Friday, January 25, 2008

Kazakhstan: Ethnic Kurds see no option but to flee Kazakstan

A uneasy calm may now prevail between Kurds and Kazaks after last autumn’s violence, but most Kurds feel they have no option but to leave. Elena Eliseeva in Shymkent reports.

Fearing for their physical safety, many ethnic Kurds say they plan to leave southern Kazakstan, as reports of low-level violence against them continue.

Zara, an inhabitant of the southern city of Shymkent, says her family and many other local Kurds plan to sell up and leave following a spate of attacks on the community last November.

“Of course we are afraid to leave - we have lived here all our lives - but we are also afraid to stay,” Zara told IWPR.

“We don’t know what is coming next. The newspapers are writing bad things about us Kurds. If the community elders say so, we will certainly leave.”

The trouble dates from the end of October, when a Kurdish teenager from the village of Mayatas, in the Tolebi district of South Kazakstan region, was accused of sexually assaulting a four-year-old Kazak boy. (See previous IWPR story, Kazakstan: Ethnic Clash a Worrying Sign.) After the latter’s father went to the police, locals took the law into their own hands and started burning and looting houses and beating up Kurds.

The violence then spilled over into other towns and villages where to Kurds live.

Although attacks on people and property soon died down, work to reconcile the communities and foster greater tolerance have not yielded results.

Kurds in the South Kazakstan region interviewed by IWPR say although the mass looting has not recurred, small-scale incidents have continued.

“We have a bad feeling,” said one local from the Tolebi district. “Things are not the same as before.”

Official statistics suggest that there about 46,000 Kurds now living in Kazakstan, of whom 7,000 live in the South Kazakstan administrative region.

The Kurds belong to a community deported wholesale from Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1937, and from Georgia in 1944. Like hundreds of thousands of Chechens, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars and other ethnic groups, they were deemed suspect by Stalin, who ordered them to be shifted far into the interior of the Soviet Union.

Kazim Nadirov, who heads the Kurdish National Centre in Shymkent, said the conflict was now frozen rather than resolved.

Nadirov said that when cross-community meetings were arranged recently, Kurds found themselves being told to leave the area.

“At all the meetings I took part in, there was only one subject - leave, full stop,” he claimed. “Even when the public prosecutor was sitting next to me in those meetings... we were subjected to insults. I pointed out that as we are full citizens, they cannot say this and that we are as entitled to protection as they were. But that changed nothing.”

According to Nadirov, the majority of Kurds now have no confidence in their future.

Local media reported that a complete reconciliation between the communities had taken place following a meeting of elders in Lenger, the administrative centre of Tolebi district.

But members of the Kurdish community disagreed, some describing the meeting as humiliating.

“They said from the platform, ‘The Kurds are begging forgiveness, so we will forgive them,” said one local Kurdish businessman. “But why should I ask to be forgiven? I have never seen this teenager. How can one blame a whole people for the crime of one person?”

Nadirov said he believed most of the Kurds in South Kazakstan region would be gone by spring, once they looked at their options for resettling elsewhere.

Moreover, attacks on Kurdish families have not stopped entirely, he said, adding that his cultural centre has recorded about 30 cases of arson attacks since the mass lootings of last year.

“Most involve arsonists setting fire to the winter fodder set aside for the cattle,” Nadirov said. “They burned more than 17 tons of hay belonging to one family. That family owned 400 head of cattle, but they had to sell them because without fodder, the cattle would have died.”

Other Kurds report acts of intimidation designed to make their lives impossible. One man aged 60 from the village of Kok-Tobe in the Ordabas district said he was the regular target of intimidation at the market.

“When you take your sheep to the bazaar, the young men come up to you with a buyer and say, ‘You will sell your sheep to this buyer for 3,000 tenge each - when each one should cost no less than 15,000 tenge [around $120],” he said. “You can’t do anything about it – you have to sell your livestock at that price.”

Local authorities have made no official pronouncements about the problem. When asked, they have tended to blame the situation on “outside interference”.

Sadu Bekenov, a member of the regional council for South Kazakstan region, claimed certain groups – which he did not identify - were exploiting the situation to stir up ethnic tensions.

“You could say destructive forces have used this recent criminal offence, in order to give it a political tinge,” he said.“Someone is trying to inflame ethnic conflict with the help of young people who lack worldly experience and knowledge of history.” According to Nadirov, the Kurds feel abandoned and defenceless.

“It is difficult to be a nation without a homeland,” he lamented. “If we had a country of our own with a consulate in Kazakstan, would this happen? I’m sure it wouldn’t. But there’s absolutely no one to stand up for us.”

Elena Eliseeva is an IWPR contributor in Shymkent.
This article originally appeared in 'Reporting Central Asia' produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,