Every Sunday at 5:30 p.m., Canadian Uyghurs meet in downtown Toronto to remember the victims of an apartment building fire in China.
The gathering is also a protest against the Chinese government who they claim locked up the building in the city of Xinjiang during the Covid-lockdown which prevented the Uyghur residents from escaping the flames.
Chinese officials claim 10 people died and nine were injured in the Nov. 25 fire, but demonstrators in Toronto say many more died.
“We confirmed 44 deaths, including seven children, with their names, surnames and photographs,” said Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project. “We are sure that the number of casualties is more than 80.
“The building has 37 floors, and four of them are completely burned. Every floor has five apartments, and all family members must have been at home due to the COVID-19 restrictions, so the number given by the Chinese government is ridiculous.”
Tohti said that some of the Uyghurs who survived the fire died later from poisoning from the smoke in the hallways.
Even though most countries have lifted the COVID-19 restrictions, China still strictly maintains the regulations set out in its “zero-COVID” measures.
The demonstrators call the death of the Uyghurs “genocide”, saying they believe the fire was intentionally set. They also want the government to release Uyghurs who are imprisoned and tortured in Chinese “re-education” camps.
“We are here to commemorate people who lost their lives in a deadly fire. We think that the fire was intentional; it happened because of the genocide,” Gulsen Abdulkadir, a Uyghur demonstrator who has lived in Canada since 2005, told New Canadian Media.
The deadly fire broke out in a 37-storey building where Uyghur families resided. The fire started in the bedroom of a 15th-floor apartment and spread to the surrounding suites, and then to four more floors.
Chinese officials say an extension cable that caught fire was the source of the fire. They said the fire was extinguished in three hours, but Uyghur protestors claim that firefighters couldn’t approach the building.
“Due to COVID restrictions, the Chinese government locked up our Uyghur friends in their building for more than 100 days,” said Sevket Imam, a Uyghur protester who fled to Canada 17 years ago to escape persecution in East Turkistan.
“The entry doors of the building were locked from the outside. Residents could not escape from the building, because their doors were locked.
“The approaches too were blocked by the Chinese government. Therefore, firefighters could not access the building. They had to stop 900 meters away from the building and could not spray water to extinguish the burning apartments.”
Tohti said that Radio Free Asia, which broadcasts news in the Uyghur language and is funded by the U.S. government, interviewed police from three different Chinese police stations.
“According to the police, the number of casualties is more than 40 — even one of the officers said to the journalists that he counted at least 26 deaths, but then he could not continue counting,” Tohti said.
“More than 600 residents have been under detention by the Chinese police since the fire occurred to prevent the flow of information to the media. Their relatives cannot hear from them and get any information about their whereabouts.”
He said that there is no legal investigation into the fire, because “the judiciary is not independent.”
Said Imam: “We are going to continue this struggle until we get our freedom. Our aim in these protests is to raise awareness of Canadians.”
Tohti, who lost 37 members of his family including his 78-year-old mother, six siblings and their families at Chinese re-education camps, said that China has forcibly detained more than one million Uyghurs.
Canada has been one of the pioneering countries to recognize the Chinese government genocide of Uyghurs. The House of Commons voted on Feb. 22, 2021, to declare China’s treatment of the Uyghurs a genocide. The proposal was accepted unanimously.
As a result, Canada has become the second country after the U.S. to recognize China’s actions against Uyghurs as genocide.
“The world is so silent because they have benefits from China,” said Abdulkadir, who hasn’t been able to speak to her family for 15 years.
“The Chinese government labelled us as terrorists, and the government tracks down Uyghurs’ phone calls. We cannot call each other for the sake of my family’s security,” she said.
While Canada and the U.S. recognize it as a genocide, Abdulkadir said many Muslim countries, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are silent. “That makes us sad,” she said.
Of the more than 12 million Uyghurs, 2,000 live in Canada. About 50,000 live in Turkey, and they face deportation due to the relationship between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Canada is attempting to expedite the resettlement of those who live in unsafe countries. Federal MPs voted 258 to 0 for the resettlement of 10,000 Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims who had to flee China beginning in 2024.
Nur Dogan is a Turkish journalist who lives in Toronto. She studied journalism at Humber College. Her stories and photographs were published not only in Canada but also in the U.S. and Europe. As a digital media reporter, she has covered national and international news for some magazines, newspapers and online news platforms. Focusing on human rights for all, Nur observes and reports on human rights violations, oppressions and illegitimate political attempts against visible minorities.