A police officer stands guard outside Kunming railway station while mourners light candles in the background on March 2, 2014.
Zhang Guochang, a migrant worker, was sitting on his bag outside Kunming railway station waiting for a 42-hour train ride to his new job when he heard the screams. Several figures wielding long knives were striding toward him, hacking down anyone in their path.
Then he saw blood. It was streaming down the head of one of 10 friends traveling with him from a poor, remote southwestern village on the Myanmar border to northern China, where they were to haul electricity cables for a living. Behind him, another friend cried out in pain.
“My back is broken. Did someone hit me?” Zhang, 58, recalls Yang Guoyou saying. Turning around, he saw a hole in Yang’s back and his guts spilling out of his body. Zhang put his knee to cover Yang’s wounded back and covered his belly with his hand, as the group managed to get the two injured men on a bus and rush them to a hospital.
“I was very afraid. I had to protect my two old hometown friends,” Zhang, a stocky, dark-skinned man said as he rested on a bed in Kunming No. 1 People’s Hospital, 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from the scene of the attack, while Yang underwent emergency surgery.
Many of the 29 people who were killed and 140 injured around the station in the rampage on the night of March 1 were itinerant laborers, with Zhang booking the cheapest, hard seats for his marathon journey for 290.5 yuan ($47). The attack was blamed by officials and state media on separatist Uighur forces in Xinjiang, who have been linked with past troubles.
While an overseas-based group promoting human rights for the region’s minority people called for a transparent investigation, Chinese officials pledged to crack down on separatists. There was evidence of flags at the scene belonging to forces who want to form an independent East Turkestan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said yesterday.
Tensions have escalated in recent years between Uighurs, who face limits on their freedom to worship, and police. If separatists were responsible for the spreading of bloodshed to Kunming, about 2,496 kilometers (1,550 miles) southeast of the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, it would mark a major new tactic.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which started around 9:20 p.m. when people armed with knives as long as a man’s arm and a few inches wide entered the station, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Many survivors who told of the unfolding assault came from among the poorest section of society, sparking an Internet backlash from ethnic Han people who make up more than 90 percent of China’s population. Hundreds of passengers were waiting near the station, a rail hub in Kunming, the capital of southwest Yunnan province, home to at least 25 ethnic minority groups who number 15.5 million in total, about a third of the provincial population.
A few steps from where Zhang and his friends were grouped near a gold-colored sculpture of a bull in the square outside the station, two teenage brothers were waiting for a train to take them to the east coast where they had jobs installing factory elevators.
“They came from behind,” said Xia Fangyong, 19, lying on a hospital bed with his arms bandaged. “If we ran immediately after we saw them, we had time. But we couldn’t respond fast enough.”
Xia was injured as he raised his left arm to ward off two knives as he dragged his younger brother, whose neck was cut, to hide in a police booth. The attack lasted for three minutes before the police arrived at the scene, he said.
Undeterred, the attackers fanned out of the station area to the east, along Beijing Road.
Hou Daiguo, a 48-year-old migrant from neighboring Sichuan province who cleans four portable toilets in the square, said he saw five people walking calmly along the other side of the road brandishing knives.
“They weren’t running,” he said. “Nobody else was near them.”
Further down the road, Wang Fuchun, 38, abandoned her pan selling potatoes and chili-powdered tofu to run with the crowd fleeing the station. One man staggered out holding his hand to try and stem blood spurting from his neck.
After crossing the road, she turned her head and saw five people carrying knives, including two women dressed in black with their faces covered apart from their eyes.
“They just stood there at the intersection,” she said. “I didn’t dare to look at them anymore.”
By now, fear was turning to anger and some of the crowd turned on their attackers. Qin Gang, a 51-year-old local man who arrived at the station at 9.30 p.m. to find a scene of bloodshed, said he picked up a stick to join policemen, security guards and ordinary citizens running after a group of five assailants, two of whom were women wearing black robes.
“How can we get them under control if you don’t pull out your gun,” he said he told a police officer.
A security guard sprayed liquid into the face of one attacker who fell to the ground at the intersection and was swarmed over by Qin and about a dozen others who beat him. The other attackers turned around to try to rescue him.
“They turned back and continued hacking,” said Qin, a former member of the military who operates a van for rental at the train station. “They didn’t stop to look at who they hacked.”
Then he heard gunshots. All five attackers lay on the ground. Qin realized a bullet had gone through his lower left arm, he said from the hospital.
“I’ve been around the train station for more than 10 years,” Qin said. “I had never imagined anything like this.”
Four assailants were killed by the police and one was captured on the night. Police subsequently apprehended three further suspects from the gang of eight led by a man identified as Abdurehim Kurban, Xinhua reported yesterday, citing a statement from the Ministry of Public Security.
The day after the attack, Li Li, the head of the Kunming No. 1 People’s Hospital, visited victims and handed each one 2,000 yuan in a brown envelope. Li also gave a basket of fruit and food donated by Kunming residents.
“Don’t worry about medical fees, food or any other expense,” Li said. “The government will take care of it.”
Grabbing him in the corridor, Zhang the migrant worker who had taken his two injured friends there in a minibus, took Li aside to make sure his friend Yang, who was in the operating theater, would get an envelope too.
“Don’t worry, everybody gets one envelope,” Li said, slapping him on the back.
Zhang was left contemplating whether to resume his journey north for work.
“There is nothing we can do,” he said. “If we don’t go there we don’t have money, if we return home we don’t have money, so we are relying on the government.”