A Taste of Starvation

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Starvation is one of the many violent tools used to consolidate power during a genocide, and it is a common form of the torture practiced by the Chinese communist regime in Chinese jails, during which guards withhold food from prisoners in order to force submission or a confession.

Today, Uyghurs are being imprisoned in their own land. The Chinese regime has turned the Uyghur’s hometown into an open prison and has used the COVID lockdown as an excuse to torture and starve innocent Uyghur people.

The old town based on the north side of the Uyghur land, Ghulja, has been locked down for more than 90 days. In these recent weeks, I’ve seen hundreds of videos about starving Uyghurs. I will not be posting all of them online, and though I have examined many of them, I can no longer watch them, because the more I watch the videos, the more it reminds me of the days that I was held captive in jail. I can’t bear to look at their faces, because all those days in misery come flooding back into my memories. I can’t handle listening to their agonizing screams and cries, because I’ve experienced the exact same suffering. I’ve lived through that kind of life; I’ve had a taste of starvation.

There were too many ways to torture, punish, and abuse prisoners in the jail. The interrogators had their ways, the guards had their ways, and the “big brother” called “class monitor” in the cell had a different way. But forced starvation, exhausting the prisoners, and solitary confinement were commonly used on everyone. The interrogators kept people in questioning rooms to starve them, and the guards worked in shifts to work prisoners to exhaustion. The cell manager prohibited prisoners from talking to each other, looking at each other, or even staying close to each other. This feeling of isolation was also used as a form of torture. One of the worst punishments was locking prisoners in a tiny single cell and forcing them to sit on the tiger chair with only a pee hole underneath, keeping them there alone, starving and exhausted.

Though starvation was one of the weakest torture methods they had, it was very effective. When prisoners are starving, they lose their morals, their mental health, and their strength. The starvation I saw was especially brutal, because they denied people food while making food visible. Punished prisoners were denied food when food was plentiful, while others were eating, and even when it was there right in front of them.

In 2014, I had been staying in a jail called Liudawan since October 2013. The jail was full of yellow jacked Uyghur political prisoners. One morning, we were all bent down on our wooden bed eating our breakfast when the door suddenly opened, and we immediately stood up without a moment to even wipe our mouths. We got in line quickly and yelled “Guanjiao hao” (literally meaning “hello educator”) in Chinese to the manager. This was what we had to say every time the doors were opened.

A guard with a mask on his face and white gloves came into the cell. He covered his nose to avoid the dirty smell while he pushed a male Uyghur teenager into the cells and closed the double cover door. Because I’m the translator in the jail, I put down my breakfast and helped him to take notes. The teenager’s name was Yasin Jan, and he was from the Hotan city, which is about three thousand kilometers away from Urumqi. The cell manager took the tanned white lad, so young that his mustache was just starting to grow, and made him sit next to the toilet. For the next 15 days, the teenager was forbidden from sitting on the bed, talking to others, or leaving his spot by the toilet, which was also where he had to sleep and eat. This kind of punishment was reserved for new political prisoners who wore a special uniform.

Because the rules were all in Mandarin, which he didn’t speak fluently, I had no choice but to teach him the rules. I told him that I had no choice, and that he must obey the rules or be severely punished.

Yasin Jan was a fruit seller who sold fruit with his small pushing wheel. He became a political prisoner because he had posted a picture online that exposed Chinese bananas coming to the Urumqi as being diseased. He said that after a couple of days staying here, he would be transferred to the Hotan, and that the crime the Chinese claimed he committed was “creating hatred between the Uyghur and Han nations”.

That night, at two o’clock, I was keeping watch of the cell, as it is a duty for everyone in the jail. I saw that Yasin Jan was lying down on the plain cement next to the toilet like a baby in his mother’s womb, his teeth crushing into each other because of the stone-cold temperature in the cell. The boy was wearing nothing except his underwear and a yellow criminal jacket because the guards had taken all his clothes before shuffling him into the cells.

I don’t know what kind of instinct came over me or where it came from. I just took my winter jacket that I used in the cell as a pillow and gave it to him to use as a blanket. Suddenly, a sound came from the speaker in the cell, “What the hell are you doing? Put your winter jacket back on!” I was so scared that I lost all strength because this was a heavy crime in the cell. As a prisoner who had lived there more than 8 months, I should have known that. Not only was showing kindness or even speaking to other prisoners considered a heavy crime but taking off or covering up your political yellow jacket was also forbidden.

The guard made me stay on watch without sleep, so I stayed up from two o’clock at night until morning. At 10 o’clock in the morning, the guard manager came into the cell with other guards for the examination. A guard called Wang told what I did last night to the guard manager. The short and thin guard manager looked me over and yelled “Fan Ka Diao” (literally meaning food deprivation) to me. He ordered that they give me the starvation punishment to force me to confess what relation I had with Yasin Jan. As he took notes, I told the manager the instructions I had translated for Yasin Jan and how I showed him ways of avoiding interrogations. He stated the punishment would be finished after I confessed, and he also said that they had taken Yasin Jan to another cell.

The breakfast was the same as any other day: a saltless soup made with corn powder and saltless Momo, which was Chinese steamed bread. I took the Momo and soup to my bed and just sat down there without eating any of the food, as I was forbidden from eating it. I still don’t understand why they gave prisoners saltless food. What’s the secret behind it? When I really wanted to taste salt, I tried to lick the wall like a sheep, and I tried to suck on my clothes to taste the saltness that my sweat leaves behind.

At lunch, they gave us saltless Chinese cabbage soup. They poured the soup and one Momo onto my plate from the small hole in the cell door. I sat on my knees watching the food. It had a smell that made my stomach make noises; I was hungry, but I couldn’t eat.

Dinner was the same. I looked down at the Chinese cabbage soup and Momo. I spent my time like that with everyone around me eating, while some of the Chinese prisoners made noises and touched their stomachs, looking at me and laughing. The guards looked through a hole to make fun of me, and even the prison guard manager made jokes, saying “because you’re a Muslim, the hungrier you are, the more your god honors you”.

The second day also passed like that. I was happy that they at least hadn’t taken away my sleep, because when I was sleeping, I forgot about the hunger. But after the third day, I was unable to handle the pain and noises that my stomach made. I kept drinking water; I drank so much that even the water started to taste bad to me. I looked everywhere for something to eat. I wanted to eat everything I saw; I looked through my winter jacket that I had used as a pillow for something to eat, but there was nothing. I searched the underwear that my brother had sent to me, but there was nothing. During the day, I struggled to control the pain in my stomach. Sleep became nearly impossible at night because of the nonstop noises from my stomach. I vomited acid; maybe it was stomach acid. My mom used to tell me not to get angry because if you get angry, your stomach will blow up. This would scare me into not becoming angry. I thought, “If the stomach acid is so powerful, then I must have a good stomach to keep the acid inside”.

That night, my watch duty started at midnight. I was searching for something to eat; if not for the three cameras surveyed the cell, or the guards’ watchful eyes tracking my every move, I would have certainly taken out one of the Momo from the trash bucket. I kept watching those buckets. I looked closely, and I saw that there was a line of ants carrying off small pieces of the Momo from the buckets.

I looked at the ants carrying the small piece of the Momo. They were freer than me; they could go in or out of the cell any time they wanted, and nobody would chain, torture, or question them. But the greatest thing was that they could eat anything they wanted. I kept watching them. I almost felt like they were stealing a Momo for me. A little while later, I saw that the ants had come together again around the Momo to take it piece by piece. I immediately made the ants go away and put the piece in my mouth. The small piece melted in my mouth immediately. The taste of that Momo was more like an old dry cheese. When I was child, my dad wouldn’t let me eat old dry cheese. He told me that old dry cheese was killer for my stomach. The bread piece tasted like that: molded and old.

On the morning of the fourth day, a sound at breakfast from the speaker told me that I could start to eat again. Days later, I learned that Yasin Jan had been through intense torture because he kept denying that he knew me before I gave him the jacket. It’s true, I had never known him before then, but I understood that he wasn’t as dumb as others to say he knew me just to avoid being tortured. I too was not that stupid to admit to something I have never done just for one plate of food.

Since then, every time I hear about starvation, I’ll remember those prison days of mine. I’ll remember that piece of food that I got from the ants, and I’ll remember the taste of the molded Momo. And I will always remember the taste of starvation.

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