Lack of Uyghur-language emergency services leads to more deaths in Xinjiang

Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), a city of roughly a half-million mainly Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, had been under lockdown since early August, prompted by outbreaks of COVID-19. RFA has previously reported deaths from starvation or lack of access to medicine in Ghulja.

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Uyghur residents in a city in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region are suffering malnutrition and death despite the lifting of a coronavirus lockdown because of authorities’ failure to provide Uyghur language support for emergency services, locals said.

Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), a city of roughly a half-million mainly Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, had been under lockdown since early August, prompted by outbreaks of COVID-19. RFA has previously reported deaths from starvation or lack of access to medicine in Ghulja.

Though authorities recently rescinded strict coronavirus lockdown in Ghulja, according to Chinese state media, Uyghurs in Xinjiang’s third-largest city say the lack of Uyghur-language emergency services has contributed to the number of deaths.

A clerk at the Ghulja Emergency Relief Command Center told RFA that no Uyghur speakers were available to speak with locals who called.

If someone other than Chinese-speakers become ill, they usually turn to bilingual neighborhood committee officials for help with contacting the center on their behalf, she said.

“Neighborhood committee officials all know how to speak [Chinese],” the person said.

If Uyghur-speaking farmers and others happen to contact the center directly, operators at the center tell them to contact neighborhood committee officials first, and they understand that, the clerk added.

“When officials call, we can understand here on our side,” the clerk added.

The communication difficulties that Uyghurs experience when seeking emergency assistance for critical medical situations can sometimes lead to delays lasting hours, locals said.

Such difficulties have also caused deaths in Suydong township of Khorgas county, local Uyghurs said, though the exact number is unknown..

When asked about local residents who died of starvation last week, a cadre at the Suydong township community center said a wall builder named Semet died, leaving behind a wife and children.

Two village cadres in Suydung township said that Semet, a man named Ghiyasidin, and other residents of a village were sick and severely weakened due to a lack of food during the strict lockdown and were taken to the hospital only after the measure was lifted in the county.

But by then it was too late and they died on Sept. 24 and 25, respectively.

When RFA contacted another neighborhood committee in Suydung, a staffer said he knew of Ghiyasidin’s passing, and that the Uyghur was a retired postal worker in his early sixties.

“He was treated at a hospital but died in his home,” the staffer said.

‘Not necessary to ask these questions’

An expatriate from Ghulja county who now lives in Canada and has knowledge of the situation back home told RFA that Tohtahun Abdul from the Yette’on village in Baytokay township, Ghulja county, was seriously ill because of malnourishment during the lockdown.

His wife, Repilem, asked village officials to take Tohtahun to the hospital or to call a doctor, but they rejected the request due to the lockdown measure, he said. As a result, the 50-year-old died at home on Sept. 17.

A Baytokay township policeman confirmed the man died during the lockdown, but said illness was the reason.

When RFA asked him if Tohtahum died of starvation, he said, “We did not ask these types of questions, and it’s not necessary to ask these questions.”

Besides malnourishment, some Uyghurs in the area died because of reactions to unknown drugs and poisoning from disinfectants sprayed to kill coronavirus germs, according to people familiar with the situation in Ghulja who did not want to be named for safety reasons.

The chairwoman of women’s affairs in Kore township, Khorgas county, said many people in her jurisdiction died during the lockdown.

“Many people died in Number 4 village,” she said and refused to disclose their identities or the cause of their deaths. She suggested that RFA seek information from the relevant authorities.

Other parts of Xinjiang have been under strict lockdowns since early August under China’s “zero COVID” policy, forcing Uyghurs in affected areas to rely on local officials for scarce food handouts. Others have not been able to obtain necessary medications.

The severe lockdowns have made life worse for predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang who have been subject to a crackdown by Chinese authorities since 2017 that has included mass detentions in internment camps and prisons and serious human rights violations.

A report issued in late August by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the repression in the XUAR “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

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