Deadly blaze renews call for Uyghur rights

A fatal apartment fire in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region last November forced the Chinese government to ease anti-coronavirus rules after the tragedy triggered protests against its strict "zero COVID" policy.

The fire reportedly killed 10 residents and consumed an apartment block in Urumqi, the central city of the region on November 24. A claim circulated on social media that evacuation routes had been sealed as an anti-infection measure.

Ten people reportedly died in an apartment block fire in Urumqi in November 2022.

For Muhammet Memetali, who now lives in Istanbul, Turkey, the building was familiar. He lived there with his family until 7 years ago. He learned of the blaze online.

Tragically, he also found out through social media that his mother and four younger siblings had died, and saw distressing images of his mother's corpse. "I was in shock learning about the fire, but the reality hit me after seeing my mother," he says.

"I could have rescued my family."

Memetali and his older sister fled 7 years ago at the urging of their father. Memetali says it was a time when Muslims were being seized by the Chinese authorities merely for reading the Quran or attending religious services at university.

When he reached Turkey, Memetali learned that his father and brother had been detained.

Ilyas Memetali (right) and his father Memetali Metniyaz

Other Uyghurs who fled to Turkey also say their families back home were taken away by police. Memetali suspects that the Chinese authorities took issue with his and his sister's travel to Turkey. He hasn't heard from his father and brother since.

He has been reluctant to contact the authorities about the fire, or even officially confirm his mother's death. There has been no family communication at all since his move to Istanbul. "I was afraid they would be detained, taken away the moment anyone discovered I had contacted them," Memetali explains.

From left to right: Memetali's younger sister Shedie and Nehdiye, mother Kamelnisa Abdulrrahman, and younger brother Imran.

"I need to apologize to my mother," Memetali says. "We could have rescued her if we had been there. My father and brother could have saved them if they were at home, not imprisoned. I picture my mother fighting to save my siblings. It hurts just to imagine."

Zero-COVID debacle

The fire sparked large-scale protests against China's "zero COVID" policy in various parts of the country, including Beijing and Shanghai, in late November.

Protest against 'zero-COVID' policy in Beijing in November last year

The Uyghur community claims more than 10 people died in the fire. A local government spokesperson denies that figure and maintains that evacuation routes were clear. "I repeatedly checked with the personnel involved in rescue activities at the scene, but there were no problems as pointed out," he said at the time.

China's foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijan also weighed in: "There are forces on social media who have an ulterior motive to connect this fire with local infection control measures."

China's foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian speaking to reporters in November 2022

While the footage and other information on the fire have not been independently verified, Memetali says the material and information about the Autonomous Region has spread online and caught the attention of Chinese people.

"Many Chinese have shared these images," he says. "This time, they see the reality of what's going on in the autonomous region. They realize they themselves could also die in a fire one day. Perhaps they think what is happening in our region could also happen to them. So, they are speaking out to protect themselves."

People in Turkey demonstrate support

A memorial ceremony for the fire victims was held in December in a suburb of Istanbul. It attracted not only Uyghurs but also Chinese people who paid their respects and lit candles. Organizers said that, while the vigil had police approval, it was conducted in silence because participants were told not to raise their voices.

Uyghurs and Chinese people in Istanbul paid their respects to the fire victims at a memorial service in December.

A 41-year-old Chinese man who attended said: "While we (Han Chinese) are the majority, everyone living in China is in danger. The Chinese Communist Party locked us in our homes. They even forced (former General Secretary) Hu Jintao out of a meeting. While it could be risky to attend an event like this, if we don't speak out, we will all fall victim to the Communist Party."

A 30-year-old Chinese woman who divides her time between Dubai and Istanbul spoke about working with the Uyghurs. "It was only after I left China that I learned about their situation," she said. "In China, they teach us that Uyghurs are terrorists, but this is not true. It's our obligation to stand alongside them."

Also in December, hundreds of Turks gathered outside a mosque in Istanbul to protest the Chinese authorities' handling of the fire.

Many people in Turkey are showing a willingness to support the Uyghur population, likely due to the ethnic similarities between the two groups. Some of the protesters carried photographs of Memetali's family.

People in Istanbul gathered at a rally in December to protest Chinese treatment of Uyghurs.

Western nations have criticized the Chinese government for what they call a program of genocide against the Uyghur people, although China rejects the accusation. The US State Department estimates that since 2017, Chinese authorities have forced more than one million people into internment camps built specifically for Uyghur Muslims. The Chinese government has consistently denied these allegations.

Memetali says he was surprised by the size of the turnouts at the memorial service and the rally, and he hopes the Chinese authorities took note. He also wants to reunite with his father and elder brother one day.

"I'm feeling more encouraged," he says. "No one should remain silent, not even in Japan. It's possible for China to change if the entire world speaks out."

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