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Government Intervenes After Kyrgyz Village Violence

Prime minister steps in after two days of ethnic violence caused by schoolboy scuffle.
By Cholpon Orozobekova
Several Dungan residents of a village in northern Kyrgyzstan have fled their homes following angry clashes with their Kyrgyz neighbours.

Although the trouble was localised, the ethnic factor clearly worried the government enough for Prime Minister Felix Kulov to set up a government commission to investigate the violence in the village of Iskra, about 70 kilometres from the capital Bishkek.

Until earlier this month around 1,500 Dungans and 800 Kyrgyz lived in Iskra without apparent problems. The Dungans are Muslims of Chinese origin, who moved to Central Asia in the 1870s to escape persecution at home. There are about 40,000 in Kyrgyzstan, and most live close to one another in the Chui valley.

Now six Dungan houses in Iskra are empty, troops are patrolling the village and relations between the two communities are at an all-time low.

“We must take our livestock to our relatives, because the Kyrgyz might set fire to our homes and loot them. Yesterday my neighbour’s television was stolen. And tonight they may simply steal the livestock,” said Irsan, one of many Dungans preparing to take themselves and valuables out of Iskra.

The problems began early in February at a local computer-games centre when a fight broke out between Kyrgyz and Dungan boys.

The situation rapidly escalated, and Kyrgyz residents staged a protest on February 4 demanding that six families to which the Dungan boys belonged should be evicted from Iskra.

A larger demonstration involving 300 Kyrgyz the following day turned ugly when protesters stoned the house of one of the boys involved in the fight.

Shots were then fired from a car allegedly driven by four Dungans, hitting a horse being ridden by a Kyrgyz boy.

“This was my only horse, and today I had to slaughter it,” said the boy’s father. “But that’s not the issue. What if the bullet had hit my son? God protected him.”

Infuriated by the shots, the crowd began breaking the windows of Dungan houses, setting fire to buildings and attacking Dungans who crossed their path, injuring six people.

On February 6, with tensions still high, residents from neighbouring villages began to gather in Iskra, moving towards the Dungan houses and the village mosque (both Kyrgyz and Dungans are Muslim).

More violence was only averted when several Kyrgyz women stepped in.

“After the shooting, people began to get really nervous,” said Salima. “If the Dungans had grenades, they must have been prepared to blow us up. But we women kept calm. There could have been bloodshed. We can see that the police no longer have the power to control people. We women combined efforts and formed a live shield, and were just able to stop the men.”

Aibek, a young Kyrgyz from the neighbouring village of Karadobo, said, “If the women hadn’t stopped us, it would have been worse.”

By the following day, many Dungan houses in Iskra were empty and police and soldiers were patrolling the village.

“For the fourth day now, we have been in a state of nervous shock,” said Zuhra, a Dungan woman. “Whenever a problem arose between Kyrgyz and Dungans in the past, the elders would gather and sort it out peacefully. This time it was all very serious. I am afraid for my life and for the lives of my children. I can’t stay here.”.

Another Dungan woman said in tears, “Children are children. Because of two or three bastards the entire people have suffered. We admit these boys are guilty. Young people these days are uncontrollable.

“Now what can we do? Where can we go? This is our homeland, after all. This is where our forebears lived.”

Announcing the formation of the commission to investigate the trouble, Kulov appealed for calm.

“If one person hits another, that doesn’t mean it has to turn into an interethnic conflict,” he said.

Some of the families who fled Iskra, including those of the boys involved in the fight, are said to be well-off, a source of resentment for many of the local Kyrgyz who are struggling to survive.

Schoolteacher Ainagul says, “Dungan children bring dollars to school - whole wads of cash. Some of them drive foreign cars along the 100-metre road. They don’t obey us, don’t acknowledge us.”

However, Kharki, a Dungan man, insists his community works hard for its money, much of which comes from farming. “Every year we rent four or five hectares and work hard on this land. The harvest we get is our wealth. That’s how we survive,” he said.

“The Kyrgyz don’t work the land themselves and they envy us because we are rich,” said Rustam, also a Dungan. “But to get rich you have to work. We don’t steal things from people, we earn money through honest labour.”

Suleiman, a Dungan, accepted that some young people in his community sometimes got into trouble. “They’re decent people. Yes, they are rich,” he said of their parents. “But the children can be spoilt. They like to fight and settle scores.

“However, there are kids like that everywhere. Should all of us Dungans now suffer because of them? It isn’t fair.”

Analysts agree that economic disparities lie at the root of the trouble, which they believe has been brewing for years.

“I think this is a social problem. This conflict arises from the fact that in our country there is social inequality,” said human rights activist Aziza Abdrasulova.

The head of the Dungan diaspora committee in Kyrgyzstan, Esen Ismailov, agrees that social issues need to be attended to.

“I think the local authorities and the police are to blame here. They did not pay attention to the problem of the population at the right time. Poor people with their problems were left to one side,” he said. “The authorities should work with the ordinary people.”

Ismailov insists the Dungans in Iskra are a peacable community. “There’s never been such an affray, it’s the first time anything like this has happened. Dungans are a very hard-working people, and they don’t get involved in politics. Maybe there’s some force that wanted this conflict to happen,” he said.

In conclusions issued on February 9 , the government commission, headed by deputy prime minister Adakhan Madumarov, attributed the unrest to economic factors, uneven income distribution, social tensions and misunderstanding. It also apportioned some of the blame to the head of the Chui district administration and the district police chief.

The commission has brokered a peace deal of sorts, gathering elders from both sides who shook hands and agreed to live in friendship from now on.

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.

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