Uighurs tried to get past Chinese military standing guard in the streets to reach a mosque. The soldiers reacted with violence and new arrests.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis (2009)

in Urumqi, China


Just one thing hangs over the streets surrounding the White Mosque in Urumqi: heavy tension. Islamic Uighurs want to get to the mosque to participate in the Friday prayer service.

The Chinese authorities however surrounded all mosques in the city, preventing them to be accessed. The Uighurs men decide to do the next best thing. They roll out their prayer mats on the square in front of the mosque. Armed police observe them from a distance.

The Uighurs don't leave after they're done praying, however. "We suffer intense humiliation!" one of them shouts. "Chinese thugs!"

A woman starts to cry. "Why can't we see our husbands and sons? They're keeping over a thousand of them locked up. They're destroying us!"

A few men around here start to tear up as well. The woman starts telling a foreign journalist how she feels Chinese authorities are suppressing the Uighurs. Others gather around her.

Suddenly, a military police squad turns a corner and positions itself at the end of the street. Some Uighurs flee. Others shout for them to stay and resist. They urge the foreign reporter to stay with them, thinking his presence will stop the Chinese from going all out with violence.

Soldiers in front of a mosque in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

A group of around twenty Uighurs men and women decide they have nothing to lose. Fed by their anger and frustration, they start walking north to where the Han Chinese live in the city. They shout demands to visit their relatives, who have been locked up in a nearby police station.

Their march makes it fifty meters down the street, before they're surrounded by dozens of military police dressed as if they're in a war zone. Everyone starts shouting at everyone else. The atmosphere is toxic with nervousness. For a moment, it appears the Uighurs allow their emotions to explode into violence. The police are quick to crush that.

"On your knees! Down! Down!", the officers shout. That goes for everyone, including a group of men who happened to pass by the protesting Uighurs. Everyone has to face a wall, hands on their heads, semi-automatic firearm pointing in their backs.

What happens next was to be expected: the Uighurs are loaded unto trucks and being taken to a detention camp.