When she returns home after an absence of two years, Ajar* no longer looks like herself. With hollowed cheeks, gray hair, and a distant gaze, she is nothing but a shadow that breaks into tears at the sight of her children. “My son shouted ‘Mummy, Mummy,’ but my daughter didn’t recognise me because she was too young when I left Kazakhstan. Even my husband stared at me for a long time after I walked through the door,” she recalls. Ajar had just turned 34 and had just left a re-education camp in Xinjiang.

by Robin Tutenges

Arrested at the border by Chinese authorities during a business trip, she had emigrated just a month earlier from China to Kazakhstan to set up a new home and guarantee her children a Kazakh education in line with the traditions of her ethnic background. Today, the new life she had dreamed of has become her burden.

“At first, I was afraid of everyone and everything. My husband asked me if I was relieved to be back, and I said ‘I don’t know.’ For a whole year, I stayed at home with the children, not wanting to go anywhere. The Chinese police often asked me what I was doing; I was being monitored even in Kazakhstan,” Ajar recalls.

A horse passes through a village in Kazakhstan that is home to several survivors of the Chinese camps, 9 January 2023. | Robin Tutenges

Remembering in silence

Like many Xinjiang survivors, Ajar finds it hard to see her release from the camps as a “liberation.” Three years later, the memory of endless days moving from one cell to another, from one anxiety to another, is still deeply ingrained in her.

The Chinese authorities, for their part, are doing their utmost to censor these memories. Each “released” prisoner has to sign a form promising not to disclose any information about their detention. Some are forced to claim voluntary attendance in the camps for professional training, while others must confess to imaginary crimes (terrorism, extremism, treason) when their only fault, according to the Chinese government, is belonging to an ethnic minority, such as Uighurs or Kazakhs. This is done to enforce silence and maintain pressure.

Saule*, incarcerated at the age of 76 and released after one year and nine months, had to make nearly 50 relatives from her hometown sign a document vouching for her loyalty to the Chinese regime and holding them responsible for her “betrayal” if it were to occur. Even outside the camps, the survivors know that they and their loved ones are under the scrutiny of the Chinese state.

Faced with these threats, many remain silent and, once reunited with their families, find themselves isolated with the weight of their traumas. Even if they are willing to speak, the victims often face incomprehension or helplessness on the part of their loved ones, whose best efforts are not enough to erase the violence they have suffered.

Rahima Senbai, who returned to Kazakhstan over a year ago from the Chinese camps, still hasn’t emptied all her suitcases, which are lying on a piece of furniture in her living room. 31 December 2022, Kazakhstan. | Robin Tutenges

Living with ghosts

There are nightmares that return incessantly, intrusive reminiscences that abruptly recall the sessions of torture experienced or witnessed. There is also the body’s memory, always aching from the abuse suffered. And then there are other ghosts: those of lost loved ones.

In Yerke*’s eyes, cold anger follows tears as she thinks back to her last months in detention. Sent to a re-education camp in 2018 at the age of 64, her health deteriorated rapidly, and as the seasons passed, the cold in the cells caused her to lose the ability to use her legs. Authorised to receive visitors, she asked her son to bring her warm socks the next time he came. Days went by, but he never came back.

On the fifth day, a guard told Yerke that she was going home. “I was happy,” she chokes, before continuing: “When I was taken back to the village, I wasn’t wearing a headscarf, but just before I got there, I was suddenly offered one, which started to make me doubt. There were people gathered outside my house, some of them Uighur neighbours; they came up to me, and I realised that something bad had happened. They told me that my son had died. After that, I don’t know how I entered the house. I asked them to show me my son. When I saw him, he seemed to be asleep. In the corner of the room, I saw a parcel with warm socks and everything I’d asked him for.”

Under the pressure of the interrogations, Yerke’s son committed suicide. As for her, she was taken back to the re-education camp. “I don’t remember the funeral. My children told me that there had been a Muslim funeral, but I don’t know if it was allowed. Maybe they told me that to comfort me. In any case, all the imams are in camps,” she says.

Yerke in the living room of her home in Kazakhstan on 4 January 2023 | Robin Tutenges

Yerke mourns the loss of her son with every passing day. The reason she can only testify anonymously today is that two of her children still live in Xinjiang and are waiting to join her in Kazakhstan. “When all my children are here, I’ll speak openly, and I’ll demand compensation from the Chinese,” she exclaims. “I hope times will change and the regime will fall. The world has forgotten the Kazakhs, but we must not stop our fight.”

Broken bodies

The former prisoners who denounce Chinese repression consider themselves  fighters, but they are fighters with broken bodies. Yerke, who was in good health before being sent to the re-education camp, now struggles to sleep because of the pain in her legs. “Upon my return to Kazakhstan, I was diagnosed with many illnesses. I have neurological problems, high blood pressure, my legs are always cold, my ears hurt… It’s very hard for me to stay focused: whenever people talk a lot, I get disorientated, I try not to stay in noisy environments,” she says.

Ospan*, who spent a year in a re-education camp and seven months under house arrest, is worn down by his numerous stints in the “tiger chair” [a form of restraint and immobilisation, ed.] and the psychological torture he endured while detained in China. At the age of 50, this former shepherd, who has found refuge with his family in a small village in eastern Kazakhstan, is no longer able to work. Although physically exhausted and subject to constant headaches, it is above all his memory that is failing him:

“Before I went to the camp, I had an excellent memory, I could remember everything: numbers, roads… When I got out, I started to forget everything. Sometimes I lose touch with reality, I get lost, I can’t remember how to get home. I used to know a lot of songs and loved to sing, I knew poems by heart, but now I can’t sing anymore because I can’t remember any words. If someone wants me to make a speech, it’s very hard for me to say one or two sentences,” he explains with difficulty.

Ospan, pictured here in Kazakhstan on 3 January 2023, still has bears psychological scars from his repeated stints on the “tiger chair” in Chinese camps. | Robin Tutenges

Beside him, his wife completes his testimony: his vision has also deteriorated due to the constant blinding light in the cells, and he suffers from auditory and pulmonary problems. Upon his return to Kazakhstan, after months of waiting, Ospan was able to consult a neurologist, who told him that he was prone to stress and prescribed him medication, something “for the blood vessels in the brain.” He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he takes it every day. His wife brings a box: they are simple vitamins, like those that Yerke was given.

Medical ordeals

In Kazakhstan, medical care for camp survivors is often poor, if it exists at all. The vast majority of returnees do not receive proper care and must settle for consulting a family doctor, who most of the time will only confirm symptoms without identifying a specific illness.

Ospan and his wife tell the story of the survivor’s difficult return, showing one of the medications he regularly takes. 3 January 2023, Kazakhstan | Robin Tutenges

Many rely on traditional medicine, like Yerke, who was advised to have a dog butchered and wrap the still-warm skin around her legs — on the third attempt, she noticed an improvement. More traditionally, remedies based on herbs or specific diets are common, and are used to treat memory loss, post-traumatic stress disorders, sleep disorders, lower back pain, liver or lung disease and even infertility — all common afflictions among camp survivors.

In any case, the cost of more substantial treatments cannot be borne by the patients, all of whom have experienced a downgrade upon leaving the camps. In the absence of access to suitable care facilities, survivors find themselves condemned to suffer without necessarily knowing the ailment that afflicts them. The luckiest may have access to humanitarian aid, which is as rare as it is precious.

It was through a fundraiser initiated by the researcher and activist Gene Bunin, the founder of the Xinjiang Victims Database (Shahit), that Tursynbek Kabi could finance the hearing aid he needed after his eardrum was perforated by prison guards during a violent altercation.

Karima Abdrakhmanova, a member of Atajurt Partiasy, a Kazakh human rights organisation, talks to Saule (facing away) outside a hospital where the camp survivor is to be treated for multiple health problems on 4 January 2023. | Robin Tutenges

Rebuilding trust

For its part, an organisation such as the International Legal Initiative (ILI), which supports requests for the release of people detained in Chinese camps, has been working since 2019 to develop a medical support pathway for certain victims, based on the recommendations of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders):

“We organise an initial consultation with a doctor to determine what medical tests the victims should have, then we redirect them to specialists, who propose a treatment that we cover. But one of the big problems in Kazakhstan, which is a legacy of the Soviet Union, is that the doctors speak Russian, while the victims only speak Xinjiang Kazakh. It was a disaster five years ago, but now things are a bit better,” explains Aina Shormanbaeva, lawyer and director of ILI.

However, the language barrier is a barrier to care; as things stand, mental health remains the blind spot in the care offered to victims because almost no interpreters are willing to accompany them to a psychologist or psychiatrist. “Even when a translator is provided, some patients don’t dare speak. They have significant psychological problems, but they can’t say everything they’d like to,” laments Anara*, a doctor in a Kazakh hospital who has examined about 50 camp survivors since 2020.

An X-ray fragment of the skull of Tursynbek Kabi (left), a survivor of the Chinese camps. On the right, Anara, a doctor in a Kazakh hospital in January 2023, who has examined dozens of survivors of the Chinese camps since 2020. | Robin Tutenges

Also, a relationship of trust that must be established between the practitioners and the victims, even though the latter have been immersed in a regime of terror in Xinjiang, subjected to non-consensual medical treatment involving injections (supposedly against the flu), pills hidden in the food, and sometimes even surgical operations. “The first survivors who came did not tell us that they had been to the concentration camps, because they were afraid. It was only through word of mouth, seeing that we wanted to help them, that more of them came and confided in us,” Anara explains.

As an endocrinology specialist, Anara has noticed recurring problems of sterility among her patients: “Many of them, both men and women, have damaged genitalia. Some told me they had been given medication, others said they had been raped. Since they didn’t come to see us just after being released from the camps, but instead sometimes two years later, we have no way of knowing what products were administered to them in Xinjiang.”

Living again, elsewhere

Between chronic pain and memories of the camps, one still has to continue living. However, it is far from easy for the survivors to return to their families. Years of distance, difference in experiences, misunderstandings, difficulty communicating, and sometimes resentment impair reunions that are not always joyful.

When Rahima Senbai returned to Kazakhstan after more than a year’s absence, she faced silence from her husband, who, seven days after her return, left the family home and filed for divorce. Rahima, who underwent a forced abortion before being sent to a camp in 2017, sighs: “He heard a lot of stories about women released from the camps: many were raped, tortured… Maybe that was the reason he left. After that, he remarried another woman, with whom he had a son.”

A woman walks alone in the streets of Almaty, Kazakhstan, on 31 December 2022. | Robin Tutenges

For Ospan, supported by his wife who worked for his release, it was the gaze of his former friends that was the most painful: “After arriving in Kazakhstan, I felt under pressure. Everyone who knew me came to visit me and asked me why I’d been in the camps, what crimes I had committed. It was hard for me to say anything. In their eyes, I could see they didn’t believe me. At first it was very hard, but as time went by, more and more people were sent to the camps and came back, and they began to understand that it was linked to deceptive Chinese policies.”

But coming out of the camps also meant being left out in the cold: lost employment, unable to work, suspended pension, frozen accounts… and no aid specifically provided by the Kazakh government for the survivors or their families. Having left Xinjiang, the persecuted minorities now find themselves in the strange situation where all the violence they have endured is not recognised, and seems to exist only in their private lives: denied by the Kazakh authorities, generally ignored by civil society, invisible to the medical community. Now they must ‘get over it’ in silence.

In the face of general indifference, it is within small circles of survivors who have gone through similar ordeals that the returnees from Xinjiang can find support and help each other when needed. Recently, Ajar happened to encounter one of her former cellmates while shopping in a small village. It was only by the sound of their voices that they recognised each other: physically, neither of them looked the same.

*For security reasons, some names have been changed, as most of the witnesses have relatives living in Xinjiang.

The article nominated for the award is the fifth of a series of 8 episodes entitled “Kazakhstan-Xinjiang, the border of tears”