A woman who lost five family members in a deadly fire in apartment in Urumqi, capital of China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, is disputing the government’s death toll, as mass unrest over strict COVID regulations continues to rock the country.
Local authorities say 10 people were killed and nine were injured when a fire that took three hours to extinguish tore through a high-rise building in the city on Thursday evening. Many have questioned whether rescue efforts were hampered as a result of COVID restrictions.
Urumqi is capital of Xinjiang—home to the Turkic-speaking Uyghur population, the majority of whom practice Islam. The ruling Chinese Communist Party reabsorbed Xinjiang into China in September 1949, and has long cracked down on the population, saying it is part of measures to crack down on terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism in the country.
The city has been under lockdown for some three months amid a surge in COVID cases, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping continues to cling to his stringent and signature zero-COVID policy, three years into the pandemic.
Merhaba Muhammad, 27, a Uyghur from Xinjiang now living in Turkey, lost her 48-year-old aunt, Haiernishahan Abdurehema, and her aunt’s four children, aged between five and 13, in the fire.
She told Newsweek that her aunt and four of her children, 13-year-old Shehide, 11-year-old Imran, 9-year-old Abdurrahman, and 5-year-old Nehdiye, had been living on the apartment block’s 19th floor for five years.
Muhammad said she hasn’t been able to contact her aunt since 2016, when she left Xinjiang to study in Turkey. In Xinjiang, Uyghurs who contact family members abroad can be detained in the region’s sprawling network of camps.
The 27-year-old learned of her aunt’s death after a screenshot of a residents’ group chat went viral on social media.
“They wrote something: Please help please save 1901—that’s my aunt’s house,” said Muhammad.
She disputed the Chinese government’s official death toll, saying that five people in her family alone were killed.
“They’re lying that 10 people died. Because my aunt’s family has five people who died. Even when I was searching on social media, people in China and Uyghur people in Xinjiang, they said 44 people died. Maybe more than 44 people. I heard one mum who was really really crying. I just heard her voice, and she said ‘I lost my two children’. She was really crying a lot,” said Muhammad.
Newsweek has asked the Chinese Embassy in London for comment.
Chinese authorities have denied that the COVID lockdown caused the deaths in the fire.
The bodies of those killed in Thursday night’s blaze have yet to be identified by local officials. Some videos posted online appear to show fire trucks struggling to get close to the high-rise building, and spraying water from far back due to barriers on the ground—fueling speculation about the real death toll.
“Videos on social media showed people couldn’t leave during this fire. Maybe if they were able to leave their homes, my aunt and her children could have escaped,” Muhammad said. “It is China’s policy. China’s government is lying, they have a really terrible policy.”
Muhammad said she believes local officials didn’t prioritize her family’s rescue because they were Uyghur.
“China’s government didn’t try to save us as we are Uyghur people. They didn’t care. They never care. They never care about us like humans,” she said. “If this happened in another city of the Chinese people, they would try to do something.”
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