The road stretching from the south gate all the way to the Urumqi International Bazaar, a predominantly Uyghur neighborhood, was blocked by scores of armed military guards, tire spikes, and police tape. This road, usually overcrowded by vehicle and pedestrian traffic, was now lifeless and the Bazaar itself had been set up as a temporary headquarters for a large battalion of well-equipped soldiers. A few blocks to the north, People’s Square had been completely cordoned off hiding a lonely piece of open space that had served as the beginning of the bloodiest clash in modern Xinjiang history.
A week after the riots began I found myself wandering the streets of Urumqi, a city which no longer felt familiar to me. The hot, dry air that is typical for the month of July was mercifully cool thanks to the clouds that were now slowly covering the sky. The streets were eerily silent, broken only by the occasional army envoy which consisted of two trucks carrying about thirty soldiers led by an SUV blaring warnings from its rooftop speaker in both the Uyghur and Chinese language. For a moment I thought I heard another riot start up only to recognize the clamor as the loud, purposefully-intimidating chants of a marching company filing down the nearby alleyway.
Of course, the most obvious change in this city was its people in whose eyes I could see fear and unease. For my entire visit rumors of riots, abductions, and killings – all lacking confirmation – held the city into a perpetual state of reclusion. Those who hadn’t fled the city to their hometowns were most likely holed up in their apartment terrified to leave.
The presence of all the armed guards was at the same time ominous and encouraging to me. As far as I could see, peace had been restored but the damage had already been done. Most of the wreckage left from the riot was now hidden behind locked metal doors, however some shattered glass, burned out buildings, broken kebab stands and a few gutted cars remained to give a glimpse of what had happened.
As I walked along the road small drops of water began to fall from dark clouds above, a warning of heavier rains to come. The soldiers posted in groups of threes on ever street corner never flinched during this change in weather although they carefully watched my sprint for shelter. I joined some of the few pedestrians who had found cover below a building overhang and stared out at the empty streets.
From there I had a moment to stop and think about how this week would add a new chapter to Xinjiang history books. The beginning of the week had been marked by a river of red blood – both Han and Uyghur – and had ended with a massive flood of green uniforms. By this time tomorrow a replacement of green would begin a new shift, a cycle that will repeat itself many times over, but for now I was left to hope that the red washed away by the rain would not soon be replaced.
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