MASANCHI: As Khusei Daurov lay dazed after being caught up in inter-ethnic clashes near his home in southern Kazakhstan, he felt the cold steel of a pistol against his forehead.
Violence had broken out among local Kazakhs and a group of ethnic Chinese Muslims called Dungans, who number more than 150,000 across Central Asia.
Daurov, a Dungan community leader, was trying to calm tensions when a Kazakh man put the gun to his head. Another Kazakh intervened, convincing the man to let Daurov go.
His eyes glazed with tears as he recalled the incident a few days later, a sling supporting an arm that was broken in the assault.
But Daurov was still reluctant to condemn his Muslim Kazakh “brothers” for the violence.
Mandarin-speaking Dungans migrated to Central Asia after brutal repressions they faced during imperial China in the 19th century
“It wasn’t Kazakhs who did this to our people,” he said. “These people were bandits and extremists.” The Feb 7 rampage, which resulted in 11 deaths, saw hundreds of ethnic Kazakh assailants descend on the Dungan village of Masanchi, setting fire to homes, shops and livestock.
In the worst such violence in nearly three decades of independence, at least nine of the dead were Dungans, while one was a Kazakh, officials said. One body has not yet been identified.
The bloody clashes have highlighted underlying tensions in a region where many ethnic groups live side by side, and have left many in the Dungan community wondering what their future holds.
Life in Central Asia for the Dungans has proven quiet compared to the brutal repressions they fled in imperial China in the 19th century.
Straddling the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the people who claim Chinese and Arab heritage mostly work in agriculture or run small businesses.
The Mandarin dialect that Dungans speak, which is infused with Farsi and Arabic loanwords, sets them apart in a region where Turkic tongues dominate.
Yet this has not prevented Dungans forming close bonds with other groups in ex-Soviet Central Asia, even if intermarriage is the exception rather than the rule.
For Batyrbek Toreyev, a civil servant who lives in the majority-Kazakh village of Karakemer, the sudden raid of nearby Masanchi was “unthinkable”.
“Our families are friends with their families. We stop by each others’ houses. What happened has happened now. We need to get on with our lives,” he said, carrying a shopping bag with two bricks of white bread.
Many Dungans of Central Asia have family ties to China, especially western China, where they are known as Hui.
Beijing has targeted the group of some 10 million as part of a crackdown on Muslims that has also swept up Turkic groups like Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in the western Xinjiang region.
Some Kyrgyz and Kazakhs argue that Dungans have leveraged their linguistic and cultural heritage to benefit unfairly from trade with China, which floods the region with imports.
In 2013, dozens of ethnic Dungan truckers were reportedly beaten by Kyrgyz drivers at a border crossing with China where truckers compete for cargo bound for the country’s bazaars.
Earlier, Kyrgyz and Dungans were involved in a village conflict that saw Dungan homes burned and some families flee to Kazakhstan to join relatives there.
But after the most recent clashes, it was Kyrgyzstan that became a safety net for thousands of mainly women and children seeking refuge from the fighting.
Daurov said that all ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan were due “enormous thanks” for providing food, aid and shelter to his fleeing compatriots, many of whom have since returned home.
In Masanchi, where charred buildings have marred a once-tidy central strip, Kazakh state officials have set about restoring a sense of normality.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan’s authoritarian leadership prides itself on guaranteeing inter-ethnic harmony in a country where the foreign ministry says “over 100 ethnic groups are living in peace.” At one of several mosques, Dungan elders sat down for steaming bowls of rice and mutton pilau with Kazakh police, whose heavy presence in the village was a welcome reassurance, residents said.
Elsewhere, a team employed by the regional administration was removing burned debris from the shell of what used to be Masanchi’s largest supermarket.
But even among these workers, there were signs of resentment towards the minority.
“The Dungans beat up one of our old men,” said one man, Ermek Saparov, who called the conflict a “misunderstanding”.
Saparov said that the altercation two days before the February 7 clashes had prompted calls across online messengers for attacks against Dungan communities.
His co-worker Ulan Ashirbek admitted he was tempted to respond to the calls but was busy at work.
“You see, this was a Dungan shop, but it is Kazakhs who are doing all the clearing up,” Ashirbek complained.
Both Kazakhs and Dungans agree that the conflict, which drew in Kazakhs living hundreds of kilometres away, would not have erupted without online messengers that allowed information — and disinformation — to spread rapidly through communities.
One complaint about Dungans that circulated on messaging services was that the group disrespects the Kazakh language by instead speaking their own or Russian, whose use is controversial throughout ex-Soviet republics.
But Malik Yasyrov, a Dungan man who died from a gunshot wound in the Masanchi attacks, was a Kazakh language teacher at a nearby middle school.
“He was a patriot. He went to Masanchi to defend his fellow citizens,” his mother Aishe Gadir said at a feast held for the neighbours and relatives who helped bury the 24-year-old.
Yasyrov had kept in touch with his mother throughout the night, narrating scenes of murder and pillaging.
As he described homes and cars ablaze, he begged her to take his two children to Kyrgyzstan. After 1am, his phone went dead. Later that morning, Gadir learned her son had been killed.
“We have been here, on this land, for 150 years. Why did Allah punish us in this way?” she asked. “How do we move on?”
Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2020