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Wild West China

Violent ethnic clashes between the indigenous Uighur and Han Chinese populations rocked the north-western Chinese city of Urumqi in July 2009. At least 197 people were killed and 1,721 injured in what one Chinese official called the 'deadliest riot since New China was founded in 1949.' Both sides blamed each other for the outbreak of violence and claimed to have suffered most of the casualties.

When I arrived in the city there was still a sense of palpable tension. The streets were virtually empty apart from a massive police and military presence. Shops and homes were shuttered up, broken glass and burned-out vehicles littered the streets and an 8pm curfew was in place. The people I passed, both Han and Uighur, had their heads down and avoided eye contact. I encountered a large Han Chinese crowd who had gathered outside a hospital in the city centre. Suddenly the crowd started shouting, running and chasing a Uighur man. They caught him and beat him with sticks. As he sprinted off again with a large mob in pursuit, I followed and photographed as the police intervened with their weapons drawn and prevented the Han mob from killing him as had reportedly happened in the days before. The mob then turned on the police for arresting one of the Han attackers, forcing the police to fire their guns into the air to try to disperse the crowd. The crowd then turned its attention on me and another foreign reporter. Thankfully, the riot police dragged us through their lines to safety before things got out of hand.The following day I visited one of the hospitals where I saw firsthand the results of the violence inflicted on both sides. A young Han Chinese woman, Dong Yuanyuan, 24, should have been on her honeymoon. She and her husband were dragged from a bus shortly after their wedding. She was beaten unconscious and left for dead. Her husband is still missing, presumed dead. Aliya, 5, a young Uighur girl, was beaten on the head when she and her pregnant mother were attacked.

Things seem to have reached a state of calm now in Urumqi, mainly due to the thousands of troops on the streets. The question is: how long will the quiet status quo last once the media and military leave the Han and Uighur communities to their own devices?
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