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Ethnic Conflict in Kazakhstan: Opposing Perspectives
11 February, 2020
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The central Asian country of Kazakhstan is often known for the diversity of its populace, from Kazakhs to ethnic Russians, Tatars, and others. But on February 8, conflict sparked between Kazakhs and another ethnic group, living on the border with Kyrgyzstan. The Dungans, a Muslim-majority ethnic group descended from Han Chinese, and the Kazakhs have lived in the area, more or less peacefully, for decades. But relations between the two groups erupted into open violence, with sides reporting gunfire and wide scale assault, on the level of what the Dungans call a "pogrom" against their people.

According to Kazakhstan news outlet Vlast.kz, the two groups offer differing opinions of what caused the conflict, and hint at deeper divisions between the once-peaceful groups. The conflict, which resulted in 10 fatalities and 178 more wounded, saw thousands of Dungans flee to neighboring Kyrgyzstan from their bordering village of Masanchi. 

Checkpoint in the village of Karasu, Azerbaijan on the evening of February 8. Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

The Dungan’s Side of the Story

Vlast.kz spoke to Husey Daurov, the chairman of the Dungan Association of Kazakhstan. His arm is covered in a cast after being broken. He’s not surprised by the news of thousands of Dungans who fled across the border, saying that almost all the women and children from the villages of Aukatty, Sortobe, and Masanchi left Kazakhstan for Kyrgyzstan. 

“There are two big customs points, and thousands of people are waiting there in a panic. We told them that the soldiers are here, the national guard, but people are scared. The queue was not so long on the night of [February 7]. The border checkpoint let people pass one way that night, into Kyrgyzstan, through Sortobe. There’s a checkpoint at Sortobe, at Aukatty, and in Karasu. Sortobe also has thousands of people, most of the people are in Sortobe. We sent the women there,” said Daurov, sitting at the table at his house after inviting the Vlast reporters in.

Husey Daurov, the chairman of the Dungan Association of Kazakhstan, at his home in the Sortobe settlement in Kazakhstan on February 8. Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

He confirmed that the Kazakhs and Dungans have lived together peacefully. Violent conflict, according to him, had occurred before, but burned houses, cars, shootings – that’s all a first.

“There are no problems between our Kazakhs and Dungans. We’ve been living here peacefully and in harmony for 140 years,” the chairman stated. 

Checkpoint in the village of Karasu, Azerbaijan on the evening of February 8. Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

According to the Dungans, the troubles started on February 5.

Checkpoint in the village of Karasu, Azerbaijan on the evening of February 8. Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

“What started it all: three days ago, there was an incident. Someone drove out on a big car, a Kamaz (a popular truck brand in the post-Soviet Union – ed.) and blocked off the road. This road was between Masanchi and Sortobe. Well, obviously when the large truck drives out and blocks the road, it creates a problem for that car. It turned out that these were Kazakhs. They left the vehicle and a skirmish began. On the internet, people were saying that eight people beat up four. But that’s a lie. Two brothers fought with four people. Two Dungans and four Kazakhs. Among the group was an elderly man. He wasn’t beaten, he was accidentally pushed and wounded, it seems, and his leg was broken. He was taken to Almaty (the largest city in Kazakhstan – ed.) for treatment (Vlast later learned that he was taken to a regional hospital – ed.). These people were immediately detained. But our elders immediately left to resolve things the Islamic way – since there was an emergency situation, they went in order to peacefully resolve things. And it seemed like they had, people apologized to these elders, and everything was resolved peacefully. About 15 carloads of traffic police (a group infamous for corruption – ed.) arrived at this incident. And instead of warning people and keeping things orderly, they started to stop every car that passed by and, as usual, they started asking for bribes. They asked for money for the smallest violation. And the incident that all the [social media] networks and news channels are talking about, that Dungans are fighting, that they’re resisting law enforcement authority...of course those two people, they behaved impudently and unscrupulously in regards to the traffic police and law enforcement. But [the traffic police] asked them for a $265 fine – this was also a basis for [fighting]. We’re not defending those two idiots, who acted so cheekily with government authorities. People had enough of a mind to record this and post it online,” explained Daurov. 

Aukatty village in the Korday district, Kazakhstan on the evening of February 8. Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

He emphasized that neither he nor other Dungans support those who had injured the elderly Kazakh. 

“We don’t defend these idiots. There’s no reason to fight at all. We have a lawful government, they should have written a police statement and invited the local precinct. Instead, they fought. And the most important reason for all [the suspects] present, was basically because they beat up this old man. They’re embellishing when they say that eight people beat him almost to death with a hammer. What actually happened was that they fought, but they didn’t beat the old man. He was pushed, and he broke his leg,” Daurov insisted.

Aukatty village in the Korday district, Kazakhstan on the evening of February 8. Photo: Dulat Esnaza / Vlast.kz

Two days later, pogroms started in Sortobe and Masanchi – it was felt most harshly in Masanchi. Daurov, like some of the other Dungans, Masanchi residents, insist that a few hundred people started beating people in the street and shooting them, as well as burning down houses. Daurov was also beaten – the cause for his broken arm.

“Now there’s some information that our people were shooting. But none of us have guns,” states Daurov. 

Aukatty village in the Korday district, Kazakhstan on the evening of February 8. Photo: Dulat Esnaza / Vlast.kz

He says that the pogrom participants didn’t just have guns – they had sharpened pieces of metal and pikes. 

Daurov, who was at the center of the pogrom, was beaten by a young man. 

“He beat me with a sharpened piece of metal, or a club, and broke my arm. I fell, then got up. Someone put a gun to my head. Thank god, one Kazakh pushed that person away, saying ‘This is an old man, aksakal (a Kazakh term for a respected elder – ed.), you shouldn’t beat him,” recalled Daurov. 

Masanchi village in the Korday District in Kazakhstan on the morning of February 9. Photo: Dulat Esnaza / Vlast.kz

But then he was hit on the head and knocked unconscious. 

When he came to life, he saw police officers with the pogrom participants. Someone said “Let’s beat them to death.” But one of the police officers took Daurov away. “To him, I suppose, I owe my life,” mentioned Daurov.

But other police, claims Daurov, did not hold the pogrom participants back.

Masanchi village in the Korday District in Kazakhstan on the morning of February 9. Photo: Dulat Esnaza / Vlast.kz

Clashes continued from approximately 5-6 p.m. on February 7 to about 5 a.m. on February 8. Kazakhstan SWAT units arrived at 11 p.m., though people said that they had left for the area at 6 p.m..

“I called about ten times to our MP in the Assembly (a national body for representing ethnic groups in the Kazakhstan government – ed.), Khakhazov. He said, ‘Don’t worry, they’re on their way!’ And I responded: ‘They’re killing us here! Call the akim (a Kazakh term for a head of a local government – ed.), call the head of the NSC! (National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan – ed.) He said: ‘Don’t be scared, OMON (riot police – ed.) has already arrived.’ But where was OMON?!” Daurov recalled.

Masanchi village in the Korday District in Kazakhstan on the morning of February 9. Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

Other Dungans, residents of Masanchi, with whom Vlast managed to speak with, corroborated Daurov’s account. The chairman also noted that there were quite a few Kazakh families that hid Dungans in their homes during the height of the pogrom.

The Kazakh Side of the Story

The village of Karakemer is separated from Masanchi by a bridge, where a checkpoint has appeared in the last few days. Karakemer is mostly settled by Kazakhs. They complain about corruption, about police bias against them. They said that whenever something happens in Masanchi, the police immediately suspect Kazakhs from Karakemer. According to some of the locals that Vlast managed to speak with, if something bad happens to the Kazakhs, then the local authorities ask them to keep it quiet.

Masanchi village in the Korday District in Kazakhstan on the morning of February 9. Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

Tolegen Kudashbaev’s sons live in Karakemer – Kudashbaev being the elderly man that was injured in the initial conflict and became the spark that set off the tragic events. Vlast spoke to his family.

“We sometimes come into conflict with the Dungans, but this time it was serious,” said, over a cup of tea, one of Kudashbaev’s sons, Seitzhan. 

Seitzhan Kudashbaev in the village of Karakemer, south-eastern Kazakhstan speaks to Vlast journalists on the morning of February 9. Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

Nurlan Kudashbaev, another one of Kudashbaev’s sons, was driving the 78-year old senior for a doctor’s appointment to check Tolegen’s vision.

“At 11 in the morning, we were driving to a doctor’s appointment in Sortobe, because in Karakemer there’s only a local therapist. There were three of us. Myself, my brother, and our father. And a truck blocked our way. A Dungan came out as well, and he started cursing at us, and kicked our license plate. I left the car. The license plate fell off. I asked him ‘What are you doing?’ After that, one of them ran up behind me, grabbed me, and started to choke me. While I was being choked, my brother, who is right now in the hospital, left the car. It turned out that [the Dungan’s] house was on the left, and the Dungan’s father ran out with a hammer. A crowd of Dungan’s gathered and a fight began. Then my father got out of the car with his cane – he’s disabled – in order to calm everyone down. When my father started to separate us, one Dungan kicked him in the abdominal area. After that my father fell. When my brother helped him up, someone hit him in the head with a rock,”  recalled Nurlan.

Nurlan Kudashbaev speaks to Vlast journalists at his home in the village of Karakemer, south-eastern Kazakhstan on the morning of February 9. Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

Tolegen Kudashbaev is currently preparing for an operation. He’s already survived five such procedures.

“Local police officers drove by during the fight. He called an ambulance,” said Nurlan. 

Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

Nurlan was taken to the district office for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Then, over the next three days, he was from time to time taken in for questioning.

He recalls that he, his brother, and their father were beaten by 10 people. He identified four of them.

Photo: Dulat Esnazar / Vlast.kz

Now, all the roads leading to the village that suffered from the pogrom are closed by police. They ask for ID and check everyone’s trunks, leaving and coming. 

/Translated and adapted by Romeo Kokriatski, using materials from Vlast.kz