I Escaped a Chinese Internment CampI Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp

Writer: Anthony Del Col
Artist: Fahmida Azim
Art Direction: Josh Adams
Editor: Walter Hickey
Colors: Rebecca Good
Letters: Taylor Esposito
Publisher: New Friday
Publication Date: August 30, 2023

Review by Liz Davis

The slimness of I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp, out at the end of this month from New Friday, belies a gut-churning, important story. In 2018, Zumrat Dawut—a Uyghur mother of three from the Xinjiang region of China—was arrested and sent to a detention facility for Uyghur women. But it didn’t end there. Dawut was subjected to shocking abuses by the Chinese government before mercifully escaping the country with her family.

Anthony Del Col interviewed Dawut and also drew from her testimony to the United Nations Human Rights Council to write the script. Fahmida Azim drew the story, after several artists declined out of fear of reprisal. Josh Adams provided art direction, with Walter Hickey editing, Rebecca Good coloring, and Taylor Esposito lettering. Zubayra Shamseden provided some translation services for the team to communicate with Dawut. The comic was originally published by Insider.com on its website, winning a Pulitzer Prize in illustrated reporting last year

Del Col and most of the creative team have also joined forces to chronicle other graphic journalism for Insider like American Carnage and Bulldozer Injustice. In an interview, Del Col described I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp as “the most important work I’ve done”.

Where there is smoke…

In 2016, before the detention, Dawut and her community in the capital of Ürümqi were subjected to an uneasy environment with increasing surveillance and anti-Muslim threats. If possessions related to Islam were discovered in homes, officials came to seize people. 

As a reader, this story filled me with a sense of dread, then growing horror. As the title foretells, despite compliance, Dawut will not be spared.

i escaped a chinese internment camp

An unexpected phone call leads to a nightmarish interrogation, beatings, humiliating inspections, and imprisonment. Other dehumanizing treatment soon follows. 

Even though she was experiencing misery herself, Dawut had the wherewithal to observe her fellow detainees. Some of them were also subject to sexual abuse. She tried to show them kindness. For this too, she was punished. Later, she is taken again and forcibly sterilized. The trauma of all this is left to our imaginations. 

Witness to injustice

Writer and interviewer Del Col’s words—adapted from Dawut’s translated testimony—are spare and let the visuals breathe. 

With anonymous guards, cold utilitarian scapes, and an unwavering lens on Dawut’s barely contained panic, artist Azim showcases the isolation and brutality of a Uyghur detention camp. Azim used multiple eyewitness accounts and documentaries to ground the imagery in reality. I sank into Dawut’s avatar and identified with her disorientation, loss, horror. She could be me, any of us. 

I have to hand it to the whole team for putting together this story. And the courage of Dawut continuing to speak out on behalf of others—despite threats she knows all too well—cannot be overstated.

As one blow led to another, I wondered what, if anything, I could do. From reading, one is left with the sense of a vast, entrenched operation that fights dirty and is hard to hit back. Even after escape, there are consequences for Dawut’s extended family.

It takes a certain steeling of one’s stomach to read a book like this, even though it’s short. But I do recommend it. In just an hour or two, I understood, on a human level, why this issue matters. There are one to three million Uyghurs just like Dawut, being tortured for their beliefs. By the act of witnessing her story, I believe we raise awareness and put outrage where it is due.

I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp comes out August 30 from New Friday.

Check out The Beat’s review section for a new graphic novel review every Friday in 2023.