22 starve to death in one day under COVID lockdown in Ghulja. in Xinjiang

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At least 22 people died in a single day last week from starvation or lack of medical care under China’s COVID lockdown policy in Xinjiang’s northern city of Ghulja, RFA has confirmed to police and relatives.

Calls for help from Uyghurs who are quarantined under Beijing’s zero-COVID measures are surfacing on Chinese social media platforms.

Their suffering has been highlighted by the Uyghur diaspora as they agitate for international action against China’s heavy-handed assimilation campaign against minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

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Uyghurs demand that the United Nations, meeting in New York this week, take action against a devastating report by the UN human rights chief who said China’s arbitrary detention and repression of Uyghurs and other Turkish minorities in Xinjiang “could constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

US President Joe Biden called the crackdown in Xinjiang one of the global human rights violations in his address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday.

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Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), a city of about half a million mostly Uyghurs and other Turkish Muslims, has been in lockdown since early August, following COVID-19 outbreaks. RFA has previously reported deaths from starvation or lack of access to medicines in Ghulja.

Last week, more than 600 mostly young Uyghurs from a village in Ghulja were detained by authorities in Xinjiang after they flouted a strict COVID-19 lockdown and staged a peaceful street protest against a lack of food that had led to famine and deaths.

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Videos posted by desperate Uyghurs on Chinese social media platforms — and quickly removed by government censorship — show local people under strict ‘zero-COVID’ lockdowns struggling to access food and medical care, with some saying relatives had died of hunger.

Uyghur camp survivor Zumret Tursun, left comfort Tursunay Ziyawudin during a hunger strike 48 hours after their hunger strike outside the White House in Washington, DC, September 21, 2022. A small group of Uyghurs is on hunger strike outside the White House in Washington, DC to draw attention on the recent famine in the region and to demand international action against a series of human rights violations cataloged in a recent UN report. Credit: RFA Photo / Gemunu Amarasinghe

‘Nobody responded’

While RFA Uyghur was unable to independently verify all of the claims in the videos, RFA followed up Uyghur information about deaths that spread on social media with city officials and police in Ghulja and confirmed that at least 22 people had died there by September 15.

When asked how many people had starved to death in the city last Thursday, a municipality in Ghulja told RFA “20”, but declined to release more information about where in the city the deaths took place.

“There are 20 people who have died of starvation. Don’t call anymore.”

Another official at the Ghulja City Municipal Emergency Relief Station gave RFA the figure of 22 dead, but declined to release more information.

A third official, from the Ghulja City Police Command Center, dismissed social media accounts that as many as 100 had died in that single day, putting the toll at “about 21 and 22”.

Uyghurs in the city have also complained that their housing management offices are charging exorbitant fees for delivering food donated from outside the area, while Uyghurs from outside Ghulja say housing managers have refused to accept donated food.

According to a video shared on the Chinese platform Duoyin, one of the dead on September 15 was Halmutar Ömerjan, the chairman of the village of Kepekyuzi in Ghulja.

“They killed my husband Halmutar Ömerjan, the chairman of Kepekyuzi. No one responded to my calls,” the man’s widow, Huriyet Bekri, said in a statement on social media.

Postal ban

She said he was quarantined for seven days, then transferred to an uninhabitable facility and left alone before being returned to his family malnourished and unkempt.

“They took my husband Halmurat Omerjan to a quarantine station that has no plumbing or electricity for seven days and killed him by starvation,” the widow laments in the video.

‘In case you don’t know which Halmurat he is, he is the son of the school principal Omerjan.

That video was posted despite a Uyghur-language warning on Douyin warning residents to “share no news, no image with news on it, or images of desperate expressions or videos on social media, especially in separate chat rooms.”

On September 18, Ablikim Ablimit, a Uyghur refugee living in Turkey, received news that his father, Tokhahun Abdul, had starved to death in Ghulja on September 15 and was buried immediately after his death.

“He lived in the Bahar Street of Ghulja City. He was unable to go to the hospital due to the strict lockdown and starved,” Ablimit told RFA by phone.

“He was 73 years old when he died. He was in good health,” said the son.

Ablimit recalled the harsh conditions Uyghurs have lived under for years, adding that his father was “taken to an internment camp from 2017 to 2019 and held for two years.”

This handout image, created and released on May 25, 2022 by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), shows a screen of UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet (L) attending a virtual meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Canton.  Credit: AFP
This handout image, taken and released on May 25, 2022 by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), shows a screen of UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet (L) attending a virtual meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Canton. Credit: TBEN

Action on UN report requested

China’s uncompromising zero-COVID lockdown and mandatory testing policies, which have also caused suffering in Tibet and many eastern Chinese cities, add another layer of oppression for the 12 million Uyghurs.

The Uyghurs have long undergone extensive high-tech monitoring, repressive re-education policies and arbitrary detention as part of what China believes is a campaign to combat extremist violence, but is described by some Western governments as genocide.

The report, released on Aug. 30 by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, covers the period when Chinese authorities arbitrarily detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkish minorities in internment camps in Xinjiang, according to numerous investigative reports from human rights organizations, researchers, foreign media and think tanks.

The predominantly Muslim groups have also been subjected to torture, forced sterilizations and forced labour, as well as the eradication of their linguistic, cultural and religious traditions, in what the United States and several Western parliaments have called genocide and crimes against humanity.

China dismissed the UN report as “based on misinformation and lies fabricated by anti-Chinese forces”.

In the three weeks since Bachelet released the report, UN rights experts and Uyghur groups have increasingly called on the international community for concrete action, including the creation of a UN Human Rights Council panel and a special envoy on Xinjiang abuse and steps by member states and companies to hold China accountable.

Comments about Xinjiang by Biden and by German Chancellor Olaf Sholtz were welcome, “but certainly not enough to stop the ongoing genocide,” said Uyghur World Congress president Dolkun Isa.

“We ask UN member states to activate the UN mechanism to investigate the genocide and call on the US-led free world to adopt a UN resolution to condemn China’s ongoing genocide.”

In Washington, the Uyghur American Association (UAA) is holding a hunger strike in front of the White House this week by advocacy group leaders and three internment camp survivors: Uyghurs Zumret Tursun, Tursunay Ziyawudin and Gulzire Aulkhan, an ethnic Kazakh.

“Firstly, we are deeply disturbed by the photos and videos coming from our home country, especially from Ghulja. The communist government of China is using COVID as a pretext to lock up our people in their homes and continues its genocide. We want to draw attention to it,” said UAA President Elfidar Iltebir.

“Second, no meaningful actions have been taken after the publication of the UN report on Uyghurs,” said the activist, who camped overnight near the White House.

Translated by Mamatjan Juma for RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Paul Eckert.