Uyghurs marked the one-year anniversary of a deadly fire in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi with vigils over the weekend, demanding accountability for the tragedy that they say killed as many as 44 people, four times higher than the official death toll of 10.
The fire broke out at a high-rise residential building in the city’s Tianshan district just before 8 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2022, according to state media. Among the dead were Qemernisa Abdurahman, 48, and her four youngest children.
The deaths, widely blamed on COVID-19 restrictions, prompted an outpouring of public grief as many Chinese poured in the streets in several cities in what came to be called the “white paper” protests that tapped into pent-up frustrations of millions of Chinese who had endured nearly three years of repeated lockdowns, travel bans, quarantines and various other restrictions to their lives.
On Friday, a group of around a dozen people held a vigil for the victims of the fire outside of the Chinese Embassy in London, led by World Uyghur Congress, or WUC, U.K. Director Rahima Mahmut. During the event supporters called for an end to Beijing’s persecution of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
A similar gathering was held in Istanbul, Turkey, to mark the anniversary, while rights groups and global leaders slammed China for censoring information about the tragedy and called on the international community to hold Beijing accountable.
“Over 40 Uyghurs were killed in this fire, but the true number was censored by the CCP,” Canadian lawmaker Garnett Genius wrote in a tweet, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. “Today we grieve and remember the innocent lives lost in this tragedy of oppression, and we stand with those who continue to resist [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s communist regime.”
In a statement, the WUC suggested that Chinese authorities were to blame for the deaths, noting that the Uyghur community estimates that “the number of victims is higher” than the official toll.
“The complete disregard for Uyghur lives, which we have seen during the [Urumqi] fire, is characteristic of the Chinese regime’s repressive measures against Uyghurs,” WUC President Dolkun Isa said.
No follow-up report
Reports from inside Xinjiang indicate that more could have been done to prevent the loss of life during the incident.
Sources in Urumqi have said that firefighters arrived three hours after the fire began, despite their close proximity to the predominantly Uyghur-inhabited building, and that residents were barred from evacuating due to strict COVID-19 lockdown measures.
At the time of the incident, RFA Uyghur spoke with residents who confirmed that assistance was hampered by blocked doors and fire exits, despite claims by authorities that the building was not locked and that victims died because they did not adhere to safety measures during the blaze.
RFA also spoke with a hospital staff member at the time who said that there were “more than 40 people who died in the fire.”
Over the weekend, RFA contacted authorities in Urumqi for further information about the death toll, what happened to the remains of the victims, and whether their relatives were able to attend their funerals.
Several officers with the Urumqi City Police responded that they had no new information to divulge about the fire, in part because higher-level authorities “did not publish a detailed report” on the tragedy beyond what was stated in an official statement at the time.
However, an officer at the Ghalibiyet Yoli, or Shengli Road, police station told RFA that while he hadn’t seen the number of deaths listed in the official report, “rescue team members told me the number is 44.”
Furthermore, RFA learned that not only did authorities withhold detailed information about the fire from the public, but also from the families of victims.
The son and nephew of victim Qemernisa Abdurahman, who live in Turkey and Belgium, said this weekend that they had yet to receive any official notification about the handling of her remains or those of her four children.
They also expressed anger over the ongoing persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where the ethnic group’s 12 million members have been subject to harsh government campaigns that China says are necessary to fight extremism and terrorism. Among the campaigns is a mass incarceration program that has affected as many as 1.8 million people, including two of their relatives.
“We don’t have any information about this,” said one of the relatives, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. “We don’t know where our family members are, who is alive, who is dead, or any other information on them.”
‘White paper’ detentions
In the meantime, Chinese authorities have not only ignored calls from the European Parliament and others to provide a detailed account of the Urumqi fire and hold those responsible for the tragedy to account, but instead have arrested dozens of activists associated with the “white paper” protests that were prompted by the blaze.
In December 2022, authorities in Atush, the capital of Xinjiang’s Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture, detained Kamile Wayit, a 19-year-old preschool education major at a university in China’s Henan province, after she posted a video about the protests.
In addition to frustration over authorities’ handling of the Urumqi fire, the demonstrators also opposed the rolling lockdowns, mass surveillance and compulsory testing under China’s zero-COVID policy, with some holding up blank sheets of printer paper and others calling on President Xi Jinping to step down.
Over the weekend, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, or UHRP, called for accountability “for the deaths of dozens of Uyghurs” and for the release of those detained for participation in the “white paper” protests that followed in a separate statement released on the anniversary of the fire.
“Uyghurs were very moved to see so much sympathy for what happened following the [Urumqi] fire,” said UHRP Executive Director Omer Kanat. “The Chinese government must release all those detained during the protests and guarantee freedom of assembly.”
UHRP said that the deaths resulting from the fire “are deeply intertwined with broader repression faced by Uyghurs across the region.”
“Strict control over Uyghur movement, especially during Covid-19 lockdowns, exacerbated repressive policies that amount to crimes against humanity and genocide,” the group said.
Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.