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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.

According to their friends in Huizhou, the Uighurs in Shaoguan can’t talk about what happened and were rounded up soon after the murders, nearly two weeks before Xinjiang erupted. Most were asleep when the fight broke out late at night. They ran from their dorm rooms, leaving behind clothes, cell phones and most everything else. Their friends can’t reach them by phone now.

While officials say the Uighurs encamped in Shaoguan can come and go as they please, and that 56 have returned to Kashgar, friends in Huizhou are skeptical. Shaoguan locals said Uighurs never went outside the factory gates. As is often the case in China, where the free flow of information is suppressed, rumors are rampant.

“We don’t know what happened there,” Kubah said. “My girlfriend is afraid to say too much.”

There’s been a mass exodus of Uighurs from the shoe factory in recent months, but most blame basic problems like a lack of halal food and southern China’s intense heat. It’s worth noting, however, that the factory denied charges earlier this year that some Uighur workers were underage and forced to work.

Workers say a year ago, the shoe factory had 1,200 Uighur employees. As their yearlong contracts ended, three-quarters returned to Kashgar. About 300 remain, along with a few Xinjiang-style restaurants near the factory gates. All will depart August 1 when the last round of contracts expires.

Another Uighur worker, Kadeh, 20, is saddened by recent events. Next month, he’ll leave behind his first glimpse of the larger world to return to his landlocked home.

“We took a trip to the sea when we arrived and it was beautiful. I’d never seen it before,” he said wistfully.

If he could, Kadeh would stay in Huizhou, where he learned to speak Chinese, made a few Han friends and danced with Uighurs and Han at factory parties every weekend. He misses his family, but longs for the excitement of those first months. While the two ethnic groups seem to coexist peacefully here, massive culture and religion gaps remain. Life would be impossible for a young Uighur alone.

“I would like to stay here and work, but everyone else is leaving,” Kadeh said.

Meanwhile, Kubah’s pending departure from Huizhou could not be more bittersweet. He fears for his safety and wants desperately to go home. But he frets about leaving his girlfriend behind, constantly wondering about her safety, questioning if and when she might be released.
Asked what will happen next, he replied: “God knows.”

(The Uighur men in this story are quoted using only their first names to protect their identities.)

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