Scenes from Urumqi, five days before 5 July 2009

Three years on from riots and mass arrests in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Chinese authorities continue to silence those speaking out on abuses during and in the wake of the unrest…

New testimony reveals that dozens, if not hundreds, of the Uighur ethnic minority, many of whom were arrested in the wake of the riots, are still disappeared, and that the government continues to intimidate people – including families seeking information on their disappeared relatives – who reveal human rights abuses during and after the protests.

Says Amnesty International in a Press Statement released on 4 July 2012.

This July fifth marks the three year anniversary of the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of the Northwestern province of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. A name, explained in an earlier post, infused with perceptions of constructed history, repression, power, and resistance. This week, around the world, members of the Uyghur diaspora community will mark the day with demonstrations, from Istanbul to Washington DC. They are commemorating a day, planned as peaceful that turned violent, a reminder of rampant inequality and a history of perceived and material abuse. As media reports trickle out, documenting, as with above, the remaining culture of fear and persecution, or analyzing the causes of violence, ethnic or economic, presenting testimonials, calling for us never to forget, I thought I would provide some photos from a trip I took to the region right before the riots broke out.

In late June and early July of 2009 I traveled to Xinjiang. I could perceive a kind of tension in the air, disclosure of deep frustration at the inequality experienced as part of every day live, but there was no omen of what was soon to occur. By official Chinese figures 197 people died, over a thousand were injured. But, Amnesty and other organizations, through exhaustive research and documentation, believe these numbers to be considerably low. Particularly when you start to take into account the high numbers of those rounded up in the aftermath, the disappeared, abused, tortured, and silenced, the numbers of dead appear to be much higher.

The following images present a snapshot of life in Urumqi in the days leading up to this violence. Depicted below is a kind of superficial peace perhaps, superficial in that it would be severely rocked loose, and peace once so jarringly disturbed does not easily resettle. When I returned to Urumqi in 2011 I was shocked at the remaining level of armed police presence, automatic assault weapons and riot gear for the Chinese districts to promote a constructed fear and representation, to maintain the process of ‘othering.’ But there is no military presence documented in the images below. This is a simple presentation of encounters on the streets of an Urumqi perhaps irrevocably altered. I hope the images are able to speak for themselves to convey something of a story.

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