of the few things he told me (reader discretion is advised as some parts are graphic).
Below is Adil’s initial response when I asked if he could speak about his life in the Chinese prison.
:07— Prison life [pause]— now this, no matter how specific I get, it won’t be enough because this is a long process. Here, the Chinese, if there’s a prison, they hide everything from the public; everything is a secret. In order to get rid of the Uyghur population, everything they can’t do outside, the bloody massacres, they do in the prisons. If I explain my experiences, my tongue would probably be weak.
A couple minutes later, he started describing the filthiness and lack of hygiene he and his inmates had to face.
3:20— At 10am, they bring us to the bathroom, and again at 10pm. In that process, if you have a lot or little to release and you say, “I need to go to the restroom,” they never let us. So when they come and kick us and beat us, the feces comes out and goes on the person’s clothes…We have our nails grown out, our beards and mustaches are grown out. When walking to the bathroom… we are all connected to each other. Our feet are chained together. Our hands are chained behind our back. When we are walking, we are bending down and naked in the snow— half a centimeter, 50 cm, etc. in January. Our feet are bare, and there are no shoes to wear. We are just in the snow.
5:08— Once at the bathroom, they strip the first person and make him use the bathroom. Once the person uses it, the next person goes up. There are around 50 people waiting in line at once. Their legs shiver as they stand. Usually, since each person takes a long time to use the bathroom, the feces of those in line comes out and gets on the clothing. And if your feces is released, it freezes in the cold. Many of us come back to the prison cell without using the bathroomWhen we go inside, we sleep side by side and the insides of our clothes are full of feces and liquid feces, our feet are bare, and we are not able to wash ourselves. As I said, as we go outside our clothes become frozen, and once we are inside, and we have to get close to each other, the feces starts to melt. We have to lay down with liquid feces in us. And there’s no way we can block the smell. There’s no choice.
For the first nine months of my detainment, they did not let us to clean ourselves or shower for nine months.
6:20 —We couldn’t wash our hands for months. In the morning, they give us boiling water in a cup, they give us left over pieces of bread and throw it to everyone… We cannot wash or wipe our hands. There is no napkin or anything to wipe us. Between our fingers, there is feces. If the feces dries, then we use our hands to clean it off. If not, it just stays there… If we don’t eat, then we’ll starve. If we do eat, our hands are dirty and filled with poop. Our nails are grown out and filled with poop. And for those with diarrhea, or for those who just finished releasing a lot, to clean themselves, since they can’t find a cloth or napkin, they have to clean with their hands. It sticks to the hand, even if they try wiping it on their shoes and the floor. They don’t give water [for us to clean]. So, in that process, for months we couldn’t wash our hands. Our nails are out grown, our hands are full of dry poop and it smells. That’s how we lived.
7:50—they throw hard bread one by one to us, if we don’t eat them, we’ll starve. There’s nothing to eat. We’ll do if we don’t eat it. If we try eating it, our body can’t take it. The bread’s crust, our hands are cuffed in the front, we can’t rub our hands together. Because our hands are like that, we have to grab it like this [demonstrates his hands being cuffed]. Our fingertips that have dried poop.
9:10— If you ask why they did this, the Chinese wants us to repent— they say, “How dare you oppose the Chinese? If you didn’t oppose the government, you wouldn’t have seen these days.” In order to make us repent, they’re doing this to us. Since we’re human, some people can’t take the torture anymore and give up and say they’ll follow the Chinese rule…
22:43— They say we are not allowed to use the Uyghur language in the prison. So they make us memorize Chinese poems. If we can’t memorize them, they open the lid of the tub where 20 people had used the bathroom with, and we have to bend down and immerse ourselves in it. Since there were several times where I didn’t bend my head down, they would grab my feet and flip my whole body inside. Once I come out, my ears, eyes, and nose would be filled with feces. They didn’t let me use my hands to wipe it off. My eyes are shut closed. Normally, our mouths are filled with everything. I thought, “Nothing happens to the humans”…
Adil further went on to talk about other forms of torture they faced.
3:12 — We put our hands on our heads, crawling and crouching down as we entered. Once we entered, for every person, 2 soldiers would continually beat the person until they would pass out. Once we were awake, we were in the prison cell.
3:47— So from 6 am to 8pm, for more than 10 hours, we had to sit down without moving. On this type of floor, on cement. No one is allowed to speak a word or move slightly. We don’t even have the right to speak the Uyghur language. To say “I need to use the bathroom” or “Let me blow out my nose” (clarify at 4:15) or “Let me itch this place” or “Let me fix my button” is not allowed… For instance, if I had tied my shoes or fixed my clothes without asking, then I would get beaten. They would ask,“Who did you ask to tie your shoes? Who did you ask to touch/itch your ear or face? Who did you ask to fix your clothes?… Why didn’t you tell us when someone moved?” They would beat us.
5:20— In order to make us opponents, if I were to move, then one of the inmates would say to me, “Why did you move? If you hadn’t moved, then I wouldn’t have gotten beat.” Like I said, they would make us enemies out of the smallest manners, making us opponents and enemies so we wouldn’t be one.
5:46—…After more than 10 hours, they ask, “Today who moved without asking”? Every cell there were two cameras, the police would check the cameras from outside…
6:20 — Therefore, since we’re getting beat everyday non-stop, we wondered, “Will there be a day when we won’t get beaten?” They don’t kill us, they just beat us with a rod— since it affects the body so much, combined with the beatings, the dirtiness of our bodies, and the scarce food they give us, making us starve, a lot of the prisoners get extremely sick.
7:22 –There was one man, Abdulrahman Qadir, from Hotan, whose hands and feet got infected from getting beaten. Instead of amputating them, they let the infection go up his body, up to his waist. His feet looked like the shell of a corn plant. Dried up, there was no meat on his lower body. His bones were crumbled. A bunch of insects covered his waist and lower body. He died in the prison.
Adil elaborates on the illnesses prevalent in the prison, recalling the time when he himself got sick and when the prison intentionally brought AIDS to the prisoners.
7:10 — I, in December 2005, got extremely sick. I got tuberculosis … Here, the poor quality of the food, the cold temperature, the cold food, the cold words, the weakness of the physical body, having to lay on the cold ground night and day— the coldness made its way to the lungs and the whole body and the heart. The international community knows it as a serious sickness. The sickness comes from weakness and dirtiness. This is how they made us sick.
7:55 — I got sick in December 2005, went to the hospital, and got checked. The doctor said I was going to die. She said I was surely going to die. At that time, AIDS was going around too. That was also put in the middle of things for us.
8:10 — The prison brought Han Chinese from inner China, who have AIDS to the Uyghur/Turkistani prisoners and made the Han to be in charge. And every 15 days, our heads would be shaved. They would use a machine used for pulling wheat off the ground… Since they shaved our heads every 15 days, using this one machine to shave 40, 50, 100 people’s hair, many people got contracted with AIDS. There were many inmates who had studied the deen (Islam), who had never smoked a cigarette in their life, never drank alcohol, never went on a broken or wrong path, always ate halal, and never smoked a cigarette. They all had taqwa [fear and consciousness of God]. The Chinese caused them to contract the AIDS disease.
9:20 — …We got contracted with the AIDS disease through our heads [Through the rough head shavings and the exposed blood from the head]. If we were to eat our food separately, they would beat us saying that doing so indicated our Uyghur patriotism. They would give the food that was eaten by those who had AIDS, and make us eat it. And we would try to hide the plate or not eat the food. If we don’t eat it, they say we aren’t satisfied with the Chinese plate. To refuse to eat their food was a crime. But they eat pork; it’s dirty, haram is mixed with it — since we’re eating Islamically, and we separate
halal (permissible) from haram (forbidden), even saying, “Why should we eat the food that the Chinese eat?” is a crime and the consequences are heavy.
11:25 — If we get sick, we don’t let them know. If we get a cold or get diarrhea, or if someone else gets sick, as we are laying down [sick], we ask Allah to keep us safe from going to the prison hospital. We ask Him to Give us a cure, or to make us die so we don’t go to the prison hospital. We worried that they would give us poisonous medicine — we saw many healthy inmates enter the hospital and come out dead. The officers would tell us that they died due to sickness.
12:15 — Normally, the people who would visit us from Kashgar or Hotan – now, if I were to speak about what happened for 18 years in prison life, I would never be able to finish – – The dangerous part is that those who visit from the Southern part of East Turkistan, like Kashgar and Hotan, are forced to sign a document that acknowledges that their son has contracted AIDS. In their whole lives, their sons’ never smoked, had studied religion, always had a clean and healthy background, and some of them had received higher education.
Adil moved on to tell me the prison’s crackdown on religion, recalling one of his experiences.
15:20 — I’ll tell you one disaster that happened to me…In 2003, or in 2002 probably, I apparently called the athan out loud in my sleep as I was dreaming. Even saying “bismillah” (In the Name of God) is forbidden. They say you cannot pray. We don’t pray, and if we happen to be sitting without moving, then they accuse of praying. We are supposed to be constantly reading or memorizing the Chinese laws and the prison’s (17:00) rules…
17:19 — So, as I had slept I had apparently called the athan out loud. They woke me up, dragged me from my feet from the top bunk of the bed, pulled me down, and dragged me out. I had no clothes on me; my whole body was naked. Two Chinese officers took me out by dragging my feet. By the time they took me out, the skin on my back and head had come off. Blood had come out.
17:45 — They took me outside. It was January, and it had snowed. The cold weather had frozen the snow like ice. They brought me to the prison’s office. As I came in, there were 4 soldiers sitting there. They got up, and asked me what I was doing laying down. I said I didn’t do anything, I was probably blabbering in my sleep. They asked me what I said. I told them I didn’t know what I said. They said I had prayed. I said I didn’t pray. They said, but you screamed “Allahu Akbar (meaning, God is the greatest).” I said I probably said it unconsciously and I didn’t pray. They accused me of lying, and they beat me up similar to the process of making kighiz [a primitive rug made by rolling wool, and then kicking hardly after every roll]. They beat me up until they were tired.
18:36 — Now, in the middle of so much anger, I could no longer feel the beating. They beat me for around half an hour, and my whole body was sweating. My body made the
ground dirty with dirt and mud. They brought me clothes, and I put them on top of my dirty body. They chained both my feet and hands, and put a 25kg cement board around my neck, made out of cement. Carved into the board was, in Chinese, “This is supposed to be put on the neck of stubborn prisoners who never bow to the Chinese rule.” [Adil would later tell me that they made him wear it for one month using a thin wire, often causing him to bleed].
25:32 — Not only that, there’s one thing that the Chinese do. Every year in March there’s a questionnaire for us. They put 500 questions in the middle of us. This is very important. This needs to be heard by the entire international community. Every year, they take the patriotic, faithful Turkistani prisoners who’ve opposed the Chinese government and ask them questions…The first question is, “Is there a God or not?” Now, for those who answered that there is a God. .. they are not allowed to explain their answer. It’s either a yes or no… The second question is, “Was the earth and heavens created by God or nature? And then, “Can the Holy Quran save all of mankind or no?” “Is East Turkistan the same as China or is it a separate country?” “Are you praying in the prisons or not?” “Are you going to pray from now on?” “Once you are released, what do you plan to do?” “What kind of person is Osama Bin Laden? “If the Chinese live with the Uyghurs, will society flourish? Or will it flourish if they are separate from the Uyghurs?” We have to say either yes or no, we can’t explain our answers.
00:00—Based off of those answers, they sort us into 4 groups using 4 cards. Those with the red card are allowed to walk upright. They are the ones that comply with the Chinese – those who say there is no God, that East Turkistan and China are the same thing, etc.. Now, for those with the yellow card, they have to walk with their hands behind their head. For those with the brown card, they walk bent down, also with their hands behind their heads. And there are those with the green card, who have to move by crawling…I was put into that group.
00:50—In 2002, my mom had come to visit for the first time. They asked me if I wanted to see my mother. I hadn’t seen my mother for 4-5 years, why wouldn’t I want to see my mother? The distance between my prison cell to my mother was around 1.5 kilometers. The prison is huge [Adil told me it had more than 15,000 prisoners]. I had to crawl from the prison cell to the visitor’s center. I had no right to walk upright. They said you can only visit your mother if you crawl there. I said I would even roll to see my mother. So I crawled my way there.
I went on to ask about how he escaped to Turkey but Adil seemed a bit hesitant to tell his experiences right away. He said he was a bit tired and insisted that he come another day to speak about it. Adil wasn’t the only one reluctant to speak about how he escaped. Several refugees who I had interviewed beforehand only spoke about their experiences briefly. They said that disposing details would endanger those who are currently traveling on the same path.
Adil had mentioned earlier, though, that one of his children had died during their journey through Malaysia.
Throughout this process of translating, I had to take countless breaks every few minutes because of the disturbing content. Just translating this portion of the interview took a lot of emotional energy for me—looking into his pained eyes and imagining the torture happening to him, I couldn’t help but also imagine the torture that the 15 million [number stated by Adil] imprisoned Uyghurs, including Maryam’s daughter, might be going through currently. Translating meant that I had to relive the interview, this time paying close attention to every word he said so I could translate it as best as possible. Not being able to translate his experiences for more than several continuous minutes was something that allowed me to imagine the scope of his experiences. Adil lived through these experiences for 18 years of his life, and I only sat at my computer for a few hours, unable to withstand the process of listening to his experiences again. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]