A cemetery considered sacred by Uyghurs that was razed by authorities last year in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has been paved over and turned into a car park, according to an expert on Uyghur history.
“Last year, the Chinese government destroyed the central Uyghur graveyard and sacred shrine in [Hotan],” Rian Thum, a professor of history at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said in a post to Twitter on April 28.
“We can now see part of what they have put in its place: a parking lot.”
Thum posted a time lapse view of the Sultanim Cemetery, in central Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) city, based on satellite imagery from Google Earth, which shows grave plots being gradually being plowed over with dirt beginning in 2019 and a parking lot being erected in the western portion of the site.
“This is not just a run-of-the mill graveyard,” Thum tweeted, including coordinates for others to use to find the site on Google Earth.
“It is a well-known sacred site, the only major one inside the city. People would go there to pray for healing, fertility, forgiveness, etc.”
Thum also posted a photo taken by a photographer from Agence France-Presse last year showing a notice from local officials, informing residents that the cemetery was being destroyed “on the basis of the needs of our city’s development,” and to “promote a spacious, beautiful environment for all of the city’s people.”
“The graveyard and shrine destructions are part of a larger cultural cleansing campaign involving mass internment camps, forced labor, and child separation for Turkic minorities in China,” he said.
In particular, Thum said, authorities have focused on “eliminating or desecrating Uyghur sacred shrines,” including one to a well-known Muslim imam named Jafar Sadiq, which he described as “one of the five most important Uyghur holy places.”
He said that the parking lot in Hotan is one of the first cases in which outside observers have been able to see what was built over a graveyard, or “mazar,” that included an important religious shrine, although he noted that an AFP investigation last year revealed that a park had been constructed atop a cemetery that held the grave of renowned Uyghur poet Lutpulla Mutellip.
According to that investigation, which AFP conducted with Earthrise Alliance and published the findings from in October, at least 45 cemeteries had been destroyed since 2014—30 of which were razed since 2017.
Many of the sites were transformed into parks or parking lots, while others had remained empty lots, AFP said. Reporters said they had seen human remains left at several sites.
Before and after images of the Sultanim Cemetery in Hotan city.
Credit: RFA/Google Earth
Targeting the dead
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service, Thum said that by razing cemeteries, China’s ruling Communist Party is “literally targeting Uyghurs who have already died,” in addition to the estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities authorities are believed to have been detained in the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps since April 2017.
But he said that destroying graveyards is also part of a bid to control the wider Uyghur population, which views the sites as “a part of the historical landscape of the Uyghur region,” regardless of their religious significance.
“For a long time, [Chinese authorities] have been nervous about the shrines—particularly those shrines where large numbers of people gather—and so a lot of the most important shrines were already closed but were not being destroyed or damaged,” Thum said.
“And that’s what’s really different here, is that they’re now—in several places—completely removing and destroying these mazars.”
Thum suggested that actions such as destroying graveyards are tactics authorities use to “eliminate Uyghur culture or to transform it into something that is more like Han Chinese people’s culture.”
“Some of these shrines are just a collection of flags in the desert, and yet, by people going there frequently and engaging in the memorialization of the person who is supposed to be buried there, they keep them up, and they keep the memory alive,” he said.
“But also, these physical markers on the landscape help remind Uyghurs of their own traditions.”
Reported by Kurban Niyaz for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.