NUR-SULTAN -- Muratkhan Aidarkhanuly and his wife worked for the government in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang for about 30 years before retiring and moving to Kazakhstan to be closer to their grandchildren.
They had traveled often to Kazakhstan, where their son and daughter had moved to get an education and had gained citizenship. But even after making the move themselves, Aidarkhanuly and his wife, Zaghi Qurmanbaiqyzy, never gave up their Chinese citizenship -- largely so they could continue drawing pensions -- and they returned to Xinjiang regularly.
In October 2017, however, Aidarkhanuly ran into trouble with the Chinese authorities when he went back to sell the family home. His passport was seized and he was placed under house arrest.
"They put me under a man's supervision," Aidarkhanuly told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, recalling that interrogators were keen on determining what he was doing in Kazakhstan and why he was using WhatsApp, a messaging application he said he has never used.
"Later I was told to call my wife, who remained in Kazakhstan and looked after two of our grandchildren," he said.
They demanded she return, he said, and she complied in December 2017, taking her grandchildren with her.
She was immediately questioned upon her arrival, Qurmanbaiqyzy told RFE/RL. "They interrogated me but they did not say what I was being accused of."
Afterward she, too, was placed under house arrest, and was then transferred to one of the "reeducation" camps that Xinjiang -- which has a Muslim-majority population -- has become infamous for.
After his wife was placed in the camp in mid-February 2018, Aidarkhanuly was left to take care of the couple's grandchildren on his own. He later "found a way" to get them back to Kazakhstan before he was also sent away for reeducation
"I called our kids in Kazakhstan and told them to meet the children at the border," he said, adding that they were handed over to his daughter-in-law on February 23, 2018. "Two days later they also took me to the camp."
'No Different Than Prison'
Aidarkhanuly and his wife each spent the rest of the year being "reeducated."
After his release on December 23, 2018, Aidarkhanuly was placed under house arrest for a further eight months.
The two offered some rare insight into their treatment at the facilities, the existence of which China initially denied and which have been criticized as part of an effort to suppress Muslims -- including Uyghurs, and ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks -- in the name of counterextremism.
"The camp is no different from a prison -- I would say that the camp is a watered-down version of a prison," Qurmanbaiqyzy said. "They didn’t beat or torture us in the camp, but our spirit was killed."
She explained that the camp was under constant video surveillance. Even her cell, which she said held six inmates, was monitored by video cameras.
"It was forbidden to ask questions, you could only raise your hand," she said. "We were fed three times a day, but what was served? No matter what, it won't be the same as at home."
When she saw her husband, she pretended not to know him, and he didn't look in her direction, either.
"The guards would start screaming if they even saw sideways glances," Qurmanbaiqyzy recalled.
Her husband said there were seven to eight inmates packed into his 12-square-meter cell.
"We slept in bunk beds. We were each given two plastic bowls and two spoons -- we drank water from one and ate from the other," he said. "There was no place to put the dishes -- we kept them under the bed."
The bathroom situation was much worse.
"Instead of a toilet, there was a bucket in the corner," he said, adding that it was emptied twice a day.
"There were two openings in the iron door," he said. "Food was passed in through the lower one, while air came in through the upper one."
As for their "education," the two said they studied Chinese language and law, and learned songs praising the Chinese authorities.
"I worked in China for 30 years," Qurmanbaiqyzy said, adding that that she was the only Kazakh working among 120 Chinese.
"I knew Chinese if not better, then certainly not worse than them, and I am fluent in Chinese writing," she said. "In my opinion, language training was just an excuse."
Teachers lectured the inmates -- who ranged in age from 21 to 90, according to Aidarkhanuly -- from behind bars, and were protected by a few guards wielding clubs.
Think Before You Speak
The prisoners, Aidarkhanuly and Qurmanbaiqyzy said, were allowed to call relatives in China several times a month and were occasionally allowed to see visitors.
"Before speaking with relatives, we had to think carefully about what to say so our conversation did not bring them harm," Aidarkhanuly said.
The two were given diplomas confirming they had completed their studies, but the certificates were later taken back without explanation.
According to them, the camp is designed to break people.
"Everyone there was spiritually destroyed. You can notice this in us -- we quickly become offended and quickly return to normal. Because of our mood swings the kids suffer," Aidarkhanuly said.
Qurmanbaiqyzy said she "often cries for no apparent reason."
"Such a sickness was earned in the camp," she said, unable to hold back her tears.
In February 2019, Aidarkhanuly and Qurmanbaiqyzy returned to Kazakhstan after their daughter wrote a statement on their behalf.
They now reside in the village of Qosshy, near the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan with their grandchildren, daughter, and son-in-law.
Both are now citizens of Kazakhstan.