Photo/IllutrationIn this photo taken on July 7, 2009, a Uighur woman protests before a group of paramilitary police when journalists visited the area in the aftermath of riots in Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang region. (AP file photo)

ISTANBUL--A decade after deadly riots tore through his hometown in northwestern China, Kamilane Abudushalamu still vividly recalls the violence that turned him into an exile.

Abudushalamu was 9 and living in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region that is home to the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority, which has long claimed persecution at the hands of the Han Chinese majority. That sense of disenfranchisement came to a violent head on July 5, 2009, when Uighurs attacked Han civilians on the streets after police broke up an initially peaceful protest, prompting clashes that killed an estimated 200 people.

Hundreds of rioters smashed storefronts, overturned cars and busses and sent some ablaze. The fury followed reports that two Uighur migrant workers were killed by Han Chinese co-workers at a factory in southern China, crystalizing long-held resentment over religious, linguistic and ethnic prejudices.

That night, Abudushalamu's father pulled him into an office to wait out the worst of the unrest. When they stepped outside a few days later, the streets were eerily empty, Abudushalamu said. Then the police arrived and started shooting.

"Two maybe SWAT team (members) came after me and shot at me," said Abudushalamu, now 19 and living in Turkey, where many Uighurs have found a home based on linguistic, cultural and religious similarities. "The bullet went through right behind my right ear. I'm lucky I'm still alive."

Analysts say the Urumqi riots set in motion the harsh security measures now in place across Xinjiang, where about 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims are estimated to be held in heavily guarded internment camps. A series of violent incidents in Xinjiang and elsewhere, including the hacking deaths of dozens of civilians at a busy train station and bomb and vehicle attacks, also prompted authorities to take increasingly harsh measures against those suspected of radical inclinations.

The Chinese government describes the vast network of prison-like camps as vocational training centers designed to prevent terrorism by helping those with extremist tendencies gain employable skills.

However, former detainees have told The Associated Press that they were subject to political indoctrination and psychological torture, including being forced to renounce their Islamic faith and pledge loyalty to the ruling Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping. The former detainees, as well as Uighurs and Kazakhs with foreign nationality who have family members held in the camps, say the detentions are arbitrary and the terms of confinement uncertain.

Traveling abroad, growing a long beard or showing other ordinary signs of religious or ethnic identity could land one in a camp. Xinjiang Gov. Shohrat Zakir described camp "trainees" as people who had not been convicted of any crimes but were rather "influenced by terrorism and extremism" or "suspected of minor criminal offenses."

The events of July 5, 2009, were a "turning point" toward Xinjiang's current situation, said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's regional director for East and Southeast Asia.

The Chinese government has since adopted an "all-repressive tactic toward governing this region," said Bequelin.

"From that moment on, China took a very hard line position toward the control of religion and the control of minority ethnic groups in the region," he said. "It increased dramatically its security operation. That really is what led to the situation today."

In the years since, Xinjiang has been blanketed in surveillance, with facial recognition-equipped CCTV cameras and police checkpoints prevalent across the region. Journalists who attempt to conduct independent reporting are routinely followed by plainclothes police and ordered to delete their footage. A homestay program places Communist Party members inside Uighurs' residences, while schools punish students for speaking Uighur instead of Mandarin Chinese.

Abudushalamu says more than 50 of his family members have been detained back in Xinjiang. He hasn't heard from his father since June 2017. Last September, an acquaintance in Turkey told Abudushalamu that he saw his father in the same internment camp where he was detained.

Abudushalamu says there is no reason for authorities to "train" his father, a successful businessman who speaks nine languages.

"It's delusional," Abudushalamu said. "Why does he still need to be 'educated'?"