Nearly everyone in the village of Kazygurt believes that Marat Maulenov, a 44-year-old local schoolteacher, has taken his family to Syria.
Maulenov's family is devastated by the thought that their son would take his family to Islamic State-controlled lands. No one in the village knows why he would. And the security services have refused to provide any official information about the case.
Maulenov and his wife were well-known in Kazygurt, in Kazakhstan's South Kazakhstan region.
The family lived in a large home on a spacious plot of land in the village. They had a car. Maulenov had taught Russian for 15 years at the Oraz Zhandosov middle school, while his wife, Aygul, was a stay-at-home mom who cared for the couple's six children. Their eldest was a teenager in the last years of high school, and the youngest was still in diapers.
But at the beginning of September, the Maulenovs suddenly disappeared. Maulenov, Aygul, and the six children caught a midnight bus to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. From there, they traveled to Turkey and then crossed into Syria, according to a local newspaper, Zamana.
Zamana reporter Saparayym Kenzhaliyeva told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service (Radio Azattyk) that the paper obtained news of the Maulenovs' flight from Kazygurt to Syria from Aygul's sister, who received the information from a relative working for Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB).
But since they talked to Zamana, the family has been told to stop spreading information about the Maulenovs, Kenzhaliyeva said.
'I Don't Want To Talk About My Son'
The Maulenovs' sudden departure for Syria has devastated their closest relatives, neighbors say.
Maulenov's father is bedridden due to an illness, and his mother, Anar-Apay, told Radio Azattyk that she did not want to talk.
"I'm ill. Please leave. I don't have the strength to talk. I've got nothing to say about the son who left us," Anar-Apay said.
A neighbor, who refused to give her name, told Radio Azattyk that when Anar-Apay found out that her son's family had "departed for Syria," she was grief-stricken.
The neighbor said that about four years ago, Maulenov started to show signs he had become more religious.
He began to pray the namaz, the ritual five-daily Islamic prayers.
A year ago, Aygul began wearing a hijab, the neighbor said.
Neighbors say Maulenov began to be seen in the company of "bearded men" -- apparently meaning religious Muslims. The schoolteacher began to distance himself from village life.
"[Maulenov] didn't have a beard. I think he couldn't grow one. But he had fairly close contact with bearded men," recalls another neighbor, Dosbol Bisenov, who says he has known Maulenov and his wife since childhood.
"After he started to talk to the bearded [guys] he stopped going to celebrations and ceremonies in the village," Bisenov adds.
In recent months, Maulenov had started to make his children participate in his daily prayers, his neighbor remembers.
Bisenov claims that in the last few days before Maulenov disappeared, "KNB agents" had come looking for him. But when approached by RFE/RL, the local KNB office refused to comment on Maulenov's case.
'A Good Man With A Wonderful Wife'
Maulenov's colleagues describe him as an intelligent, kind man from a stable family background.
"Marat is a very humane, good man. His mother was a teacher. His wife is also a wonderful person," says Mukhtar Madibekov, a friend, classmate, and colleague of Maulenov's at the Oraz Zhandosov middle school.
Madibekov says the last time he saw Maulenov was on September 1. He remembers Maulenov telling him that he planned to write a request for six months' leave, for "family reasons."
September 1 was the last day that Maulenov turned up for work. But the principal of the Oraz Zhandosov middle school, Bakadyr Taushayev, says Maulenov had never written any request for leave.
As Kazygurt tries to come to terms with the sudden departure of the Maulenov family, Madibekov, for one, cannot accept the rumors that Maulenov went to Syria.
"He didn't talk to his students about religion or Muslim duty in class. I never heard a bad word from him. People say he went [to Syria]. But no one detained him. Personally, I don't believe it," Madibekov says.
Kazakhs In Syria (And Iraq)
The exact number of Kazakh nationals who have gone to live in IS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq is not known.
The issue of numbers is a sensitive one. In July, Kazakhstan's National Security Committee declined to answer a question from Radio Azattyk about the number of Kazakh nationals who have died fighting alongside IS in Syria and Iraq, saying that a response to such a "closed topic" would only be provided in writing.
Kazakhstan has also downplayed the number of Kazakh nationals in IS-controlled territory, maintaining that there are "about 150" individuals fighting alongside IS as well as around 200 women and children.
But that figure appears to come from a video that appeared on the Internet in October 2013 that showed a group of about 150 Kazakh militants who said they had gone to Syria with their families.
There is evidence from both social media and IS official propaganda that Kazakh children are present in Syria and are being subjected to military and ideological training and indoctrination.
Source: rferl.org On photo 1: Marat Maulenov lived with his wife and six children in this house in the Kazakh village of Kazygurt. On photo 2:Marat Maulenov taught Russian at the Oraz Zhandosov middle school.