China is doing everything within its power to completely eradicate Xinjiang's Uyghurs, the country's prosecuted Muslim minority group, and won't even let them rest in peace anymore.
An AFP investigation - in collaboration with satellite imagery analysts Earthrise Alliance - recently revealed that at least 45 cemeteries had been completely destroyed in China's northwest region of Xinjiang. The investigation shed light on the continuous operations carried out to unearth and flatten burial grounds since 2014, with tombs smashed and human bones left discarded.
Gut-wrenching before-and-after photos show the complete demolition of hundreds of graveyards, many of them turned into parking areas and playgrounds.
In response to CNN's request for comments after discovering 60 other cemeteries that were wrecked, the Chinese government did not deny Islamic cemetery destruction.
"Governments...in Xinjiang fully respect and guarantee the freedom of all ethnic groups... to choose cemeteries, and funeral and burial methods," a spokesperson with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN.
In public documents, official reasons for the destruction include wanting to build "civilized cemeteries to promote progress." According to Rian Thom, an Uyghur historian at the University of Nottingham, "It's a great act of desecration and a kind of open insult Uyghur culture."
Uyghurs, victims of the biggest human rights crisis today, believe the destruction is only part of the government's master plan to entirely wipe them off the face of the country.
China is fulfilling its Muslim erasure agenda by obliterating their history
For Muslims in Xinjiang, cemeteries are central to village life and are considered a place where they "meet and connect one generation to the last."
In Aksu City, a park named "Happiness" was built over an Uyghur graveyard, accompanied by a manmade lake, rides, and fake pandas.
"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," commented Salih Hudayar, who told AFP 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 continued.
Another Uyghur Muslim, Aziz Isa Elkun, who is a poet now living in the United Kingdom, spoke out on the systemic erasure of Uyghurs' history and culture through their burial grounds. Elkun fled his hometown over 20 years ago but occasionally "visits" his father's grave on Google Earth since he cannot physically be there with him. He noticed something strange after an updated satellite image revealed the entire graveyard no longer exists. "I had no idea what happened," Elkun told AFP. "I was completely in shock."
Elkun quickly realized the cemetery had been replaced with a field, leaving him with absolutely no intel on where his father's remains are currently. "This is not a normal state like it is. This is pure evilness," he added.
Some Uyghurs said the Chinese government posted a few notices in May 2017, warning them that they had around two weeks to relocate the remains of their relatives and ancestors before their cemeteries were destroyed.
The destruction of cemeteries is not an isolated incident, but part of a large campaign to eradicate Muslims
The persecution of Muslims in the country has been well-documented by top human rights organizations, especially when it comes to the Uyghur community. Activists and human rights groups have called the Chinese government's conduct a form of "campaign of ethnic genocide."
Uyghurs make up about 45 percent of China's Muslim-majority province Xinjiang. Muslims living in the province are barred from giving their kids certain Islamic names, wearing burqas, and donning "abnormal beards." Under regulations passed in recent years, people of the faith are forced to watch state television and are provided with guidelines on how children can be educated. In 2017, Xinjiang's Muslims were reportedly ordered to turn in all religious items to police, including prayer mats and copies of the Holy Quran.
Leaked documents exposed China's systematic brainwashing of Muslims in prison camps across the country, something the government has previously denied. The documents revealed that the Xinjiang population is being monitored, abused, and locked up in camps under strict rules.
There have been multiple reports in recent months confirming the state of abuse in these prison camps. People who escaped the so-called "re-education camps" in China have reported torture, rape, and abuse.
In October 2019, a Muslim woman who escaped - after being detained in November 2017 - said inmates were "gang raped, subjected to torture and medical experiments and forced to eat pork." Other documents confirmed that 15,000 people from southern Xinjiang were sent to the camps over the course of just one week in 2017. A report released earlier this year also noted that a mobile "tracking" application was being used by police officers and authorities to monitor Uyghur citizens.