Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 12:40 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 12:40 | SYDNEY

Urumqi: A photo essay

24 July 2009 06:47

Alistair Thornton is a Beijing-based economic analyst.

Two weeks on from the violence that left more than 190 dead, the far-west Chinese province of Xinjiang remains under tight security. In Urumqi, the provincial capital and scene of the greatest unrest, army patrols regularly march the streets carrying riot shields and batons.

On almost every street corner there are outposts of guards, armed with automatic weapons and long wooden batons, sheltering under open-sided tents from the sweltering 40-degree heat.

Army trucks constantly stream through the streets, loaded with troops and equipment, maintaining a highly visible presence. The banner on the back truck reads: 'Splittist unrest is a calamity'.

In downtown Urumqi, riot police and army surround the cordoned-off People’s Square, the scene of the initial protests. The square is being used as a temporary base, with army trucks parked next to the central monument and hundreds of off-duty troops resting under the trees, with helmets, shields and batons neatly lined up to their sides. Banners, such as the one in the foreground (which reads 'Keep calm'), are plastered throughout the city, telling citizens, in both Mandarin and the Uyghur Turkic language, to work together to strengthen ethnic unity.

Also out in force are the 'public announcement' cars. These cars slowly tour the city, blasting pre-recorded messages of ethnic harmony from rooftop loudspeakers. The two below were parked on the main street in the Uyghur district, their drivers chatting away under the blare of the sound system.

While strolling down the main street, at least 100 troops marched past and into the courtyard of Urumqi’s main mosque, which is being used as a temporary base for troops, trucks and equipment. Once inside the mosque compound, the troops proceeded to engage in riot-dispersal training; whereby one soldier would pretend to be a rioter, and a group of five soldiers would charge towards him, shouting and waving their batons, enclose him with their shields, bringing him to the ground. Standing about 20 metres away from this scene, I was a little too nervous to openly display my camera, hence the blurry shot.

But despite heightened security presence and the horror of events only two weeks ago, life is slowly returning to the streets. The roads are now traffic-jammed, and people seem to be going about their daily lives, unfazed by armed guards and police patrols. The Uyghur bazaar, though calm by usual standards, is awash with activity, with hawkers gleefully flogging everything from watermelons to kufi prayer hats.