"They taught [us]...not to be Muslims."
Thirty-year-old Kayrat Samarkan is an ethnic Kazakh from China. He has just received citizenship in Kazakhstan, after living there since May 2009. But he almost didn't make it.
On February 15, Samarkan was released from a "reeducation" facility in China's western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Beijing's reeducation campaign has been under way in Xinjiang for many months, and targets mainly the Turkic Muslim peoples whose ancestors inhabited the area for many centuries.
U.S. acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Laura Stone said in Beijing on April 18 that the number of people detained in Xinjiang and sent to reeducation centers was "at the very least in the tens of thousands."
The campaign initially targeted Uyghurs, the largest Muslim group living in Xinjiang, but later Chinese authorities included other Muslim peoples: Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and even Dungans (who are actually ethnic Chinese Muslims).
Samarkan has told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, that he returned to Xinjiang in October 2017 to sell his home and land there. The police in Samarkan's native Buryltogay district called him in for questioning.
"They asked me: 'What kind of work do you do in Kazakhstan? Who is there with you? Do you attend Namaz?'" Samarkan says. "They questioned me for three days they didn't give me a chance to sleep."
The police detained him and ordered him sent to a reeducation facility for three to nine months, and four days after he first appeared at the police station he was transferred to the "center for political education" in the Buryltogay district.
"They took my clothes and brought me in handcuffs and leg shackles to my cell," he says. "There, they shaved my head."
Samarkan says there were three categories of prisoners at the facility. "The first category was people connected to religion; the second was those who had gone abroad; the third were those who had violated social order." He was detained for being part of categories two and three.
The lessons began.
"They taught us to keep safe the domestic secrets of the People's Republic of China, not to divide peoples by nationality, not to divulge [information] about the internal affairs of China, not to be a Muslim," Samarkan recalls. Inmates also studied the text from the XIX Communist Party Congress that China held in October 2017.
Samarkan says inmates had to pay for food rations -- 20 yuan (about $3.15) per day -- for "two pieces of bread and watery rice."
He says he thinks there were some 5,700 inmates in the facility where he was kept. "Among them, more than 3,000 were Kazakhs, 2,000 were Uyghurs, and 200 were Dungans," he estimates.
Can't Leave China Behind
Samarkan says there were two other Kazakhs there who had emigrated to Kazakhstan and were detained when they returned to Xinjiang for what they thought would be brief visits. One was serving a four-year sentence in the reeducation facility, the other a seven-year sentence.
This has been a problem for some of the "Oralman," ethnic Kazakhs living outside Kazakhstan but invited by the Kazakh government to come to their "homeland." More than 1 million have done so, and the largest number came from China.
However, according to Chinese authorities, some did not complete all the paperwork needed to officially renounce Chinese citizenship, which leaves them open to arrest and confinement when they return to Xinjiang on business, to visit family, or, as in Samarkan's case, to settle unfinished matters back in Xinjiang.
Samarkan tells Azattyq he was so despondent that he contemplated suicide. He started beating his head against the wall to convince his captors he was psychologically unwell. One day in February when he was standing in line with other inmates, he said his legs just weakened and he fell, striking his head on a wall. He lost consciousness for about 15 minutes and was taken to a hospital.
He was freed after that but told not to leave China. When he pleaded that his wife and child were in Kazakhstan, the authorities agreed he could return to Kazakhstan for one month.
"As soon as I got to Kazakhstan I received citizenship, since my waiting period [for citizenship] had just finished," Samarkan says.
Azattyq attempted to contact the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan for comment on Samarkan's story and the existence of reeducation facilities in Xinjiang, but those calls went unanswered.
Kazakh authorities are aware of problems for Oralmans in Xinjiang. Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese Foreign Ministry in February 15, the same day Samarkan was freed from custody.
Kazakh First Deputy Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi just visited Xinjiang on April 17 to 19 to meet with officials there.
China's fears don't appear to be figments of the imagination. Uyghur militants in the Middle East have released videos threatening bloodshed in China. And as militant groups there continue to lose territory to the wide array of international forces that have massed in Syria and Iraq, some of these Uyghurs now seem to be in Afghanistan.
China has boosted its cooperation with the Afghan and Tajik governments in an effort to prevent these Uyghur militants from returning to China. And Beijing has cracked down on Xinjiang's Muslims, closing down mosques, greatly restricting religious practices, banning clothing deemed to be in some way Islamic, banning beards for all but elderly men.
The ripples from the campaign in Xinjiang are increasingly felt in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where Sinophobia has already been increasing in recent years. Azattyq just reported on rising Sinophobia in Kazakhstan, and tales such as the one Samarkan tells are only going to fuel this sentiment.