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Families reel, witnesses haunted after China's deadly Kunming terror attacks

By Steven Jiang, CNN
March 3, 2014 -- Updated 0253 GMT (1053 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Families of victims are struggling to make sense of the terror attack in Kunming
  • At least 29 were killed in the frenzied attack at the city's railway station
  • The attack, attributed to Uyghur separatists, sparked fury on Chinese social media

Kunming, China (CNN) -- On the ninth floor of Kunming's No. 1 People's Hospital, overflowing patient beds crammed the narrow corridor Sunday afternoon as anxious family members sat by their loved ones.

Like many others around him, Dong Wenxian sported a bandage around his head and appeared motionless in bed.

"He's sleeping -- though his condition isn't stable yet," his daughter Dong Huixian told CNN. "There's still metal in his skull -- but he's already the lucky one."

The elder Dong is one of more than 140 people injured in a deadly attack Saturday night when ten knife-wielding assailants stormed the Kunming Railway Station in southwestern China, seemingly hacking at anyone in sight and killing at least 29 people.

China blames separatists for knife attack

The U.S. State Department has condemned the attack, calling it a "horrific, senseless act of violence" in a statement. Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to "severely punish the terrorists in accordance with the law."

Authorities said police shot four perpetrators dead on the scene and captured a wounded female suspect. They have also linked the rampage to separatists from the country's far western Xinjiang region, where tensions between Han Chinese and the largely Muslim Uyghurs have sometimes turned violent.

READ MORE: Understanding China's restive far west

Dong, a 50-year-old street vendor from the countryside, was trying to buy a train ticket home to visit his sick mother when he was hacked.

"His whole face was covered in blood," his wife described the sight greeting the family at the hospital, which has received most of the people injured in the attack.

"We're now waiting for him to go through surgery," said Huixian, the 17-year-old daughter. "But those with even more severe injuries need to be operated on first."

"Those Xinjiang people are just horrible and I hate their guts," she added.

A spate of violent incidents has rocked restive Xinjiang in recent months. Only two weeks ago, police announced the death of 11 terrorists in a foiled attack in Aksu Prefecture. Last October, a jeep carrying a Uyghur family plowed into crowds in front of Tiananmen Gate in central Beijing, killing two tourists and injuring 40.

Authorities have responded by intensifying their crackdown on suspected Islamic separatists, including the arrest last month of prominent Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti. The killings in Kunming -- a city of more than six million residents, known for its mild weather and leisurely pace -- shocked the nation and occurred at a particularly sensitive time as Chinese lawmakers are set to start their annual session Wednesday to hear the first government work report under President Xi's leadership.

Far away from Beijing but a short drive from Dong's hospital is a small, nameless street in front of the massive Kunming Railway Station. Lined with supermarkets, restaurants and a post office, it was again bustling with passengers hauling luggage Sunday afternoon, the blood stains in the area already washed away.

Uniformed police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops patrolling the station's sprawling ground regularly passed the street on foot and in cars. Food sellers on the sidewalk exchanged details they had seen or heard about the carnage.

READ MORE: China's train station killings described as a terrorist attack

Chang Changwei's mobile phone shop was open but his mind kept wandering back to the night before when screaming crowds from the station suddenly ran toward his street.

"So many people were trying to find a place to hide," the 27-year-old shop owner recalled to CNN. "The restaurant next to me and I let everyone in."

One person was lying face down in the blood with a knife still stuck in his back.
Hu Xuerong, witness

"I asked my wife and mother to bring my son inside," he continued. "Then I grabbed some metal pipes for myself and a few others, and said, we have to stick together to take them down."

The attackers never came this way, but his mother's recollection of the scene was more harrowing.

"I saw four people die nearby," said 58-year-old Hu Xuerong. "One person was lying face down in the blood with a knife still stuck in his back."

GALLERY: Kunming terror attack, in photographs

The most heartbreaking moment for Hu came later, however. Her 3-year-old grandson, after witnessing the horror, told her he was too scared to sleep.

Across Chinese cyberspace, stories of the perpetrators not sparing children or the elderly during their killing spree have spread quickly and stirred the strongest emotions. In social media, some users' attempts to reflect on the root causes -- including waves of Han migration into Xinjiang and the treatment of Uyghurs in their native land -- to the latest terror were quickly drowned out by the overwhelming sound of fury.

Chang, the shop owner, admitted he'd never given much thought to Xinjiang separatists. After the attack Saturday night, however, he's not sure what can be done to stop them for one simple reason.

"When they started hacking at people, they were already prepared to die," he said. "They are not afraid to die."

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