As dusk fell on a sleepy Central Asian village called Masanchi on a February winter’s night, shopkeeper Yusuf Mashanlo did what he normally does as the week draws to an end: he locked up his store and headed to the mosque for Friday prayers. It seemed like another ordinary evening in this settlement of agricultural labourers and traders in south-eastern Kazakhstan, set in a rural idyll of snow-covered mountains rising out of lush plains.
But when Mashanlo emerged from the mosque on 7 February, a murderous mob was rampaging through the village. Before the night was over the 32-year-old shopkeeper had lost his livelihood, and some of his neighbours had lost their lives.
The savagery came as a shock to this oil-rich state bordering Russia and China, normally a peaceable sort of place that paints itself as a haven of stability in a volatile region. But what left the nation reeling was that the attacks were ethnically targeted, perpetrated by mobs of Kazakhs against members of a minority group, the Dungans — Mandarin-speaking Muslims who trace their lineage back to China who emigrated to Kazakhstan over a century ago. This multi-ethnic country touts itself as a model of racial harmony for the rest of the world.
“There were 40 or 50 of them, armed with hunting rifles. They were attacking from over there,” said Mashanlo (a pseudonym, since he was afraid to be identified) on a sunny Sunday morning 36 hours later, gesturing beyond the charred hulks of buildings lining roads strewn with rubble. “They immediately set fire to five or six homes. Our people came out to try and restrain them. Then they started shooting.”
Mashanlo considered himself among the fortunate ones, only counting the cost of destroyed property. Neighbours were burying their dead, like one father who had watched his 25-year-old son take a bullet in the back during what the bereaved man described as “a massacre”.
Others were hunting for missing relatives, like the man standing hopelessly outside the burnt-out house of his aunt and uncle, unsure if they were among the casualties or had fled over the nearby border into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan with thousands of others (many have since returned). “They were just an old man and an old woman,” he said, staring at the blackened rubble. “My uncle was paralysed.”
The unlikely catalyst for this murderous violence was an episode of road rage: a spat between Kazakh and Dungan drivers over right of way that degenerated into a scuffle culminating in an elderly Kazakh man requiring hospital treatment. In the Dungan version of events, this was an accident, but the rumour that circulated around Kazakh villages was that the old man was attacked deliberately — an affront to traditions of respect for the elderly entrenched in Kazakh and Dungan communities alike.
The rumour was avidly shared via WhatsApp, where incendiary messages proliferated inciting violence against Dungans by way of reprisal — a key element in fanning the tensions, the government says. Several hundred Kazakh men — armed with sticks, stones, metal bars, hunting rifles and Molotov cocktails — bore down on four Dungan villages, setting homes and businesses alight and beating and shooting residents. Eleven died: nine Dungans and a Kazakh, plus one unidentified victim whose remains were found in a burnt-out shop. At least 178 people were injured, including 19 police.
In Masanchi, the Dungans were struggling to process the violence wrought on their community in a country whose leaders have always not only welcomed but celebrated its minorities. “The Dungans have been living in Kazakhstan for 140 years. We came from China when this was the Russian Empire, and we’ve lived in peace all that time,” said Mashanlo:
“There were conflicts, I don’t deny it. The elders would gather and resolve everything peacefully. But there’s never been anything like this – people killed, cars set alight, shops looted and burned.”
Kazakhstan has never witnessed ethnic violence on this scale before, but the turmoil evoked traumatic memories of intercommunal clashes in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz which left hundreds dead.
This time, road rage may have been the spark that lit the conflagration, but while conspiracy theorists mutter about mysterious “third forces” stoking the violence for political ends, others acknowledge that it was simmering ethnic tensions, unacknowledged by a government in denial, that laid the ground.
The turbulent history of Kazakhstan — one of five Central Asian states that emerged as independent countries from the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — has left the country a melting pot, where minorities account for nearly a third of the population.
As well as the Turkic-speaking Muslim Kazakhs, the country’s rich ethnic tapestry includes scores of others: Uzbeks and Uighurs, Tatars and Tajiks, Russians and Ukrainians, Armenians and Greeks to name but a few. There are over a hundred ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, living — the official narrative has it — side by side in peace and harmony. Billboards around the country display slogans like “strength in unity” and “Kazakhstan is a land of unity and accord”.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president who ruled Kazakhstan for three decades until his resignation last year, made ethnic harmony a pillar of the nation, partly to avoid antagonising his powerful neighbour Russia, always on the look-out for discrimination against Russians abroad (they are Kazakhstan’s largest ethnic minority, making up 40% of the population at independence and now just under 20%).
Nazarbayev’s strategy in this, and other, areas, remain official policy in Kazakhstan: he may have resigned, but the 79-year-old ex-president still pulls the strings in the authoritarian country, as a father-of-the-nation figure steering his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Kazakhstan’s leadership has always sought to make a virtue out of the ethnic diversity that history bequeathed from waves of colonial migration during three centuries of Russian rule, by the tsars and then the Soviets.
The Dungans were brought here not by Kazakhstan’s colonial masters but by turmoil in their ancestral lands in China. They are descendents of the Hui people, Chinese Muslims with a community still numbering some 10 million back in China, where they are subject to persecution as part of a wider crackdown on Muslims that also targets Chinese-born Uighurs and Kazakhs.
The Dungans in Kazakhstan settled in Central Asia after fleeing a failed 19th-century revolt against the Qing Dynasty. In 1878, they founded the village of Karakunuz (Black Beetle), which in Soviet times was rechristened Masanchi in honour of a Dungan revolutionary and is nowadays considered a beacon of thriving Dungan culture, language and tradition.
The nation’s biggest demographic upheavals occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, when Stalin uprooted entire peoples from elsewhere in the USSR – Chechens, Kalmyks, Germans and others – and dumped them onto the Kazakh steppe as collective punishment for allegedly suspect loyalties to the communist state.
Demographics were further thrown out of kilter by the decimation of the Kazakh population in a famine caused by Moscow herding the nomadic Kazakhs into collective farms. Later influxes of incomers, including labourers for farms and factories and prisoners interred in Stalin’s Gulag (whose camps covered parts of Kazakhstan as well as Siberia) further stirred up the ethnic mix.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Kazakhs were in a minority in the country named after them, the only former Soviet republic to emerge into independence with its titular people outnumbered. That has always been a sore point among some Kazakhs, who also harbour resentments over the onslaught against Kazakh language, culture and lifestyle in the Soviet period.
Officially, the multitude of peoples ruled from Moscow were all equal — but it was no secret that in the USSR Russians were first among equals. Kazakh grievances festered until, in 1986, spilling over into protests dubbed “Zheltoksan” (“December”), which were violently quelled by Soviet troops. The spark was the replacement of Soviet Kazakhstan’s leader with a Russian outsider, but at root lay perceptions that Kazakhs were second-class citizens in Kazakhstan.
This baggage was carried into the modern day, even as the demographic balance tilted so that Kazakhs now make up 68% of the population. Still, some of them believe that, after decades (or centuries) of suppression, Kazakhs should come first in the country bearing their name.
Following the violence in Masanchi, Rinat Zaitov, an influential musician with a popular youth following, went on social media to condemn Dungans for “swaggering about”. His remarks hinted that Dungans should know their place in Kazakhstan — a view echoed by some commentators, while others expressed horror at the death and destruction.
But minorities whose ancestors have lived in Kazakhstan for generations chafe at the idea that they should be treated as second-class citizens in the country they see as their homeland. “They [Kazakhs] always say: this is our Kazakhstan. It belongs to us, so you do what we say,” complained a young Dungan in Masanchi.
Most of the time, Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups get along fine, but the authorities have ignored previous warning signs of tensions. In 2015, Kazakhs set fire to homes and vehicles in a Tajik village after a dispute over a greenhouse — a catalyst seemingly as mundane as the road rage that sparked the Masanchi attacks. Such trifles suffice to serve as sparks that light the touch paper in a country where local conflicts sometimes split along ethnic lines when they spiral out of control.
Under Nazarbayev, ethnic tensions were a taboo topic. The government steadfastly denied any intercommunal element to such incidents, even flying in the face of evidence on the ground. This time, Tokayev, the president, initially dismissed the violence as a “group brawl”, before obliquely acknowledging an ethnic slant by condemning “criminals” acting under the guise of shouting “pseudo-patriotic slogans”.
That is as far as any official has gone to acknowledge that the attack by Kazakhs on Dungans in and around Masanchi was a bout of ethnic strife.
Tokayev has pledged justice, but the investigation is shrouded in secrecy. Authorities are currently pursuing 90 criminal cases, but officials are refusing to reveal how many are in custody to answer for the deaths, injuries and destruction, though three Dungan brothers involved in the initial road-rage incident have been arrested.
The government is treading a tightrope, trying to pacify the more nationalistically-inclined members of its Kazakh majority as well as deliver justice to a minority targeted by attacks, while shying away from airing the ethnic tensions behind the violence — which have only heated up as the blame game continues.
Since then the government has flooded the area with security forces to protect the Dungans, but the community fears what will happen when public attention moves on. “Of course I’m afraid — not for myself, but for my children,” said Mashanlo, the shopkeeper, as he surveyed his traumatised, devastated village.
“The authorities need to bring everything to light so that this doesn’t happen again, and punish all those guilty. If there’s impunity, they might just do it again.”