HANERIK, China -- The blood has long since been hosed away, but weeks after Chinese security forces opened fire on a crowd of Muslim protesters, killing what local residents said 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 four miles to the south.
"We're all too afraid to talk about it," said one elderly man near Hanerik's outdoor market 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.
But 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 said 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," Dilxat Rexit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, 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, this 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, 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 United States 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 hard-line 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.
But 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.
Perhaps most incendiary are campaigns against women who wear head scarves and young men with beards. The crackdown, which the local authorities describe as a battle against religious extremism, is an expression of Beijing's fears that the militant Islamism that has destabilized Pakistan and Afghanistan could complicate its efforts to turn Xinjiang into a regional trading hub.
This summer, a dozen or more instances of bloodshed claimed scores of lives, mostly in the fertile crescent of southern Xinjiang, the Uighur heartland. Last Tuesday, more than two dozen people were shot dead in what the authorities called "an antiterror" operation in Kashgar Prefecture; earlier this month, at least three others were shot dead and 20 wounded outside a police station in Aksu Prefecture after officers opened fire on demonstrators demanding the release of those arrested for "illegal religious activities," according to The Global Times, an English publication of People's Daily, in an article later removed from the Internet.
Farther north, in Turpan Prefecture, exile groups say at least 46 people were killed on June 26 during a clash between the police and demonstrators. A week before the Hotan shootings, seven Han laborers working on a dam project outside the city were hacked to death, officials say.
Much of the violence goes unreported in the Chinese news media, but the cases that are publicized are invariably described as "terror attacks" carried out by "separatists," some of whom, the government says, have been trained abroad. Analysts have cast doubt on such assertions, noting that the suspects are often armed with rudimentary weapons like knives.
The central government has become increasingly alarmed by its inability to stanch the unrest. In the days after the violence in Hotan, President Xi Jinping held a special meeting in Beijing and senior leaders were dispatched to calm jittery Xinjiang residents. "We will step up actions to crack down upon terrorist groups and extremist organizations and track the wanted," said Yu Zhengsheng, the Chinese leader in charge of ethnic and religious affairs, Xinhua reported.
But residents say the Hanerik shooting victims were unarmed civilians simply seeking an end to heavy-handed policing. The seeds of the confrontation were planted in mid-June, when the authorities detained Mettursun Metseydi, the young imam of an unauthorized mosque on the rural edge of Hanerik. Mr. Metseydi had been drawing increasing crowds with sermons that condemned the government's religious restrictions, most pointedly on head coverings.
The rules imposed fines on Hotan taxi drivers who picked up veiled women and prohibited doctors from treating women who refused to remove head scarves, a number of residents said. "The imam said that forcing women to remove their veils during police checks was a humiliation," said a teacher whose cousin attended the mosque.
According to several accounts, including local Uighur officials who spoke to Radio Free Asia, the authorities sealed the mosque on June 21, but congregants forced their way in the following Friday. Around 1:30 p.m., after worshiping on their own, the men spilled into the street brimming with anger. Before long, about 400 people had gathered, and it was decided that they would march to Hotan.
Shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God Is Great," they brushed past a dozen police officers who tried to block them. But after entering the highway to Hotan, they were confronted by a line of paramilitary police atop a pedestrian bridge. According to one account, some marchers carried farm implements; others said some waved lengths of wood.
Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, said the marchers hesitated, then surged forward. "It seems then the soldiers got nervous and opened fire," he said.
What happened next is unclear, but several sources, including local officials, said the police continued to shoot, picking off those who tried to flee, including a number of people on motorcycles.
Abdulhekim Weliyop, chairman of Hotan County's People's Congress, confirmed some details with Radio Free Asia. "Yes, a terrible tragedy happened," he said. The following day, he said Uighur officials were made to watch video footage of the marchers and asked to identify them.
Yusup Imin Tohti, the Communist Party secretary of a neighboring village, said he had heard that 37 people had died. The South China Morning Post, citing two local sources, put the toll as high as 60. Local officials said at least 200 people were arrested.
Hotan security officials declined to discuss the episode, and an office in Urumqi that handles inquiries from foreign reporters refused to answer faxed questions.
A day after the episode, a 29-year-old Uighur doctor who works at a hospital outside Hotan said that county officials warned the staff against treating patients with gunshot wounds. "We were told we would be arrested," he said. The bodies of those killed were taken to the desert and burned, he said.
Mr. Weliyop, the party official, blamed the young iman from Hanerik for the bloody confrontation. "He constantly talked about a holy war, and his preaching violated the government's line," he said. "Young people were incited by his teaching, and they lost their lives."
But few residents in Hotan see it that way, noting that the protesters were unarmed. "The Chinese killed our brothers in the street like they were dogs," said a young taxi driver named Yusuf. "We will have our revenge."
Shi Da contributed research.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.