As It Happens

Uyghur mistreatment to blame for fire behind Chinese protests, says victims' relative

When Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin learned that his aunt and her four children were killed in the apartment fire that sparked protests across China, he says he felt like he'd been knocked off his feet.

Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin says his aunt and her 4 children were killed in the Urumqi apartment blaze

A middle-aged woman and three children sit together on an ornate sofa in front of a window.
Haiernishahan Abudureheman, centre, with her children, Shehide, Nehdiye and Imran. The whole family died in an apartment fire in China, says Abudureheman's nephew. (Submitted by Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin)

When Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin learned that his aunt and her four children were killed in the apartment fire that sparked protests across China, he says he felt like he'd been knocked off his feet.

Maimaitimin, 27, is a Uyghur man living in exile in Switzerland. He says he learned through a friend that his aunt, Haiernishahan (Qamarnisa) Abudureheman, 48, died in the blaze along with her four children, Shehide, 13, Imran, 11, Abdurrahman, 9, and Nehdiye, 5.

"I found that I cannot stand up anymore. I just lied down there, and thought about my family members," Maimaitimin told As It Happens host Nil Köksal through an interpreter. "I did not manage to drink and eat for two days."

The Friday fire in the city of Urumqi is at the heart of some of the most widespread protests in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989

Demonstrators blame the blaze on China's strict pandemic restrictions, claiming locked doors hampered efforts to fight or escape the flames — a charge local officials have denied.

But Maimaitimin says these kinds of tragedies are all too common for members of China's Uyghur minority. 

Cut off from his family 

Maimaitimin says he first learned about the fire on social media.

"At first I just cannot believe that happened in the building that my aunt lives in," he said. "And then I thought that even if there is a fire, then they are going to put out the fire and rescue them."

He was able to get in touch with a friend who lives nearby. That's how he learned the family had died.

Two small children, a boy and a girl, stand side-by-side. The girl is smiling and flashing a peace sign.
Shehide, 13, and Abdurrahman, 9, are among those killed in the apartment fire that sparked a wave of Chinese protests, says their uncle. (Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin)

His friend conveyed this information to him at great personal risk, he said. Maimaitimin says he hasn't had any direct contact with his family in years, because doing so would put them in jeopardy.

Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in China, where they face widespread surveillance, discrimination and detention.

Human rights organizations estimate that China has locked more than one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in detention camps, where the United Nations has reported allegations of torture and abuse.

The Chinese government has repeatedly denied targeting or abusing Uyghurs, and calls the detention facilities "training centres." 

Several of Maimaitimin's relatives, including his father, have been detained, according to NPR. 

Zero-COVID

The fire happened in Urumqi, capital of the Uyghur-majority region of Xinjiang. Officials say it took three hours to put it out, and that 10 people were killed — though some members of the Uyghur community insist the death toll is, in fact, much higher

Since the fire, some demonstrators across China have called for the ouster of President Xi Jinping.

The protesters blame the deadly blaze on China's  "zero-COVID" policies, saying that the apartment building's doors were locked from the outside.

People in some parts of Xinjiang have been confined to their homes since early August. Some have said they lack access to food and medicine and have posted appeals for help online.

"Videos on social media showed people couldn't leave during this fire," Merhaba Muhammad, Maimaitimin's sister in Turkey, told Newsweek. "Maybe if they were able to leave their homes, my aunt and her children could have escaped."

CBC has not independently verified the content of these videos, and is unable to confirm who was killed in the fire, as the victims' names have not been publicly released. 

In this image taken from video, firefighters spray water on a fire at a residential building in Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Protesters blame the blaze on COVID restrictions, while a man who lost five relatives blames China's mistreatment of Uyghurs. (The Associated Press)

Urumqi officials have denied that COVID restrictions played a role in the deaths, saying the apartment was in a low-risk area, and residents were freely able to leave their homes. Instead, they said parked cars and bollards hampered firefighters trying to put out the flames.

"Some residents' ability to rescue themselves was too weak," Li Wensheng, head of Urumqi's fire department, said during a press conference.

Maimaitimin calls the official narrative "nonsense."

He says abuse and neglect are rampant by officials in communities were Uyghurs live and work, and questioned whether things would have gone differently had the fire happened in another city. 

"There is an ongoing, very systematic and state-sponsored genocide against the [Uyghur] people in that region," he said. "The Chinese government itself has no intention to rescue the Uyghur people."

The Canada-based organization Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project issued a statement about the fire, accusing China of using its COVID policies to "target and control Uyghurs."

CBC has reached out to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa for comment. 

Two people light candles and lay flowers at a makeshift memorial. Two sheets of paper read: "Urumqi RIP" and "11/24 RIP"
People in Hong Hong leave flowers and candles during a commemoration of the victims of a deadly fire in Urumqi, China. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

The protests had largely died down by Tuesday. Security forces have detained an unknown number of people and stepped up surveillance. 

In an interview with As It Happens on Monday, Yaqiu Wang, the China researcher for Human Rights Watch said Zero-COVID policies have been weighing on people both psychologically and economically for nearly three years. 

The fire, she says, was the boiling point.

But Maimaitimin says the protests are not about solidarity with Uyghurs.

"The Chinese people … feel an anxiety because of this lockdown. And the day after this fire accident, they may also think that the same thing would also happen to them," he said.

But, as far as he's concerned, the fire was the direct result of China's mistreatment of his people. 

"I want [people] to understand this accident itself is also a part of the Uyghur genocide," he said.


With files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Interview with Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin produced by Morgan Passi.

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