It was meant to be like any other Sunday. Fifteen-year-old Zou Haoyi, his parents, two grandparents and his four-year-old sister had dinner at their uncle's house. As usual, after the meal, the adults relaxed in a nearby park while Haoyi and his cousins kept the toddler busy on swings and slides. At 9pm the family started driving back to their home on Zhongwan Road, in the southern part of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. When they arrived in the Uygur neighbourhood, they realised something was wrong. The entrance to their road was blocked by bags of concrete and dozens of Uygurs with unfamiliar faces were waving sticks. They turned their car around but it was too late. All six of them were pulled from the vehicle and brutally beaten with sticks, bricks, stones and electric wire. The last thing Haoyi remembers before he lost consciousness was his well-built father wrapping himself tightly around the boy's sister as the crowd searched him for his wallet and mobile phone. At the same time, in a run-down bungalow near Xinhua Road, in the centre of the city, 52-year-old single mother Pashayam was waiting anxiously for her 17-year-old son, Nuersilamu, to return. He had sat an exam that afternoon and should have returned home by dinner time, even if he had decided to squeeze in a basketball game with his friends. But he didn't return; not that night nor the night after. When he did finally come home, two days later, he reluctantly gave a disjointed account of what had taken place. From what Pashayam could gather, her son had seen a band of emotional Uygur students marching past his school gate. Swept along in a wave of exhilaration and peer pressure he joined them. It was only when police came to take the teenager away, on July 27, that she realised his involvement may have been more significant. CCTV footage had captured Nuersilamu beating people with a stick. When Haoyi awoke in hospital, 28 days had come and gone. There was a scar on the back of his head, part of his skull had been replaced with a titanium patch and there was a hole in his throat that allowed him to breathe. He and his sister were the only ones pulled from his father's car who survived the attack, but this was withheld from him for two months. After he was told, his nurse said, he cried silently for three days and did not sleep for three nights. Pashayam still can't comprehend why her son joined the riots. Nuersilamu grew up among Han friends and is one of the few Uygur youths in the predominantly Uygur neighbourhood who made it to his bilingual senior high school. For now she has no way of getting answers from her son - she has not been allowed to see him since his arrest - and as some 'July 5 rioters' have been executed already, she fears the worst. Many more lives have been devastated by what happened in Urumqi on July 5 last year, during an ethnic clash that Beijing has described as the deadliest in the region's history. According to reports, at least 197 people were killed and 1,700 injured, mostly Han Chinese. Twenty-two death sentences have been imposed so far on people accused of rioting. The levels of hatred, resentment and fear in the city were further raised by a Han retaliation march on July 7 and reports of a wave of syringe attacks that targeted Han at the end of August. For months, the streets of Urumqi were empty once night fell and it was only after National Day, in October - celebrations for which took place amid intense security - that they began filling up again. Today, the city appears to be calm and orderly but the emotional wounds are deep. Many Han taxi drivers say they are unwilling to take Uygur passengers despite the government's warning of a 1,000 yuan (HK$1,130) fine for refusing to do so. Many Han have stopped visiting Uygur restaurants, naan shops and markets altogether, and the few who do risk being derided as 'traitors' by other Han. Few observers are willing to predict ethnic riots will not happen again. 'This is a self-initiated economic boycott. The Han have become much more united after July 5,' says a Han internet cafe owner, born and bred in Xinjiang, who asks not to be identified for fear of retaliation. He tells any Uygur wanting to use his computers that the server is down. 'If they can ruthlessly kill our women and children, we have to protect ourselves.' Business has been further disrupted by what happened in the aftermath of the riots: Xinjiang was put into isolation. Internet access was limited to a local intranet, over which users could visit only local news sites and play games. Text messages were not permitted, nor were international calls. The government claimed these measures were necessary because the rioting was incited by separatist forces overseas, a claim that has yet to be substantiated. Wider internet access and international-calling privileges were reintroduced late last month but, by then, many businessmen had been forced to the brink of bankruptcy. The riots also induced people to move. Some Han have moved to cities further inland and others have left Uygur neighbourhoods in Urumqi, resulting in a 1,000 yuan per-square-metre gap between property prices on the south (mostly Uygur) and north (mainly Han) sides of town. Traffic has become heavier as many Han have bought cars to avoid using public transport, regarded as unsafe in the wake of the syringe attacks. The Han shopping malls of Xiaoximen are almost back to their old bustling selves but Uygur souvenir shops in the Erdaoqiao bazaar have reported a 60 per cent drop in business. 'The guides are no longer bringing Han tourists here,' says a stall owner. The People's Theatre in the Uygur district, a popular cinema before the riots, has been offering half-price tickets since it reopened in November. There have been some hopeful signs. Yikelamu, a 24-year-old Uygur who lives with his mother in a Han district, says for three days in July he bought groceries for his Han neighbours when they were too scared to venture out. They returned the favour when other Han took to beating random Uygurs whenever someone shouted 'syringe attack'. But most Urumqi residents confirm there is a growing distance between the two ethnic groups. And the government is not helping much, in part because it is trying to be diplomatic. Some Han, who see themselves as the victims, were upset when the state leaders who inspected Xinjiang after the riots visited underprivileged Uygur families first. They were further incensed when officials gave money, oil and rice to Uygur families during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan but gave nothing to the Han during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Since the riots, the local government has mobilised street committees to visit every Urumqi family, Han and Uygur, to 'educate' them about the importance of ethnic harmony. 'All the criminals have been punished according to law; everyone who is left on the streets is innocent and good,' has been the official line. The government - which announced last week that funding for public security in Xinjiang will double this year, to 2.89 billion yuan - has increased controls on Uygurs trying to enter Urumqi and provided training for unemployed Uygur youths in five of Urumqi's poorest areas. In addition, more Uygur applicants have been accepted into the army and police force. Rules that will come into effect on February 1 stipulate that governments down to the village level must step up identity checks and monitor all religious activity; step up the registration of migrant workers; and help set up a region-wide information-sharing network. The promotion of government leaders will be subject to their efforts to stamp out terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Many consider this to be too little, too late. Han residents are asking why, if the riots were premeditated, as the government claims, were they not pre-empted. They are also suspicious of the government's initial cover-up of the syringe attacks. In a rare outburst of defiance, Han protestors shouted 'step down Wang Lequan' and threw bottles at the Xinjiang party secretary during a protest march on September 3. In the end, only Urumqi's party chief, Li Zhi, was sacked, bearing all political responsibility for the riots. Uygur residents think that if the government had paid attention to the student protest that triggered the unrest, the riots would not have happen- ed. Uygur university students claimed that a brawl between Uygur and Han workers in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, in June - which led to the death of two Uygurs - had been swept under the carpet. Photographs and horror stories circulated on the internet and students began small-scale protests on July 3. 'The officials should have met with the students,' says successful Uygur restaurant owner Abdul Kadeer, 51, who is a dedicated Communist Party supporter. His restaurant windows were smashed on July 7 but the government quickly paid for the repairs. 'Better still, had a high-ranking Xinjiang official gone to Guangdong to bring the bodies of the dead back to Kashgar for cremation, it would [have done much] for the Uygurs psychologically; they already felt they were being discriminated against.' And being discriminated against in their own land. XINJIANG - WHICH the Chinese have claimed since the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220) - accounts for one-sixth of China's territory. The population is dominated by Islamic, Turkic-speaking ethnic groups such as Uygurs, Kazaks and Tajiks. Under the China Western Development Policy programme, Xinjiang has received generous funding from the central government in the past decade and has seen its gross domestic product jump from 220 billion yuan in 2004 to 415 billion yuan last year. Many Uygurs feel that not enough of the money goes into their pockets, however - especially with Han immigrants, who came 'to develop Xinjiang', rising from 6 per cent of the population in 1949 to 40 per cent in 2006. Fear of terrorism has provided an excuse for hardline government policies in recent years, which translates into even less freedom of religion and expression. Beards and headscarves are not allowed in Xinjiang schools or the civil service and praying during work hours is a sackable off- ence. All imams must be government-approved and sermons on solidarity have taken precedence over Allah's words. Since 2005, no individual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj has been allowed and this year, any Muslim in Xinjiang who wants to join the government-arranged tour must pay 70,000 yuan up front - a 40,000 yuan deposit has been added, making it financially prohibitive for most. Despite the fact the likes of Nuersilamu were involved, the majority of Han and Uygur residents in Urumqi seem to believe the riots were carried out by 'uneducated and unemployed Uygur youths from outside Urumqi'. 'They are hot-headed youths with no knowledge of the law and no money,' says Han welder Li Hongli, who lost family member in the riots but says he does not resent the average Uygur. 'If you pay them 100 yuan and give them a cause of agitation, they will do anything.' A Uygur stall owner asks: 'If they have a job and a decent living, why would they riot and risk being caught and executed?' Discrimination, unemployment and poverty all feed each other for the Uygurs - a cycle exacerbated by unsatisfactory policy implementation, corruption and a language barrier. 'Many Uygur youths receive little education. Most rural Uygur families are still poor and cannot afford school fees, or need the children for labour,' says Kadeer. 'Even the government has a fixed quota for hiring Uygurs and many private businesses feel justified in not hiring Uygurs because they do not speak good Putonghua.' Twenty-four years after the introduction of a law outlining bilingual education in Xinjiang, only a quarter of minority students attend bilingual schools; the rest are taught in minority languages, with Putonghua one of many subjects. The country's basic nine years of free education has not been fully implemented across the vast region, either - the government's aim is to raise coverage to more than 95 per cent next year. A visit to Nanhu Employment Centre in Urumqi - where most of the jobs advertised pay no more than 1,000 yuan per month - confirms that it is harder for Uygur youths to find jobs than it is for their Han counterparts. 'There is no ethnic discrimination,' a staff member is quick to make clear. 'But many Uygurs do not want to work for Han companies because they are not used to their culture - after all, no Han colleagues could have Islamic meals with them every day.' Stereotypes are extremely hard to break down; Han Chinese are thought of as being industrious and many of them are convinced Uygers are lazy, uncivilised and only good for doing petty trade. A Uygur medical student in Urumqi claims 80 per cent of employers at a recruitment fair last April said they would not hire ethnic-minority students. 'We have worked hard to go to university, too. Why are we treated differently?' he asks. Rexit, 40, who moved to Urumqi last May from Sache county, in southern Xinjiang, says it is impossible to support a family on less than 2,000 yuan a month in the city. His family of five lives in a run-down bungalow measuring 15 square metres and he earns about 50 yuan on a good day selling glassware in a Uygur market. His second son, who dropped out of senior high school to help him at the market, was given a job by their street committee after the riots, but only for a month. Rexit's eldest son, having already started university, has decided to join the army and will move to Lanzhou, Gansu province, this month. 'He would not be able to find a job after university anyway. It's better to join the army, that way he will earn 90,000 yuan over three years and be assigned a job after the draft,' the father says. Kuerbanjiang, 47, a father of three who lives in Kashgar, in western Xinjiang, says a year of university costs 10,000 yuan while a taxi licence is a mere 5,000 yuan. However, he is still intending to send his 18-year-old daughter to university despite making only 1,200 yuan a month as a carpenter. His two eldest children have already missed their chance. 'It's still better to have more knowledge. I suffered because I couldn't read,' he says. When he was a child, during the Mao Zedong era, Kuerbanjiang learned Uygur in its pinyin for- mat but the government changed Uygur script back to the Arabic form. He then spent years learning the Arabic only to once again find himself behind the times - Han characters are now the linguistic currency of the region. 'I can't collect my own money from the post office because I need to sign in Han. Even medicine boxes are only in Han characters,' he says. 'I can't take a train within Xinjiang without knowing the Han name of my destination. 'If one feels like a foreigner within one's own country, how can one's life not be difficult?' Preservationists are worried that the government's push for Han education in Xinjiang will wipe out the Uygur language. Kuerbanjiang shares the concern but he is more worried that the Han characters his children are learning now will become obsolete, too. 'If that happens again, our plight will just be extended generation after generation.' Several households in Wupaer, in rural Kashgar - home to the Uygurs involved in the Shaoguan brawl - say they have not received any dibao - social welfare - payments in recent years. And they have had restrictions imposed upon them. 'We want to grow melons and cotton, which can [earn us] 200,000 yuan a year,' says farmer Kadeer, 62, head of a 15-member household. 'But now we have to grow wheat, which only sells for 8,000 yuan.' Including income from the odd bit of decorating work picked up by four of the children, the average income per person per day in Kadeer's household is about four yuan - any financial emergency will drain the family's savings. Li, the welder, moved from Hunan province to Xinjiang five years ago, following his uncle, Zhang Mingying, who came here to establish a grocery store. Zhang's family of five were killed and burned in the riots - Li saw his uncle being cut open, his guts spilling out. But Li says he is not going to leave Xinjiang. 'All these Uygur youths need is better education,' says Li. 'The government should make sure every Uygur child is not made to work before they finish school. However, I think we Han people who make Xinjiang our home should learn Uygur. Being able to communicate with each other means the two ethnic groups can become closer friends.' This is especially important for government officials, says Li. According to autonomous-region policies, ethnic-minority officials can only ever rise to second-in-command at any level of government. Not only does this further reinforce the discrimination felt by Uygurs, it also means most of the top decision-makers do not speak Uygur and cannot communicate with many of their subordinates, or the people. ZOU HAOYI TURNED 16 in early November. A nurse in the hospital in which he remains has become his 'godmother'. There has been a complication with the opening in his throat. While he waits for further surgery, he's playing computer games, watching kung fu movies and studying physics (his weakest school subject), to get ready for life outside hospital. He says he feels a chill when he hears a car alarm go off, which reminds him of the night he lost his parents and grandparents. But, on the whole, he appears sanguine. '[The attack] has already happened and we cannot go back to the past. I now only wish that everyone will be safe and happy,' he says. 'Life is short, we should treasure every day.' Pashayam's days seem like years as the uncertainty over her son's fate continues to torment her. She has repeatedly requested a meeting with her son, at the Xishan Police Station, but has not been successful. She can't afford a lawyer and all she can do is leave warm clothes and money for her son at the police station's visitor's office. There are always other Uygur parents there when she visits. 'There isn't much he can buy inside the station apart from a blanket but at least he knows I have been visiting him,' says Pashayam. 'If he can't wear all the jumpers, then he can give them to the other boys. 'There are so many of them inside there.'