BEIJING: When a deadly fire broke out in China's northwest Xinjiang region, triggering a wave of public anger over the country's zero-Covid policy, Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin initially could not believe that it claimed five of his relatives' lives.
Ten people were killed and nine injured when the blaze ripped through a residential building in the regional capital Urumqi on Thursday night, with many blaming lengthy lockdowns for hampering rescue efforts.
The tragedy spurred an outpouring of anger in Urumqi which has since swelled into a wave of large-scale protests and candlelit vigils in several major cities across China.
Much of Xinjiang has been locked down for three months, as the remote region battles an uptick in Covid cases that have also surged nationwide.
Maimaitimin, 27, now living in exile in Switzerland, was stunned when he heard through a friend about the deaths of his 48-year-old aunt, Haiernishahan Abdureheman, and four of her children aged between four and 13.
"My arms and legs shook and I felt dizzy, I wanted to throw up. I couldn't understand it," Maimaitimin, a member of the Muslim Uyghur minority, told AFP from his home in Zurich.
He lost contact with his aunt in May 2017, while Xinjiang was in the grip of a widespread security crackdown which saw an estimated million Uyghurs arbitrarily detained in prisons and internment camps, some simply for speaking to relatives overseas.
"She was a housewife, her whole life was devoted to taking care of her kids and educating them well," he said, bursting into tears.
"Five years later I really could not imagine I would hear about my relatives in this way."
A photo of his aunt verified by Maimaitimin shows her sitting beside her four young children on a couch in a beautifully decorated living room.
"Now I still feel terrible, I can't cope," he said.
- Three-hour blaze -
Online posts circulating on both Chinese and overseas social media platforms since Friday have claimed that lengthy Covid lockdowns in Urumqi hampered rescue attempts.
Social media videos show water sprayed from a fire engine parked outside the compound barely reaching the burning windows, while in another the dying screams of residents trapped inside can be heard.
State media said the fire took three hours to be extinguished.
City officials later claimed the apartment was in a low-risk area where residents could leave their homes freely, but acknowledged there were cars and bollards blocking the fire engine's path.
"Some residents had a weak ability to rescue themselves ... and did not carry out effective fire fighting or escape in time to rescue themselves," Li Wensheng, head of the city fire rescue service, said Friday.
However, some witnesses and social media users later claimed the building's doors were locked shut.
In one viral screenshot of a residents' chat group, Maimaitimin identified his other male cousin begging neighbours to save his mother and siblings.
"I can't contact the people in (flat) 1901 and don't know their circumstances, they can't open the door. Can you break open the door? There are children inside," read the texts from his surviving cousin, who was not in Urumqi at the time.
Maimaitimin believes that his family were not rescued in time because they were Uyghur and lived in a Uyghur-majority neighbourhood in the city's Tianshan district.
Chinese officials have not yet revealed the identities of the deceased, but there is widespread online speculation that the real death toll was higher.
A photo circulating on social media of the building's charred remains showed blackened, destroyed windows on six floors of the building.
"I will never trust the Chinese government. If Uyghurs protested, they would choke them dead," he said.
"I think that protesters will be caught, and (Uyghurs) will be put under even stricter control.