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Russia Bound? Dungans Don't Believe In 'Peaceful Future' After Deadly Ethnic Conflict In Kazakhstan

A woman sits outside her burnt-out house after the violence on February 7- 8.

QORDAI DISTRICT, Kazakhstan -- The mistrust is palpable among the local communities in southern Kazakhstan's Qordai district nearly a month after ethnic clashes between Kazakhs and Dungans claimed 11 lives and injured dozens of others.

Many Dungans are uncertain if they want to rebuild their homes and resume their lives in the villages where the deadly events occurred the night of February 7-8. They say they don't feel safe anymore and are unsure about the future.

"There were some disagreements, arguments between the two communities in the past, but we haven't seen anything on this scale," a Dungan man says.

Tens of thousands of Dungans have lived in Kazakhstan's Zhambyl Province and the neighboring Kyrgyz province of Chui since the late 1800s. Dungans, also known as Hui, are Sunni Muslims who speak a Mandarin dialect.

Their ancestors fled China after the Chinese government's violent crackdown on the Dungan Revolt of 1862-1877. More than 100 years later, some Dungans feel they could be told "at any moment" that they don't belong in Kazakhstan.

"We can live here, we can work, learn Kazakh, but we could be told at any moment that we're Dungans," the man said. "I don't believe there is a future for us here."

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Some ethnic Kazakhs, meanwhile, blame the Dungans for provoking the violence. In the predominantly Kazakh village of Qarakemer, an ethnic Kazakh man who gives only his first name, Tlek, says the conflict was the Dungan community's fault.

"They are to blame, I think," Tlek says, pointing in the direction of Masanchi, which is separated from Qarakemer by a dried-up, seasonal stream. "One needs to behave peacefully, to live peacefully. Had they lived normally, no one would have touched them."

Another man, an ethnic Kazakh from the Qordai district center, shares that sentiment. "The Dungans provoked the clashes," he says. "They beat up traffic police, they beat up an old man. You know what Dungans say? They say, 'The land belongs to us.' This is their attitude toward us, Kazakhs, who gave them the land."

Kazakh authorities had initially said that a road-rage brawl involving police officers and three Dungans was thought to have triggered the clashes. But on March 1, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev blamed "criminal groups" for the violence, saying the clashes were caused by one group trying to take over another group's cross-border smuggling business.

Toqaev made the comments during a visit to Qordai to meet with affected residents. Kazakh officials have been taking measures in an attempt to restore trust among the communities. Police patrol the streets in the villages of Masanchi, Auqatty, and Bulan-Batyr where the violence broke out.

Officials say more than 30 houses, 17 commercial buildings, and 47 vehicles were destroyed or damaged during the clashes. Some 23,000 people, most of them Dungans, fled the area.

In Masanchi, a Dungan resident showed his house and car, which were set on fire during the night of violence, but says his family was not at home and was unharmed.

Beds, a refrigerator, and blackened walls can be seen inside the house through broken windows. The man doesn't yet know if he will get any compensation for the damage to his property.

"We've since cleaned up the house a bit, but don't know what to do with the car," he says. "We were promised some compensation but haven't heard anything concrete yet."

Like many other locals, the man doesn't want to give his name and is reluctant to talk about the deadly clashes.

There are many other burnt and blackened houses and shops in Masanchi, along with a so-called cemetery of cars, where dozens of destroyed vehicles were dumped.

Authorities say the majority of those who fled to Kyrgyzstan during the violence have since returned home.

One Dungan woman says the district chief recently met with the Dungan community to reassure them the situation is under control. "He told us not to worry, told us to begin planting in the fields, and that they would guarantee our safety. But people don't want anything now."

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Farming is the main way for Dungans to make a living in Qordai. But despite the warm weather, most of the farmland and backyards belonging to the Dungans remain unattended to, a highly unusual sight in Qordai, where the farms usually begin working in February.

The woman says many members of the Dungan community are no longer thinking about their land. "They're thinking about leaving Kazakhstan," she says. "They are thinking about the future of their children."

At least 10 Dungan families have left Qordai in recent days and the community members say it might be the beginning of a possible exodus. Their main destination, they say, is Russia's Krasnodar region and the Saratov and Volgograd regions, which have good farmland and many empty villages. There are also already Dungan communities in those areas.

"The most important thing is that there is land and we can begin our lives anew," one ethnic Dungan man said.

Asked about what he would do with his house in Qordai, the man said he would try to sell it. "If it doesn't sell, then I would raze the house with a bulldozer so nobody could have it after we leave," the man said.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Pyotr Trotsenko of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service