Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have announced plans to destroy a Uyghur cemetery in the capital Urumqi, marking the latest of dozens razed in recent years as part of a campaign experts have said is aimed at controlling members of the ethnic group.
On May 22, a document bearing stamps from the bureaus of public affairs, building affairs, and land management was posted informing residents that the cemetery in Urumqi’s Bulaqtagh (in Chinese, Shuimogou) district would be dug up and moved on June 10.
According to the document, which was circulated widely on Chinese social media platforms, those with family members buried in the cemetery must register for the removal of the remains of their loved ones.
RFA’s Uyghur Service recently spoke with a Han Chinese woman at the Urumqi Ethnic Affairs Office who confirmed that the registration period for the cemetery was “already underway,” although the exhumation of remains had yet to begin.
“We have not started relocating [remains],” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“The announcement was published by the Urumqi Municipal Government. We are registering the families with tombs.”
The woman said her office had made provisions for family members of the deceased who are based outside of the capital to designate a representative to register for the relocation on their behalf.
However, when asked what the reason for the relocation was, she hung up the phone.
RFA also spoke with a Uyghur official from the Bulaqtagh Muslim Burial Affairs Office who said that people had until the end of May to register for the move by using a photo of the grave’s headstone and the number assigned to the plot.
“We’re registering people—it’s been about a week already,” said the official, who also declined to be named.
“You’ll take a photo of the number and bring it in, and we’ll get you registered. We’ll let you know about everything else after you come in.”
According to the official, workers will be assigned to move the remains, but she was unable to provide details about how the process would take place or where they would be relocated.
She also claimed that it was “a government decision” to move the cemetery, but did not know whether there were any plans to build something in its current location.
“We’re only taking care of registration, so there are a lot of things we don’t know” she said.
Plans to relocate the cemetery come one month after reports that a graveyard considered sacred by Uyghurs that was razed by authorities last year in the XUAR’s Hotan (Hetian) city has been paved over and turned into a car park.
Rian Thum, a professor of history at the University of Nottingham in Britain, had posted a time lapse view of the Sultanim Cemetery to Twitter 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.
At the time, he said destroying graveyards is part of a bid by authorities 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.
It also follows an investigation by Agence France-Presse which in October revealed that at least 45 cemeteries in the XUAR 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.
Speaking to RFA, a Uyghur in exile who grew up in Urumqi’s Bulaqtagh district and lived there with their family until 2015 called the cemetery marked for a June 10 relocation “particularly important” for Uyghurs from the area.
“This is a sacred Muslim cemetery for Uyghurs from Bulaqtagh, [and neighboring] Tikquduq and Ayotkel to bury their dead,” the source said.
The local government had closed the cemetery to new burials in 2014, they said, based on the claim that it had grown so large it was encroaching on land marked for official use.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.