What’s hap­pened to the van­ished Uighurs of Xin­jiang?

Sunday Trust - - MAGAZINE - Source: BBC.com

ODe­ten­tion in the desert n 12 July 2015 a satel­lite swung over the rolling deserts and oa­sis cities of China’s vast far west. One of the im­ages it cap­tured that day just shows a patch of empty, un­touched, ashen-grey sand.

It seems an un­likely place to start an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into one of the most press­ing hu­man rights con­cerns of our age.

But less than three years later, on 22 April 2018, a satel­lite photo of that same piece of desert showed some­thing new.

A mas­sive, highly se­cure com­pound had ma­te­ri­alised.

It is en­closed with a 2km-long ex­te­rior wall punc­tu­ated by 16 guard tow­ers.

The first re­ports that China was op­er­at­ing a sys­tem of in­tern­ment camps for Mus­lims in Xin­jiang be­gan to emerge last year.

The satel­lite pho­to­graph was dis­cov­ered by re­searchers look­ing for ev­i­dence of that sys­tem on the global map­ping soft­ware, Google Earth.

It places the site just out­side the small town of Da­bancheng, about an hour’s drive from the provin­cial cap­i­tal, Urumqi.

To try to avoid the suf­fo­cat­ing po­lice scru­tiny that awaits every vis­it­ing jour­nal­ist, we land at Urumqi air­port in the early hours of the morn­ing.

But by the time we ar­rive in Da­bancheng we’re be­ing fol­lowed by at least five cars, con­tain­ing an as­sort­ment of uni­formed and plain-clothes po­lice of­fi­cers and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

It’s al­ready clear that our plan to visit a dozen sus­pected camps over the course of the next few days is not go­ing to be easy.

As we drive up the wide ap­proach road we know that sooner or later the con­voy be­hind is go­ing to try to stop us.

While still a few hun­dred me­tres away, we see some­thing un­ex­pected.

The wide ex­panse of dusty ground, shown on the satel­lite image to the east of the site, is empty no more.

In its place, a huge ex­ten­sion project is tak­ing shape.

Like a mini-city sprout­ing from the desert and bristling with cranes, are row upon row of gi­ant, grey build­ings - all of them four storeys high.

With our cam­eras rolling we try to cap­ture the ex­tent of the con­struc­tion, but be­fore we can go much fur­ther one of the po­lice cars swings into ac­tion.

Our car is stopped - we’re told to turn off the cam­eras and to leave.

But we’ve dis­cov­ered some­thing of sig­nif­i­cance - a huge amount of ex­tra ac­tiv­ity that has so far gone un­no­ticed by the out­side world.

In re­mote parts of the world, Google Earth im­ages can take months or years to up­date.

Other pub­lic sources of satel­lite pho­tog­ra­phy how­ever - like the Euro­pean Space Agency’s Sentinel database - pro­vide much more fre­quent im­ages, although they’re of a much lower res­o­lu­tion.

It is here that we find what we are look­ing for.

An Oc­to­ber 2018 Sentinel image shows just how much the site has grown com­pared with what we’d ex­pected to see.

What we sus­pected to be a big in­tern­ment camp, now looks like China is ac­cused of lock­ing up hun­dreds of thou­sands of Mus­lims with­out trial in its western re­gion of Xin­jiang. The gov­ern­ment de­nies the claims, say­ing peo­ple will­ingly at­tend spe­cial “vo­ca­tional schools” which com­bat “ter­ror­ism and re­li­gious ex­trem­ism”. Now a BBC in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found im­por­tant new ev­i­dence of the re­al­ity. an enor­mous one. peo­ple there now. They have some them­selves to the course­work. The fa­cil­i­ties are ex­clu­sively for

And it is just one of many sim­i­lar, prob­lems with their thoughts.” There is no men­tion of the Xin­jiang’s Mus­lim mi­nori­ties, many large prison-type struc­tures that This gi­ant fa­cil­ity would of grounds on which the stu­dents have of whom do not speak Chi­nese as have been built across Xin­jiang in course fit no ob­jec­tive def­i­ni­tion of been cho­sen for this “study” or how their mother tongue. the past few years. a school. long the cour­ses last. The video sug­gests the school

Be­fore our at­tempt to visit the In Xin­jiang “go­ing to school” has But there are clues. is op­er­at­ing a dress code - not a site, we’d stopped in the cen­tre of come to take on a mean­ing all of its The in­ter­views sound more like sin­gle one of the fe­male stu­dents is Da­bancheng. own. con­fes­sions. wear­ing a head­scarf.

It was im­pos­si­ble to speak “I have deeply un­der­stood my “I have deeply un­der­stood my There are more than 10 mil­lion openly to any­one - min­ders lurked mis­takes” own mis­takes,” one man tells the Uighurs in Xin­jiang. men­ac­ingly close by and would China has con­sis­tently de­nied cam­era, vow­ing to be a good cit­i­zen They speak a Tur­kic lan­guage ag­gres­sively de­brief any­one who that it is lock­ing up Mus­lims “af­ter I get home”. and re­sem­ble the peo­ples of Cen­tral even ex­changed a greet­ing with us. with­out trial. The main pur­pose of these Asia at least as much as they do

In­stead, we tele­phoned ran­dom But a eu­phemism for the camps fa­cil­i­ties, we’re told, is to com­bat China’s ma­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion, the num­bers in the town. has long ex­isted - ed­u­ca­tion. ex­trem­ism, through a mix­ture Han Chi­nese.

What was this large com­plex Al­most cer­tainly as a re­sponse of le­gal the­ory, work skills and The south­ern city of Kash­gar, it is with its 16 watch­tow­ers that the to the mount­ing in­ter­na­tional Chi­nese lan­guage train­ing. of­ten pointed out, is ge­o­graph­i­cally au­thor­i­ties were so des­per­ate to stop crit­i­cism, the au­thor­i­ties have be­gun That last item shows that closer to Bagh­dad than it is to us film­ing? to dou­ble down on this de­scrip­tion, what­ever you want to call them Bei­jing - and it some­times feels

“It’s a re-ed­u­ca­tion school,” one with a full-on pro­pa­ganda drive. - schools or camps - the in­tended cul­tur­ally closer too. hote­lier told us. State-run TV has been show­ing tar­get is the same. And with a his­tory of re­bel­lion

“Yes, that’s a re-ed­u­ca­tion glossy re­ports, full of clean and re­sis­tance to Chi­nese rule, the school,” an­other shop­keeper agreed. class­rooms and grate­ful stu­dents, re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Uighurs “There are tens of thou­sands of ap­par­ently will­ingly sub­mit­ting and their mod­ern-day po­lit­i­cal mas­ters has long been as fraught as it is dis­tant.

Be­fore Com­mu­nist rule, Xin­jiang oc­ca­sion­ally slipped from China’s grip with brief pe­ri­ods of in­de­pen­dence. Ever since, it has con­stantly tested that grip with spo­radic out­breaks of protest and vi­o­lence.

The min­eral wealth - in par­tic­u­lar oil and gas - of a re­gion al­most five times the size of Ger­many has brought huge lev­els of Chi­nese in­vest­ment, rapid eco­nomic growth and large waves of Han Chi­nese set­tlers.

Re­sent­ment among Uighurs over the per­ceived un­even dis­tri­bu­tion of the pro­ceeds of that growth has sim­mered.

In re­sponse to such crit­i­cisms, the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties point to ris­ing liv­ing stan­dards for Xin­jiang’s res­i­dents.

But in the past decade or so, hun­dreds of lives have been lost to a mix­ture of ri­ots, in­ter-com­mu­nity vi­o­lence, pre­med­i­tated at­tacks and the po­lice re­sponse.

In 2013, an at­tack on pedes­tri­ans

in Bei­jing’s Tianan­men Square, which claimed two lives as well as the three Uighur oc­cu­pants of the car, marked a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment.

Although rel­a­tively small in terms of fa­tal­i­ties it rat­tled the foun­da­tions of the Chi­nese state.

The fol­low­ing year, 31 peo­ple were slaugh­tered by knife-wield­ing Uighur at­tack­ers at a train sta­tion in the Chi­nese city of Kun­ming, more than 2000km away from Xin­jiang.

Over the past four years, Xin­jiang has been the tar­get of some of the most re­stric­tive and com­pre­hen­sive se­cu­rity mea­sures ever de­ployed by a state against its own peo­ple.

These in­clude the large-scale use of tech­nol­ogy - fa­cial recog­ni­tion cam­eras, mon­i­tor­ing de­vices that read the con­tent of mo­bile phones and the mass col­lec­tion of bio­met­ric data.

Harsh new le­gal penal­ties have been in­tro­duced to cur­tail Is­lamic iden­tity and prac­tice - ban­ning, among other things, long beards and head­scarves, the re­li­gious in­struc­tion of chil­dren, and even Is­lamic-sound­ing names.

The poli­cies ap­pear to mark a fun­da­men­tal shift in of­fi­cial think­ing - sep­a­ratism is no longer framed as a prob­lem of a few iso­lated in­di­vid­u­als, but as a prob­lem in­her­ent within Uighur cul­ture and Is­lam in gen­eral.

It co­in­cides with a tight­en­ing grip on so­ci­ety un­der Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, in which loy­al­ties to fam­ily and faith must be sub­or­di­nate to the only one that mat­ters - loy­alty to the Com­mu­nist Party.

The Uighurs’ unique iden­tity makes them a tar­get for sus­pi­cion.

That view has been re­in­forced by cred­i­ble re­ports that hun­dreds have trav­elled to Syria to fight with var­i­ous mil­i­tant groups.

Uighurs are now sub­ject to eth­nic pro­fil­ing at thou­sands of pedes­trian and ve­hi­cle check­points while Han Chi­nese res­i­dents are of­ten waved through.

They face se­vere travel re­stric­tions, both within Xin­jiang and be­yond, with an edict forc­ing res­i­dents to sur­ren­der all pass­ports to the po­lice for “safe keep­ing”.

Uighur gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials are pro­hib­ited from prac­tis­ing Is­lam, from at­tend­ing mosques or from fast­ing dur­ing Ra­madan.

Given all this, it is per­haps not that sur­pris­ing that China has in­tro­duced an­other older and blunter so­lu­tion to the per­ceived dis­loy­alty of many of its Uighur cit­i­zens.

De­spite the gov­ern­ment’s de­nials, the most com­pelling ev­i­dence for the ex­is­tence of the in­tern­ment camps comes from a trove of in­for­ma­tion from the au­thor­i­ties them­selves.

Pages of lo­cal gov­ern­ment ten­der­ing doc­u­ments invit­ing po­ten­tial con­trac­tors and sup­pli­ers to bid for the build­ing projects have been dis­cov­ered on­line by the Ger­man-based aca­demic, Adrian Zenz.

They pro­vide de­tails about the con­struc­tion or con­ver­sion of dozens of sep­a­rate fa­cil­i­ties across Xin­jiang.

In many cases the ten­ders call for the in­stal­la­tion of com­pre­hen­sive se­cu­rity fea­tures, such as watch­tow­ers, ra­zor wire, surveil­lance sys­tems, and guard­rooms.

Cross-ref­er­enc­ing this in­for­ma­tion with other me­dia sources, Zenz sug­gests that at least sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand and pos­si­bly over a mil­lion Uighurs and other Mus­lim mi­nori­ties could have been in­terned for re-ed­u­ca­tion.

The doc­u­ments, of course, never re­fer to the fa­cil­i­ties as in­tern­ment camps, but as ed­u­ca­tion cen­tres, or in a more ac­cu­rate trans­la­tion, “re-ed­u­ca­tion cen­tres”.

One of them al­most cer­tainly re­lates to the gi­ant site we vis­ited - a July 2017 ten­der for the in­stal­la­tion of a heat­ing sys­tem in a “trans­for­ma­tion through ed­u­ca­tion school” some­where in the dis­trict of Da­bancheng.

In these eu­phemisms, and in the mun­dane mea­sure­ments and quan­ti­ties de­scribed, there is the un­mis­tak­able sub­stance of a rapidly ex­pand­ing net­work of mass con­fine­ment.

“They want to delete Uighur iden­tity”

In 2002, Rey­ila Abu­laiti trav­elled from Xin­jiang to the UK to study.

She met and mar­ried a Bri­tish man, took Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship and started a fam­ily.

Last year, her mother came for her usual sum­mer visit, spend­ing time with her daugh­ter and grand­son and do­ing a bit of Lon­don sight­see­ing.

Xi­a­mux­in­uer Pida, 66, is a welle­d­u­cated for­mer-en­gi­neer with a long ser­vice record at a Chi­nese state com­pany.

She flew back to Xin­jiang on 2 June.

Hav­ing not heard from her, Rey­ila called to check she’d got home OK.

The con­ver­sa­tion was brief and ter­ri­fy­ing.

“She told me that the po­lice were search­ing the house,” Rey­ila re­mem­bers.

It was Rey­ila who ap­peared to be the tar­get of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

She needed to send copies of her doc­u­ments, her mother said proof of UK ad­dress, a copy of her Bri­tish pass­port, her UK tele­phone num­bers and in­for­ma­tion about her uni­ver­sity course.

And then, af­ter ask­ing her to send them via a Chi­nese mo­bile chat ser­vice, Xi­a­mux­in­uer said some­thing that sent a chill down Rey­ila’s spine.

“Don’t call me again,” her mother told her. “Don’t call me ever.”

It was the last time her daugh­ter would hear her voice.

She be­lieves she has been in a camp ever since.

“My mum has been de­tained for no rea­son,” she says. “As far as I know, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment wants to delete Uighur iden­tity from the world.”

The BBC has con­ducted lengthy in­ter­views with eight Uighurs liv­ing over­seas.

Their tes­ti­monies are re­mark­ably con­sis­tent, pro­vid­ing ev­i­dence of the con­di­tions and rou­tines in­side the camps and the broad ba­sis on which peo­ple are de­tained.

Main­stream re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity, the mildest dis­sent and any link with Uighurs liv­ing in for­eign coun­tries ap­pear to be enough to sweep peo­ple into the sys­tem.

Each morn­ing, when 29-year-old Ablet Tur­sun To­hti was wo­ken an hour be­fore sun­rise, he and his fel­low de­tainees had one minute to get to the ex­er­cise yard.

Af­ter lin­ing up, they were made to run.

“There was a spe­cial room to pun­ish those who didn’t run fast enough,” Ablet says. “There were two men there, one to beat with a belt, the other just to kick.”

The ex­er­cise yard can clearly be seen on the satel­lite photo of the camp where he says he was held, in the oa­sis town of Hotan in south­ern Xin­jiang.

“We sang the song called ‘With­out the Com­mu­nist Party There Can Be No New China,’” Ablet says.

“And they taught us laws. If you couldn’t re­cite them in the cor­rect way, you’d be beaten.”

He was there for a month in late 2015 and, in some ways, he is one of the lucky ones.

In the early days of the in­tern­ment camps, the lengths of the re-ed­u­ca­tion “cour­ses” ap­pear to have been shorter.

Over the past two years there are very few re­ports of any­one be­ing re­leased at all.

And since there has now been a mass re­call of pass­ports, Ablet was one of the last Uighurs able to leave China.

He has sought refuge in Turkey, a coun­try with a size­able Uighur di­as­pora be­cause of strong cul­tural and lin­guis­tic links.

Ablet tells me that his 74-year-old fa­ther and eight of his sib­lings are in the camps. “There is no-one left out­side,” he says.

Ab­dusalam Muhemet, 41, is also now liv­ing in Turkey.

He was de­tained by the po­lice in Xin­jiang in 2014 for recit­ing an Is­lamic verse at a funeral.

They even­tu­ally de­cided not to charge him, he says, but he still wasn’t free.

“They told me I needed to be ed­u­cated,” he ex­plains.

The fa­cil­ity he found him­self in did not look like a school.

On the satel­lite photo, you can make out the guard tow­ers and the dou­ble perime­ter fenc­ing of the Han’airike Le­gal Ed­u­ca­tion Train­ing Cen­tre.

The rolls of ra­zor wire can be iden­ti­fied from the shad­ows they cast un­der the harsh desert sun.

He de­scribes the same rou­tine of ex­er­cise, bul­ly­ing and brain­wash­ing

Twenty-five-year-old Ali, not his real name, is one of those too scared to talk openly.

In 2015 he says he ended up in a camp af­ter the po­lice found a pic­ture of woman wear­ing a niqab, a face veil, on his mo­bile phone.

“One old lady was there for hav­ing made a pil­grim­age to Mecca,” he tells me, “and an old man for not pay­ing his wa­ter bill on time.”

Dur­ing one of the forced ex­er­cise ses­sions an of­fi­cial’s car en­tered the camp and the gate was briefly left open.

“Sud­denly, a small child ran in to­wards his mother who was run­ning with us.

“She went to­wards her child, em­braced him and started cry­ing.

“Then a po­lice­man grabbed the woman by her hair and dragged the small child out of the camp.”

In place of clean sur­round­ings shown on state TV, a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture emerges.

“The doors of our dor­mi­to­ries were locked at night,” Ablet says. But there were no toi­lets in­side, they just gave us a bowl.”

There is no way of in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fy­ing these ac­counts.

We asked the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment about the al­le­ga­tions of abuse but have re­ceived no re­ply.

For Uighurs out­side Xin­jiang news has al­most com­pletely dried up. Fear breeds si­lence. Re­ports of peo­ple be­ing deleted from fam­ily chat groups, or told never to call again, are now com­mon­place.

Two of the things most cen­tral to Uighur cul­ture - faith and fam­ily - are be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally bro­ken.

As a re­sult of the de­ten­tion of whole ex­tended fam­i­lies, there are re­ports that many chil­dren are be­ing placed in state or­phan­ages.

Bilkiz Hibibul­lah ar­rived in Turkey in 2016 with five of her chil­dren.

Her youngest daugh­ter, Sekine Hasan, who by now would be three and a half years old, stayed in Xin­jiang with Bilkiz’s hus­band.

She did not yet have a pass­port and the plan was that, when she got one, the fam­ily would re­unite in Is­tan­bul. She never got that pass­port. Bilkiz be­lieves her hus­band was de­tained on 20 March last year.

She has since lost con­tact with the rest of her fam­ily and now has no idea where her daugh­ter is.

“In the mid­dle of the night, af­ter my other chil­dren have gone to bed, I cry a lot,” she says.

“There is noth­ing more mis­er­able than not know­ing where your

daugh­ter is, if she is alive or dead.

“If she could hear me now, I’d say noth­ing but sorry.” The view from above Us­ing only pub­licly avail­able, open-source satel­lite data, it’s pos­si­ble to shed light on Xin­jiang’s dark se­cret.

GMV is a multi­na­tional aerospace com­pany with ex­pe­ri­ence of mon­i­tor­ing in­fra­struc­ture from space on be­half of or­gan­i­sa­tions like the Euro­pean Space Agency and the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion.

Their an­a­lysts went through a list of 101 fa­cil­i­ties lo­cated across Xin­jiang - drawn up from the var­i­ous me­dia re­ports and aca­demic re­search about the re-ed­u­ca­tion camp sys­tem.

One by one, they mea­sured the growth of new sites and the ex­pan­sion of ex­ist­ing ones.

They iden­ti­fied and com­pared com­mon fea­tures such as watch­tow­ers and se­cu­rity fenc­ing - the kind of things needed to mon­i­tor and con­trol the move­ment of peo­ple.

And they cat­e­gorised the like­li­hood of each site ac­tu­ally be­ing a se­cu­rity fa­cil­ity, plac­ing 44 of them in the high or very high cat­e­gory.

Then they plot­ted the first de­tec­tion by satel­lite of each of those 44 fa­cil­i­ties over time.

Im­ages show the ex­tent of the build­ing work that has taken place at part of the camp where Ab­dusalem Muhemet was held.

GMV can­not say what the sites are be­ing used for. But it is clear that over the past few years China has been build­ing a lot of new se­cu­rity fa­cil­i­ties, at re­mark­able and in­creas­ing speed.

It is likely to be an un­der­es­ti­mate of the true pic­ture.

There is a strik­ing con­clu­sion - the re­cent trend is to­wards larger fa­cil­i­ties.

The num­ber of new con­struc­tion projects this year has fallen when com­pared with 2017.

GMV cal­cu­lates that, from this set of 44 sites alone, the sur­face area of se­cure fa­cil­i­ties in Xin­jiang has ex­panded by some 440 hectares since 2003.

This mea­sure­ment refers to the whole site within the ex­ter­nal se­cu­rity walls, not just the build­ings.

But 440 hectares rep­re­sents a lot of ad­di­tional space.

For con­text, a 14-hectare site within the city of Los An­ge­les – con­tain­ing the Twin Tow­ers Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity and the Men’s Cen­tral Jail - holds a com­bined to­tal of al­most 7,000 prison­ers.

We took one of GMV’s find­ings - the in­crease in build­ing size at the fa­cil­ity in Da­bancheng and showed it to a team with long ex­pe­ri­ence in prison de­sign at the Aus­tralian-based Guymer Bai­ley Ar­chi­tects.

Us­ing the mea­sure­ments from the satel­lite im­ages they cal­cu­lated that, at an ab­so­lute min­i­mum, the fa­cil­ity could pro­vide space for about 11,000 de­tainees.

Even that min­i­mum es­ti­mate would place it along­side some of the big­gest pris­ons in the world.

Riker’s Is­land in New York, the largest in the US, has space for 10,000 prison­ers.

Silivri Prison out­side Is­tan­bul, of­ten re­ferred to as Europe’s largest, is de­signed to house 11,000.

Guymer Bai­ley Ar­chi­tects (GBA) pro­vided us with this anal­y­sis of the pos­si­ble func­tions of the var­i­ous build­ings on the site.

Their min­i­mum es­ti­mate for oc­cu­pancy at Da­bancheng as­sumes that the de­tainees are held only in sin­gle rooms.

If dor­mi­to­ries were used in­stead then the to­tal ca­pac­ity at Da­bancheng would in­crease dra­mat­i­cally, GBA sug­gests, with an outer limit of about 130,000.

We also showed the im­ages to Raphael Sperry, an ar­chi­tect and the pres­i­dent of the US-based or­gan­i­sa­tion, Ar­chi­tects/De­sign­ers/ Plan­ners for So­cial Re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“This is a truly mas­sive and bleak de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity,” he told me.

“It ap­pears as a place de­signed to pack as many peo­ple into as small an area as pos­si­ble at the low­est con­struc­tion cost.

“I think 11,000 is likely a sig­nif­i­cant un­der­es­ti­mate... From the avail­able in­for­ma­tion we can’t tell how the in­te­rior is con­fig­ured or what por­tion of the build­ings is used for de­ten­tion rather than other func­tions. Even so, your dor­mi­tory es­ti­mate of 130,000 peo­ple seems, sadly, quite pos­si­ble.”

The lack of ac­cess to the site means there’s no way of in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fy­ing this anal­y­sis.

We asked the au­thor­i­ties in Xin­jiang to con­firm what the site at Da­bancheng is used for but have re­ceived no re­sponse. Blocked Not all of Xin­jiang’s in­tern­ment camps are the same.

Some of the se­cure fa­cil­i­ties have not been built from scratch, but are con­ver­sions of struc­tures pre­vi­ously used for other pur­poses, like schools or fac­to­ries.

These are of­ten smaller and lo­cated closer to the cen­tre of towns or cities.

In the north­ern county of Yin­ing we tried to visit a num­ber of such camps.

We’d seen lo­cal gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment doc­u­ments for a project to cre­ate five “vo­ca­tional skills ed­u­ca­tion train­ing cen­tres” for the pur­poses of “safe­guard­ing sta­bil­ity”.

In the cen­tre of town we stop out­side a large group of build­ings that used to be Yin­ing Num­ber 3 Mid­dle School.

A high, solid blue steel fence now sur­rounds the site and there’s heavy se­cu­rity on the front gate.

There’s a new watch­tower by the play­ground and an­other one by what used to be the foot­ball pitch.

The pitch is now com­pletely covered by six long steel-roofed build­ings.

Out­side, vis­it­ing fam­ily mem­bers are queue­ing up at the se­cu­rity check.

Once again, wher­ever we go in the town, two or three cars fol­low us.

When we try to get out to film at one of the camps, this one sur­rounded by a grey fence, we’re stopped.

The of­fi­cials, with hands over our cam­era lenses, tell us that there’s im­por­tant mil­i­tary train­ing tak­ing place in the area to­day and we’re in­structed to leave.

Out­side the for­mer school we see a fam­ily, a mother and two chil­dren, stand­ing qui­etly by the fence.

One of the min­ders tries to stop them from talk­ing but an­other ap­pears to over-rule him. “Let them speak,” she says. I ask them whom they’re vis­it­ing. There’s a pause, be­fore the young boy an­swers, “My dad”. The hands cover our lenses once again. In the city of Kash­gar, the once bustling, beat­ing heart of Uighur cul­ture, the nar­row streets are eerily quiet. Many of the doors are pad­locked shut.

On one, we see a no­tice in­struct­ing peo­ple how to re­spond to ques­tions about where their fam­ily mem­bers have gone.

“Say they’re be­ing looked af­ter for the good of so­ci­ety and their fam­i­lies,” it says.

The city’s main mosque is more like a mu­seum.

We try to find out when the next prayer time is but no-one seems to be able to tell us.

“I’m just here to deal with tourists,” one of­fi­cial tells us. “I don’t know any­thing about prayer times.”

In the square, a few beard­less old men sit chat­ting. We ask them where ev­ery­one else is. One of them ges­tures to his mouth, hold­ing his lips to­gether to sig­nal that it’s too risky for him to talk to jour­nal­ists.

But the other whis­pers: “No-one comes any­more.

A hel­meted po­lice­man, some dis­tance away, is clean­ing the mosque steps.

In the si­lence we can hear the sound of the slop of the wa­ter in the bucket and the swish of the mop, echo­ing across the square. Chi­nese tourists are tak­ing pho­tos. We leave Kash­gar on the high­way, head­ing south­west to­wards an area dot­ted with Uighur vil­lages and farms, and a great many sus­pected camps.

We’re be­ing fol­lowed as usual but soon we run into an un­ex­pected ob­sta­cle.

Ahead of us, the high­way ap­pears to have just been closed.

The po­lice of­fi­cers man­ning the road­block tell us that sur­face of the road has melted in the hot sun. “It’s not safe to pro­ceed,” they say. We no­tice that the other cars are be­ing di­rected into a car park in a shop­ping mall, and over the ra­dio, we hear in­struc­tions to hold them there “for a while”.

We’re told the wait could be four or five hours and we’re ad­vised to turn around.

We look for al­ter­na­tive routes, but an­other road­block al­ways seems to ma­te­ri­alise, although the ex­pla­na­tions change. One road is closed for “mil­i­tary train­ing”. Four times, on four sep­a­rate roads, we’re turned around be­fore we fi­nally have to ad­mit de­feat.

Just a few kilo­me­tres away lies an­other gi­ant camp said to hold around 10,000 peo­ple. Sys­tem of con­trol There are Uighurs in po­si­tions of author­ity in Xin­jiang.

Many of the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and po­lice of­fi­cers who tailed and stopped us were Uighurs.

If they feel in any way con­flicted they can­not say it of course.

But while the sys­tem of pro­fil­ing and con­trol has been likened by some to Apartheid, clearly that is not en­tirely ac­cu­rate. Many Uighurs do have a stake in the sys­tem. In re­al­ity a bet­ter par­al­lel can be found in China’s own to­tal­i­tar­ian past.

As in the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, a so­ci­ety is be­ing told that it needs to be taken apart in or­der to be saved.

Shohrat Zakir, a Uighur and, in the­ory, the sec­ond most pow­er­ful politi­cian in the re­gion, sug­gests the bat­tle has al­most been won.

“In the past 21 months, no vi­o­lent ter­ror­ist at­tacks have oc­curred and the num­ber of crim­i­nal cases, in­clud­ing those en­dan­ger­ing pub­lic se­cu­rity, has dropped sig­nif­i­cantly,” he is re­ported to have told state me­dia.

“Xin­jiang is not only beau­ti­ful but also safe and sta­ble.”

But when the de­tainees are re­leased, what then?

The for­mer camp in­mates we spoke to were all burn­ing with re­sent­ment.

And the world has yet to hear from any­one who has spent time in fa­cil­i­ties like Da­bancheng, the sin­is­ter and se­cre­tive fa­cil­ity of such im­mense pro­por­tions.

PHO­TOS:

A still from a Chi­nese state TV re­port on the Uighur “schools” BBC.com

Bilkiz’s daugh­ter Sekine, whom she has not seen for more than two years

Bilkiz Hibibul­lah

Ablet Tur­sun To­hti

Di­a­mux­in­uer Pida, 66, is a well-ed­u­cated for­mer en­gi­neer with a long ser­vice record at a Chi­nese state com­pany.

“They want to delete Uighur iden­tity”

Rey­ila Abu­laiti

Satel­lite image of the site in Hotan where Ab­dusalam says he was held

De­ten­tion in the desert

The pad­locked door to a house in the city of Kash­gar

Shohrat Zakir is the chair­man of Xin­jiang prov­ince and an eth­nic Uighur

Ali (not his real name) is un­will­ing to be iden­ti­fied

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