Caught by the mob in Xinjiang

Wong Ka-yu - NOW TV Reporter (Translated by Suki M.L. Chung)

On 7 July when we were about to have lunch, a phone call came through from the News Editor saying: “Foreign press reported that hundreds of Han Chinese carrying sticks are marching through the streets”. We rushed off straight away.

It took us only two minutes to collect our light filming gear and out of the hotel. It was such a rush we did not think about what would happen next.

Once outside the hotel we saw dozens of middle-aged Han Chinese, armed with wooden sticks, on the streets. We followed the crowd, turning corner after corner in the city. People were gathering en masse. The Han Chinese were marching towards the Uyghur community areas, aggressively. Among the crowd, there were angry men, old women and teenagers, all armed with wooden sticks, shovels, metal rods, big knives and other weapons.

At this juncture, I was thinking that today's top news was about to emerge and thus feeling excited and nervous. Cameraman Wu Siuwing and I ran from street to street, conducting interviews along the way. The people on the street blasted at the government. “The government cannot protect us! We have to defend ourselves! We have to fight back! They (the Uyghurs) killed many of our people!”

Tension was escalating. The armed police at the front tried to control and pacify the crowds but both sides clashed with each other. Compared to the massive outburst of anger, the police presence was rather weak. The people pushed forward and broke through the police cordon again and again.

The shops run by Uyghurs were all locked up, blocking out all light and sound. The street vendors had run away, leaving their goods scattered all over the streets.

Now and again I looked up, suggesting to Wu to keep an eye out for the Uyghurs in the nearby buildings. I assumed that the Uyghurs would pop their heads up to look out of the windows, but they did not. All the windows were locked up. It was in stark contrast to the Han people's outpouring of rage.

The police officers drove us away, hitting our camera with their hands. So we tried to look a sheltered position to continue filming. We retreated into an alley. We felt that the threat of danger was looming.

The place ahead was the entrance to the Uyghur community. It had been heavily guarded by the armed police to prevent any direct clash between the Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Behind the police were the houses of Uyghurs. Some Uyghurs were standing on rooftops, watching and throwing stones. The situation was tense and chaotic. Cries of “Calm down! Calm down!” and “Revenge! Revenge!” rent the air.

When we were filming the shouting match between the police and Han people, shots rang out. We were surprised. “Was that a gunshot?”

A few seconds later, the irritating smoke wafted up to us. Tear gas!

I remembered that in December 2006 when the World Trade Organization Conference was held in Hong Kong, the police also fired tear gas at the Korean peasant protesters. That was the first time I experienced tear gas. It was very irritating, causing burning pain and tears streaming from the eyes. I learnt to use wet tissue to cover my face. However we were caught unprepared this time. We did not have any tissue paper or water. We retreated but we were soon choking. The tear gas was not hurting eyes but it was very stinky and caused irritated our throats a lot.

Since the tear gas landed some distance from us we retreated again and continued to film from under some trees. Suddenly another loud bang was heard. We looked back and saw that a number of Han people armed with metal rods were bashing at the door of a Uyghur shop. The emotion of the mob erupted.

Wu turned his camera towards the scene. But suddenly, a dozen of Han Chinese armed with metal rods and wooden sticks surrounded us and yelling: “Why are you only filming us? Why don't you go to film how the Uyghurs killed our fellows?” At the same time, many hands reached out and tried to grab the camera. They shouted: “Take out your tape! Take it out!” They were scared that might become the target of retaliation later.



At this critical moment, we were totally surprised. From experience we have found people tend to favor journalists, usually making it easier for us to report in public areas. But this time the ethnic hatred was extremely overwhelming and no concession whatsoever seemed possible.

We tried to explain but the mob refused to listen. Wu and I held on to the camera, refused to hand over the tape, and tried to protect it from any attack. But this caused them to react even stronger. Those Han people held metal rods to Wu's neck forcibly and both of us were grabbed by the shoulders from behind. We were struggled and yelled for help but we were surrounded by more and more people. I realized that if we resisted handing over the tape, Wu would definitely be beaten. Wu and I threw a glance at each other, hinting that we should give up.

This scene was very striking to us: a Han Chinese threw the tape on the ground stamped on it. We were in despair at that moment.

After that, we were jostled and shoved by the angry men, and finally we were driven out from the crowd. I immediately phoned my newsroom and reported our situation. While talking, I was still grasping for breath and coughing from the tear gas. The sound of tear gas shots could still be heard. It must have been the worst telephone report that I have ever made, but I am sure it was the most dramatic live report.

Some reflections

In a violent incident such as this Xinjiang rioting, journalists have to run to the frontline to cover the news. Every moment we need to make decision: how far should we go to the front? Should we go further than our fellow competitors? Should we forge ahead to the scene with the cameraman? In case our boss requires us to retreat as they worry for our safety while the breaking news is still underway, should we follow the instructions? Then, who can follow up on the reporting or send back the tape? In addition, if we are in danger, should we give up the tape or run the risk of getting beaten?

Most of the time journalists simply put the personal safety out of their minds. Because in face of an important incident, we refuse to give up and withdraw from the scene. We want to be witness to history-in-the-making. More importantly, we understand that it is the responsibility of journalists to record the truth.

I want to tell the readers that no matter how little films you have seen and whether they are good or not, we should pay tribute to the cameramen as they are more vulnerable than reporters in time of danger and they labour much more than us. What we see on the TV screen is just a small part of their labour.

Afterword:

Leaving Xinjiang after six days of the news reporting, we returned to Beijing. However, the lost tape was still in my mind. Unexpectedly, a week later a Beijing correspondent for the Associated Press gave me a call and told me to collect the videotape. They told me that a Uyghur boy whom they met in Urumqi found the tape. When the boy picked up the tape from the ground, the box was already broken. I am very grateful that the AP journalist helped to recover it. Some of the images cannot be recovered, but fortunately my voice can still be recognized.

This lost-but-found happening is really dramatic. It's true that the unexpected always happens.


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