Surviving the crackdown in Xinjiang

As the months passed, the system took its toll on everyone. Guards who were once lenient became erratic and severe. A mild-mannered staff member lost it one evening, after being confronted with multiple requests for the bathroom; she yelled maniacally, then refused to let any woman out for the rest of the night.

The detainees, too, began to buckle. They joked that the state was merely keeping them alive. Some went gray prematurely. Many stopped menstruating—whether from compulsory injections that the camp administered or from stress, Sabit was unsure. Because they could shower only infrequently and were never provided clean underwear, the women often developed gynecological problems. From the poor food, many suffered bad digestion. One elderly woman could not use the bathroom without expelling portions of her large intestine, which she had to stuff back into herself. The woman was sent to a hospital, but an operation could not be performed, it was explained, because she had high blood pressure. She was returned, and spent most of the time moaning in bed.

In class one day, a detainee who had lost most of her family to the camps suddenly fell to the floor, unconscious. Her sister, who was also in the class, ran to her, then looked up at the others with alarm. The women tearfully rushed to her aid but were stopped by the guards, who ordered them not to cry. “They started hitting the iron fence with their batons, frightening us,” Sabit recalled. “We had to hold back our sobbing.”

Signs of psychological trauma were easy to find. An Uyghur woman, barely educated, had been laboring to memorize Mandarin texts and characters. One evening, she started screaming, yanked off her clothing, and hid under her bed, insisting that no one touch her.