Security fails to dampen Kashgar festivities

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 November, 2009, 12:00am

Tens of thousands of Muslims lined the plaza in front of the Idkah Mosque at sunrise yesterday, as they have done every year on this most important day of the year, Eid ul- Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice.

The only difference this year was that surrounding the square, and every other mosque in the city of Kashgar, were armed police. At least a hundred policemen could be seen in the vicinity of the Idkah Mosque, in the alleys, on the outskirts of the square and on top of buildings overlooking the square, with binoculars and cameras.

'They say this is for our safety,' said Sidike, 24, who works at a nearby hotel. 'But we never had any problems when we celebrated the festival in the past.'

Sidike said their hotel used to be packed with foreign tourists, mostly photographers who wanted to make use of the hotel's vantage point for the festival. However, this year there were only a few foreign faces.

Instead military trucks with huge read banners reading 'Safeguard ethnic solidarity' and 'Separatism brings misfortune while stability generates happiness' were seen on the streets.

'I don't want to guess too much. Perhaps [the heavy police presence] is because of the 'incident'. It was like this during Ramadan too.'

The 'incident' he was referring to was the clashes between Uygurs and Hans in Urumqi on July 5, when nearly 200 people were killed, mostly Han Chinese.

The Uygurs in Kashgar, the traditional stronghold of the ethnic group in southern Xinjiang, have all heard about it, but are reluctant to talk about it. If they are heard discussing the 'incident' they could be taken to a police station for 'education'.

Businesses suffer too because of the lack of tourists. Mamat, 17, who runs a photo stand outside the Idkah Mosque, said he used to earn 3,000 yuan (HK$3,400) a month before the 'incident' but now earns only 1,000 yuan a month.

'Maybe because of the festival I've had 30 customers today [Saturday],' Mamat said. 'This is much better than yesterday: I only had five.'

But like Mamat, most Uygurs appear unfazed by the intense security and slow business, and the city was wrapped in a mood of festivity.

Eid ul-Adha is a time for reunion for Uygur families. Those working away from home try to return, bringing gifts. Everyone wears new clothes; children are given five yuan or 10 yuan in pocket money. It is three days of visits to each other's homes, feasting, and lots of song and dance.

Nuoerbeixi is one of the main alleys leading to the Idkah Mosque, the oldest mosque in Xinjiang. Along the alley are restaurants and shops selling all sorts of daily goods and souvenirs. The day before the festival it was packed with sheep. Vendors haggled with buyers eager to get a good fat sheep home for the sacrifice.

Guli, a high school teacher, and her mother and sister got up two hours before sunrise and started preparing for the day, making noodles, decorating their simple home, and filling the table with candies, nuts, fruits and naan bread, all served neatly in their best glass bowls and dishes.

Even though the first prayer did not begin until sunrise, their father, Abdullah, left for the mosque. If he left too late he would not be able to find a place in the mosque and would have to pray outside.

Guli is the eldest of three girls. Nuerye, a university student, is the smartest of the three. The youngest, Kamile, 17, is also a student. Their names were changed to protect their identities.

The three sisters are very close and the night before, when they spoke on the phone, Nuerye was crying. She could not return for the festival because of school. She missed her sisters, did not like the food in the school dormitory and found it difficult to make friends with Han classmates.

'It's not easy for our father to educate three girls,' Guli said. 'We have been worried about Nuerye since the 'incident', but we must send her to university.'

Abdullah, who owns a small restaurant, only completed third grade at primary school. His wife, too, had a limited education. The couple believe in the need to study Putonghua and get a university education.

Guli, who makes 1,200 yuan a month, wishes she could earn more so she could buy a car to travel between her home in Kashgar and the county where she works. However, she knows she is lucky to have a job.

'I only wish this year our whole family will be safe and sound,' Abdullah said. 'A very simple wish.'