Some time on Monday, in a small town near China’s northwest frontier, dozens of people were injured or lost their lives. Two days later, we do not know who died, how they were killed or what sparked the violence. And with the area effectively sealed off by Chinese security forces, and the Internet up and down across the area, it is possible we never really will.
Two vastly different accounts have emerged about the incident, which occurred on the first day of the ‘Id al-Fitr festival, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Chinese state media reported that dozens of civilians were killed or injured in a premeditated terrorist attack in Shache county (or Yarkand in the Uighur language). The news, which was not released until more than 24 hours after the incident, was cast as evidence of organized terrorism by ethnic Uighur extremists. Their account suggests that knife-wielding mobs went on a rampage after officials discovered some explosives and foiled a terrorist plot that may or may not have been timed to coincide with a commodity fair.
An account by the nonprofit Radio Free Asia (RFA) paints an altogether different picture. Reporters for the outlet’s Uighur-language news service say dozens of “knife- and ax-wielding” ethnic Uighurs were shot by police in a riot sparked by restrictions during Ramadan. “There has been a lot of pent-up frustration over house-to-house searches and checking on headscarves [worn by Uighur women] during this Ramadan,” Alim Adurshit, a local official, told RFA. The report also mentioned the extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family — an incident that has not been reported by Chinese state press and that TIME has not independently confirmed.
The dueling narratives point to the challenge of figuring out what, exactly, is happening in China’s vast and restless northwest. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where the incident took place, is contested space. It is both claimed as the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, and also as Chinese territory. In recent years, the area has seethed with unrest attributed, depending on whom you ask, to Islamic terrorism, separatism or heavy-handed repression by the state. For years now, a small minority has fought against the government, usually by targeting symbols of state power, including police stations and transport hubs.
The past year has been particularly bloody. In October, an SUV plowed through crowds of tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five — including three inside the vehicle — and injuring dozens. Chinese authorities said the vehicle was driven by ethnic Uighurs, but revealed little else. In March, a group of knife-wielding attackers slashed and stabbed their way through a train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. The government blamed that incident, and two subsequent attacks in the regional capital, Urumqi, on separatists from Xinjiang.
Beijing has responded by doubling down on already aggressive security measures and their campaign of forced cultural integration. Across the region, town squares are now patrolled by armed security personnel in riot gear, and villages are sealed off by police checkpoints. Ethnic Uighurs are stopped and searched. Meanwhile, the government has stepped up limits on religious practice by, for instance, putting age restrictions on mosque visits and banning students and government workers from fasting during Ramadan.
In the context of this division and distrust, it makes sense that there are competing claims. The trouble is, China prevents outsiders from gathering information on their own. The foreign press corps is, by virtue of China’s rules, based far from Xinjiang, primarily in the Han-majority cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Travel to Xinjiang, while not officially forbidden, is effectively restricted. When I visited Urumqi and Hotan in late May, security personnel harassed my Chinese colleague, questioned me, followed our movements and stopped us from traveling to the city of Kashgar.
The ruling Communist Party’s powers of information control are also a factor. On a good day, China’s Great Firewall makes it difficult for citizens to share information that censors might consider politically sensitive; other days, it is impossible. Following the violent suppression of the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the government effectively turned off the region’s Internet for nine months. There are reports the web is off and on again now, which may help explain why so little has emerged in terms of firsthand accounts or photographic evidence.
Overseas-based Uighur groups say until there is transparency, the public should not trust the state’s account. “China does not want the world to know what occurred on Monday,” said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, in a statement. “As little is known of the circumstances of their killing, due to tight restrictions on information, UAA seeks an open investigation into the incident and the loss of dozens of lives.”
With every instance of violence, that looks less likely to happen.