Negligence by firefighters led to the destruction of the homes of 42 prominent Uyghur families in a massive blaze that ripped through an apartment complex in Hotan city in China’s Xinjiang region last week, residents said, suggesting ethnic discrimination by the Chinese authorities.
They said the Han Chinese firefighters not only arrived late but were unable to immediately to douse the raging flames on arrival at the scene due to faulty equipment, charges rejected by the authorities.
Still, the residents of the destroyed homes are in a limbo as their premises are not covered by insurance, even though they bought the homes four years ago.
Xinjiang is home to the mostly-Muslim minority Uyghur ethnic group who claim they are discriminated against by Chinese authorities who encourage the influx of Han Chinese to the region.
The fire broke out at 8:00 p.m. on April 12 at a furniture bazaar in southern Hotan city, but area Uyghurs said first responders had plenty of time to control the blaze before it spread to nearby apartments in Gulluk district—home to some of the city’s wealthiest Uyghur businessmen.
A Uyghur resident, now living in a tent after her apartment was destroyed in the fire, said that she was at home with her mother when she saw the fire through her window.
“When we discovered the fire, it was in the bazaar and hadn’t spread to our buildings yet,” the woman told RFA’s Uyghur Service on condition of anonymity.
“We called the fire department and immediately left the building. The fire truck came ... more than half an hour later.”
She said that the distance between the fire department in Laskuy township and Gulluk district usually takes only 15 minutes by car.
“Fire trucks have sirens so they don’t have to deal with traffic. We don’t understand why they arrived so late.”
The woman said that when the fire truck arrived, the fire was still manageable. But the firefighters said that their truck was broken and spent another 30 minutes trying to fix it.
“People found buckets of water or anything else they could use to pacify the fire. We [residents] are all Uyghurs, the firefighters were Chinese,” she said, highlighting tensions that run high between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang, where China’s worst ethnic violence in decades broke out in 2009.
“We argued with them and told them to send another truck. The truck left and another truck arrived, but by that time many houses were already burnt.”
A Uyghur whose home was destroyed told RFA that the 115 Uyghur families who live in the apartment complex managed to escape without the help of the fire department.
“They are based in Laskuy township—less than ten kilometers (six miles) from us,” the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We don’t know [why they came so late]. They wouldn’t explain the reason.”
He confirmed that the firefighters said their truck was broken after arriving at the scene, and that they spent around 30 minutes trying to fix it before sending for another one.
The man said that by the time the new truck arrived, the fire began to rage out of control.
“But even after their second truck came, the firefighters still didn’t take it seriously. They would simply spray a little bit of water, stop and then spray some more. Over and over again,” he said.
“More than a hundred people were witness to this.”
He said that the inferno had raged until 3:00 a.m. before it was doused, and that while no casualties had been reported, the value of the damage to the 42 apartments was substantial.
The bazaar—which is owned and operated by Gulluk’s almost exclusively Uyghur population—was also completely destroyed, the man said.
“I am now living in my parents’ house with my wife and three kids,” he said, adding that those victims of the fire with no nearby relatives had been forced to buy and sleep in tents.
“The government has distributed 3,000 yuan (U.S. $485) to each victim family, but there was no other help than that.”
He said the cause of the fire was unclear and that police were still investigating the matter.
RFA contacted a representative of the Hotan city fire department who said that the incident had been handled professionally and denied arriving late to the fire.
“No, no—it is not like that. We got the report and arrived at the scene in just a few minutes,” the staff member said.
“I don’t know exactly how many minutes we took to get there. Actually, the distance to the scene of the fire was quite far.”
He also said that it was impossible that the first truck would have been broken.
“No, there is no way,” the staff member said.
“We check our trucks every day and make sure they are ready at any time. We have good trucks,” he said.
“We went there and doused the fire.”
In an interview with a member of the Hotan city police department, an officer confirmed for RFA that the cause of the blaze was still under investigation.
He said that he estimated the overall economic damage at about 100 million yuan (U.S. $16.2 million).
Value of damage
A third victim of the fire said that all of the residents of the apartment complex had purchased their homes, but that none of them had insurance because they had never received the deeds from their housing broker, Chang Long Housing Co.
“These buildings were built four years ago. Everyone paid before they moved in. But Chang Long Housing Co. never gave us house deeds ... no one has house deeds here,” he said.
“We asked several times, but they always said that the paperwork for every resident had to be presented to them at the same time before they could give us the deeds.”
The director of Chang Long, surnamed Wang, said that the residents of the apartment complex were responsible for their own insurance, but referred questions about why his company had never provided deeds to a local representative in Gulluk named Ablet.
Ablet told RFA in a telephone interview that it was “not my company’s responsibility” that the residents were not in possession of their deeds.
“We need to get house deeds altogether at the same time from the government, but some of the people did not finish their paperwork in time and didn’t provide us with the materials we needed,” he said.
“That is why we couldn’t get the house deeds for them.”
Another resident of the apartment complex said he had lost around 2 million yuan (U.S. $323,000) in the fire, including assets he had in his home at the time of the incident.
He said that his story was the same as those of most of his neighbors.
“Around 90 percent of the residents in these buildings are jade businessman who keep their money and other assets at home in a security box, not in a bank,” the man said.
“If we put our money in the bank, there is too much paperwork to handle and it’s inconvenient to access it as soon as we need it,” he said.
“Now it’s all gone.”
Reported by Rukiye Turdush for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Rukiye Turdush. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.