Thursday marks the ninth anniversary of a crackdown amid ethnic tensions between Han Chinese and minority Muslim Uyghurs that left hundreds dead and thousands more injured in Urumchi, the capital of the Chinese-ruled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The Uyghur diaspora is marking the anniversary with protests in Washington, Brussels, Paris, London, Oslo, Stockholm, Tokyo, Munich, Istanbul, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. Even now, tensions between Uyghur and Han Chinese populations continues to be pervasive in the XUAR. Beginning in April of 2017, Uyghurs identified as having “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in “political re-education” camps throughout the XUAR. Estimates say that these camps currently harbor over 1 million Uyghurs accused of “religious extremism,” and have separated thousands of families in the process. The camps follow a long-standing history of Uyghur complaints of cultural and religious discrimination under Chinese rule. With the hostility between Uyghurs and Han Chinese still relevant nine years after the July unrest of 2009, Tursun Izchi recently spoke with Gulchehra Hoja of RFA’s Uyghur Service about his experiences in China’s most deadly episode of ethnic unrest in recent history.
RFA: How did you participate in the July 5th rally in Urumchi in 2009?
Tursun Izchi: A peaceful rally started at the People’s Square around 10 a.m. I was coming to the rally around 11 a.m. and saw the Chinese military blocking the roads to the Square.
RFA: How many people were attending the rally?
Tursun Izchi: Initially, there were not many. There were around 300 students who were peacefully sitting at the Square and petitioning the government for information regarding the injury and death of Uyghur workers in Shaoguan, Guangdong province. Other Uyghurs later joined the rally after learning it from word of mouth or online. Many Uyghurs were not happy due to the Chinese government’s lack of accountability about what had happened a week earlier to Uyghur workers in Shaoguan and its failure to hold those Chinese attackers responsible for their attacks and murders.
RFA: How did the peaceful rally later become a “riot” of hitting, smashing and attacking?
Tursun Izchi: The Uyghur students chanted, “We want to know the truth!” “We want justice!” “We want Nur Bekri [XUAR Chairman] to explain it to us!” Then, the Chinese soldiers who had surrounded us dragged away one Uyghur male for chanting. Then, a young girl, most likely that young man’s girlfriend, protested against Chinese soldiers taking the man. After that, Chinese soldiers came to her and severely beat her up, provoking the peaceful protesters to get involved after this unjust treatment. A confrontation between Chinese soldiers and Uyghur students ensued as more onlookers joined into the fray.
The official military crackdown started at 1 p.m. Chinese soldiers began to round up Uyghurs at the People’s Square as they tried to flee from arrest in all directions. It later seemed that Chinese soldiers channeled fleeing Uyghurs into the direction of southern part of the People’s Square. Suddenly, some Uyghurs showed up and began to smash stores along the way while the Chinese soldiers and police were watching. Surprisingly, Chinese soldiers and police didn’t arrest these Uyghurs but just watched and videotaped them smashing things. It was as if the Chinese soldiers and police intentionally left them alone for some other purpose. My impression was that these were saboteurs sent by the Chinese government to intentionally create a scene of total chaos and riot to justify the later armed crackdown.
RFA: When did the Chinese authorities shut off the lights?
Tursun Izchi: There were still lights around dusk. Once it was dark, all lights and telephone communications were shut down. Then, Chinese soldiers began the killing of Uyghur students in Urumchi. I could hear gunfire and police sirens all night long.
RFA: What did you witness at night?
Tursun Izchi: I couldn’t see much at night because there was no light. But I saw the slain Uyghurs when the day broke. I saw dead bodies on the side of the road, in the ditches and trees. When the day broke, I was near a residential district at Xinjiang Arts Institute. I saw a police van stopped in front of the Yalan Hospital. It was loaded with dead bodies piled on top of one another. Later I saw Chinese soldiers and police, and some cleaners, using high-powered pressure washer washing off the blood stains on the streets.
RFA: How did you get shot?
Tursun Izchi: It was probably around 8 p.m. A lot of people were fleeing and hiding. We were hiding under the bridge in Dongkowruk (Er Dao Qiao, in Chinese). Suddenly, I felt a little push, and a little feeling of burn, and my shoulder began to bleed. Then, I realized that I had been shot. Luckily, it was a flesh wound. My friend next to me told me there were snipers on top of the Dongkowruk International Bazaar. They were targeting and firing at people from the rooftop.
RFA: How did you treat your bullet wound and remove the bullet?
Tursun Izchi: After safely escaping and coming back to my dorm, I treated my wound. I had Yunnan Baiyao powder at home, which was used to treat blood stagnation in China. I also found some white cloth to apply the powder to the wound. The bullet stayed in my shoulder for almost a week. It was finally removed with the help of a good old surgeon friend without going to the hospital.
RFA: What comes to your mind first when you think of July 5th military crackdown?
Tursun Izchi: Blood. The smell of innocent blood.
Translated by Alim Seytoff.