Kazakhstan: Village Unrest Breaks Out Along Ethnic Lines
Rumors about the rape of a little girl has sparked mass unrest along ethnic lines in villages in southern Kazakhstan, culminating in dozens of arrests.
Interior Ministry official Syrym Abdullayev said on August 1 that trouble in the Maktaraal district, in the South Kazakhstan region, began when word spread that an eight-year old girl had been sexually assaulted by a local 15-year old boy.
The ensuing unrest centered on an area inhabited by large numbers of ethnic Tajiks. One clash involving dozens of people ended up with windows of a shop being smashed and three people injured. Tengri News reported that 170 police officers were dispatched to the scene to restore calm.
Reports are piecemeal, but it seems the disturbances spread across several villages in the area, which borders Uzbekistan. Overnight on August 1, a group of men set light to two houses and a car in the village of Dikhan.
RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Azattyq, reported that the local Tajik community pleaded with authorities to provide them with protection.
“Around 100 young people came shouting, so we escaped with our children. In the space of 10-15 minutes, they burned down the house and destroyed the car,” Makhmutzhan Arzimuratov, owner of a damaged house in Dikhan, told Azattyq, recalling the late-night attack.
A shop in the village of Muratbayev was also target of an arson attack.
Another report alludes to 50 people trying to enter Seifullin but being stopped in their tracks by the police. According deputy South Kazakhstan regional governor Ulasbek Sadibekov, all the men were drunk and attempting to sow unrest.
A resident of Dikhan expressed their concern to Azattyq about the ethnic dimension of the violence.
“We didn’t know how to defend ourselves. We were afraid that if we defence ourselves and put up resistance, this could spiral into an interethnic conflict,” the unnamed resident said. “We are all citizens of Kazakhstan, we all speak in Kazakh, but all of us a sudden we are in this situation.”
Officials say 72 people were detained over the space of two days. Authorities dispatched police, National Security Committee forces and fire engines to help quell the unrest. The deputy Interior Minister traveled to the area to personally supervise operations.
The scale and haste of the security operation is a clear testimony of how sensitive the government is about such flare-ups, particularly where interethnic tensions are concerned.
The official rhetoric is that Kazakhstan is a haven of almost total ethnic harmony, but the proliferation of similar incidents over the years involving Chechen, Uyghur, Tajik and Meskhetian Turk communities points to chronic and unresolved divisions at the local level. As a rule, trouble is kicked off by word-of-mouth reports of a sexual assault or other similar transgressions. The ensuing violence is typically disproportionate and aimed not at punishing any specific offender, but rather at intimidating or even seeking the wholesale expulsion of the community to which the attacker belongs. State media avoids reporting these incidents and privately owned media strongly discouraged from violating the unspoken taboo.
Aigerim Toleukhanova is a journalist and researcher from Kazakhstan.