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Bloody Medals: A Tale of Two Widows

Chinese soldiers killed two Xinjiang Uyghur bureaucrats. China proclaimed them “victims of terrorists” and compelled their widows to receive medals.

By Kok Bayraq

September 10, 2022

Abdulgheni Turdi with his wife (now widow) Tursungul. From Weibo.

The Yarkant Massacre started in East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang) on July 27, 2014, with a demonstration by some residents of Elishku Township, who demanded the release of their wives who had been detained on the eve of Ramadan, during Tarawa prayer. The demonstration turned into a clash, and the police used firearms. The protesters, who were outpowered in the confrontation, blocked roads and attacked Han Chinese immigrants. The military intervened in the incident and quelled the bloodshed. According to official Chinese accounts, 96 died, including 59 “terrorists” and 39 Han civilian and police officers. Uyghur sources evaluate the casualties between 2,000 and 5,000.

One incident connected with the Yarkant Massacre always puzzled me. I heard that the widows of two victims, shot by Chinese soldiers, first refused the medals the CCP wanted to give them claiming their husbands had been killed by the Uyghur “terrorists,” but later accepted them. Why?

At a recent meeting organized by a friend to commemorate the Yarkant Massacre, I had a conversation with a witness, and asked the following about the widows of the officials killed: “Did the two widows really accept medals from the murderers of their husbands?” “Yes, they did,” he replied, sighing heavily. “And they smiled, thanking the murderers.”

The widows were the wives of Dongbagh township chairman Ghulam Tohti and the township’s Chinese Communist Party Disciplinary Committee Secretary Abdulgheni Turdi.

Both had died during the Yarkant Massacre. In those years, the authorities announced that the two men were heroes killed by “terrorists,” while Radio Free Asia reported that the two had been killed by soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army. While the authorities held a ceremony to commemorate the “heroes’” struggle for the unity of the country, the two widows were not persuaded by the official narrative. They refused to accept the medals, and did not attend the commemoration ceremony held after the massacre.

“I heard the two widows didn’t accept the medals, have they changed their minds?” I asked the witness. “They decided to accept them three months after the ceremony,” the witness responded.

Ghulam Tohti and Abdulgheni Turdi. From Weibo.

When the widows spoke to Radio Free Asia’s (RFA) Uyghur Service, they explained what had happened as follows. The two officials were called early in the morning by the authorities and were sent to one of the fields where key figures of the insurgents were hidden to persuade them to surrender. The insurgents rejected the offer, and urged the officials to stand with them as fellow oppressed Uyghurs. The officials replied that the government was merciful and that they would not be killed if they surrendered. The insurgents insisted that there was no other option for Uyghurs, including the two officials, other than to die with honor by continuing the standoff.

While discussions continued, they were surrounded by Chinese soldiers who opened fire on the insurgents. The two officials became targets because they were standing in the middle of the insurgents. At that time, Ghulam Tohti addressed the soldiers: “We are doing ideological work on them. Wait for a moment; they will surrender soon.” The soldiers did not wait, and they continued firing.

Abdulgheni Turdi then said to the soldiers: “They don’t have weapons in their hands. There is no way out for them but to surrender. Don’t waste the bullets.”

The soldiers fired more violently, and the two officials began to plead: “Don’t do that! We are your people! We are on your side. Please don’t shoot us!”

The soldiers did not care about their pleas. They ended this war with a 100% “victory,” leaving no one alive. This was the second day of the Yarkant Massacre, and was also the first day of Ramadan 2014.

The killing of the two officials and more than seventy insurgents was only one among hundreds of bloody incidents connected with the massacre.

RFA’s interview with the widows of the “two heroes” was recorded:

(With Atigul Kerim, the wife of Ghulam Tohti):

Interviewer: “Is it possible that the soldiers didn’t understand your husband when he was calling [out on] the field?”

Atigul Kerim: “My husband knows Chinese well, and he spoke to them in Chinese.”

Interviewer: “Is it possible that the police did not hear your husband?”

Atigul Kerim: “When my husband was holding a megaphone, our relatives in the neighboring community heard [his] pleas. How could soldiers in front of him not hear?”

(With Tursungul , wife of Abdulgheni Turdi):

Interviewer: “Why do you say that your husband was killed by soldiers, not terrorists?”

Tursungul: “I saw four bullet marks on his chest.”

Interviewer: “How did you know the marks were from bullets and not a knife?”

Tursungul: “The holes [in his] chest were very small … and the four holes in his shirt [were] burned. Everybody knows that the terrorists have nothing other than sticks in their hands and don’t even know how to hold a weapon. Who would have shot my husband [besides] a soldier?”

Interviewer: “What did the government say to your claims?”

Tursungul: “They said, ‘Keep your eyes open to receive medals.’ I don’t need this life. Let me go. I won’t take a medal from a murderer’s hand …”

After that conversation, the RFA’s phone calls to the two widows went unanswered.

A witness indicates the place where Turdi and Tohti were killed, in a Chinese propaganda account. From Weibo.

Eight years later, the witness revealed what followed. The authorities finally told the two widows: “Do you want your husbands to be remembered as heroes who died on the side of our country, or as terrorists who died on the enemy’s side?” The two families held a tearful discussion and decided to leave the decision to God. As a result, the two widows, three months after the ceremony, received medals while smiling and thanking the murderers of their husbands.

“I watched the news on Yarkant TV,” said the witness, who moved to Turkey in 2015, “I noticed from their eyes that their hearts were crying while their faces were smiling.”

The full story tells us that the men were killed not because of their political, religious, or criminal views but simply because of their appearance—it was based on their ethnicity alone. The incident was handled not only by police but also by the military, meaning that the insurgents were seen as foreigners and external enemies, despite China’s claim to be a multinational and multiethnic state. The crackdown was launched indiscriminately, and the widows not only suffered by having their husbands killed but were also humiliated by being forced to accept the false official narrative.

As Bitter Winter’s Ruth Ingram emphasized, the genocide against Uyghurs began with the occupation of East Turkestan long before 2017. The genocide’s forms and fields have varied, with mass incarceration and concentration camps being the most visible. Killing first and then pronouncing the victim a “hero,” or giving a medal to a widow after killing her spouse, are only some of the many “sophisticated” methods the Chinese have used since the early steps of their Uyghur genocide.

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