Satellite images reveal 45 graveyards flattened since 2014
Uighurs say destruction is part of a crackdown to control every element of their lives
China is destroying burial grounds where generations of Uighur families have been laid to rest, leaving behind human bones and broken tombs in what activists call an effort to eradicate the ethnic group’s identity in Xinjiang.
In just two years, dozens of cemeteries have been destroyed in the northwest region, according to an AFP investigation with satellite imagery analysts Earthrise Alliance.
Some of the graves were cleared with little care -- in Shayar county, AFP journalists saw unearthed human bones left discarded in three sites. In other sites tombs that were reduced to mounds of bricks lay scattered in cleared tracts of land.
While the official explanation ranges from urban development to the “standardisation” of old graves, overseas Uighurs say the destruction is part of a state crackdown to control every element of their lives.
“This is all part of China’s campaign to effectively eradicate any evidence of who we are, to effectively make us like the Han Chinese,” said Salih Hudayar, who said the graveyard where his great-grandparents were buried was demolished.
“That’s why they’re destroying all of these historical sites, these cemeteries, to disconnect us from our history, from our fathers and our ancestors,” he said.
According to satellite imagery analysed by AFP and Earthrise Alliance, the Chinese government has, since 2014, exhumed and flattened at least 45 Uighur cemeteries -- including 30 in the past two years.
The Xinjiang government did not respond to a request for comment.
Even sites featuring shrines or the tombs of famous individuals were not spared.
In Aksu, local authorities turned an enormous graveyard where prominent Uighur poet Lutpulla Mutellip was buried into “Happiness Park,” with fake pandas, a children’s ride, and a man-made lake.
Mutellip’s grave was like “a modern day shrine for most nationalist Uighurs, patriotic Uighurs,” recalled Ilshat Kokbore, who visited the tomb in the early 90s and now resides in the US.
An estimated one million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up into re-education camps in Xinjiang in the name of combatting religious extremism and separatism.
Those who are free are subject to rigorous surveillance and restrictions -- from home visits from officials to bans on beards and veils.