Something hideously violent happened in Elishku. Whether it was a separatist attack or a civilian massacre is shrouded in the mists of conflict, control, claim and counter-claim that plague China’s mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang.
According to authorities, 96 civilians and “terrorists” died when militants attacked a police station in the township last July 28. Residents, speaking to foreign media for the first time, say that hundreds of people mounted a protest against government restrictions on religion which was brutally put down.
“Everyone who joined the crowd is either dead or in jail,” said Mahmouti, who hid in his nearby home with his then-pregnant wife. “No one has been heard from since, no one knows where they are now.”
It is by far the bloodiest incident in Beijing’s “strike hard” campaign against violence in Xinjiang, launched after an attack on a train station in the regional capital Urumqi a year ago on Thursday.
Allegations have swirled ever since the killings in Elishku but information in the far-western region is hard to verify independently, and AFP was the first foreign media to speak to locals on the scene.
Residents described more than 500 people, some carrying hoes, axes and other farm tools, marching down a dusty tree-lined road to meet a line of security personnel armed with assault rifles.
Mahmouti heard them ordering the crowd to “Step back”, and moments later, a stream of gunfire. The shooting continued intermittently for hours, he added.
“Anyone who went out that day never came back,” said Yusup, a farmer who did not want to give his last name for fear of reprisals. “It was chaos, maybe as many as 1,000 people vanished.”
The villagers are Uighurs, a Turkic mostly-Muslim minority whose homeland is Xinjiang but who have more in common culturally with Central Asia than the rest of Han-dominated China. Uighurs make up 46 percent of Xinjiang’s population, according to 2010 census figures, down from 75 percent in 1953.
Areas of the resource-rich region have at times been part of different states, including Russia, at others independent, but it has largely been ruled by Beijing since the late 1800s.
It saw several 20th-century rebellions and in recent years occasional violence has become more frequent, sometimes spreading beyond the province.
A fatal 2013 car crash in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square struck at the heart of the Chinese state, and a mass stabbing that killed 31 people at Kunming railway station last year was dubbed “China’s 9/11” by state media. Another 39 civilians died in a bomb attack on a primarily Han market in Urumqi.
Beijing says Xinjiang and related attacks are carried out by separatist Islamist terrorists with overseas connections, but rights organisations blame cultural and religious repression.
Symbolically, the Urumqi station attack came as President Xi Jinping visited the city. The ensuing crackdown has seen dozens of executions and death sentences officially announced and hundreds of arrests, followed by speedy mass trials.
– ‘Shoot first, ask questions later’ –
Elishku, in Yarkand county or Shache in Chinese, has the atmosphere of a sleepy farming community â€“- albeit with a massive security presence.
State media initially said that “dozens” had died, settling a week later on a toll of 96 — 37 civilians and 59 “terrorists”, with no security personnel among those killed.
“A gang armed with knives and axes attacked a police station and government offices,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.
State television images showed burnt-out cars and buses with soldiers and police at the scene.
But residents have a different story. They told AFP that tensions flared among a vocal group of locals who were upset the authorities had obstructed prayers during Ramadan, and branded some gatherings “illegal religious activity”.
A crackdown on women preparing for the Eid al-Fitr feast sparked the march, residents said, although it was unclear whether the protestors intended to attack security forces.
Demonstrators urged Mahmouti to join them, he said, but he refused.
Whether those who opened fire were soldiers or from the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, who have a similar uniform, is not clear.
Afterwards, all the villagers were placed under house arrest for 20 days, locals said, with homes searched one by one, and they are still subject to restrictions on their movements.
Residents were ordered to a nearby military barracks and told the official version: that militants from elsewhere incited rioters to attack police.
But, counters Yusup the farmer, “everyone involved in the clash were people from Elishku, not outsiders.”
About two months later, 12 people were condemned to die over the incident and 15 more given death with a two-year reprieve, normally commuted to life imprisonment. Another 29 were sentenced to jail terms ranging from four years to life, Xinhua said.
That does not account for the hundreds of residents locals say participated and have since disappeared.
An official at the Yarkand propaganda department refused to answer questions when contacted by AFP.
Exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer alleged in August that at least 2,000 people had been killed, and soon afterwards official media said a Uighur in Xinjiang had been detained for spreading rumours of a massacre.
In 2014 more than 200 people died in Xinjiang-linked violence, according to official Chinese media reports. But the conflicting accounts illustrate the difficulty of independent verification in Xinjiang.
“If a crowd gathers in Beijing or Shanghai, the police would be careful about handling it and possibly allow some steam blowing,” said James Leibold, an expert in ethnic relations at La Trobe University in Australia.
“But in Xinjiang the first response, particularly now post anti-terror campaign, is shoot first, ask questions later.”
– Freedom of religion –
Police guard the site of the July clash, residents say, and officers blocked AFP from reaching it.
The Chinese government linked Elishku to “the terrorist organisation East Turkestan Islamic Movement”.
Authorities often blame Xinjiang-related attacks on international Islamist elements, and state-run media have alleged 300 Chinese citizens are fighting for the Islamic State jihadist group in the Middle East.
Beijing has yet to present detailed evidence of a direct connection — although IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has threatened to target Xinjiang, saying that Muslims’ rights have been violated in China.
“Without a doubt the Chinese government overplays the influence of transnational terrorist organisations to fit a simple narrative,” said Professor Leibold. “This intentionally hides the local factors which often revolve around the penetration of the Party-State into people’s lives and very discriminatory policies.”
Authorities are trying to win Uighur hearts and minds with economic development, but restrictions on religion persist.
Three weeks before the violence in Elishku, a United States government commission condemned prohibitions on fasting and daily prayers as “disrespect for internationally recognised human rights, including the right of freedom of religion or belief”.
“You can create jobs… you can build factories, but a lot of Uighurs are more interested in religion than work,” said Tom Miller, senior Asia analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics.
“There are different priorities in different places, and China struggles because it looks at its own experience and thinks ‘Economic development has been good for China, so that’s what everyone else has to have too.'”