Uighur women take to the streets in search of their men

Chinese authorities allow western journalists to cover the riots in Urumqi – under strict supervision.

By Bettine Vriesekoop in Urumqi

Nalida, dressed in a black-and-white burqa, brought her hands to her face as she cried: “The police killed my husband. Hundreds of policemen entered our houses. They hit us with sticks and pipes and took our husbands and sons.”

She clenched her fists and screamed as she and hundreds of wailing Uighur women on Tuesday marched through the capital of the western Chinese province Xinjiang, which was the scene of violent clashes between Uighurs and police on Sunday afternoon.

“This is war now. We have been silent too long. The Chinese do not respect our way of life and our religion,” said Guli, a woman clad in a green burqa. “Our men, we don’t know where they are. They even loaded naked children into trucks.”

What happened?

On Sunday, 156 people were killed and over 1,000 wounded, according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. Officials said they could not give a breakdown of how many of the dead were Uighurs and how many were Han Chinese.

Sunday’s riot started as a peaceful demonstration by Uighurs over a deadly fight at a factory in eastern China between Han Chinese and Uighur workers. It spiralled out of control, as mainly Uighur groups beat up people and set fire to vehicles and shops belonging to Han Chinese.

More than 1,400 were arrested in the worst ethnic violence in the often tense region in decades.

Agencies reported that the capital of China’s Xinjiang region degenerated into communal violence again on Tuesday, prompting the government to impose a curfew.

The Uighur women of Urumqi are mad after Sunday’s eruption of violence that, according to the Chinese state news agency, killed 156 and wounded 1,000 people. On Tuesday, hundreds of traditionally dressed Uighur women took to the streets, demanding the release of their husbands and sons. Some sought contact with a group of journalists visiting the city under the strict supervision of the Chinese authorities.


New confrontations with the police occurred. While sirens blared and police restrained the crowd with teargas, Uighur men carried off some of the women who had fainted. They desperately asked for medical assistance, but no ambulance appeared. “You see, the lives of our people mean nothing to them,” one woman said.

Ali, a scruffy-looking Uighur, waved a stick at the police. He said two of his brothers were taken away. “We have nothing to do with the riots, but the police doesn’t make a distinction because they have been discriminating against us for years.”

For another day, Urumqi was the scene of violence, and it wasn’t just the Uighur battling the police. Han Chinese people, who on Sunday were attacked by Uighur, were hitting back. As visiting journalists were being led through the city, international press agencies reported acts of revenge by hundreds of Han Chinese. A mob of 1,000 mostly young Han Chinese holding clubs and chanting “Defend the Country” marched through the city trying to get to an Uighur neighbourhood, according to the Associated Press.

Internet blocked

Dozens of police cars, armoured vehicles and ambulances were parked on the street where Sunday’s violence took place. Large parts of the city have been sealed off and barricaded by riot police. Telephone and internet lines have been blocked and the government has declared martial law. Only in the Haide hotel, where the ministry of foreign affairs has put up the visiting journalists, some internet connections were reinstated.

Who are the Uighur?

The Uighur are originally a nomadic people that settled in what is now the Chinese province Xinjiang in 840 and converted to Islam in the 15th century. Their language is a Turkish dialect.

The Chinese conquered the area in the 18th century. In 1933, an independent state of East Turkestan was declared with the support of the Soviet Union, but communist China re-established control in 1949. Since then, many ethnic Han-Chinese have moved to the area.

Xinjiang population is currently 45 percent Uighur and 40 percent Han-Chinese.Years of rapid development have failed to smooth over the ethnic fault lines in Xinjiang, where the Uighurs have watched growing numbers of Han-Chinese move in.

It is remarkable that the Chinese authorities even allowed foreign journalists to report the riots. During the Tibetan revolt in March last year, journalists were banned from the Tibetan territories under the pretext that the area was too dangerous.

The Sichuan earthquake in May and the Olympic Games in August seem to have led to greater openness in China. However, this new openness is firmly directed. In Urumqi, Han Chinese and moderate Uighur were pushed forward to tell their story. It was very different from that of the women protesting the disappearance of their men.

Complete surprise

Han Haiti, a Han Chinese man, stood before his burnt-down garage. “I can’t grasp it. This is horrible. I have worked seven years to built my business. Now everything is broken,” he told reporters. The Han Chinese have lived peacefully alongside the Uighur for years, he said.

A modern-looking Uighur women who identified herself as Halida agreed. “We never had any problems between Uighur and Han Chinese in my street,” she said. Residents said the riots came as a complete surprise when, at around two in the afternoon on Sunday, screaming Uighurs ran down their street. “They were throwing rocks, setting cars on fire and attacking Han Chinese,” according to Halida.

A communist party leader in Xinjiang, Wang Le Qquan, said on Tuesday that the situation in Urumqi was under control, but added that “the conflict is far from being resolved”.


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