Inside A Xinjiang Detention Camp
This is Part 3 of a BuzzFeed News investigation. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here. For Part 4, click here.
This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center, the Open Technology Fund, and the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.
Nestled in the mountains along the border between China and Kazakhstan, a remote rural county conceals an appalling secret: a high-tech, rapidly growing mass internment camp for the area’s Muslim minorities, capable of detaining thousands of people.
The compound in China’s Mongolküre County, which has been under construction since 2017, is mostly hidden from the outside world. It has even been edited out of much of the satellite imagery that appears on China’s Baidu Maps. But through interviews with former detainees and an in-depth architectural analysis of the site’s development, BuzzFeed News can reveal the true nature of this secretive facility — from its crowded cells where detainees were forbidden from gazing out the window to its solitary confinement rooms — and open its walls to scrutiny.
This massive detention center, the size of 13 football fields, is a cog in the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities in the world since World War II, in which 1 million or more Muslims, including Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others, have been rounded up and detained in China’s western region of Xinjiang. Publicly, China has claimed that Muslim detainees have been freed. Yet an ongoing BuzzFeed News investigation, based on dozens of interviews with survivors and thousands of satellite images, has exposed how China has built a vast and permanent infrastructure for mass detention in Xinjiang, marking a radical shift away from the government’s makeshift use of preexisting public buildings at the beginning of the campaign. Using the same techniques that revealed the scale of China’s expanding network of detention centers, BuzzFeed News can now expose the inner workings of one such compound. The Mongolküre facility is one of at least 260 newly built sites bearing the hallmarks of long-term detention centers capable of holding hundreds of thousands of people in total servitude to the state.
Until now, relatively little has been known about what happens inside these forbidding compounds. Rarer still have been details about any single detention center. One reason is terror: The overwhelming majority of camp survivors still live in Xinjiang under constant surveillance and the threat of incarceration, as do their families and the wider Muslim population in the region. Many of those detained who have been able to speak out simply don’t remember where they were held, having been taken from home with hoods around their heads and shuttled from camp to camp.
BuzzFeed News initially learned of the Mongolküre site thanks to three former detainees who have fled the country and have spoken about the conditions inside despite the risk to themselves and their families. That testimony, combined with an architectural analysis of satellite photos dating back to 2006, allowed BuzzFeed News to digitally reconstruct the prison to understand its purpose and scope.
The three former detainees all described being beaten over small infractions, such as speaking Kazakh.
This account of the camp at Mongolküre in China’s Xinjiang region — known as Zhaosu in Chinese — provides an intimate, prisoner’s-eye view of a single complex purpose-built to detain and dehumanize the people held inside. Each detail reveals careful planning in the service of total control. The cells, classrooms, and hallways are wired with cameras and microphones. The slightest infractions, such as speaking their native language, can lead to violent retribution. Their government captors exert extreme authority over their every move. Detainees must sit up straight. They must bow their heads. They cannot even walk down a hallway without following painted lines along the floor. There’s no fresh air. Little stimulation. Only confinement.
The three former detainees all described being beaten over small infractions, such as speaking Kazakh. They faced interrogations as often as once a week, where they would be asked the same questions over and over again about why they had gone to Kazakhstan, whom they knew there, and what their personal religious beliefs were. They were forced to pledge loyalty to the Communist Party. Sometimes they were asked to write and sign “self-criticism” documents.
But what they remember most about their time in Xinjiang’s camps is the shame they felt for being treated like criminals — locked up for weeks without going outside — despite never being accused of a crime.
In response to a list of questions about this story, the Chinese consulate in New York responded: “The issue of Xinjiang is about combating violent terrorism and separatism. We hope people making rumors about Xinjiang stop playing double standards and interfering in China’s internal affairs.” The government, led by President Xi Jinping, has in the past said that the camps are for vocational training or education. A Xinjiang official said in December 2019 that the detainees had “graduated” — but satellite evidence shows that the government kept building new facilities after that date.
“Xi’s government prioritizes political loyalty — conformity — above all else, and in the authorities’ eyes, Turkic Muslims’ distinct identity is seen as a serious threat,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Beijing’s response should make anyone’s blood run cold: detaining vast numbers of people, wholly outside any legal process, freeing them only when they have been terrorized into abandoning their language, religion, and culture — and voicing allegiance to their tormentors.”
A whole new compound had sprung up, complete with high gray walls and fenced-in walkways topped with curled barbed wire.
The three young Kazakh men interviewed for this article first spent a few weeks detained in Mongolküre during the early months of China’s campaign against Muslims. Back then, the camp consisted of an older detention center, capable of holding around 300 people, surrounded by thick walls and guard towers with a few small support buildings outside near a grassy field, a horse farm, and a snowcapped mountain range. It typically held local people accused of crimes as they awaited trial. But none of the three Kazakh men would ever see the inside of a courthouse. All three were released, but their freedom would be temporary.
When they returned to the same compound in late 2017, the place was so starkly different that the detainees began calling it “the new place.” While they were gone, a whole new compound had sprung up, complete with high gray walls and fenced-in walkways topped with curled barbed wire.
The men were held at “the new place” for months. High-resolution satellite images show that after the men were released, the camp expanded further, growing to more than 10 times its original size.
By fall 2018, the “new place” was just one small corner of a sprawling complex capable of holding about 3,700 people — in a county that is home to just 183,900 people according to China’s census. That means the complex could hold 1 in 50 people who live in Mongolküre. And, thanks to a set of six blue-roofed factory buildings, the compound is fit for detainee labor.
The three young Kazakh men interviewed for this article were familiar with the part of Mongolküre where the camp was located because they had grown up in the area. After leaving China, where Google tools are censored, they were able to find the camp on Google Earth.
The three believe they were brought to the camp for having lived in Kazakhstan, which the Chinese government deems a sign of divided loyalties.
Though they shared a hometown and spent overlapping stints at Xinjiang’s internment camps, the three men did not know each other until after they were released. Key details from each of their stories dovetail with one another. They requested anonymity to be able to speak freely, fearing retribution against their families who still live in Xinjiang — one is referred to in this article by his nickname, Ulan, and the other two, O. and M., are referred to by their initials. Each said they had wondered if they would survive to tell what happened, and added that the ordeal had left them with deep emotional scars.
Satellite photos buttress their accounts with dramatic visual evidence — and document the Mongolküre camp’s mushrooming growth after they were released. High-resolution imagery shows details such as the barbed wire pens in the courtyard where detainees were occasionally brought to exercise, the passage leading from the guardhouse to the main accommodation building, the colors of the outside walls.
By counting the windows along the facade — subtracting space for a classroom and stairwells — BuzzFeed News could estimate with a high degree of confidence how many cells were on each floor. Videos smuggled out of other camps often feature matching details, such as what the corridors looked like, or what the cells’ doors looked like and how they locked. BuzzFeed News used all of these sources and methods to build the 3D model shown here.
Taken together, these materials and interviews provide as complete a picture as possible about how a major Xinjiang detention camp functions on the inside. They also show how the government’s detention program grew to dominate a rural county on China’s border with Kazakhstan, the camp’s high walls blotting out a landscape of grassy mountains and fields of flowers.
To hear Chinese state media tell it, 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 canola blossoms the color of egg yolks.
Parts of the county are so rural that police officers sometimes patrol the grasslands on horseback. Mongolküre is nestled within sprawling mountain ranges, shielding it from the Taklamakan Desert’s hot winds that can sweep across much of the region. In the summer, locals and tourists hike along the green trails in the mountains, which are lined with tall, spiky evergreen trees. On Instagram, travel photos tagged with the Chinese characters for “Zhaosu” show women dressed as if for a photo shoot, picking yellow flowers or posing before mountainous landscapes that resemble the American West. One video clip shows a woman walking slowly into a group of pristine white yurts, tagged #campsite.
The snow clears late, but once it does — around the beginning of April — the landscape transforms into bright green fields. By September, the farmers begin to harvest. A couple months later, the snow returns.
Ulan grew up in Mongolküre on his family’s small grain farm. His parents were not as educated as he is; he speaks Chinese with little accent even though, like most of the farming families around him, his native language is Kazakh. When he was young, he used to love riding horses through tall green grass in the summer. At home, he spent hours listening to American rap music from the ’90s. Ulan picked up some English words listening to Tupac Shakur rap about race in America, but he never thought much about being part of a minority group when he was growing up.
“We never faced any discrimination because my old school, the local police station, the leaders, and Communist Party cadres of the county government were all Kazakh,” he remembered. “Ninety percent of the school teachers were Kazakh.” Around 2008, more Han Chinese residents began to move to Mongolküre, former residents remembered, changing the culture of the county.
Much of Mongolküre County is farmland, the fields planted in narrow strips of alternating colors. Its main town, called Mongolküre Town, has banks, restaurants, a post office, and a Buddhist temple. Many farmers there grow potatoes and wheat; the weather is too cold for apples to ripen, according to a former resident. 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 selling Chinese dishes like hot pot and beef noodle soup. “When we were growing up, we never ate Chinese food,” said a former resident in his thirties.
That has meant the de facto criminalization of many ordinary ethnic customs, and Muslim religious practices, from wearing a headscarf to having attended a religious school.
China began its campaign of mass detention and surveillance in late 2016, aimed, from the government’s perspective, at eradicating “extremist thought” and countering terrorism in the region, which the ruling Chinese Communist Party has blamed on separatist groups advocating for Xinjiang’s millions of Uighurs to form their own country. In practice, that has meant the de facto criminalization of many ordinary ethnic customs, and Muslim religious practices, from wearing a headscarf to having attended a religious school.
Ulan wanted to go abroad to study. His dream was to go to the US, the country he fell in love with through hip-hop lyrics. But because he’s an ethnic Kazakh himself, Kazakhstan seemed easier — a place he could go before venturing farther. In 2014, he moved there for college.
He tried to return to China in late 2017, months after the government had started its detention campaign, via the land border crossing at Khorgos. Inside the beige building, he gave his passport to a Chinese immigration official. The official told him he was on a blacklist, he said, and he was soon detained.
He was taken to a pretrial detention center in Mongolküre, satellite images and interviews show. Built sometime between 2006 and 2010, it was a stumpy T-shaped building, two stories high. It sat just a kilometer outside of town, partially hidden from the road by a thicket of leafy trees. Each floor had a single corridor down the middle with a row of cells on either side. The building was tightly surrounded by a high wall, with guard towers dotting two of its corners. All three of the Kazakh men interviewed for this article say they were held there in 2017.
Outside the entrance to the detention compound, which could hold about 300 people, sat a couple of administrative buildings, the men remembered. The guards’ buildings were on the south side in their own separate compound, complete with basketball and tennis courts and a garden with neatly planted bushes, satellite images show. The camp lies on a gentle slope, with a stream to the east.
The compound quickly became overcrowded, the three men said — a common feature of life in the camps at the time, according to dozens of interviews with ex-detainees.
The government was moving quickly to ramp up its capacity to detain prisoners in multiple locations in Mongolküre, images show. Two new camps were opened sometime in early to mid-2017, this time in older buildings that had been repurposed to hold detainees. They could hold about 400 people in total, and they were located on main streets in Mongolküre’s town center, one across the street from a primary school, and the other opposite the county’s sports center.
Then, in September 2017, a larger camp opened in the town center, labeled on Baidu Maps as “Zhaosu Village Workers’ Education Center,” which could hold around 1,300 people. While the security at the first two city center camps was relatively subtle, this larger camp looked much more imposing, with thick, high security walls. A small police station appeared next to the entrance, while two lanes of the road outside were converted into a parking lot. Inside the compound, barbed wire walkways ran between the buildings, connecting them and the large pen in the courtyard near the entrance.
As the government built, it also moved to erase a cultural landmark. By 2018, one of Mongolküre’s mosques had its dome and minarets removed and a pitched roof added instead, satellite images show. “It happened in a lot of towns,” said Zhadyra, an ethnic Kazakh woman who was born on a cattle ranch in Mongolküre County and immigrated to Kazakhstan last year. “Around that time, every house was searched, they were looking for things connected to the Islamic religion, like the holy Qur’an, even things with Arabic writing.”
She saw prisoners being transported in a high-security truck, she said, wearing sacks over their heads.
Those years were tense for everyone, said Zhadyra, who asked 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 used to walk by there every day and look at the barbed wire.”
Once, walking at night, she saw prisoners being transported in a high-security truck, she said, wearing sacks over their heads. She thought they were being taken to a different camp. After that, she said, she felt dread creep into the pit of her stomach when she walked down that street.
But authorities were at work on a far more ambitious construction project northeast of town.
O. returned to what he now called “the new place” in the winter of 2017. “There was a huge gray wall, maybe 3 meters high, and you couldn’t see inside,” O. said. He remembered seeing a big black gate next to a police station, where he saw four officers were working. Guards accompanied detainees to the interior of the camp, sometimes flanked by dogs.
The older T-shaped building from his first stay in lockup still stood nearby. But where he now stood had been transformed from farmland into an entirely new complex that satellite photos show had been finished in the fall. In it stood a main three-story building as well as a group of other structures, including a medical clinic, administrative offices, and a visiting center for families that was seldom used, the three men remembered.
It is common to see internment camps in the region painted in pastels — peach or sky blue — but the buildings in this camp were white. A barbed wire passageway led across the courtyard from the gated entrance to the large building where cells and classrooms were located.
The walls inside were white too, but the wall of the cell where Ulan stayed with nine other men was covered with the Chinese flag and a poster with the emblem of the Communist Party and the words to the national anthem. That made the room, which would normally house only three or four people, feel claustrophobic. There was also a “code of conduct” posted — beginning with the command that they must immediately jump out of bed when the wake-up call came in the morning, followed by other rules designed to control the minutiae of their daily lives in their cells.
After being inside for so long, it felt strange to see the sky above them.
The detainees were taken to exercise within the small open spaces inside the camps about once every few weeks, they remembered. After being inside for so long, it felt strange to see the sky above them.
O. noticed that the detainees wore different uniforms; he and others wore black, indicating they were not considered high-risk. Others wore yellow and red uniforms. Those in red were considered the most dangerous. O. was not sure what they might have done to land themselves in that category.
Inside the building where O. stayed, the hallways were marked with red and yellow lines, indicating where detainees were meant to walk in single file, usually with their heads down.
The rooms, which could house more than a dozen people, were about 14.1 feet long (4.3 meters) and 20 feet wide (6.1 meters), according to a BuzzFeed News architectural analysis — a little over half the size of a two-car garage. The detainees spent nearly all their time there, often as many as 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, which would be used to pass food inside, O. said. There was a canteen in the building on the first floor, but the detainees had only heard about it. They assumed it was only for the people who worked in the camp — the teachers, the administrators, and guards.
Sometimes, Ulan thought, the food they brought them was warmed-over leftovers from the camp staffers’ lunches. Before meals, the detainees would be asked to stand and sing patriotic Chinese songs like “Socialism Is Good” and “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China,” both popular during the Mao era.
During the days, the detainees were usually required to go to class for about an hour to study the Chinese language and political dogma, like the party slogan “love the Communist Party and love the country.” The overcrowding in the camp meant classroom time was limited. Classrooms, which were on the second and third floors of the building, had a thick transparent barrier between the students and the teacher.
Classes began with a patriotic song too. The three Kazakh men interviewed for this story were all fluent in Mandarin Chinese but were forced to study it anyway, making them wonder why they had been brought to the camp at all.
But classes did provide what Ulan would come to see as an incredible luxury. The detainees’ 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 out of it, only the stark gray of the mountains stretching to the north. But it reminded him he was not far from home.
Ulan spent time as an appointed “leader” in his dormitory, where he stayed on the third floor. One day in 2018, a young Uighur man who stayed in the same dormitory as him fell ill. Ulan had noticed that the man, who appeared to be in good health when he had arrived, had gotten thinner and thinner. Now he was feeling nauseous, with a tightness in his chest, he told Ulan.
Although Ulan had never seen the camp’s health clinic himself, he knew one existed. He persuaded the camp authorities to allow the Uighur man to lie down on a bed for a while in his cell on the building’s third floor and to see the camp’s doctors. But things only got worse. Two other men tried to help him to the bathroom, but the Uighur man collapsed. He began vomiting.
“The smell of the whole room changed in a way that was absolutely unbearable for any normal person,” Ulan said. “After a while, all he was vomiting was blood.”
“After a while, all he was vomiting was blood.”
They pressed a red alarm button in the room that was used to signal guards in emergencies. Guards carried the man away. Ulan assumed he would never see him again — but after a month, he returned.
Ulan felt sorry for the man when he came back; serious illness was seen by prisoners as one of the only paths out of the camp. “At that time, everyone was very desperate and feared that they would never get out,” he said. To see someone that sick remain in detention was extremely demoralizing. “We don’t know how many people died there,” he said.
Each cell had a loudspeaker and an intercom, through which guards and camp officials would shout orders. When they ate meals or read books, prisoners had to sit perfectly upright on either plastic stools or the edge of their beds.
On one occasion, M. was beaten up with the butt of a gun, he said, after he’d broken a rule and was left covered with bruises.
A man the inmates called “Director Ma” was among those in charge of the camp, Ulan said. “He was a very cruel person.”
Guards watching the detainees through closed-circuit cameras — at least two in each cell — would monitor whether they were speaking their languages (for instance, Uighur or Kazakh) instead of Mandarin Chinese. One day in 2018, someone in Ulan’s room was found to be in violation.
“Their screams must have scared everyone in the building.”
“Director Ma came into our room, asked everyone to stand facing the window, and then called their names out one by one,” Ulan remembered.
Raising an electric baton, Ma beat them over their backs. Ulan remembers the screaming. “Their screams must have scared everyone in the building,” he said.
Ulan was last in line. He felt his body tense, waiting for the blow. But Ma paused, telling the detainees that if anyone dared to speak a language other than Chinese again, they would be sent to solitary confinement for a week.
Then Ma raised his arm and struck.
Ulan and the other two men interviewed for this story were released from the camp system in the spring of 2018. Construction of the factories finished in November 2018 — part of a massive new complex that dwarfed the “new place.” In all, there were now 11 detention buildings on a site that had once held only one. The original detention center had covered 2 hectares, enough space for two soccer fields. By the end of 2018, the entire complex sprawled over 13 hectares of land. The area is now capable of detaining about 3,750 people — without factoring in overcrowding.
Zhadyra, the ethnic Kazakh woman who left Mongolküre in 2019, had never seen that compound. It was outside town, and she had no reason to go there. But asked whether she knew of internment camps in Mongolküre, she was quick to say she’d heard from a friend’s brother about “a new, modern camp.” Her description matched the location of the new mega-complex — northeast of the town, by the exit to Shapshal County, near a group of factories.
“He said that unemployed young people between the ages of 25 and 40 would be imprisoned in those camps to force them to work at the factories,” she added.
The completion of the new megastructure apparently rendered the camp about 2.5 miles away in the center of town irrelevant. Satellite images show that it was a hive of activity in 2018; one photo from Aug. 15 that year showed 87 cars in the parking lot. But in May 2019, the barbed wire disappeared from the camp’s exterior. It was likely decommissioned.
After he was released in spring 2018, Ulan moved back in with his parents. When he saw them, he was overcome with guilt and shame. “I felt like a criminal,” he said.
He couldn’t move past what had happened to him at the camp. He thought about the cruelty he had seen there and about what had happened to the sick man he’d seen vomit blood. “There weren’t just ordinary people like us there; there were also old people, people with mental illnesses, people with epilepsy,” he said. He wondered if they would survive.
He started listening to hip hop again, changing his chat avatar to a portrait of Tupac. His favorite song was Me Against The World, the defiant 1995 hit where the rapper alludes to the trauma he’d felt from witnessing killings and street violence in Los Angeles. “His songs talk about violence, racism, and social equality,” Ulan said. “They’re full of a spirit of revolutionary resistance. I don’t think any other rapper can make people feel so deeply moved.”
“There weren’t just ordinary people like us there; there were also old people, people with mental illnesses, people with epilepsy.”
Several months passed, and the three young men independently made their way to Kazakhstan, where they met for the first time. After realizing they came from the same region of Xinjiang, they figured out that they had been held at the “new place” around the same time.
Ulan met other Kazakhs who had once been held in the camps. There were many former detainees in Kazakhstan, but most of them tried to lay low — because they did not want to bring unwanted attention to their families back in China, or because they were so devastated by the ordeal that they sought only to move past it. But others decided they wanted to speak publicly, recording videos on YouTube about their experiences or speaking to journalists.
Ulan’s parents remain in Xinjiang.
“They’re still harassing my family,” Ulan said recently. He said authorities had asked them for his address in Kazakhstan and what he was up to. In October this year, police visited his family’s home to ask whether he planned to return to Xinjiang.
Ulan said his parents’ ID cards have been blacklisted, meaning they trigger red flags at checkpoints and when police question them. They had to get permission from authorities to leave Mongolküre.
“Even now,” he said, “they are watching every move they make, all the time.” ●