A Christian imprisoned 10 months in communist China’s gulag managed to escape to the
U.S. and is speaking out about the torture he endured.
Ovalbek “Joseph” Turdakun, along with his wife and son, arrived in the U.S. April 8th after a protracted effort by Bob Fu with ChinaAid, the U.S. government, and others to engineer his escape. Joseph is the first Christian to speak out about detention in the Uyghur “re-education” camps located in Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has primarily incarcerated Uyghur Muslims in the camps, other ethnic groups also have been caught up in the dragnet. Prisoners have endured forced labor, rape, torture, compulsory injections, and coercive population control involving abortion and sterilization.
Because of this, the State Department has said China is guilty of genocide in Xinjiang.
An ethnic Kyrgyz, Chinese officials took Joseph from his home in February 2018 because they said he overstayed a previous trip to Kyrgyzstan.
In prison, Joseph was strapped to a “tiger chair” which places a person in an extremely tight position. The “tiger chair” is widely used in Chinese prisons. The steel chair buckles around the waist, arms, and legs, and is placed in a padded, soundproofed room with a thick door. Turdakun sat in the chair three times—for at least a day each time, according to ChinaAid.
Prisoners strapped in the chairs were shocked with electric prods when they attempted to change their positions, he said.
During his interrogations, Joseph was repeatedly asked about his religion and marriage to his Kyrgyzstan-born wife.
Inmates had to sing songs praising the CCP to get breakfast. Prisoners were not allowed to talk to each other and were under constant surveillance by a network of cameras.
They were force-fed Chinese propaganda films, extolling China’s growth and development under the CCP.
If prisoners attempted to converse, a voice through a loudspeaker told them to stop, and they would endure beatings.
Joseph and his fellow inmates were given a vaccine that was said to prevent colds. After the injection, he and other inmates felt pain in their ears, hands, and feet; yellow fluid came out of their ears; some had difficulties walking. When he was released after 10 months in detention, he still had difficulties walking, according to ChinaAid.
Joseph and his wife, Zhil, were devout Christians before they married and later had their son, Daniel.
Two years before Joseph was taken into custody, his pastor approached him with a warning. “She told me she had a vision,” he told ChinaAid. In the vision, his pastor saw Joseph in a dark room full of smoke with no windows and no light. Then, a hand appeared and took him away. Joseph knew immediately what the dream implied: prison.
“At first I was terrified,” he admitted, “but when I was in the camp, I saw the room they made me live in. It was dark, so dark that the dust in the air made it seem like the room was full of smoke. I was reminded that in that same dream a hand reached through a wall and pulled me out. I held onto that hope.”
While he endured torture in the camp, Joseph said God worked in the hearts of the inmates around him. They had no privacy, but when 50-60 inmates filled the shower room every day, it was one place where Joseph could talk to people about Jesus, because the shower-heads made enough noise to mask their conversations.
In the first few months, there was hardly anyone who would talk to him about God, according to ChinaAid. When he tried to witness to others in the shower, they would ask, “How could God let us be here in this place?” “How could God allow our children to be abandoned?”
These objections persisted for three months until they became more willing to listen. “Without God, we would have no life,” he explained. Joseph then started to share Scriptures with them he had hidden in his heart.
“God did many miraculous things,” Joseph said, “He was with us.”
Joseph was released in December 2018 and later placed under house arrest. He was forced to work without pay and unable to leave his home except for a few activities such as picking up his son from school. He revealed that for an entire year, facial-recognition cameras were monitoring him everywhere, according to ChinaAid.
Fearing that he would be detained again, Joseph, his wife, and their 11-year-old son fled to Kyrgyzstan in 2019. There, he was repeatedly contacted by Chinese authorities actively seeking to repatriate them to Xinjiang, and his bank account was frozen.
Two years later, Kyrgyz officials refused to renew his visa, putting him and his family at risk of deportation to China.
Joseph contacted Ethan Gutmann, a Uyghur advocate based in Washington, D.C. who worked with Rev. Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, and they developed a plan to get the family out of the country, which involved flying family members to Turkey as tourists, where they waited for the State Department to make a decision to allow them entry into the U.S.
On January 9, the State Department granted the family special authorization to enter the United States, and on April 1, the Department of Homeland Security signed off on their arrival.
“I want to give thanks to our God,” Joseph said after his arrival. “I’m also grateful to the U.S. government and the friends who helped us the whole time. We would not have been able to arrive safely in the United States without their help.”
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