A Uighur man recorded life inside a high-security Chinese internment camp. Here's what he said it was like.

A Uighur man recorded life inside a high-security Chinese internment camp. Here's what he said it was like.
Uighur model Mergan Ghappar inside a Chinese detention camp.The Globe and Mail
  • Mergan Ghappar, a 31-year-old Uighur man from Xinjiang, China, had been working as a model in Foshan, southern China.
  • He disappeared in January after authorities said he was being put on a flight home, according to the BBC and The Globe and Mail.
  • More than a month later, he contacted his family to say he was in an internment camp for Uighurs in Xinjiang, and described the brutal conditions there, the BBC reported.
  • Ghappar had smuggled a cell phone into the camp, and was able to record footage of himself and the camp's conditions, which have since been passed to the BBC and The Globe and Mail.
  • The video provides a rare glimpse into life inside a Chinese internment camp.
  • Ghappar's footage and testimony mirror those from other former inmates at China's detention camps for Uighurs.

A Uighur man has documented what it was like inside one of China's secretive, high-security internment camps, where he said he heard the constant sound of prisoners screaming, and was told he would be beaten to death if he didn't follow orders.

Mergan Ghappar, a 31-year-old model, left the western region of Xinjiang in 2009 and began a modeling career in Foshan, southern China. He was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 16 months in prison for selling cannabis, which his friends told the BBC as an exaggerated charge.

Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, a mostly-Muslim ethnic minority that has in recent years faced unprecedented oppression and surveillance by the Chinese state. People there have been forced to cut off contact with the outside world, and at least 1 million Uighurs have been detained and given arbitrary charges.

According to the BBC, Ghappar was released from the Foshan prison in November 2019, and one month later, he was asked to complete a routine registration procedure. In January 2020, he was put on a flight back to his home city in Xinjiang, the BBC said.

But instead of coming home, he disappeared.


More than a month after his disappearance, Ghappar contacted his family on WeChat, a popular messaging app in China, telling them he was in a police jail in Kucha, Xinjiang, the BBC reported.

According to the BBC, Ghappar and his family communicated for several days where he detailed what it was like in the camp, then he stopped responding.

He wrote he was first detained in a police jail for 18 days. He said was put in with about 50 others — everyone had sacks on their heads, were handcuffed, shackled, and had an iron chain that connected the cuffs to the shackles — in a "small room no bigger than 50 square meters, men on the right, women on the left," according to the BBC.

At one point, Ghappar said he lifted his hood to ask the guard to loosen his handcuffs, and the guard shouted at him: "If you remove your hood again, I will beat you to death," according to the BBC.

For food, the inmates shared a few bowls and spoons. He said the police would ask people who had infectious diseases to raise their hands, and those that raised their hands would eat last.


He took a photo of a document that encouraged children as young as 13 to "repent for their mistakes and voluntarily surrender," which the BBC reported looked like evidence that China is trying to control the thoughts of minorities.

A Uighur man recorded life inside a high-security Chinese internment camp. Here's what he said it was like.
A protester holds up a sign that says "Stand with Uyghur" — an alternative spelling for Uighur — at a rally in Hong Kong on December 22, 2019.Associated Press

Ghappar also said he felt the effects of the coronavirus when it started to spread in Xinjiang earlier this year. The coronavirus reached Xinjiang around late January, though it is unclear whether it reached any police jails or detention camps.

Four men, all 20 or younger, who ignored quarantine rules and played a game outside, were "beaten until they screamed like babies, the skin on their buttocks split open and they couldn't sit down," he wrote, according to the BBC.

He also said that prisoners had to wear masks under their hoods, the BBC reported.


When his temperature was found higher than normal at one point, he was moved to a room so cold he could not sleep, where he heard a man screaming "from morning until evening," he wrote, according to the BBC.

A few days later, the prisoners who were found sick or with high temperatures — including Ghappar, who had a cold — were moved to what he called an "epidemic control center," according to the BBC.

There he was shackled to the bed, soon covered in lice, and guarded by two people.

Here, somehow, he had managed to smuggle a phone into his cell, the BBC and The Globe and Mail reported. He was able to access some of his personal belongings upon arrival to the second jail, and the phone had gone unnoticed, the BBC reported.

With the cell phone he was able to communicate with his family and even film footage of himself inside his room. The clips showed Ghappar handcuffed to a bed, with bars on the windows, and Chinese propaganda blaring in the background.


You can watch some of Ghappar's footage on The Globe and Mail's website.

After months of not hearing from Ghappar, his family has released a four-and-a-half minute video he took in his cell, along with a series of text messages, to the BBC and The Globe and Mail.

While it was impossible to verify the text messages, but experts told the BBC the footage looked genuine, and that the testimony was consistent with those from other former inmates in Xinjiang.

Ghappar's family told the BBC they were aware it could make his situation worse but hoped it would bring attention to him and the general situation for the Uighur people in China.

Abdulhakim Ghapper, his uncle, told the BBC the video could be a symbol of Uighur oppression like how the video of George Floyd's fatal arrest became a symbol of racism and oppression in the US.


"They have both faced brutality for their race. But while in America people are raising their voices, in our case there is silence," he said.

Read the full BBC story here »