Animal-driven wheeled transport appeared in the Kazakh steppe by the middle of the second millennium B.C. For centuries, nomads used different forms of carts for transportation. During the catastrophic years of 1930-1933 when at least a third of Kazakh population perished in a famine caused by the collectivization campaign and forced sedentarization, the arba took on new meanings. In the absence of transport animals, displaced nomads dragged their arbas themselves, as seen in this photo. After the collectivization, most arbas, as well as transport animals, belonged to the state. We know that some of these vehicles were used to collect abandoned children to deliver them to orphanages. Nevertheless, more than anything else, the arba was associated with horrifying death. Particularly in cities, arbas were used to clean the streets from the piles of dead bodies which were then discarded somewhere beyond the city limits. We have two testimonies from people who were assigned this task in brigades. In her memoirs published in 1990, Märīyam Khakimzhanova, a famous writer and one of the early woman activists in Kazakhstan, described how college students in Almaty were involved in a group organized by the Zhenotdel [Women’s Department] to clean the city streets of corpses and prevent the spread of epidemics. Another person who was given the same task was Nughyman Bayandin who was a student at the Agricultural Technical College in Semey. These brigades were provided with arbas. This task was so horrific that in 1990, Bayandin recalled how after coming back to the dormitories at the end of their first day, students were crying hysterically, some got sick, and others spent the night vomiting. When people heard the wheels of an arba turning, they understood that death was approaching.
The image of the arba is most dominant when survivors recall the tragic deaths in orphanages. Time and again, famine testimonies include depictions of a pile of child corpses taken out by a horse- or ox-drawn arba. Dozens of little dead bodies were piled up in these usually not very large vehicles. It produced some of the most terrifying and unforgettable images of the famine. We have testimonies emphasizing this scene from children living in orphanages, from people who lived close to an orphanage, and even from people who transported child corpses.
Ghalym Akhmedov was living on Buryl street in Äūlīe-Ata (modern Taraz in southern Kazakhstan) where an orphanage was located. Lots of children died at the orphanage during the famine. Akhmedov wrote in 1989 that the vision of dead children being removed from the orphanage in an arba at dawn still haunted him. He assumed that they were taken to a mass grave each morning, but he was not sure about the destination. He remembered that legs and arms of naked children were dangling from the arba. Tasbolat Inkärbaev, who was 11-12 years old at the time, lived on the same street as an orphanage in a village in the Qorday district. He recalled that every day the dead bodies of children were removed by a horse-arba to be buried in a large pit that was dug outside the village.
Mäglīma Orazbaeva’s husband worked for some time as a carter in Aqsu district. In the 1990s, she still remembered how terrible that work was. Each day her husband took piles of child corpses to the nearby mountains and threw them off a cliff. Orazbaeva testified that there were times when they threw 52 children from the edge of the cliff in one day. Another person who worked transporting child corpses recalls throwing them on wasteland. The sound of the cart wheels in the early mornings was like a funeral ceremony for people who had starved to death, another eyewitness recalled, as Almasbek Äbsadyq recently reported. No other object is this strikingly associated with death in survivors’ accounts.
Mehmet Volkan Kaşıkçı received his PhD from Arizona State University in December 2020. His dissertation is on children and childhood in Kazakhstan from 1928 to 1953. From January to April 2021 he was a George Kennan fellow at the Kennan Institute.