Residents of a city in the far western region of Xinjiang, China, say they are experiencing starvation, forced quarantines, and dwindling supplies of drugs and essentials after more than 40 days of viral blockade.
Hundreds of Ghulja posts caught the attention of Chinese social media users last week with locals sharing videos of empty refrigerators, feverish children and people screaming from windows.
The harsh conditions and food shortages are reminiscent of the sharp shutdown in Shanghai this spring, when thousands of residents posted online complaining that they had been supplied with rotting vegetables or had been denied critical medical care.
But unlike Shanghai, a glittering, cosmopolitan metropolis of 20 million and home to many foreigners, severe blockades in smaller cities like Ghulja are getting less attention.
As more and more infectious variants of the coronavirus creep into China, relapses are becoming more common. Under China’s zero COVID strategy, tens of millions or people are experiencing gradual blockages, paralyzing the economy and making travel uncertain.
The closure in Ghulja also raises concerns among the Uighurs, a Turkish ethnic group from Xinjiang, about police brutality. Over the years, the region has been the target of large-scale attacks by security forces, trapping large numbers of Uighurs and others, mostly Muslim minorities, into a vast network of camps and prisons. The early closure in Xinjiang was particularly difficult, with compulsory medication, arrests and a disinfectant spray being poured over the residents.
Yasinuf, an Uighur studying at a university in Europe, said his mother-in-law sent terrifying voice messages this weekend that she had been forced into centralized quarantine due to a mild cough. The officers arriving to fetch her reminded her of how she said her husband had been taken to the camp for more than two years.
“It’s judgment day,” she sighed in an audio recording that has been reviewed by The Associated Press. “We don’t know what will happen this time. All we can do now is trust our creator. “
Food was scarce. Yasinuf said his parents told him they were running out of food, even though they were stocking up before closing time. Without supplies and forbidding the use of home stoves for fear of spreading the virus, his parents survived on a raw dough made of flour, water and salt. Yasinuf refused to give his last name for fear of taking revenge on his relatives.
He said that in the last days he could not study or sleep because the thought of relatives in Ghulji kept him awake.
“Their voices are always in my head saying things like I’m hungry, please help us,” he said. “This is the 21st century, it is unthinkable.”
Nyrola Elima, an Ujgurka of Ghulja, said her father rationed their dwindling tomato stocks by sharing one each day with her 93-year-old grandmother. Another relative, her aunt, panicked because she lacked the milk to feed her two-year-old grandson.
At a news conference last week, the local governor apologized for “shortcomings and shortcomings” in the government’s response to the coronavirus, alluding to “blind spots,” and promised improvements.
But even after the authorities acknowledged the complaints, the censors tried to silence them. The entries have been removed from social media. Some videos have been removed and published dozens of times as internet users have fought online censors.
Many people in the region told the AP that the posts on the Internet reflected the tragic nature of the blockade, but refused to describe their own situation, saying they fear revenge.
On Monday, local police announced the arrests of six people for “spreading rumors” about the closure, including posts about a dead child and alleged suicide, which they said were “inciting opposition” and “disrupting society.”
Leaked directives from government agencies show that workers are instructed to avoid negative information and instead spread “positive energy”. One of them directed the state media to film “smiling seniors” and “children playing” in neighborhoods emerging from the closure.
“Those who make malicious noise, spread rumors and make unfounded accusations should be treated according to the law,” warned one of the announcements.
The AP was unable to verify the notifications itself. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As the authorities mobilized, conditions improved for some. One of the locals contacted by phone said the food deliveries had resumed after a few weeks of downtime. Residents of her complex can now talk about walking in their courtyard for several hours a day.
“The situation is gradually improving, it is much better,” she said.
In recent weeks, authorities have ordered massive tests and blockades of neighborhoods in cities across China, from Sanya on tropical Hainan Island, to southwestern Chengdu, to the northern port city of Dalian.
In the city of Guiyang, in the mountainous southern province of Guizhou, a zoo called for help last week, asking for pork, chicken, apples, watermelons, carrots and more, fearing it might run out of food for its animals.
In other parts of the city, residents in one of the neighborhoods complained of hunger and missing food supplies, which sparked a wave of comments on the Internet. Local officials apologized saying that despite their best efforts, they were overwhelmed.
“Due to inexperience and inadequate methods,” they said in a public announcement, “the supply of essentials was not enough, causing inconvenience for everyone. We’re really sorry”.