“ Don‘t turn!” That is the first thing we hear from the authorities who have been on our heels since we arrived at the airport. Through a hole in a partition wall, we see Chinese in army uniform with batons. Filming here is banned, as much more often during our journey in Xinjiang, a region ruled by repression, intimidation and fear.
The journey was due to the fact that the Chinese invited us to capture the life of Uyghurs in the westernmost part of China. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are imprisoned there, punished and brainwashed in prison camps to eradicate the culture of the Islamic minority. China denies and says that they are voluntary vocational schools.
“ If you are interested in further discovering Xinjiang, you are welcome,” the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promises us last year. “To look at the situation objectively. That’s better than basing yourself on rumors or unfounded accusations.”
With the invitation in our pocket we take the plane to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Requests made to the Chinese authorities to visit the ‘vocational schools’ have not yet been responded after one year. But Xinjiang is‘ open ‘: unlike Tibet, journalists are allowed to travel there without extra papers.
There are two of us, but we‘re not left anywhere alone. At the end of the trip, I took down dozens of plates. Cars that follow us everywhere. They stop or turn around when we do, waiting for us with running engines for our hotel lobbies. The restaurants where we eat, the train, the plane: even up to the toilet we are shadowed.
In Urumqi, we still know how to capture something. Homes of prayer that have not been destroyed are “Chinese.” Minarets are gone. Other mosques are dense, officially due to renovation. In four days, I haven’t seen anyone pray.
We manage to reach a camp network in Xinshi, literally the ‘New City’, on the northern edge of Urumqi. Before three police officers kindly but urgently ask us to stop filming, we record how scale is happening here too.
We know how to secure images showing how both inside and outside the high prison walls are being built:
In the provincial town of Kuqa, where an extra dozen men are gathered to wait for us, the work becomes even more complicated. Drivers, booked via the Didi app, are called by the authorities without exception. Sometimes we can listen on speaker. “Don‘t let them get off anywhere”, we hear on the other side of the line.
Another driver is told to “look out” with his passengers. “Drop them off at the airport, and then report to the police,” I hear. Another driver gives birth to a listener. He’s whispering that we‘d better keep our mouths shut.
way to Xayar cotton province, our driver is asked to act as if his car was broken. He kicks in the clutch and gives full throttle. “It seems as if the engine is broken,” he shouts, slightly nervous.
At one of the many checkpoints, he, along with a cop, takes pool height under the hood. He grabs a wrench, unscrew and tighten a screw from the battery. “Maybe this will help!” I ask what the battery has to do with the engine, but driver Dong has to owe the answer.
Arriving in Xayar I shoot out of my box when we are initially forbidden to turn cotton fields, and people are actively asked not to talk to us. It is the only time the authorities ask for our press card and the strangers introduce themselves, in this case as employees of the local propaganda department.
“ It does not help if there are ten men breathing down my neck,” I call. “And certainly not if those people encourage villagers not to talk to us.” I get the answer: ‘There are less than ten of us. ‘ I can’t suppress a little smile.
Selfie Act and Bumper Adhesive Actions
After that, it gets more grim. Upon returning to our hotel, the lobby is filled with followers. They can often be recognized by dark clothes, sometimes supplemented with sunglasses. And a key ring attached to one of the belt loops. They introduce themselves as a tourist, and switch to their smartphone‘s selfie camera as soon as you get close. A often clumsy acting act that has to hide what they’re actually hired for.
They run out as soon as you go out to the street to buy a drink, nervous appending to their colleagues on the roads around our hotel. It concerns both Han Chinese and Uyghurs. I wonder if the work for them is a survival strategy to stay out of the camps.
On the streets, on the way to a giant detention center in Kuqa, they begin toBumper adhesives. They give up hard gas, appear to the left and right of us. Sounds like the message.
Contact with Uyghurs impossible
Arriving at Kuqa train station, some of the men who followed us over the last two days are already in line. One of the followers has a suitcase with him, which he later transfers to one of his minions, who gets in the same car as us.
In the sleeper car, eight strangers keep an eye on us from the folding chairs. If the train continues a little after six o‘clock in the morning, they visit the coupés to warn the sleeping travelers not to talk to us.
Talking with Han Chinese is no problem during our journey, but getting in touch with Uyghurs is impossible because of the pressure of our followers. To do this, we rely on other sources, especially abroad. But to a large extent their stories take place in the past. Most Uyghurs do not speak out until they are safe. If everything is already lost, or relatives are locked up for a long time.
Two police officers keep watch until the gate at Korla airport closes. The relative freedom of Beijing awaits us. We can leave. She’s not.