This is part 3 of a BuzzFeed News investigation. For part 1 click here. For part 2 click here.
This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center, that Open Technology Fund, and the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.
Nestled in the mountains along the China-Kazakhstan border, a remote rural county hides a terrifying secret: a fast-growing, high-tech mass internment camp for Muslim minorities in the region, capable of detaining thousands of people.
The site in the Chinese district of Mongolküre, which has been under construction since 2017, is largely hidden from the outside world. It was even cut out of much of the satellite imagery that appears on China’s Baidu maps. Through interviews with former inmates and an in-depth architectural analysis of the site’s evolution, BuzzFeed News can uncover the true nature of this secret facility – from the overcrowded cells where inmates were forbidden to look out the window into the solitary confinement rooms – and open its own Control walls.
This huge detention center, the size of 13 soccer fields, is a cog in the world’s largest detention center for ethnic and religious minorities since World War II, where 1 million or more Muslims, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others, are detained. were rounded up and detained in China’s western Xinjiang region. China has publicly claimed that Muslim prisoners have been released. However, an ongoing investigation by BuzzFeed News, based on dozens of interviews with survivors and thousands of satellite imagery, has shown how China has built a huge and permanent infrastructure for the masses in Xinjiang, a radical departure from the makeshift use of pre-existing public the government represents buildings at the beginning of the campaign. Using the same techniques that have shown the extent of China’s growing network of prisons, BuzzFeed News can now uncover the inner workings of such a connection. The facility in Mongolküre is one of at least 260 newly built facilities that have the characteristics of long-term detention centers, in which hundreds of thousands of people can stand in complete servitude to the state.
So far, relatively little is known about what happens in these prohibited compounds. More rarely there were details of an individual internment camp. One reason is terrorism: the vast majority of the camp’s survivors still live in Xinjiang under constant surveillance and threatened detention, as do their families and the wider Muslim population in the region. Many of the detainees who were able to speak simply do not remember where they were being held. They were taken away from home with hoods around their heads and moved from camp to camp.
BuzzFeed News first found out about the Mongolküre website thanks to three former inmates who fled the country and talked about conditions inside despite the risk to themselves and their families. This testimony, combined with an architectural analysis of satellite photos from 2006, allowed BuzzFeed News to digitally reconstruct the prison to understand its purpose and scope.
The three former inmates all reported that they had been beaten for minor violations such as the Kazakhstan speech.
This account of the Mongolküre camp in the Xinjiang region of China – known as Zhaosu in Chinese – offers an intimate, prisoner’s view of a single complex built specifically for the detention and dehumanization of those held therein. Every detail shows careful planning for total control. The cells, classrooms and corridors are wired with cameras and microphones. The smallest of violations, such as speaking their native language, can result in violent retaliation. Your government kidnappers exercise extreme authority in every movement. The detainees must sit upright. You have to bow your head. You can’t even walk down a hallway without following painted lines along the floor. There is no fresh air. Little suggestion. Restriction only.
The three former inmates all reported that they had been beaten for minor violations such as the Kazakhstan speech. They were interrogated as often as once a week, where they were asked the same questions over and over, why they had gone to Kazakhstan, which they knew there, and what their personal religious beliefs were. They were forced to pledge allegiance to the Communist Party. Sometimes they were asked to write and sign “self-criticism” documents.
But what reminds them most of their time in Xinjiang’s camps is the shame that they were treated like criminals – locked up for weeks without going outside – even though they were never charged with a crime.
In response to a list of questions about this story, the Chinese consulate in New York replied: “The Xinjiang question is about combating violent terrorism and separatism. We hope that people making rumors about Xinjiang will stop playing double standards and meddling in China’s internal affairs. “The government, led by President Xi Jinping, has declared in the past that the camps are intended for vocational education and training. A Xinjiang official said in December 2019 that the detainees had “graduated” – but satellite evidence shows the government kept building new facilities after that date.
“The Xi government is prioritizing political loyalty – conformity – and the authorities see the unambiguous identity of Turkish Muslims as a serious threat,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Beijing’s reaction should make everyone’s blood cold: to detain large numbers of people who are completely outside of legal process, to free them only if they have been terrorized, to give up their language, religion and culture – and to remain loyal to their tormentors . “
A whole new area had emerged, with high gray walls and fenced sidewalks that were curled with barbed wire.
The three young Kazakh men interviewed for this article spent a few weeks in Mongol Kure during the first months of the Chinese campaign against Muslims. At that time the camp consisted of an older internment camp with a capacity of around 300 people, surrounded by thick walls and watchtowers with a few small support buildings near a meadow, a horse farm and a snow-capped mountain range. Typically, locals were charged with crimes while awaiting trial. But none of the three Kazakh men would ever see the inside of a courthouse. All three were released, but their freedom would only be temporary.
When they returned to the same site at the end of 2017, the location was so different that the inmates called it “the new location”. While they were gone, a whole new lot had emerged, complete with tall gray walls and fenced sidewalks curled with barbed wire.
The men were held in the “new place” for months. High-resolution satellite images show that after the men were released, the camp continued to expand, increasing to ten times its original size.
Until the fall of 2018, the “new place” was just a small corner of a sprawling complex that could accommodate around 3,700 people – in a district that, according to China’s census, only has 183,900 people. That said, the complex could accommodate 1 in 50 people living in Mongolian Kur. And thanks to six factory buildings with blue roofs, the area is suitable for prisoner work.
The three young Kazakh men interviewed for this article were familiar with the part of the Mongol cure the camp was in because they grew up in the area. After leaving China, where Google tools are being censored, they were able to find the warehouse on Google Earth.
The three believe they were taken to the camp because they lived in Kazakhstan, which the Chinese government sees as a sign of shared loyalty.
Although they shared a hometown and had overlapping visits to Xinjiang detention centers, the three men did not know each other until after they were released. Important details from each of their stories fit together. They asked for anonymity to speak freely for fear of retaliation against their families still living in Xinjiang – one is nicknamed Ulan in this article, and the other two, O. and M., are used by her designated initials. Everyone said they wondered if they would survive to tell what happened, adding that the ordeal left them deep emotional scars.
Satellite photos back up their reports with dramatic visual evidence – and document the rapid growth of the Mongolküre camp after their release. High-resolution images show details such as the barbed wire pegs in the courtyard, in which inmates were occasionally brought to play sports, the passage from the guardhouse to the main residential building and the colors of the outer walls.
By counting the number of windows along the facade – subtracting the space for a classroom and stairwells – BuzzFeed News was able to estimate with a high degree of certainty how many cells were on each floor. Videos smuggled from other camps often contain pertinent details, such as: B. what the corridors looked like or what the doors of the cells looked like and how they were bolted. BuzzFeed News used all of these sources and methods to create the 3D model shown here.
Taken together, these materials and interviews provide the most complete picture of how a large detention center in Xinjiang works internally. They also show how the government’s detention program dominated a rural county on the Chinese border with Kazakhstan. The high walls of the camp wiped out a landscape of grassy mountains and fields of flowers.
Listen to Chinese state media Say, Mongolküre is a place so beautiful it contains the stuff of myth, with the “perfect conditions” for rainbows in the summer months, an annual Pegasus festival and fields of rapeseed the color of egg yolks.
Parts of the county are so rural that police officers sometimes patrol the grasslands on horseback. Mongolküre is nestled in extensive mountain ranges and protects it from the hot winds of the Taklamakan Desert, which can sweep over much of the region. In summer, locals and tourists alike hike the green trails in the mountains lined with tall, prickly evergreen trees. On Instagram, travel photos with the Chinese characters for “Zhaosu” show women dressed as if for a photo shoot, picking yellow flowers or posing in front of mountainous landscapes that resemble the American West. A video clip shows a woman walking slowly into a group of pristine white yurts tagged #campsite.
The snow clears late, but as soon as it does – early April – the landscape turns into bright green fields. In September the farmers start harvesting. A few months later the snow returns.
Ulan grew up in Mongolküre on his family’s small grain farm. His parents weren’t as educated as he was; He speaks Chinese with little accent, although his mother tongue, like most of the farming families around him, is Kazakh. When he was young he loved riding horses through tall green grass in the summer. At home he listened to American rap music from the 90s for hours. Ulan picked up some English words when listening to Tupac Shakur rap about races in America, but he never thought much about being part of a minority growing up.
“We were never discriminated against because my old school, the local police station, the leaders and the cadres of the Communist Party of the district government were all Kazakhs,” he recalled. “Ninety percent of the school teachers were Kazakhs.” Around 2008, more Han Chinese began to move to Mongolian Kur, remembering former residents and changing the culture of the county.
Much of the Mongolküre district consists of arable land, the fields of which are planted in narrow strips with changing colors. In the capital Mongolküre there are banks, restaurants, a post office and a Buddhist temple. Many farmers grow potatoes and wheat there; According to a former resident, the weather is too cold for apples to ripen. One of the busiest parts of town is the pedestrian street behind the old number 1 middle school, now renamed Shuguang Middle School, meaning “dawn”. There the street is lined with restaurants, many of which sell Chinese dishes such as hot pot and beef noodle soup. “We never ate Chinese food when we were growing up,” said a former resident in his thirties.
This meant the de facto criminalization of many common ethnic customs and Muslim religious practices, from wearing a headscarf to attending a religious school.
China began its mass detention and surveillance campaign in late 2016, which the government believed was aimed at eradicating “extremist thinking” and countering terrorism in the region that the ruling Communist Party of China has accused of separatist groups campaigning for Xinjiang’s millions of Uyghurs employ to form their own country. In practice this meant the de facto criminalization of many common ethnic customs and Muslim religious practices, from wearing a headscarf to attending a religious school.
Ulan wanted to go abroad to study. His dream was to go to the USA, which he fell in love with through hip-hop lyrics. But because he is an ethnic Kazakh himself, Kazakhstan seemed easier – a place to go before venturing any further. In 2014 he moved there to college.
He attempted to return to China via the land border crossing in Khorgos in late 2017, months after the government began its detention campaign. In the beige building, he gave his passport to a Chinese immigration officer. The officer told him he was blacklisted and that he was soon arrested.
Satellite images and interviews show that he was taken to a pre-trial detention center in Mongolia. It was built between 2006 and 2010 and was a squat T-shaped building with two floors. It was only a kilometer outside the city and was partially hidden from the road by a thicket of green trees. Each floor had a single corridor in the middle with a row of cells on either side. The building was tightly surrounded by a high wall, and there were watchtowers at two corners. All three Kazakh men interviewed for this article say they were detained there in 2017.
The men recalled that there were some administrative buildings in front of the entrance to the detention center, which could accommodate around 300 people. The guards’ buildings were on the south side in a separate building with basketball and tennis courts and a garden with neat bushes, satellite images show. The camp is on a gentle slope with a stream to the east.
The grounds quickly became overcrowded, the three men said – a common feature of life in the camps at the time, according to dozens of interviews with former inmates.
The government moved quickly to increase its ability to hold prisoners in multiple locations in Mongolküren, pictures show. Two new camps were opened in early to mid-2017, this time in older buildings that had been converted for prisoners. They could accommodate a total of about 400 people and were located on the main streets in the city center of Mongolküre, one across from a primary school and the other across from the district’s sports center.
In September 2017, a larger warehouse was opened in the city center, which is marked on Baidu Maps as the “Zhaosu Village Workers’ Education Center” and can accommodate around 1,300 people. While security in the first two camps in the city center was relatively low, this larger camp with thick high-security walls looked much more imposing. A small police station appeared next to the entrance while two lanes of the road outside were converted into a parking lot. Inside the site, barbed wire paths ran between the buildings and connected them to the large peg in the courtyard near the entrance.
The bearings of
Barbed wire corridors
(with wire roof)
BuzzFeed News; Google earth
When the government built, it also erased a cultural landmark. By 2018, the dome and minarets of one of the mosques in Mongolküre were removed and a pitched roof was added instead, as satellite images show. “It happened in many cities,” said Zhadyra, an ethnic Kazakh woman who was born on a cattle ranch in Mongolküre County and immigrated to Kazakhstan last year. “At that time every house was searched, looking for things related to the Islamic religion like the holy Quran, even things with Arabic script.”
She saw prisoners being transported in a high-security van, she said, and carried sacks over her head.
Those years were tense for everyone, said Zhadyra, who wanted to be known only by her first name, citing fear of retaliation against her family. “There were two concentration camps and I heard one was for serious criminals. I went there every day and looked at the barbed wire. “
Once when she was walking at night, she saw prisoners being transported in a high-security truck, she said, and carried sacks over her head. She thought they would be taken to another camp. After that, she said, she felt fear in the pit of her stomach as she walked down the street.
However, authorities were working on a far more ambitious construction project northeast of the city.
O. returned to something In winter 2017 he now called “the new place”. “There was a huge gray wall, maybe ten feet high, and you couldn’t look inside,” said O. He remembered seeing a large black gate next to a police station where four officers were working. Guards escorted inmates inside the camp, sometimes flanked by dogs.
The older T-shaped building from his first stay in prison was still nearby. But where it stood now, farmland had been transformed into an entirely new complex that the satellite photos had completed that fall. Inside was a three-story main building, as well as a group of other buildings, including a medical clinic, administrative offices, and a family visiting center that was rarely used, the three men recalled.
It is common to see detention camps in the area in pastel colors – peach or sky blue – but the buildings in this camp were white. A barbed wire passage led from the entrance gate to the large building that housed cells and classrooms across the courtyard.
The walls inside were also white, but the wall of the cell where Ulan lived with nine other men was covered with the Chinese flag and a placard with the Communist Party emblem and the words for the national anthem. This made the room, which normally only housed three or four people, felt claustrophobic. A “code of conduct” was also published – beginning with orders that they must jump out of bed immediately when the morning wake-up call came, followed by other rules designed to control the details of their daily life in their cells.
After being inside for so long, it felt strange to see the sky above them.
They remembered that the inmates had to play sports in the small open spaces in the camps about every few weeks. After being inside for so long, it felt strange to see the sky above them.
O. noticed that the inmates were wearing different uniforms; he and others wore black, indicating they were not classified as high risk. Others wore yellow and red uniforms. The ones in red were considered the most dangerous. O. wasn’t sure what they could have done to end up in this category.
In the building where O. lived, the corridors were marked with red and yellow lines indicating where inmates should go in a single row, usually with their heads bowed.
The rooms, which could accommodate more than a dozen people, were about 4.3 m long and 6.1 m wide – just over half the size of a two-car garage, according to an architectural analysis by BuzzFeed News. The inmates spent most of their time there, often up to 23 hours a day.
Each room had two layers of doors for security, the outer one made of metal. The inner wooden door had a slot through which food could be let in, said O. There was a canteen in the building on the first floor, but the inmates had only heard about it. They assumed it was only for the people who worked in the camp – the teachers, the administrators, and the guards.
Sometimes, Ulan thought, the food they brought them was reheated leftovers from the camp staff’s lunch. Before dinner, inmates were asked to sing patriotic Chinese songs such as “Socialism is Good” and “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China,” both of which were popular during the Mao era.
During the days, inmates usually had to attend class for about an hour to learn the Chinese language and political dogma, such as the party slogan, “Love the Communist Party and love the country.” The overcrowding in the camp meant that class time was limited. The classrooms on the second and third floors of the building had a thick transparent barrier between the students and the teacher.
Class also began with a patriotic song. The three Kazakh men interviewed for this story all spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese, but had to study it anyway, so they wondered why they had been brought to the camp in the first place.
But the classes offered what Ulan would consider an incredible luxury. The inmates’ cell windows were small and covered with barbed wire, and they could be reprimanded over the loudspeaker for looking out of them. But the classroom had a window behind the teacher, Ulan said, which meant he could look at it without getting into trouble. You couldn’t see much of it, just the stark gray of the mountains that stretched north. But it reminded him that he wasn’t far from home.
Ulan spent time as an appointed “leader” in his dorm, where he stayed on the third floor. One day in 2018, a young Uighur man who lived in the same dormitory as him fell ill. Ulan had noticed that the man, who appeared to be in good health on arrival, was getting thinner. He felt sick now, with a tightness in his chest, he said to Ulan.
Although Ulan had never seen the camp’s health clinic himself, he knew there was one. He persuaded the camp authorities to allow the Uighur man to lie down on a bed in his cell on the third floor of the building for a while and see the camp doctors. But it only got worse. Two other men tried to help him into the bathroom, but the Uighur man collapsed. He started vomiting.
“The smell of the whole room changed in a way that was absolutely unbearable for any normal person,” said Ulan. “After a while, all he vomited was blood.”
“After a while, all he vomited was blood.”
They pressed a red alarm button in the room, which was used to signal guards in an emergency. Guards carried the man away. Ulan assumed he would never see him again – but returned after a month.
Ulan felt sorry for the man when he returned; A serious illness was seen by the prisoners as one of the few ways out of the camp. “At the time everyone was very desperate and feared that they would never get out,” he said. It was extremely demoralizing to see someone in custody sick. “We don’t know how many people died there,” he said.
Each cell had a loudspeaker and an intercom system through which guards and camp officials could give orders. When eating or reading books, prisoners had to sit perfectly upright either on plastic stools or on the edge of the bed.
M. was once beaten up with the butt of a gun after breaking a rule and being covered with bruises.
A man who the inmates called “Director Ma” was among those in charge of the camp, Ulan said. “He was a very cruel person.”
Guards who watched the inmates with surveillance cameras – at least two in each cell – monitored whether they spoke their language (for example, Uighur or Kazakh) instead of Mandarin Chinese. One day in 2018 it was discovered that someone in Ulan’s room was a violation.
“Your screams must have scared everyone in the building.”
“Headmaster Ma came into our room, asked everyone to stand in front of the window, and then called out their names one by one,” Ulan remembered.
Ma picked up an electric baton and hit her on the back. Ulan remembers the screaming. “Your screams must have scared everyone in the building,” he said.
Ulan was the last in line. He felt his body tense up and wait for the blow. But Ma paused and told inmates that if anyone dared to speak a language other than Chinese again, they would be put in solitary confinement for a week.
Then Ma raised her arm and struck.
BuzzFeed News; Google earth
Ulan and the other two men The people interviewed for this story were released from the camp system in spring 2018. Construction of the factories was completed in November 2018 – part of a massive new complex that dwarfed the “new location”. There were now a total of 11 detention buildings on a site that once only stood on one. The original internment camp was 2 hectares, enough space for two soccer fields. By the end of 2018, the entire complex spanned 13 hectares of land. The area is now capable of arresting around 3,750 people – disregarding overcrowding.
Zhadyra, the ethnic Kazakh woman who left Mongolian Kur in 2019, had never seen this connection. It was out of town and she had no reason to go there. When asked if she knew about detention camps in Mongolian Kurdistan, she was quick to say that she had heard from a friend’s brother about “a new, modern camp”. Their description coincided with the location of the new mega-complex – northeast of town, at the exit to Shapshal County, near a cluster of factories.
“He said that unemployed young people between the ages of 25 and 40 were being detained in these camps to force them to work in the factories,” she added.
The completion of the new mega-structure apparently made the warehouse in the city center, about 2.5 miles away, irrelevant. Satellite images show that there was a lot of activity in 2018; A photo from August 15 of this year showed 87 cars in the parking lot. In May 2019, the barbed wire disappeared from the outside of the camp. It was probably taken out of service.
After he was released Ulan moved back to his parents in spring 2018. When he saw her, guilt and shame overwhelmed him. “I felt like a criminal,” he said.
He couldn’t get past what had happened to him in the camp. He thought of the cruelty he had seen there and what had happened to the sick man he had seen vomiting blood. “There weren’t just ordinary people like us there; there were old people, people with mental illnesses, people with epilepsy,” he said. He wondered if they would survive.
He listened to hip hop again and turned his chat avatar into a portrait of Tupac. His favorite song was Me Against The World, the defiant hit from 1995, in which the rapper alludes to the trauma he felt from murders and street violence in Los Angeles. “His songs speak of violence, racism and social equality,” said Ulan. “Sie sind voll von einem Geist des revolutionären Widerstands. Ich glaube nicht, dass irgendein anderer Rapper die Menschen so tief bewegt fühlen kann.”
“Es gab dort nicht nur gewöhnliche Leute wie uns; Es gab auch alte Menschen, Menschen mit psychischen Erkrankungen, Menschen mit Epilepsie. “
Mehrere Monate vergingen, und die drei jungen Männer machten sich unabhängig voneinander auf den Weg nach Kasachstan, wo sie sich zum ersten Mal trafen. Nachdem sie festgestellt hatten, dass sie aus derselben Region wie Xinjiang stammten, stellten sie fest, dass sie ungefähr zur gleichen Zeit am „neuen Ort“ festgehalten worden waren.
Ulan traf andere Kasachen, die einst in den Lagern festgehalten worden waren. Es gab viele ehemalige Häftlinge in Kasachstan, aber die meisten versuchten, sich zu beruhigen – weil sie ihren Familien in China keine unerwünschte Aufmerksamkeit schenken wollten oder weil sie von der Tortur so am Boden zerstört waren, dass sie nur daran vorbeikamen . Andere beschlossen jedoch, öffentlich zu sprechen, Videos auf YouTube über ihre Erfahrungen aufzunehmen oder mit Journalisten zu sprechen.
Ulans Eltern bleiben in Xinjiang.
“Sie belästigen immer noch meine Familie”, sagte Ulan kürzlich. Er sagte, die Behörden hätten sie nach seiner Adresse in Kasachstan gefragt und was er vorhabe. Im Oktober dieses Jahres besuchte die Polizei das Haus seiner Familie, um zu fragen, ob er nach Xinjiang zurückkehren wolle.
Ulan sagte, die Ausweise seiner Eltern seien auf die schwarze Liste gesetzt worden, was bedeutet, dass sie an Kontrollpunkten und wenn die Polizei sie befragt, rote Fahnen auslösen. Sie mussten die Erlaubnis der Behörden einholen, um Mongolküre zu verlassen.
“Sogar jetzt”, sagte er, “beobachten sie jede Bewegung, die sie machen, die ganze Zeit.” ●