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At a Nike factory, Uighur workers worry

The Uighurs plan their return to Xinjiang but worry about their friends held in Shaoguan.

HUIZHOU, China — Blind luck sent hundreds of Muslim Uighurs to a factory here last year to make Nike shoes, instead of five hours north, where their friends and neighbors from the same rural patch of China’s far northwest went to make toys.

Though they aren’t there, the Shaoguan toy factory is heavy on the minds of Uighurs here, as they wait for news of loved ones and friends who have had little contact with the outside since the June 26 toy factory brawl and murder of Uighurs in their factory dorms — the incident that helped ignite mass protests and 184 deaths in Xinjiang province July 5.

In Huizhou, 24-year-old Kubah agonizes over the fate of his girlfriend, who is locked away 200 miles from him in a heavily guarded old factory outside Shaoguan, inside a compound where at least 700 Uighur workers were sent after the deadly fight. He and his girlfriend originally came to Huizhou together to work in the Nike factory, but she was transferred to Shaoguan a few months ago.

When his contract ends this month, Kubah will return to Xinjiang, reluctantly leaving behind the woman he wants to marry. She is not allowed to leave the compound near Shaoguan and is rarely allowed to call.

“I only came here because of my girlfriend. I can’t stay here now,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen.”

When they arrived by the hundreds in Guangdong province last year, many young Uighurs were full of hope and promise, thrilled to see a side of China so geographically and culturally far from their home in the distant northwest. Many others, like Kubah, never wanted to be here but tried to make the best of things.

The toy factory murders changed everything for Kubah and his girlfriend. In the days following, his girlfriend was rounded up and moved. He has only spoken to her twice since then and he does not know when he will see her again.

When their local government in Xinjiang province sent workers to southern Chinese factories over a year ago, more than 2,000 Uighurs from the same part of Kashgar went to Guangdong province. About 1,000 ended up at the Nike shoe factory in Huizhou, while about 800 more were dispatched to Shaoguan’s toy factory — both are massive compounds that employ thousands of mostly Han Chinese migrant workers.

In both spots, Han and Uighurs worked side-by-side, muddling through language barriers, cultural misunderstandings and sometimes having fun. In Shaoguan, something went horribly wrong, ending in a two-hour-long brawl that officials say killed two Uighurs and injured scores. Han workers accused Uighur men of rape; police dismissed the claims but said the fight broke out after Uighurs harassed a Han woman in the dorms.