As Khusei Daurov lay dazed after being caught up in inter-ethnic clashes near his home in southern Kazakhstan, he felt the cold steel of a pistol against his forehead.
Violence had broken out among local Kazakhs and a group of ethnic Chinese Muslims called Dungans, who number more than 150,000 across Central Asia.
Daurov, a Dungan community leader, was trying to calm tensions when a Kazakh man put the gun to his head. Another Kazakh intervened, convincing the man to let Daurov go.
His eyes glazed with tears as he recalled the incident a few days later, a sling supporting an arm that was broken in the assault.
But Daurov was still reluctant to condemn his Muslim Kazakh “brothers” for the violence.
“It wasn’t Kazakhs who did this to our people,” he said. “These people were bandits and extremists.”
The Feb 7 rampage, which resulted in 11 deaths, saw hundreds of ethnic Kazakh assailants descend on the Dungan village of Masanchi, setting fire to homes, shops and livestock.
In the worst such violence in nearly three decades of independence, at least nine of the dead were Dungans, while one was a Kazakh, officials said. One body has not yet been identified.
The bloody clashes have highlighted underlying tensions in a region where many ethnic groups live side by side, and have left many in the Dungan community wondering what their future holds.
Life in Central Asia for the Dungans has proven quiet compared to the brutal repressions they fled in imperial China in the 19th century.
Straddling the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the people who claim Chinese and Arab heritage mostly work in agriculture or run small businesses.
The Mandarin dialect that Dungans speak, which is infused with Farsi and Arabic loanwords, sets them apart in a region where Turkic tongues dominate.
Yet this has not prevented Dungans forming close bonds with other groups in ex-Soviet Central Asia, even if intermarriage is the exception rather than the rule.
For Batyrbek Toreyev, a civil servant who lives in the majority-Kazakh village of Karakemer, the sudden raid of nearby Masanchi was “unthinkable.”
“Our families are friends with their families. We stop by each others’ houses. What happened has happened now. We need to get on with our lives,” he said, carrying a shopping bag with two bricks of white bread.
Many Dungans of Central Asia have family ties to China, especially western China, where they are known as Hui.
Beijing has targeted the group of some 10 million as part of a crackdown on Muslims that has also swept up Turkic groups like Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in the western Xinjiang region.
Some Kyrgyz and Kazakhs argue that Dungans have leveraged their linguistic and cultural heritage to benefit unfairly from trade with China, which floods the region with imports.
In 2013, dozens of ethnic Dungan truckers were reportedly beaten by Kyrgyz drivers at a border crossing with China where truckers compete for cargo bound for the country’s bazaars
One complaint about Dungans that circulated on messaging services – seen by AFP – was that the group disrespects the Kazakh language by instead speaking their own or Russian, whose use is controversial throughout ex-Soviet republics.
But Malik Yasyrov, a Dungan man who died from a gunshot wound in the Masanchi attacks, was a Kazakh language teacher at a nearby middle school.
“He was a patriot. He went to Masanchi to defend his fellow citizens,” his mother Aishe Gadir said at a feast held for the neighbours and relatives who helped bury the 24-year-old.
Yasyrov had kept in touch with his mother throughout the night, narrating scenes of murder and pillaging.
As he described homes and cars ablaze, he begged her to take his two children to Kyrgyzstan.
After 1.00 am, his phone went dead. Later that morning, Gadir learned her son had been killed.
“We have been here, on this land, for 150 years. Why did Allah punish us in this way?” she asked. “How do we move on?” - AFP