Skip to main content
  • Share to or

Dispatch from the Chüy Valley Since ethnic violence in 2020, Dungans on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border have straddled two different worlds

Source: Meduza

Story by Sam Breazeale for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

The Chüy Valley spans the border between the Chüy region in northern Kyrgyzstan and Jambyl region in southern Kazakhstan. Since the late 1800s, it has been home to tens of thousands of Dungans, a predominantly Muslim people hailing from China whose language resembles some Mandarin dialects but is written in Cyrillic script. The Dungans first arrived in Central Asia in the bloody aftermath of an unsuccessful revolt, and they managed to preserve their language and culture under Imperial Russian and Soviet rule. According to RFE/RL, there are roughly 120,000 Dungans scattered across the former USSR today. For those living in the Chüy Valley, a haunting anniversary is coming up: in February 2020, ethnic violence between Dungans and Kazakhs in the Jambyl region claimed 11 lives and led thousands of people to seek refuge with relatives across the border in Kyrgyzstan. Many of those who fled soon returned home, but a deep-seated sense of insecurity remains, nearly three years on. In a dispatch for The Beet, Meduza in English’s senior news editor Sam Breazeale reports on how life has changed for the Chüy Valley’s Dungans since the 2020 clashes. 

Some of the names in this story have been changed or omitted for safety reasons.

It’s an hour-long drive east from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek to the town of Tokmok — a journey that includes about five minutes in Kazakhstan, due to the way the border-marking Chu River winds under the road and back. From the small Tokmok bus station, I take a puttering taxi to the nearby School No. 10, where students are playing basketball on a dusty court behind a mosque — the “Uzbek” one, I’m later told.

When I take a seat in the back of a fifth-grade classroom, I notice Russian- and Kyrgyz-language signs on the walls, but nothing in Dungan, apart from six words written on the blackboard. The teacher, Gulnara, passes out copies of Leo Tolstoy’s children’s story The Plum Stone, printed in both Russian and Dungan, to each of the 20 students. After the class reads the fable together in each language, Gulnara wants them to debate whether the protagonist is a “good boy” or a “bad boy.” But first she has to teach them the words written on the board, which appeared in the story but don’t exist in the dialect spoken by most of the students’ families.

School No. 10 in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. January 2023.
Ilia Denbrov for Meduza
Leo Tolstoy’s story “The Plum Stone” in a Dungan language textbook
Ilia Denbrov for Meduza
Dungan children in a book of paintings by Kyrgyzstani artist Khalida Shimova
Ilia Denbrov for Meduza
Fatima Ayupovna, the principal of School No. 10. Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. January 2023.
Ilia Denbrov for Meduza

“It’s very difficult for me, because our textbooks are written in Gansu dialect,” she tells me after the lesson. Unlike most Kyrgyzstani Dungans, the families of the students at School No. 10 speak the language’s Shaanxi dialect. “The Gansu dialect is spoken in Tokmok, too, but it’s more common [in the area around] School No. 6.”

The ancestors of Central Asia’s Dungan population emigrated from China’s Gansu and Shaanxi provinces to escape persecution and massacres precipitated by Muslim revolts under the Qing dynasty in the late 19th century; the dialect a family speaks depends on which part of China their ancestors fled.

Descended from the Hui people, Dungans are united, among other things, by their Muslim faith and well-preserved culture. Their language, on the other hand, has started to disappear, according to Gulnara.

A battle of the Panthay Rebellion (1856–1873) from “Victory over the Muslims,” a set of twelve paintings in ink and color on silk
Palace Museum, Beijing / Wikimedia Commons
Dungans who fled to Kyrgyzstan from China seen in the city of Pishpek (today’s Bishkek) in 1897. Photos by French photographer Paul Labbé from the album “Voyage de Mr. Paul Labbé en Sibérie du 15 mai 1897 au 15 novembre 1897.”
La Bibliothèque nationale de France

“We know the conversational words, the everyday words, the household items,” she explains, “but we’re losing our language. One word at a time, we’ve added Russian. [...] My goal is to make sure [the students] don’t lose the words they do know. As far as making them into scholars of Dungan culture, I don’t even dream of that.”

For researcher Rahima Ismayeva, an actual scholar of Dungan culture, preserving the little Dungan that young people do know isn’t enough. “Instagram, Facebook, Odnoklassniki, TikTok. I’m everywhere. Because TikTok is what young people like right now,” she tells me at a cafe in Bishkek. Ismayeva’s accounts on these platforms are a successor to the Dungan-language publication Sulian Huizu Bao (“Soviet Dungan Newspaper”), which first appeared under the Kyrgyz-language name Sabattuu Bol (“Be Literate”) in 1930.

A group of Dungan students in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The second student from the left in the second row is Dungan writer and activist Iasyr Shivaza. His granddaughter, Rahima Ismayeva, studies Dungan culture at the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences. 1930s or 1940s.
Rahima Ismailova’s archive
A Dungan woman embroiders her wedding dress with her mother and grandmother. Chüy Valley, Kazakhstan, 1989.
I. Budnyevich and G. Koshkintsev / TASS
A Dungan wedding dress. Traditional Dungan bridal wear has largely been preserved since the 19th century. Kazakhstan, 2022.
Zulfiya Imyarova’s archive

She leans across the table to show me some of the clips on the newspaper’s TikTok account: some reveal the “secrets of Dungan cuisine,” while others show scenes from the lives of Dungans living in Russia or the United States. Under a video about Dungan grammar, Ismayeva scrolls through the comments and reads her favorites out loud. One says, “I’m Kyrgyz. Dungans have been my friends since [my] schoolyard days. Hi, brothers!”

A few minutes later, Ismayeva pulls her phone out again, this time to show me her daughter’s wedding pictures. “Our oldest married a Russian man,” she says. “That’s not exactly welcomed in the Dungan community. [...] We got a lot of judgment for it. But we put up with it, because it’s her life. And in the end, people accepted it.”

After scrolling for a while, she finds one of the photos: a young woman in a brightly patterned dress with flowers in her intricately braided hair. “This is my youngest daughter. A Chinese princess.”

The courtyard outside of School No. 10 and the mosque next door. Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. January 2023.
Ilia Denbrov for Meduza
Customers throw snowballs outside of Peking, a Dungan cafe. Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. January 2023
Ilia Denbrov for Meduza
Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. January 2023
Ilia Denbrov for Meduza
Salad with beef tongue, a traditional Dungan dish
Ilia Denbrov for Meduza
Shchi, a popular Dungan soup (distinct from the Russian soup with which it shares a name)
Ilia Denbrov for Meduza

‘Everyone still has that fear’

In early February 2020, after two unrelated confrontations between Dungans and Kazakhs in the Qordai district in southeastern Kazakhstan, calls to “stand up to the Dungans” and other xenophobic rhetoric began spreading rapidly online. On the evening of February 7, about 30 Kazakhs instigated a brawl with roughly the same number of Dungans, according to the human rights group ADC Memorial.

Within hours, hundreds of Kazakhs from other towns and villages arrived at the scene, along with various local authorities and community members. By the following morning, Kazakhs had shot at, burned, and looted numerous Dungan homes and businesses. Eyewitnesses claimed that police officers watched passively and even ran from the attackers as the violence spread to other villages nearby. A total of 11 people were killed and 168 homes damaged, with the village of Masanchi affected worst of all, according to the Kazakh authorities.

Violent attacks against the Dungan community in Masanchi, Kazakhstan
Silk Road

Gulnara, an employee at the Tokmok Central Library, remembers that night well: like dozens of other families in Kyrgyzstan, she offered her home to as many Kazakhstani Dungan refugees as she could accommodate. “We had seven people living with us,” she tells me. “Whereas my in-laws had almost 40 people living with them; their relatives, many of them small children.”

A residential building that was partially burned down during the ethnic violence in Masanchi, Kazakhstan. February 9, 2020.
Dulat Yesnazar for Vlast

Her coworker Aida also took in refugees. “My sister and her children arrived at night, while the men said they would stay [in Kazakhstan] until the end: ‘How can we abandon our homes and leave?’ Like any man probably would, they sent their wives and children off to safety and stayed home themselves.”

Altogether, more than 4,000 people fled to Kyrgyzstan temporarily. In Tokmok, a Dungan restaurant called Peking collected donations, including diapers, bottled water, food, clothing, and even candy for the kids, Aida recalls. She praises the mayor of Tokmok for his role in organizing efforts to connect refugees with volunteers willing to share their homes.

“[Our guests] lived with us for almost a month and a half. And then, when they went back [to Kazakhstan], they lived in their basement [for a while]. They were afraid to even come upstairs,” says Gulnara.

“Everyone still has that fear,” Aida adds. “It’s like they were psychologically traumatized — both the children and the adults.”

‘If you don’t assimilate, then you’re free to go’

Kazakh authorities denied the ethnic nature of the violence from the very start, referring to it as a “mass brawl incited by hooliganism.” As journalist Joanna Lillis wrote in her detailed coverage of the ensuing trial, “the nakedly ethnic dimension of the Masanchi unrest is a deeply uncomfortable fact” for Kazakhstan, which has long cast itself as a land of ethnic harmony. And while incidents of interethnic violence have indeed been relatively infrequent since independence, that’s not necessarily a result of warm relations. According to a 2004 UN Human Rights Office report: “Ethnic stability [...] is partly a result of de facto priority accorded to Kazakhs as the titular group and the virtual absence of institutions that can aid a mobilization of minority claims.”

According to Zulfiya Imyarova, an associate professor at Almaty’s Narxoz University, little has changed in the years since that assessment. “The [Kazakh] authorities have always spoken proudly [...] about how the unity of all of the peoples of multinational Kazakhstan is one of the country’s main values,” she said in a 2021 interview. “But the pogroms that happened in February [2020] [...] showed that brotherhood, equality, and justice are fairly relative terms.”

A building that was badly burned during violent clashes in Masanchi, Kazakhstan. February 9, 2022.
Dulat Yesnazar for Vlast

This is partly because, in addition to its minority inhabitants and international partners, Kazakhstan’s leadership also seeks to please a base of supporters who have other, less inclusive, ideas about what Kazakhstan should be. Government officials “send different messages,” appealing to both ethnonationalist and civic understandings of Kazakh identity, Imyarova tells me. “If we look at official speech, [...] anything in the Kazakh language usually includes [phrases like] ‘We are brothers’ and ‘My people.’ [But] when they address [people] in Russian, they say, ‘We are Kazakhstanis,’ ‘We are the people of Kazakhstan,’” she explains. “And people who are national patriots and the majority in rural areas listen to those [first] kinds of messages and think, ‘Oh, our government will support us.’”

If this kind of ambivalence towards minorities sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s inherited from Kazakhstan’s predecessor state. According to Imyarova, the Kazakh authorities have sought to recycle the Soviet idea that “Russians are dominant and the Russian language is the main language,” replacing Russians with Kazakhs. “And Kazakh national patriots want the same thing,” she adds. “They want the Kazakh language to be dominant and minorities to be assimilated — and if you don’t assimilate, then you’re free to go.” 

‘Kazakhstan isn’t Kyrgyzstan, you know’

After my visit to Gulnara's Dungan language class, I eat dinner at the home of a Dungan woman named Amina. Though she lives in Tokmok, Amina travels each day to a Dungan village across the border in Kazakhstan, where she teaches Kazakh history at a local school. Over pickled vegetables and strips of beef, she tells me how life in the Qordai district has changed since the violence in 2020.

“I shouldn’t be speaking about this, but I can’t stay silent anymore. We had two decades of [Nursultan] Nazarbayev, and now we have his puppet, [current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev]. But of course, I still cast my vote, because I’m a state worker,” she tells me.

In Amina’s telling, the bloodshed left local Dungan children with a dark awareness that can’t be unlearned. “Those kids have seen that everything they have can be burned down in a single night,” she says.

When I mention that I plan to travel to Masanchi the following week, Amina and her husband, Yasir, laugh nervously. “Kazakhstan isn’t Kyrgyzstan, you know,” Yasir says. “Be very careful.” After I explain that a local community leader has agreed to show me the Dungan museum, both Amina and Yasir are confident I won’t learn anything new about the unrest. “He’ll tell you everything about Dungan history and culture,” Amina says. “But he won’t say anything about the things we’ve been talking about.”

Masanchi, Kazakhstan, the day after deadly ethnic violence rocked the village. February 9, 2020.
Dulat Yesnazar for Vlast

* * *

A week later, I travel to Masanchi. Following the advice of multiple people, I start my visit at the akimat, or village administration building, where I explain to a young Kazakh officer that I want to visit the Dungan museum. After making a call, the officer escorts me outside and directs me to the village’s House of Culture.

Inside, I find myself in a spacious room; the walls are lined with maps and posters about Kazakhstan. There’s nothing in the Dungan language or even any reference to Masanchi’s Dungan residents at all, despite the fact that they make up roughly 94 percent of the village’s population.

The museum itself is behind a door labeled “Masanchi Village Historical and Local History Center,” in Kazakh. The impressive collection of Dungan traditional clothing, photographs, paintings, and documents that, according to Amina, used to take up a significant portion of the building, is now packed into two rooms the size of large walk-in closets.

The Dungan Cultural Museum in Masanchi, Kazakhstan. December 2022
Sam Breazeale / Meduza
Traditional Dungan clothing at the Dungan Cultural Museum in Masanchi, Kazakhstan. December 2022
Sam Breazeale / Meduza
“Steppe Aristocracy” in 1882. Shown in the Dungan Cultural Museum in Masanchi, Kazakhstan. December 2022.
Sam Breazeale / Meduza

After my tour, I ask the community leader if he would be willing to talk about “those events,” as many Dungans refer to the 2020 attacks. He politely declines. A few minutes later, he points me to a group of taxis across the street and makes it clear that it’s time for me to head back to Kyrgyzstan.

Weekly newsletter

Sign up for The Beet

Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.

Story by Sam Breazeale for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart.

  • Share to or