INTERVIEW: ‘If they had let my family out, they would still be alive’

Uyghur siblings discuss the apartment blaze that killed their family members in Urumqi.
By Nur'iman Abdurashid for RFA Uyghur
2022.11.29
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INTERVIEW: ‘If they had let my family out, they would still be alive’ Shehide, 13, Nehdiye, 5, their mother Qemernisa Abdurahman, 48, and Abdurahman, 9, were killed in the fire. They lived on the 19th floor.
Handout photo

On Nov. 24, a fire tore through a residential building in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s capital Urumqi, killing at least 10 people. Citizen videos that circulated on the Internet showed screaming residents of the burning apartment demanding authorities open exits they said were closed under strict COVID-19 restrictions that have been in place for more than 100 days and have caused widespread hardship. 

The fire prompted angry protests in Xinjiang that spread to other cities in China over the following days, with many people expressing condolences for the victims and calling for an end to China’s strict zero-COVID lockdowns, compulsory COVID-19 testing and mass tracking and surveillance via the Health Code smartphone app.

RFA Uyghur recently spoke with Uyghur brother and sister Muhammed Memeteli, 22, and Sharapet Memeteli, 25, whose mother and four younger siblings perished in the Urumqi blaze. The siblings, who relocated to Turkey in 2017, expressed outrage over the incident that they believe was the direct result of the lockdown measures and questioned why authorities didn’t act sooner to save the lives of people trapped inside the building. 

They said that the tragedy was also a reflection of 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 the Memetelis’ father and eldest brother.

RFA: Where did you get the news about your family from?

Muhammed Memeteli: Our last contact via phone with our family was in early 2017. Our parents and young brothers were all present when we spoke. The situation [for Uyghurs in the region] got worse, and they arrested my father after that … When I heard about my father, the Chinese authorities had already sentenced him to 16 years in prison. Soon after my father’s arrest, the authorities took my eldest brother to an internment camp. It has been five years since the authorities locked him up, although they initially said it would be two years for him. We heard all this from our acquaintances, not from our family members. It has been so long since we lost contact with our family.

The latest news was on Nov. 24, which was when we learned of the death of my mother and four siblings in the apartment fire. Two other relatives – one older and one younger brother – lived with them in that house [but we have not heard from them] … We heard about [the deaths of our mother and four siblings] from social media and some friends in Xinjiang.

RFA: Who died in the fire?

Muhammed Memeteli: My mother’s name was Qemernisa Han. She turned 48 years old this year. Our teenage sister, Shehide, who is 13; our brothers Imran, 11, and Abdurahman, 9; and our youngest sister, Nehdiye, who is 5.

RFA: What was your reaction to the news?

Sharapet Memeteli: I couldn’t believe it when I first heard this news … Why did no one save them when the fire started on the 15th floor and burned up to the 19th [where their apartment was located]? Do they have a conscience? Are they human? How could the authorities tolerate vulnerable people burning to death?

Imran, 11, and Shehide, 13, were killed in the fire. Credit: Handout photo
Imran, 11, and Shehide, 13, were killed in the fire. Credit: Handout photo

RFA: Can you describe the area around the apartment complex?

Muhammed Memeteli: A special armed “SWAT” team is located in front of our neighborhood … and it is also home to a significant police force. There are three streets, and behind one is the central fire department. The distance between our apartment building and the fire department is less than half a mile. There is also a military camp behind our apartment building where soldiers take part in physical training. Additionally, No. 2 Hospital, the biggest hospital in the area, is close by – just five minutes away.

We saw video of burning apartments on several news and social media sites like TikTok that many people shared. They could have put out the fire if the fire truck had entered the complex. The apartment building was on fire for more than three hours, but the fire trucks did not enter the area and waited outside the neighborhood. For example, if the fire trucks drove through the military camp behind the complex, where there is a 2-meter wide alley, they could have approached the burning apartment and doused it with water. They had ample time to put out the fire and rescue our family.

We had also heard from other people that the neighborhood committee cadres stopped by the apartments in the building and took some people out while the fire was blazing. The neighborhood committee chief also visited our family, but told them they should wait for the fire fighters to come and put out the fire because they had telephoned the fire department ... If the neighborhood committee staff had opened the door and let my family out, they would still be alive. It was not just our family members who died; numerous people burned to death in that building.

RFA: What kind of response do you expect from the international community?

Muhammed Memeteli: We ask that the international community not ignore our suffering, and that we be given a voice … For now, I would like to know where my father and my elder brother are. I have not seen them for nearly eight years and I haven’t received any news about either of them. I don’t even know if my father is dead or alive. Are my other brothers [who lived in the apartment] alive? Were they in the building when it caught fire? I have no idea about them either. I demand that I be allowed to meet with them if alive, and the international community should not stay silent regarding our suffering … I call on the Chinese government to let me meet with my relatives, who I haven’t been able to see for the past 7 years.

Sharapet Memeteli: My younger brother and I can never again meet our mother or younger brothers and sisters because they died in the fire. But we are desperate to meet with our father and other relatives.

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