Life Returns To 'Normal,' But Divisions Remain In Kazakh Village After Ethnic Clashes


Life is slowly returning to normal in Penzhim, two weeks after the remote village near Kazakhstan's southeastern border with China became the scene of an ugly brawl between local Kazakhs and Uyghurs.

Residents of the farm town of 5,000 are back to their daily routines, with many these days working to bring in the corn harvest, a major source of income.


But there are visible reminders of the violence and subsequent rampaging that took place, highlighted by a steady stream of police patrols.

"Police are monitoring the situation day and night," says Penzhim resident Akhmet, who provided only his first name. "It's good that they're here, because we don't want that kind of conflict to happen again."


Villagers are reluctant to talk about the October 27 incident that left at least two people injured, according to police, but which had the potential to be much worse.

Initial reports said that a massive fight between teenagers in a local school degenerated into a riot in the ethnically mixed village some 25 kilometers from the Chinese border in the southeastern province of Almaty.

Several private houses, businesses, and vehicles were damaged in the process.

The Interior Ministry and local media were initially up front about the clashes, describing them as interethnic violence.

However, the authorities soon changed their tone and denied that ethnic tensions had anything to do with the violence.

Instead, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev accused unspecified "provocateurs" of seeking to "undermine [Kazakhstan's] national security."

"There were no ethnic clashes! Rather, certain groups of provocateurs and ill-wishers for our country prompted the events," Toqaev said on November 5.

Penzhim is home to some 5,300 inhabitants, with 2,783 Uyghurs and 2,519 Kazakhs, according to local government statistics.

Long-Standing Divisions

Some Penzhim residents say that divisions between ethnic Kazakhs and Uyghurs in the village have existed for many years, although they didn't lead to clashes before.

Kazakhs and Uyghurs sit separately even during Islamic prayers in the village's only mosque, they say. And some villagers claim that the locals won't even take a taxi if the driver doesn't belong to the same ethnic group.


Local taxi driver Pakhirdin Sadriev, an ethnic Kazakh, says he has never personally experienced a situation in which an Uyghur client refused to enter his vehicle because of his ethnicity.

"But I have heard it has happened to some other taxi drivers here," Sadriev says.

"Such division always existed and probably it cannot be avoided in the future. It won't change," says Raushangul Gaitova, who works at the Karavan Saray cafe in the village center.

The 62-year-old ethnic Uyghur woman recalls that that these kinds of "divisions" in the past never resulted in such an "escalation of the situation."

"We used to invite each other to our homes, we visited each other, but it's not like that anymore," Gaitova says. She mentions that parents in Penzhim now tell their children not to visit their friends' homes if they belong to the other ethnic community.

"There is nothing good in it," says Gaitova as she prepares traditional rice dish plov in a large iron-cast pot over a fire.


Some of the windows of the cafe that were shattered during the brawl have yet to be replaced. The woman explains that the workers were fixing damaged private homes first.

In the village center, broken shop windows have already been replaced with new ones. The only ATM in town has also been repaired.


Police have opened a probe into the incident in Penzhim, but the villagers say they want to move on.

"We shouldn't be dividing people into Kazakhs and Uyghurs," says Akhmet.

A day after the brawl, the government officials in the Panfilov district -- where Penzhim is located -- held a meeting with locals to discuss the situation.

In that gathering, the residents demanded that the authorities not initiate any criminal charges relating to the incident, saying it would lead to more problems in the future.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by Manas Kaiyrtayuly. a correspondent for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service in Almaty.