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Four-year-old Aliya lay on a trolley, blinking up at the commotion, amid scores of victims who had spilled out of the wards into the corridors.
The little Uighur boy was dazed by the hubbub, his head injury and his pregnant mother’s disappearance. He was clinging to her hand in the chaos on the streets when a bullet tore into her, said doctors; now surgeons were operating.
All he could do was wait.
Twenty-six more patients were clinging to life in the People’s Hospital after the bloodiest violence in decades erupted in the centre of Urumqi on Sunday night, killing at least 156 and injuring 828, the Chinese authorities said.
Outside, thousands of riot officers and armed paramilitary police had blanketed the southernmost part of the city, where the riots broke out around the Grand Bazaar.
Trucks full of troops lined streets and armoured personnel carriers were parked on the People’s Square in the centre, where we watched as armed officers detained two men outside a shopping centre and marched them away. Hundreds were already under arrest in the capital of China’s restive northwestern region.
Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslims make up almost half of Xinjiang’s 19-million inhabitants—but many are resentful of controls on religion, increasing Han Chinese immigration and policies they believe favour the Han.
Despite the underlying grievances and sporadic outbreaks of violence, no one had predicted the vicious ethnic violence that scarred the city.
Around the riot zone burnt-out buses and buildings still smouldered, the noxious smoke drifting in the heat. Odd shoes lay scattered, abandoned by fleeing owners; broken glass was sprayed across the road. Emerald flies glinted on the street corner, lighting on a sticky, brownish patch of blood. Groups of Uighur men in the traditional four-cornered caps crouched on the pavements.
Ten people died on this street alone, officials said. They handed out graphic footage from the previous night—it showed corpses strewn along the road, blood pouring from their heads, and bricks and rocks tossed away beside them, no longer needed. A pile of bodies lay heaped up on a corner.
But exactly who died, how and why remains unclear. Although witnesses reported brutal and apparently indiscriminate assaults by young Uighur men on Han Chinese, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities were also injured.
“We were all afraid,” said one Uighur man. Already there are conflicting explanations of why an apparently peaceful protest by young Uighurs led to mob violence and slaughter. The Chinese authorities blame Uighur exiles for orchestrating the riots.
But the World Uighur Congress alleges that police shot and beat to death demonstrators while crushing a peaceful protest.
“It’s not good to talk about it,” said one Han worker in Urumqi. Like many residents, he refused to be identified. Then he added: “Before this I felt safe, but a lot of Uighur people don’t like us. They say there are too many Han here.”
Down the road a Uighur agreed that the causes of unrest lay within China. “Uighur and Han people here don’t get on,” he said. “There was a lot of fighting, but it was mostly Uighurs who got hurt.”
The events in Urumqi have obvious echoes of last year’s fatal riots in Tibet, which began in Lhasa and quickly spread. In that case, too, the authorities blamed ethnic minority exiles for fomenting violence whereas Tibetans accused the government of killing scores of people.
But the official response is markedly different. Whereas authorities banned the foreign media from entering Tibet and large swaths of Tibetan areas last year, this time they set up a special media centre, arranged an official tour of the riot zone and the People’s Hospital, and distributed footage.
Stung by the criticism China experienced last year, they want the world to see the aftermath of Sunday’s unrest. But internet access was cut off throughout the city—and possibly throughout the entire region—and calls could not be made overseas. Some photographers had memory cards and even cameras taken from them after photographing armed police.
Despite the heavy security, residents were allowed to go about their business. Customers still gathered in a local market, but many shops were shuttered and residents simply stood and watched as the paramilitary police marched past.
Bright yellow haulage trucks had begun to shift the hundreds of buses and cars torched across the city. But on the forecourt of Guo Jianxing’s car showroom, the charred skeletons of a dozen cars were parked neatly in an eerie parody of their former gleaming perfection. The plate-glass windows of the building had shattered and fire had consumed the interior.
He said a crowd of young Uighur men had swept into the property on Sunday, injuring a worker and causing hundreds of thousands of yuan of damage.
Further along, red-eyed workers loaded sooty trays of Coke bottles on to a trolley at Liu Jie’s store, trying to salvage what little remained. Her hands were black and her clothing reeked of smoke; her eyes filled with tears as she described how she crouched in the courtyard behind her home as the mob returned again and again.
“It was getting worse by 7pm and I told my workers to go home. When people broke the windows I fled myself. They were using big rocks,” she said. “They beat and killed Han people in the street. We were attacked five times, the last time at about 11pm and they set [the shop] on fire.
“We hid in the back yard until the armed police and fire service came to help. There were people killed on the street, they were chased, beaten and knifed. Physically I was not hurt but mentally I was seriously attacked.”
Liu Hongtao was heading home when the unrest broke out. “I took the bus home, but a gang of people stopped it and beat us—they cut me in three places,” he recalled. He staggered to the People’s Hospital, passing out as he crossed the threshold—one of hundreds of victims who made their way there overnight.
Video footage shot by hospital officials shows the arrival of patient after patient with bloody head wounds. Some limped in supported by friends; others had to be carried. Two victims, bandaged around the head and hooked up to intravenous drips, lay on the fruit barrow that friends had brought them on, still strewn with apples.
Dr Wang, the hospital’s head, said 274 patients were still undergoing treatment. Many appeared to have been beaten, but the authorities said some had been knifed and seven had been shot. Most of them—233—were Han. But 39 were Uighur, 15 were Hui—another Muslim minority—and four came from other ethnic groups.
In the intensive care unit, swollen faces lay motionless on the pillows. Dr Ge Xiaohu stood amid the beds in a rare moment of calm; staff had been working through the night. “We have never had a situation like this. It’s terrible,” he said. They had lost 17 patients; he hoped the rest would survive.
Seven floors below, Aliya lay patiently on his trolley. He closed his eyes and awaited his mother’s return. —
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