“The Chinese government officially recorded 10 deaths,” said Salih Hudayar, who heads a human rights group focused on China’s genocide of the ethnic minority group. “Photos suggest the number of Uyghurs slain was much higher.”
Social media posts and photos place the death toll at 44, said Hudayar, who on Monday led a protest outside the State Department in Washington, D.C. Residents reportedly couldn’t escape their homes because their doors were bolted and barred for quarantine. Barricades at the building prevented fire trucks from getting close enough to fight the fire—video of the incident shows firefighters spraying water that failed to even reach the building. Huyadar said it took hours for help to arrive.
“Residents stated firefighters arrived three hours after the fire began,” Hudayar said.
The deaths have sparked unrest across the country, with residents calling for the easing of restrictions and the resignation of President Xi Jinping. Chinese authorities have tried to clamp down on the protests, searching residents’ phones in Beijing and Shanghai for use of illegal messaging apps. Chinese bots on Twitter, meanwhile, tweeted pornographic content to drown out posts about the protests and criticism of Xi.
Urumqi, the city where the fire occurred, said it will ease restrictions in “stages” as a result of the protests. Authorities in Beijing said they will remove gates blocking entry to some buildings.
The Communist government has for years faced condemnation of its repression of the minority Muslim group. Human rights organizations allege China has detained more than one million Uyghur people and placed them in “reeducation camps.” The Trump administration called the actions genocide and said China is committing crimes against humanity.
“The Chinese government’s deliberate failure to put out the fire and subsequent censoring of Uyghur deaths shows that it is using the COVID lockdowns to further its genocide of Uyghurs,” said Ghulam Yagham, president of the East Turkistan Government in Exile, which supports independence for what China calls the Xinjiang province.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.