After CNN revealed the CCP’s destruction of Uyghur cemeteries, Chinese propaganda claimed these were just fake news. Uyghur poet Aziz Isa Elkun tells us the true story.
by Ruth Ingram
After intensive investigations involving interviews with Uyghurs and examination of satellite images, CNN has identified this month more than 100 ancient Uyghur graveyards that have been destroyed in the region, the bulk of which have been flattened since the clampdowns of 2018, but some also dating back several years.
Aziz Isa Elkun, a well-known Uyghur poet and writer now living in London, was dismayed when his deceased father’s grave that he has been forced to “visit” remotely on Google Earth since his death in November 2017, suddenly disappeared from the satellite image in April last year. Following the draconian clampdowns in Xinjiang during the past two years, Aziz is now banned from returning in person and is now forced to pay his respects online.
But suddenly in April last year, as he searched for his father, he was confronted by a new scenario. The graveyard containing his father’s tomb, pre-built by the family in 2012, had been flattened, only to be replaced by rows of brand-new shoulder to shoulder whitewashed sepulchers in the bottom righthand corner of the revised image.
A distressed Aziz expressed his outrage that the Chinese government would ride roughshod over the most sensitive area of Uyghur culture in this way, striking at the very heart of the Uyghur community in the cruelest way possible.
Speaking to Bitter Winter this week, Aziz is distraught not only that his father’s remains have been forcibly removed, but by the Chinese government’s own ‘fake news’ campaign to justify its actions in destroying key elements of Uyghur culture, during which his own elderly mother has been forced to speak out against him.
A furious Beijing lashing out at the CNN report has not only lambasted western media but also produced a two pronged personal attack on Aziz himself setting his family publicly against him not only on their mouthpiece Global Times, but also on their propaganda TV channel China Global Television Network (CGTN) The beginning of 2020 has seen an avalanche of justifications and refutations by Beijing of the world’s mainstream media reports’ criticisms, to explain its treatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
The Global Times, knowing full well that it has been impossible for exiled Uyghurs to phone home for at least two years, or risk the incarceration of their family members, berated Aziz for complaining to CNN rather than contacting his family directly to determine the fate of his father’s remains. It accused him of not returning to his homeland for twenty years, and maintained that “Xinjiang fully respects the rituals of funerals of ethnic groups.” CGTN, going a step further, sent its own reporter to the Elkun home village of Yingichimen, near Aksu and compelled Aziz’s 78-year-old mother Hepizem, and his sister to accompany him to her late husband’s grave.
Introducing this feature with its own take on Aziz’s accusations, CGTN posed the question: “Let’s see who’s spinning a lie for the audience.”
Watching his mother on the screen, Aziz felt she had been primed to criticize him and to praise the Chinese government for providing a new grave for her late husband. Bearing in mind the current situation in Xinjiang where even a piece of Arabic calligraphy on a spoon, or a stray word implying criticism of the government could result in so-called “vocational training” aka transformation through education camps, or worse, the reporter took Aziz’s mother’s testimony applauding the government at face value, something Aziz seriously questions. He pointed out glaring inconsistencies in the facts as they were presented by CGTN.
Whereas Aziz had shown both CNN and Bitter Winter pictures of the new grave that the family had pre-built for his father in 2012, the reporter for CGTN accused him of lying and contradicted his account by saying that in fact the so-called “family grave” where his father was buried was just a dusty mound surrounded by other chaotic configurations of sandy heaps. Aziz has produced photographs which attest to the truth of his own story, showing his carefully built family plot in what used to be the graveyard and a photo of himself kneeling in front of his grandmother’s pristine tomb in 2012 when he visited Xinjiang.
Aziz says that he is not against new, neat rows of tomb stones for people who have recently died. But he is vehemently against existing tombs being destroyed and the dead being moved from their resting places, surrounded by those who have gone before. “On 15th April 2019, I discovered from Google Earth Pro Map that the graveyard and tomb of my beloved father were all destroyed. My father stayed in his tomb for 623 days,” he said ruefully.
“It is completely against ancient Uyghur burial traditions to move the dead from their resting places, surrounded by the spirits of those who have gone before,” Aziz stated. “According to our beliefs, it’s not just a matter of moving a graveyard, but of disturbing the spirits, the communal meeting place of centuries of our ancestors,” he said.
Aziz said the Chinese government was showing flagrant disregard for Uyghur culture by destroying a vital part of their heritage. He said that they could have easily repaired the graves in the existing graveyards, but they chose not to do so because they were determined to “insult and erase” the Uyghur people. “They have no right to destroy us in this way. They are full of lies. They cannot be trusted,” he said bitterly.