Omar Bekali, 45, is considered the first person to speak publicly about being detained in China’s concentration camps for Uyghurs.
XINJIANG, China – On March 26, 2017, at 10 a.m. I was at my parents’ house with my brothers and sisters when two police cars pulled up outside.
Five armed police officers emerged from the cars, came into our home, and arrested me. They never presented me with a warrant.
Like many other prisoners I met, I was accused of things like propagating terrorism and smuggling people out of China. I was targeted and discriminated against for being a Uyghur ethnic minority.
This was only the beginning of the torture I would endure.
Every time I visited my hometown of Pishan county, in the Turpan prefecture of Xinjiang, China, it felt like a war zone.
I was visiting Xinjiang five to six times per year since I had moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2006. Sometimes I went for work and other times to visit my family.
Armed vehicles patrolled the streets. Body scanning devices flashed over me at the entrance to shopping malls, restaurants, and schools.
The streets were laden with surveillance cameras and police checkpoints stood guard between each city, town, and village.
Most strikingly was how the people there changed – their faces full of fear as they exited their homes under the watchful eye of government cameras.
Uyghurs stopped visiting each other, stopped being social, and our normally communicative culture evaporated.
Facing racial discrimination for being Uyghur and the Islamaphobia that came with it pushed me out of my home.
At first, I worked in the textile business in Kazakhstan before getting a job at a tourism company called Tumar-Trans, where I got promoted to the director of the company’s Chinese tourism department.
Crucially, I became a Kazakh citizen.
The border crossing into Xinjiang from Kazakhstan always involved a thorough search of our vehicles and a 30-minute interrogation.
People in Xinjiang started telling me about “schools” the government was building in 2014.
It was a very sensitive topic and Uyghurs were sent there to “study” for two to six months at a time. They were really detention centers. My brother spent two months in one of them.
I didn’t know then that this was the beginning of a genocide.
The last time I went to visit my hometown was on March 26, 2017.
The interrogation from the border guards was especially intense and much longer than usual.
That morning, I was at my parents’ house with my brothers and sisters when two police cars pulled up outside.
Five armed police officers emerged from the cars, came into our home, and arrested me.
They never presented me with a warrant, saying they had one on their computer.
Neighbors peered through their windows and saw me being placed into their car.
I was brought to Dighar Village Police Station where I was made to wait for two hours.
Every chance I got, I’d ask to call my parents, a lawyer, the Kazakh embassy, or my wife.
No one knew where I was and I couldn’t call for help.
From the police station I was brought somewhere I didn’t recognize, in completely unfamiliar territory.
The police made me take off my clothes and examined my body, making notes about my condition. That’s when the torture started. They transferred me to the police station, in Kelamayi, Xinjiang.
Every morning at 8:30 a.m. I was put in the Tiger Chair.
My hands were strapped onto the arms on the chair and my feet were constrained at the bottom while needles were gradually slid into my fingers.
That would last four to eight hours every day.
From April 3 to April 7, 2017, they would put me in the Tiger Chair to try and extract information from me and compel me to admit to crimes I wasn’t guilty of.
They would say I was organizing terrorist activities, propagating terrorism, or covering up for terrorists.
The police would show me photos of Uyghur and Kazakh people in Kazakhstan and ask me for their information.
I was given a letter accounting for all of my supposed crimes and asked to sign it as a confession.
My job was used against me and the police claimed I was using my tourism career as a way to smuggle people out of China and into neighboring countries.
Needles and nails were inserted into my body every time I told them “no” or “I’m innocent”.
An iron wire was shoved into my penis.
Through it all, I never admitted to anything or signed a single document.
“Where is the evidence,” I would ask, which led to more torture as punishment.
The police realized they needed to ramp up the pressure to get me to say what they wanted me to say.
Rope was tied to the ceiling and around my wrists so tight that my feet couldn’t touch the ground. The rope ripped through the skin on my wrists while my body weight pulled me down.
Other days I was put in a “flying plane” position, where both my wrists and feet were tied to the ceiling, pulling my arms and legs out of their sockets while I was left dangling.
The guards would laugh as my body pulled itself apart.
It wasn’t until July of 2017, four months after I was arrested, when I met with Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to China.
He wasn’t allowed to ask me any questions about my treatment by the Chinese authorities and I wasn’t allowed to speak about them.
Incredibly, that was only the beginning of my detention. Any strategy the Kazakh representative had to get me out was not working.
The only time I saw the world outside of the concentration camp was when I first arrived and when I left. Even then, I had a black hood over my head and my hands and feet were handcuffed together.
I briefly saw armed police outside who are the only people let in and out of the facility. Usually, prisoners aren’t permitted to leave while they’re alive.
When I first got there they substituted my handcuffs for shackles and I resisted. It took me seeing armed guards with rubber rods approaching me to trigger the haunting memories of my earlier torture before I agreed to be shackled. I couldn’t stand to have my hands and feet broken again.
They brought me to a room where they unlatched one foot shackle and attached it to a fixed iron tube on the ground. I had seven other cellmates and we were all kept shackled for three months and 10 days.
All you have is time in prison. I spent my time counting.
After the first few months, I was transferred to a room with 35 to 40 other detainees. The room was three meters wide, six meters long, and four meters high.
I counted three corridors in the compound with 34 rooms in each corridor. My estimation is there were 4,000 prisoners in that one camp. There was one window in the room and it was intentionally small, so no one could escape.
Every week, eight to 10 prisoners, aged 18 to 40-years-old, were removed from the room and replaced by new detainees.
Many people believe the purpose of these concentration camps is to indoctrinate Uyghurs into obeying the Chinese government. Some say they use sophisticated mechanisms to brainwash us.
I was told by the guards I had been poisoned by extreme ideologies during my life outside of China and needed to attend a political studies course.
We were denied food for not agreeing to sing anthems that praised the Chinese government, otherwise known as Red Songs.
Denouncing our Uyghur identity and Muslim religion was a key demand of our captors. My personal belief is they never actually planned on indoctrinating us. The plan was always to exterminate the Uyghur population and harvest our organs.
I was made to read a list of 60 types of common crimes, like associating with my ethnic or religious identity, praying to Allah, having a beard, attending a Muslim marriage, and communicating with people outside China.
There were five types of punishment we endured whenever we didn’t robotically follow the guards’ orders.
First, they’d make me face a wall for 24 hours without food or drink while they beat me with rubber rods.
Second, we were put in the Tiger Chair where needles were shoved into our fingers and feet.
Third, we’d be left in solitary confinement with no light for 24 hours.
Fourth, they’d put us into scorching hot rooms in the summer or freezing cold rooms in the winter.
Finally, a punishment I thankfully never experienced was called water prison. I heard of many detainees who were put in the water prison, but I don’t know what it is.
All of the prisoners stood accused of the exact same ludicrous crimes like being part of a terrorist organization or jeopardizing national security. We were also accused of attending Friday prayers, attending the Qurban Islamic festival, or abiding by the Muslim tradition of abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes.
Being a Uyghur or a Kazakh was enough to land you in a concentration camp.
They forced us all to eat pork on Fridays, the holy day for Muslims.
Despite their attempts at humiliating me, it was my religious beliefs and my conviction of my innocence that kept me going in there.
I refused to speak to them in Mandarin, learn their so-called laws, and I kept asking for a lawyer, which landed me in a lot of trouble.
Whenever they hauled me off to one of their punishments, I would tell them to release me or shoot me in the head.
In the end, they answered my ultimatum.
To my great surprise on November 24, 2017, I was informed of my release and expulsion to Kazakhstan. I had been detained for eight months.
Two police officers, one of them named Pehirdin, told me I was innocent and threatened me to keep my mouth shut. If I didn’t, they said, my family would suffer.
A pregnant policewoman named Wang Xiaomei came to see me the next day and gave me a visa to Kazakhstan.
I would later learn my wife sent a number of letters to the UN Human Rights Commission and the Kazakhstan Foreign Minister attesting to my innocence.
The considerable press coverage of my illegal detainment was a major factor in my release.
Upon my release, I immediately called my children and parents to tell them I was alive.
You might think that all of my friends and the people I knew would be overjoyed to see me. Truthfully, many Uyghurs in Xinjiang were uncomfortable associating with me out of fear of the Chinese state surveillance.
I returned to Kazakhstan and kissed the soil out of joy for my unbelievable freedom.
Now my life’s meaning is entwined with the over one million Uyghurs in concentration camps. I want to see them obtain their freedom.
The world must know and people must act.
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