Escaping China with a spoon and a rusty nail
- Illustrations by Teo Uratadze
On April 24, a 40-year-old Uyghur man was reported to have died in a detention center in Thailand. Just a couple of months earlier, in February, another Uyghur man in his forties died in the same center, where about 50 Uyghurs are currently held awaiting possible deportation to China. Over 200 Uyghurs were detained in Thailand in 2014, and about a hundred were estimated to have been deported to China where their lives were under threat. Activists and human rights groups in Germany and several U.S. cities recently protested outside Thai consulates, demanding the release of Uyghurs still held in detention centers.
Hundreds of Uyghurs fled China in 2014, as the Chinese authorities launched a crackdown on the Muslim-majority ethnic group native to the northwest region of Xinjiang. The aim, the government said, was to stamp out extremism and separatist movements in the region. The authorities called it the “strike hard campaign against violent terrorism” and created a program of repression to closely monitor, surveil and control the Uyghur population.
The authorities bulldozed mosques, saw any expression of religion as extremist and confiscated Qurans. By 2018, as many as one million Uyghurs had been sent to so-called “re-education” camps. Across the region, an extensive high-tech system of surveillance was rolled out to monitor every movement of the Uyghur population. This remains the case to this day, with the Chinese police in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, reportedly requiring residents to download a mobile app which enables them to monitor phones.
Back in 2014, Uyghurs seeking to flee the burgeoning crackdown were forced to take a notoriously dangerous route, known as the “smugglers’ road,” through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand into Malaysia — from there, they could reach Turkey. Though Malaysia had previously deported some Uyghur Muslims to China, in 2018, a Malaysian court released 11 Uyghurs on human rights grounds and allowed them safe passage to Turkey. By September 2020, despite Chinese anger, Malaysia declared it would not extradite Uyghurs seeking refuge in a third country.
But before they could make it to Malaysia, many Uyghurs were detained by the immigration authorities in Thailand and returned to China. Human rights groups condemned the deportations, saying that Uyghurs returned to China “disappear into a black hole” and face persecution and torture upon their return.
Hashim Mohammed, 26, was 16 when he left China. He spent three years in detention in Thailand before making a dramatic escape. He now lives in Turkey — but thoughts of his fellow inmates, who remain in Thai detention, are with him every day. This is his account of how he made it out of China through the smugglers’ road.
On New Year’s Day, in 2019, I was released from immigration detention in Istanbul. It was late evening — around 10 p.m. It was the first time I had walked free in five years. And it was the end of my long journey from China’s Uyghur region, which I ran away from in 2014.
It started back in the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang, 10 years ago now. I was 16 years old and had recently begun boxing at my local gym. In the evenings, I started to spend some time reciting and reading the Quran. The local Chinese authorities were beginning their mass crackdown on Uyghurs in the name of combating terrorist activity. Any display of religious devotion was deemed suspicious.
The local police considered my boxing gym to be a sinister and dangerous place. They kept asking us what we were training for. They thought we were planning something. They started arresting some of the students and coaches at the gym. Police visited my house and went through all my possessions. They couldn’t find anything.
After some time, the gym closed — like lots of similar gyms all over the Uyghur region. People around me were being arrested, seemingly for no good reason. I realized I couldn’t live the way I wanted in my hometown, so I decided to leave.
At that time, thousands of Uyghurs were doing the same thing. I had heard of a smugglers’ route out of China, through Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and eventually to Malaysia. From there, I’d be able to fly to Turkey and start a new life. We called it the “illegal way.” It’s very quick once you leave China, it only takes seven days to get to Malaysia.
At the border leaving China, we met with the smugglers who would get us out. They stuffed around 12 of us into a regular car, all of us sitting on top of each other. I was traveling alone, I didn’t know anyone else in the car.
I remember one guy, Muhammad, who I met in the car for the first time. He was from the same area as me. He was with his wife and two kids and seemed friendly.
The road was terrifying. There was a pit of anxiety in my stomach as the smugglers drove through the mountainous jungle at night at breakneck speed. I watched the speedometer needle always hovering above 100 kmph (about 60 mph), and I couldn’t help thinking about how many people were in the car. We heard about another group, crossing the border into Cambodia in a boat, who nearly drowned. After just seven days, we reached Thailand and the border with Malaysia. We sat in the jungle, trying to decide what to do — we could try climbing the border fence.
But we also saw a rumor on WhatsApp that if you handed yourself in to the Thai border police, they would let you cross the border to Malaysia and fly onward to Turkey within 15 days. People on the app were saying some Uyghurs had already managed it. At this point, we’d been sleeping outside, in the jungle, for days, and we believed it. We handed ourselves in, and the police took a group of us to a local immigration detention center in the Thai jungle.
Fifteen days slipped by, and we began to realize that we’d made a terrible mistake. With every day that passed, our hope that we would get to Turkey slipped away a little further. No one came to help us. We were worried that the Thai authorities would send us back to China.
I was put in a dark cell with 12 guys — all Uyghurs like me, all trying to escape China. Throughout our time in jail, we lived under the constant threat of being deported back to China. We were terrified of that prospect. We tried many times to escape.
I never imagined that I would stay there for three years and eight months, from the ages of 16 to 19. I used to dream about what life would be like if I was free. I thought about simply walking down the street and could hardly imagine it.
There were no windows in the cell, just a little vent at the very top of the room. We used to take turns climbing up, using a rope made out of plastic bags, just to look through the vent. Through the grill, we could see that Thailand was very beautiful. It was so lush. We had never seen such a beautiful, green place. Day and night, we climbed up the rope to peer out through the vent.
We knew that the detention center we were in was very close to the Thai border. One guy who I shared the cell with figured out something about the place we were in. The walls, he said, in this building built for the heat were actually very thin.
We managed to get hold of two tools. A spoon and an old nail.
We began, painstakingly, to gouge a hole in the wall of the bathroom block. We took turns. Day and night, we had a rota and quietly scraped away at the wall, making a hole just big enough for a man to fit through. There was a camera in the cell, and the guards checked on us frequently. But they didn’t check the bathroom — and the camera couldn’t see into the bathroom area, either.
We all got calluses and cuts on our hands from using these flimsy tools to try to dig through the wall. We each pulled 30-minute shifts. To the guards watching the cameras, it looked like we were just taking showers.
The guys in the cell next door to ours were working on a hole of their own. We planned to coordinate our breakout at the same time, at 2 a.m. on a Sunday.
We dug through as much of the wall as we could, without breaking through to the other side until the last moment. There was just a thin layer of plaster between us and the outside world. We drew numbers to decide who would be the first to climb out. Out of 12 people, I drew the number four. A good number, all things considered. My friend Muhammad, who I met on the journey to Thailand, pulled number nine. Not so good.
That Sunday, we all pretended to go to sleep. With the guards checking on us every few hours, we lay there with our eyes shut and our minds racing, thinking about what we were about to do.
Two a.m. rolled around. Quietly, carefully, we removed the last piece of the wall, pulling it inward without a noise. The first, second and third man slipped through the hole, jumped down and ran out of the compound. Then it was my turn. I clambered through the hole, jumped over the barbed wire below me and ran.
The guys in the next cell had not prepared things as well as us. They still had a thick layer of cement to break through. They ripped the basin off the bathroom wall and used it to smash through the last layer. It made an awful sound. The guards came running. Six more guys got out after me, but two didn’t make it. One of them was Muhammad.
The detention center we were in wasn’t very high security. The gate into the complex had been left unlocked. We sprinted out of it, barefoot, in just our shorts and t-shirts, and ran into the jungle on the other side of the road, where we all scattered.
I hid out for eight days in the jungle as the guards and the local police tracked us through the trees. I had saved some food from my prison rations and drank the water that dripped off the leaves in the humidity.
It’s impossible to move through the undergrowth without making a lot of noise — so when the police got close, we had to just stay dead still and hope they wouldn’t find us. At one point, we were completely surrounded by the police and could hear their voices and their dogs barking and see their flashlights through the trees. It was terrifying.
Finally, after days of walking and hiding in the undergrowth, we made it to Thailand’s border with Malaysia. It’s a tall fence, topped with barbed wire. I managed to climb it and jump over — but the guy I was with couldn’t make it. He was later caught and sent back to detention.
In total, there were 20 of us who had managed to break out of the Thai jail. Eleven made it to Malaysia. The others were caught and are still in the detention center in Thailand.
After spending another year in detention in Malaysia, I was finally able to leave for Turkey. After two months in Turkish immigration detention, I walked free. I had spent my best years — from the age of 16 until 21 — in a cell. I feel such sorrow when I think of the others who didn’t make it. It’s a helpless feeling, knowing they’re still in there, living under the threat of being sent back to China.
Now I have a good life in Istanbul. Every morning, I go to the boxing gym. I’d like to get married and start my own family here. But half of me lives in my home region, and my dream is to one day go back to my home country.
Muhammad, my friend who I met on the smuggler’s road, is still in the Thai jail. He’s such an open and friendly person, and he was like my older brother inside. When the hope drained out of me and I broke down, he always reassured me and tried to calm me down. He would tell me stories about the history of Islam and the history of the Uyghur people. I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I think about him, and the other Uyghurs still trapped in Thailand, all the time.
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