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Han security forces stood in ranks along every street in the city's Uygur quarter. They bristled with riot gear and automatic weapons. The only sound came from loudspeakers mounted on trucks that trawled the market streets, broadcasting the good news of ethnic harmony. If Urumqi had an edge of unrest on this Monday, it was sheathed in silence.

Most Uygurs are Muslims, and about noon I stood on the street in front of a central mosque wondering how many people might be inside. As if in answer, a mass of humanity came pouring out, hundreds of people tumbling and plunging into the street.

Bystanders watched, puzzled, but the emerging crowd offered only odd and inscrutable clues: Many hadn't had time to pull on their shoes and ran in just their socks. They cried out with alarm or possibly in celebration, and their faces glowed with either fear or joy. If they were fleeing from danger, there was no sign of it, and the group split and flew north and south. In the flicker of a moment they had disappeared.

Now three men stepped from the mosque, holding what looked like wooden sticks. One wore a blue shirt, one a black shirt, and one a white shirt. They shouted and smiled, which gave their faces a buoyant quality. Their tiny rally seemed brash: Did they not see the Chinese police on every corner or hear the amplified news about manifest happiness?

They turned southward. All three walked with peculiar long strides and waved their sticks overhead, like three baton-twirling drum majors whose marching band had run ahead of them. They passed rows of market stalls where people shouted to them to stop whatever they were doing. Shop owners slammed shut their stall doors. After two blocks the men stopped and turned back north; just before they reached me, they crossed the street. They still held up what were, more likely, rusted swords.

Once across the street, they burst into a run, heading toward a group of armed Chinese. The man in blue sprinted ahead; he seemed to catch the government forces off guard, because they turned and ran. The details of the next moment—the angle of the running man, his shirt billowing behind him, the strange coolness of the air—were etched by a sound: a gunshot. But the three Uygurs did not stop in the face of destruction. They tilted toward it.

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