SHAYAR, China (AFP) — China is destroying burial grounds where generations of Uighur families have been laid to rest, leaving behind human bones and broken tombs in what Uighurs call an effort to eradicate the ethnic group's identity in Xinjiang.
In just two years, dozens of cemeteries have been destroyed in the northwest region, according to an Agence France-Presse investigation with satellite imagery analysts Earthrise Alliance.
Some of the graves were cleared with little care — in Shayar County, reporters saw unearthed human bones left discarded in three sites. In other sites tombs that were reduced to mounds of bricks lay scattered in cleared tracts of land.
While the official explanation ranges from urban development to the "standardization" of old graves, overseas Uighurs say the destruction is part of a state crackdown to control every element of their lives.
"This is all part of China's campaign to effectively eradicate any evidence of who we are, to effectively make us like the Han Chinese," said Salih Hudayar, who said the graveyard where his great-grandparents were buried was demolished.
"That's why they're destroying all of these historical sites, these cemeteries, to disconnect us from our history, from our fathers and our ancestors," he said.
An estimated 1 million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up into “re-education camps” in Xinjiang in the name of combating religious extremism and separatism.
The euphemistically named re-education camps have a long history in Asia, dating back at least as far as the Gulag extermination camps under the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin.
In China today, Uighurs who are relatively free are subject to rigorous surveillance and restrictions — from home visits from officials to bans on beards and veils.
China has remained defiant despite escalating global criticism of its treatment of Uighurs. This week, the United States said it would curb visas for officials over the abuses and blacklisted 28 Chinese firms it accuses of rights violations.
According to satellite imagery analyzed by AFP and Earthrise Alliance, the Chinese government since 2014 has exhumed and flattened at least 45 Uighur cemeteries — including 30 in the past two years.
The Xinjiang government did not respond to a request for comment.
The destruction is "not just about religious persecution," said Nurgul Sawut, who has five generations of family buried in Yengisar, southwestern Xinjiang.
"It is much deeper than that," said Sawut, who lives in Australia and last visited Xinjiang in 2016 to attend her father's funeral.
"If you destroy that cemetery ... you're uprooting whoever's on that land, whoever's connected to that land," she said.
Even sites featuring shrines or the tombs of famous people were not spared.
In Aksu, authorities turned an enormous graveyard where prominent Uighur poet Lutpulla Mutellip was buried into "Happiness Park," with fake pandas, a children's ride, and a manmade lake.
Mutellip's grave was like "a modern day shrine for most nationalist Uighurs, patriotic Uighurs," said Ilshat Kokbore, who visited the tomb in the early ‘90s and now lives in the United States.
The "Happiness Park" project saw graves moved to a new cemetery in an industrial zone out in the desert. The caretaker there said he had no knowledge of the fate of Mutellip's remains.
The Aksu government could not be reached for comment.