The men dashed into the rear bedroom and locked the wooden door. It quickly gave way to the dozens of ethnic Han men hacking and kicking and punching at it. One knife blow fell on Abulimit Asim’s head, then another.
“They wanted to kill us, but there was nowhere for us to go,” Abulimit, who goes by his given name, said Wednesday, a day after the attack, his head bandaged and dried blood still splattered across his white shirt. “We were helpless.”
Abulimit survived the deadliest outbreak of ethnic violence in China in decades, when Uighurs and Han slaughtered each other for days across this regional capital of 2.3 million. But the assault on him is also the latest chapter in what the Uighurs say is a long history of victimization by the Han, the dominant race in China but relative newcomers by any large numbers to the western region of Xinjiang.
Like many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking race of Sunni Muslims, his tale begins in the string of oasis towns in southern Xinjiang, settled by Uighurs in the 10th century after their migration from the Mongolian steppe. Five years ago, Abulimit and his family abandoned their poor farmland to seek their fortunes among the gleaming towers of Urumqi.
He found himself among people whose language he does not speak, but who hold all the power across Xinjiang — political, economic and cultural. Although Uighurs are still the largest ethnic group among the 20 million people of Xinjiang, Han settlers, many just poor farmers, have been flocking to the region for decades, in part because of government encouragement. Urumqi is now more than 70 percent Han.
“They don’t listen to us,” he said as he walked Wednesday from a police station where he had been turned away while trying to report the assault.
The bottled frustration of the Uighurs exploded on July 5, when a clash between at least 1,000 Uighur protesters and riot police officers turned into a night of bloodletting in which young Uighur men rampaged through the streets killing Han civilians. For at least three days after, Han mobs armed with sticks and knives roamed the city exacting vengeance.
The Chinese government says that at least 184 people were killed in all, three-quarters of them Han, and that those responsible are “terrorists.” But many Uighurs assert that hundreds of Uighurs were shot dead by Chinese security forces and massacred by Han mobs.
What has emerged is two distinct versions of the violence, two narratives of victimhood.
For the Uighurs, the role of victim is all too familiar, they say.
“Our traditions, our clothing, our language, they want us to get rid of it all,” said a Uighur merchant in the same alleyway where Abulimit lives and works. “They want us to become Han.”
Chinese officials say the Uighurs are treated with respect and are even given advantages over the Han when it comes to family planning policy and university admissions, among other things.
But many Uighurs, especially those like Abulimit from the south, say they feel alienated in a quickly changing Xinjiang. Raised in remote oasis towns like Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan, they are less educated and rarely speak Mandarin. They are also more devout.
“We’re just farmers from Khotan,” said Abulimit’s wife, a woman in black robes and a white floral head scarf.
Once the seat of a Buddhist kingdom on the Silk Road, Khotan sits on the southern edge of the scorching Tarim Basin. It is known for its nephrite jade and silk carpets, but there is, too, an air of desperation. Every day, residents scour a dry riverbed for tiny pieces of jade, hoping to find the one stone that will transform their lives.
Abulimit, his wife and two children left five years ago, following relatives to Urumqi. They made the 24-hour bus trip north across the Taklamakan Desert.
The old Uighur quarter is redolent of Islamic bazaars across Asia. Open-air food markets thick with the smell of grilling kebabs spill across sidewalks. Narrow passageways wind behind mosques.Here and in nearby suburbs, the streets are crowded with migrants from southern Xinjiang selling fruit from wooden carts or cheap household goods from blankets. It is usually the only job they can get. With little knowledge of Mandarin, they cannot compete with Han migrants, even for something as menial as construction work.