QOSMEZGIL, Kazakhstan — There is a quiet farming village in southern Kazakhstan that has been home to several thousand ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs living side by side for centuries.
But peace in the dusty community of Qosmezgil was shattered recently by a clash between several young Uzbek and Kazakh men that left four people, including a policeman, injured. One victim of the violence is in intensive care with a severe eye injury and other wounds he sustained in the July 20 fight.
Two weeks later, the villagers are reluctant to talk about what some described to reporters as just an “ordinary scuffle between a group of young people.”
Outside of Qosmezgil, however, many people call it an ethnic conflict between Kazakhs and Uzbeks.
Keen to prevent any further escalation of the situation, Kazakh authorities have swiftly deployed an unspecified number of police to the village.
Blue-and-gray police minibuses are parked near houses with broken windows, the scene of the melee. Police cars can be seen driving on the near-empty village roads, with officers patrolling the streets.
A police checkpoint was also installed at the entrance to the area in Turkistan Province immediately after the violence broke out.
A nighttime curfew has since been imposed on the village, where all gathering have also banned.
The police have a visible presence on the streets.
It’s clear the authorities — perhaps noticing the fighting as far away as the capital, Nur-Sultan — want to stamp out any sign of ethnic conflict in the multinational country that has had more than its share of violence between ethnic groups in recent decades.
‘Argument Over Matches’
Eyewitnesses say the brawl began with an argument between Iftikhor Jumadulloev, an ethnic Uzbek, and Almas Tolbasiev, an ethnic Kazakh.
According to local residents, including relatives of the two men, their argument started after Tolbasiev asked Jumadulloev for matches to light a cigarette.
Tolbasiev is among four people who have been arrested because of the skirmish. Tolbasiev’s older brother, Olzhas, told RFE/RL that he took his sibling to the police station and demanded that he tell officials what had happened.
“On his way back from work, my brother bumped into some young men and asked one of them for matches,” Olzhas Tolbasiev said. “The men swore at him. They started arguing and it led to a brawl between the two groups.”
Although the “two groups” were ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs, Tolbasiev insisted that “it was a personal issue, not an ethnic conflict.”
He says someone recorded the fight on a mobile phone and posted the footage on the Internet.
According to Tolbasiev and many villagers and the authorities, it was the video that caused the “misunderstanding” about the nature of the scuffle and “provoked” the wrong reactions.
Jumadulloev and his brother were injured in the clash. Jumadulloev, whose arm was broken in the fight, is under investigation. His brother is in the hospital.
Later in the night after the melee, a group of people threw stones at Jumadulloev and his brother’s houses, breaking windows and damaging vehicles.
Just broken windows, for now
Jumadulloev’s mother, Jamila Jumadulloeva, said she had to hide her 18 grandchildren in her house when the men attacked their homes with stones overnight on July 20-21.
Jumadulloeva also repeated what others in Qosmezgil say: “We don’t call it an ethnic fight. It was an insignificant, ordinary dispute.”
“But there was some stupid person among us who posted a video of the fight, which shocked the whole country,” she told RFE/RL.
The video shows a policeman with his face covered in blood and with stains on his blue uniform. He is surrounded by a group of men who accuse him of trying to run away, which he denies.
Authorities say the policeman was trying to break up the fight and get the two groups to go home.
A video of an injured police officer is said to have sparked outrage.
Interior Minister Erlan Turgumbaev said those involved in the fight had been detained and the authorities are also separately investigating those behind the “provocations on the Internet.”
Fake News Or Long-Standing Issues?
Despite the government and the families rejecting an “ethnic” factor behind the latest conflict, some villagers privately say arguments and scuffles between the Kazakh and Uzbek communities have long existed.
Torekhan Abdirazakov, the imam at a local mosque, says brawls between Uzbek and Kazakh youth have become more frequent in recent months. The July 20 brawl was the third such incident so far this year, the imam told RFE/RL.
“In the past, such disputes were resolved by village elders, who reconciled the parties. But this time, the elders were not aware of what happened,” Abdirazakov said.
The situation is said to be the same in the entire Shornaq rural area, which consists of four villages, including Qosmezgil. Shornaq is home to more than 12,000 people, most of them ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs.
Nyshankul Jumanova, the deputy governor of Shornaq, told RFE/RL that a similar brawl between young Kazakhs and Uzbeks took place last year. “It was a fight between students at the local school,” she said.
“Several officials…including provincial Deputy Governor Saken Kalmakanov and representatives of law enforcement agencies and the prosecutor’s office visited the village and organized a meeting to discuss the situation,” Jumanova said.
Some local residents suggest that disagreements between the two communities have intensified over the renaming of the village and its school.
Four years ago, the village name was changed from Kyzylasker to Qosmezgil, which mean “Red Army” and “two seasons,” in Kazakh, respectively.
Some local Uzbeks, however, wanted to rename the village and school Sunaq, the name of an ancient tribe in southern Kazakhstan. Some ethnic Uzbeks in Shornaq believe they are descended from the Sunaqs.
“But the Kazakhs are against renaming the village or the school Sunaq,” said a local resident, who didn’t want to give his name.
The renaming issue is just one of many that divide the two communities in Shornaq. But no one in the area is willing to discuss those grievances.
Officials in Nur-Sultan flatly reject the existence of any ethnic issue in Shornaq. It’s a sensitive topic in Kazakhstan that saw a tragic ethnic conflict between Dungan and Kazakh communities just six months ago in the country’s southeast.
‘Worried For Our Children’
Eleven people were killed, dozens were injured, and thousands of Dungans fled across the border to Kyrgyzstan during that conflict, which broke out on February 7 near the town of Kordai in the southern Zhambyl Province.
Previous ethnic tensions in Kazakhstan include a clash between ethnic Kazakhs and Tajiks in the Turkistan provincial village of Bostandyk in February 2015.
In 2007, fighting broke out between ethnic Kazakhs and Chechens in the village of Malovodnoye in Almaty Province. At least three people were killed in that violence.
Kazakh authorities say there have taken urgent measures to prevent the scuffle in Qosmezgil from flaring up or growing in scale.
On July 23, police patrolling the village stopped a group of some 40 young people from nearby areas who tried to enter Qosmezgil to take sides in the tension.
Both the villagers and officials said the men were incited by the video of the clash and the comments posted on social media about it.
A special task force has been set up to investigate the conflict. Beside the police and prosecutor’s probe, the intelligence services are also investigating the root causes of the conflict.
The villagers, meanwhile, say they are anxious about their and their families’ safety as well as the protection of their property.
The nighttime curfew lasts only nine hours, but the streets of Qosmezgil are deserted even during the day.
“We are worried about our children,” one local resident said.
Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by Dilara Isa and contributions from Ruslan Medelbek, both of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service