The blood has long since been hosed away, but more than a month after Chinese security forces opened fire on a crowd of Muslim protesters, killing what local residents say were scores of young men, there is a palpable fear on the streets of this dusty farming township in Xinjiang, the restive borderland region in China’s far west.
Those not detained in the police sweep that followed the violence say they have been threatened with labor camp if they speak about what happened on the afternoon of June 28, when hundreds of villagers, angered by the detention of a young imam, tried to march to the prefectural capital 6.4km to the south.
“We’re all too afraid to talk about it,” one elderly man near Hanerik’s outdoor market said just after sunrise one recent morning.
Another man drew a finger across his throat and apologized for his silence before speeding away on a scooter.
However, in interviews with rights advocates, exile groups and residents in Hotan, the prefectural capital, a fuller picture has emerged of what many here have described as one of the most serious outbreaks of violence since ethnic rioting four years ago claimed nearly 200 lives in Urumqi, the regional capital.
Although the state media claimed that no one died during the confrontation between villagers and armed police officers, numerous sources say that dozens were shot dead on the highway that connects Hanerik to Hotan, which the Chinese call Hetian. Exile groups say the death toll may exceed 100.
“One thing is certain — the truth bears little resemblance to what the government says happened that day,” World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Rexit said from Sweden. “The Chinese are trying their best to impose a cover-up.”
For weeks after, cellphone service in and around Hotan was cut, and much of the city was subjected to a curfew. Most residents still have no Internet access. The authorities have also disabled WeChat, a popular messaging app.
An ancient Silk Road oasis and bustling jade-trading hub, the city of 360,000 has been flooded with soldiers and paramilitary police; during Friday afternoon prayers, helicopters hover noisily overhead as soldiers with machine guns and German shepherds stand sentinel at Unity Square. It is here, in the shadow of a towering statue of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), that Uighur assailants fatally stabbed three Chinese pedestrians on the same day as the police shootings in Hanerik, according to Radio Free Asia, a news service financed by the US government that employs Uighur reporters.
“People here are just boiling over with anger,” said a Uighur professor who, like all those interviewed in the area, requested anonymity for fear of arrest.
The situation highlights the growing challenge to Beijing’s administration of resource-rich Xinjiang, which borders several Central Asian nations, as well as Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Experts say hardline policies aimed at maintaining stability are only deepening longstanding grievances among Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people increasingly alarmed by the migration of Han Chinese lured by jobs and economic incentives.
However, tighter religious restrictions have incited much of the violence since 2009, analysts say. Civil servants may not fast during the holy month of Ramadan; college students must attend weekly political education classes; and armed police officers frequently raid unauthorized religious schools.