Paving over the dead: How China is 'erasing' the Uighur people's pastJune 22, 2021
Sky News has uncovered evidence showing the extent to which Uighur sites are being bulldozed and built over as part of China’s efforts to change the autonomous region they come from.
Among the monuments to the past which have been replaced are cemeteries, religious buildings and typical architecture.
A Sky News team visited Hotan in China’s western Xinjiang province and found cultural and historical landmarks flattened and replaced by concrete, and what could be a bone from a grave that had been paved over.
On the ground in Hotan, access is difficult. As soon as we landed, we were followed nonstop by different vehicles – as many as five at one time.
And when we arrived at the GPS coordinates for Tarwizim cemetery, we were initially not sure we were in the right place. There was simply nothing there. Just a muddy expanse, with dirt paths across it.
The access roads on the other side were blocked off and a man who refused to identify himself, or say what the location was, stopped us filming.
There was almost no trace of a cemetery.
We just had to follow Mergube’s advice – and pay closer attention.
As we tried to make our way across a field, another man came and blocked our way, and told us to leave.
As we tried to speak to him, or wondered whether we should just wait it out, we spotted something in the earth. The wrecked, wooden structure of a Uighur grave marking, pummelled into the earth.
And something else.
A bone, bleached white, exposed to the elements.
Six different forensics experts who have seen this image have told Sky News that this is probably a human bone – most likely, the thigh bone of a child.
Complete certainty is impossible without further examination, the experts said.
One of the clearest losses to the city’s skyline is the tower of the Grand Bazaar.
It was not a particularly old building, only completed this century, but the shopping complex has been closed off and looks abandoned, apparently ready for redevelopment.
It still stands but the high, Islamic-style tower – one of the tallest in Xinjiang before its removal - has been completely demolished.
The Sultanim Cemetery was much bigger than Tarwizim and located close to the old town. People would gather there every Thursday to say prayers.
When Sky News visited, the cemetery had been demolished and divided into two.
One half is now a large car park for the hospital nearby.
The other is a large construction site, with deep foundations already dug. A local told us it was a residential property development.
Chinese state media has reported that the cemetery was moved wholesale to the outskirts of town.
Hotan’s Id Kah mosque was described by one Uighur who fled China as the “Times Square” of Hotan – a busy place where people would always gather.
It, too, is now a car park.
Every spring, thousands of people would trek out into the desert to the Imam Asim Shrine, supposedly the burial site of one of the earliest Muslims to arrive in the Hotan region – a symbolic ancestor of the Uighur people.
When Sky News tried to visit, we found numerous roads shut off. Some were obviously temporary roadblocks, manned by police. We kept driving along the edge of the desert and found a spot to pull over. The shrine was a 2.5km trek straight through the sand.
As we got closer, we noticed figures on the top of the dunes, watching us. We pressed on and they drew closer, slowly encircling us. About 200 metres from the shrine, we were surrounded by eight men.
They did not identify themselves when asked but blocked the way and ordered us to turn around. Outnumbered, we complied. They followed us through the desert all the way back to our car.
China has said that journalists are welcome to go to Xinjiang. The reception on the ground is rather different.
Part of Tarwizim Cemetery is now a landscaped park with a monument proclaiming ethnic unity. A road now runs through the middle and on the other side is wasteland.
A former building that was once used to store bodies to be wrapped in white linen before burial is now shuttered and disused.
None of the tombs, ornaments and decorations that used to fill the space are there any more.
Sky News contacted several forensic experts to identify the bone from Tarwizim Cemetery. They all cautioned that 100% certainty in identification was impossible due to the angle of the photo. An angle of the bone’s reverse would likely have been enough for confirmation but our team left the bone undisturbed.
All six experts thought it was most likely a human bone. Dr Nicholas Márquez-Grant, senior lecturer in forensic anthropology at Cranfield University, who has assisted in many crime scene investigations for police forces in England and Wales, told Sky News: “Based on the image alone, in my opinion, it appears that the bone is a thigh bone (left femur) of a child (as the ends are not fused yet).