”Provocateurs tried to exploit the situation”

Clashes break out in southern Kazakhstan after an attack on police
Still image from an eyewitness video from tengrinews.kz

Late on the evening of 7 February, videos apparently taken by residents of the Jambyl region of Kazakhstan, located on the country’s border with Kyrgyzstan, appeared on social media. Those posting the videos wrote of an ongoing pogrom in the village of Masanchi, where the overwhelming majority of the population are ethnic Dungans. The authorities quickly stated that the situation had been brought under control, but eyewitnesses claimed that rioting continued both in Masanchi and in neighbouring villages. The latest official reports suggest that 8 people have been killed and 40 injured in the fighting, and dozens of buildings burnt down.

The village of Masanchi in the Jambyl region lies 60 kilometres from the administrative centre of the Korday district. The village is the unofficial capital of the Dungan ethnic minority in Kazakhstan. It is the largest settlement in Korday district, with 18,000 inhabitants, 94% of them members of the Dungan diaspora.

On the evening of the 7 February, the Jambyl regional police department announced that residents of Sortobe village, 3km from Masanchi, had attacked local police officers.

At around 14.10 that afternoon, in the course of a routine patrol in the village, law enforcement officers had stopped a Honda Odyssey on account of its “non-standard number plate”. They asked the driver to come with them to the local police station to confirm his identity, but instead the man attempted to flee. He managed to make it back to his home, and when officers pursued him there, they were attacked by the man’s relatives, who caused them “bodily injury” and pelted their police car with stones. Two assailants were later taken into custody.

Later that evening, a mass brawl erupted in the village of Masanchi. The police department’s press release stated that fighting broke out between local residents, but no mention was made of any cause. “Police have managed to contain the conflict, the situation is under control. The Investigations Office of Jambyl Regional Police Department has opened a pre-trial investigation under article 293 (Hooliganism) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The instigators and participants of the conflict are being identified,” the announcement states.

Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev reacted swiftly to the events via Twitter, announcing that a group fight inspired by “hooliganism” had occurred in Korday district, and that provocateurs were attempting to exploit the incident. ”The police have brought the situation under control. Those found guilty of violating public order will be held accountable,” the head of state declared.

“For one thing, such a swift reaction by the Kazakh president to an emergency situation in one of the regions testifies to the significantly more responsible style of leadership in the Akorda at present than was the case in the past. For another, it is an admission of the situation’s gravity,” political scientist and Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov suggested. “It is also worth noting that Tokayev is so far avoiding talking about the true essence and cause of the conflict, trying not to exacerbate the situation by making carelessly-worded statements.”

Meanwhile, evidence was rapidly spreading on social media that the situation in at least one of the villages – Masanchi – had significantly deteriorated.

“Young men arrived in the village and set more than 10 buildings on fire, and now gunfire has started – they are shooting at people, beating them up, the police are unable to do anything. People are waiting for the arrival of the security forces, but right now the situation is developing in the worst possible way,” the president of the Dungan Association of Kazakhstan, Husei Daurov, told Kazakh news agency KazTAG. The agency’s correspondent called the Jambyl regional police department and asked them to comment on reports of ethnic violence, but was told that the police had no information on the subject. Shortly afterwards, Daurov stated that the security forces had put an end to the pogrom in Masanchi, but that disturbances had started in the neighbouring village of Bular Batyr, and that people were said to have been killed in course of the night’s attacks. (It was later officially confirmed that 8 people were killed and 40 injured in the disturbances – Fergana). At 5.25am local time, Daurov wrote on his Facebook page that army units had arrived in the area.

Kyrgyzstan has meanwhile strengthened security in the border zone of the Chuy region, adjacent to the Jambyl region of Kazakhstan. A resident of the Kyrgyz border town Tokmak by the name of Farkhad told Fergana that no one was being allowed across the border.

“We have neighbours whose relatives live in Masanchi. Now they don’t know what to do. They are crying, running about frantically, they can’t get their relatives out of there. Lots of vehicles have headed there from Kyrgyzstan, but the whole border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is closed. Someone I know has relatives who literally went there yesterday to pay a visit and today they can’t get back and are under attack. There’s panic over there now, they’ve blocked Whatsapp. There are some other guys from Masanchi who work in Almaty. After hearing about what was going on, they tried to get home but were stopped outside Masanchi where police have set up a roadblock and they weren’t allowed through. They told me that all roads into Masanchi and Sortobe are closed off, but people still manage to get through. There are many of them, more than two thousand people, they say. They pushed the police cars out of the way and forced their way through. I’m worried for my friend, his parents are stuck there (in Masanchi). They tried to get out but were stopped at the roadblock. In other words, people who are trying to get in to help their families are not allowed in, and those trying to get out are not allowed out. It’s a terrible situation,” he said.

Another interviewee told Fergana that people were only being prevented from crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan, not the other way around. Fergana has obtained video footage from the Korday border crossing between the two countries, showing a large crowd of predominantly women and children gathering on the Kazakh side on the night to the 8 February.