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Satellite images show that China is building car parks, commercial complexes and playgrounds over Uighur Muslim graveyards

The demolished cemeteries have given way for new car parks, business parks and other standardised facilities in places that once housed the remains of Uighur families going back generations. 

China has destroyed scores of traditional burial grounds belonging to Uighur Muslims in the northwestern Xinjiang province, leaving behind human bones and broken tombs in what critics say is part of a campaign to wipe out the minority group’s cultural identity. According to reports, satellite images by Earthwise Alliance were published on Wednesday which shows that dozens of cemeteries, burial grounds in the Northwest region have been destroyed in just two years.

The demolished cemeteries have given way for new car parks, business parks and other standardised facilities in places that once housed the remains of Uighur families going back generations.

The AFP report states that some of the graves were cleared in haste in Shayar county. The journalists reported that 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.

However, China has remained defiant despite mounting global criticism for its treatment of Uighurs. Recently, the United States had warned that it would curb visas for officials over the alleged abuses and had blacklisted 28 Chinese firms it accuses of rights violations.

According to satellite imagery analysed by AFP and Earthrise Alliance, since 2014, the Chinese government has destroyed at least 45 Uighur cemeteries, including 30 in the past two years.

The destruction is “not just about religious persecution,” said Nurgul Sawut, who has five generations of family buried in Yengisar, southwestern Xinjiang. “It is much deeper than that,” said Sawut, who now lives in Australia and last visited Xinjiang in 2016 to attend her father’s funeral. “If you destroy that cemetery, you’re uprooting whoever’s on that land, whoever’s connected to that land,” she explained.

Even sites featuring shrines or the tombs of famous individuals were not spared. AFP reported that an enormous graveyard in Aksu where the prominent Uighur poet Lutpulla Mutellip was buried had been turned into a “Happiness Park” with a man-made lake, fake pandas and a playground for children. Officials said that while the graves had been relocated to a more “standardised” facility, they did not know what had happened to Mutellip’s remains.

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.

The “Happiness Park” project saw graves moved to a new cemetery in an industrial zone out in the desert. The caretaker there said he had no knowledge of the fate of Mutellip’s remains.

In China, urban growth and economic development have led to the destruction of innumerable cultural and historic sites, from traditional hutong neighbourhoods in Beijing to segments of Dali’s ancient city wall in southwestern Yunnan province. The government is also being criticised for its disrespect towards burial traditions outside of Xinjiang, including the destruction of coffins in central Jiangxi last year to force locals to cremate.

However, the critics of the government state that the clearances are especially extreme in Xinjiang, where the obliteration of other cultural and spiritual sites have happened including at least 30 mosques and religious sites since 2017.

“The destruction of the graveyards is very much part of the wider raft of policies that are going on,” said Rachel Harris, who researches Uighur culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London.

“From the destruction of holy shrines, the tombs of saints, to the destruction of tombs of families, all of this is disrupting the relationship between people and their history, and the relationship between the people and the land that they live on,” she said.

The officials offer a varied explanation for removal of cemeteries. In Urumqi, the regional capital, a cemetery near the international airport was cleared to make way for an urban “reconstruction” project. In Shayar, where the local government has built new cemeteries near some of the old sites, an official told AFP the programme was aimed at “standardisation.”

A sign by a new cemetery in Shayar, which replaced a graveyard from the 18th century containing about 7,500 graves, echoed, “The rebuilt sites saved space, protected the ecosystem and were civilised”. “The new cemeteries are standardised, clean, and they’re convenient for residents,” Kadier Kasimu, deputy director of Shayar’s cultural affairs bureau, told AFP.

Aziz Isa Elkun, a Uighur activist in Britain whose father was buried in one of the many destroyed cemeteries in Shayar, agreed: “If you want to build new graves then you can, but you do not need to destroy the old ones.”

The AFP report asserts that there is clear evidence that human remains have been left behind in the process. On a trip to Xinjiang in September, AFP visited 13 destroyed cemeteries across four cities and observed bones in at least three Shayar sites. Further, seven forensic anthropologists who saw images taken by AFP identified a number of human remains, including a femur, feet, hand bones, and part of an elbow.

The move to raze Uighur cemeteries is not new. The satellite imagery reviewed by AFP shows the destruction from more than a decade ago.

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