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Kyrgyzstan: surviving ethnic conflict

As Osh residents slowly come out of hiding, they seek explanations for the horrific racial violence.

Kyrgyzstan racial violence
Ethnic Uzbeks are seen on a street in the village of Vlksm, destroyed during recent clashes, some 12 miles west of the city of Osh on June 16, 2010. (Stringer/Reuters)

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — In Osh last weekend, entire streets and neighborhoods went up in flames, sometimes incinerating families inside them, in an outbreak of racial violence. The official death toll is reaching 200, but many observers believe that this figure may climb higher. The United Nations says that 400,000 people have now fled the hostilities.

Kyrgyzstan seems to be spiraling downward. Two months ago the country ousted its leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, in fighting that left nearly a hundred dead. The provisional leaders who replaced him seem weak and divided, especially after their apparent helplessness in the face of the recent violence in the country's south.

Osh has stabilized, but there is a palpable tension in the air, as if the population is waiting for the next shoe to drop. Stores have begun to open and neighborhoods are slowly springing to life. Before the violence, residents took pride in their city’s variety and vitality. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz sipped green tea together, ate heaping plates of greasy pilaf in terraced cafes, or haggled over prices in the city’s bazaars.

Now an ominous quiet grips the streets. Many people have fled, of course, but others are afraid to come out for any extended period of time. A curfew has been introduced from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. The federal troops who were ultimately introduced to quell the violence are present, but in strikingly small numbers. People speak darkly of what will happen next: more violence, or a total breakdown of central authority?

What was behind the brutality in Osh and Jalalabad? As befits any conflict of this sort, the violence and intensity have thrown up a cloud of contradicting facts and narratives. But the answer is crucial — both for the stability of this fractious ex-Soviet nation, and for the central Asian region as a whole.

There is a chance that what happened is as it appears: that this was a tribal dispute that quickly raged out of control. Southern Kyrgyzstan is part of the Ferghana Valley — an ethnically dappled, highly populated region it shares with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Osh is almost evenly split between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

Friendships abound and many neighborhoods are mixed, but tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have been building for years. In 1990, similar violence between the two groups resulted in hundreds dead. Before this most recent outbreak, Uzbeks could be heard complaining that Kyrgyz held all political power and did not respect their ethnic rights. Kyrgyz for their part said that all the main businesses belonged to Uzbeks and that they were always pushing for extra influence.

“It’s been simmering and simmering for a long time now,” said Mukhabat Kurbanalieva, a Kyrgyz trader at a local bazaar. “All the owners are Uzbek, and all the workers are Kyrgyz,”

“We live in Kyrgyzstan, but the Uzbeks behave obnoxiously — they want this to be an autonomous part of Uzbekistan,” she added.

Kurbanalieva, however, is also an example of the contradictions and the many layers that exist in Osh society. As she worked, she bantered happily with her Uzbek customers in Uzbek. She vehemently condemned the fighting and that the Uzbeks suffered. During the disturbances, she was aided by Uzbeks, and she said she was protecting an Uzbek neighbor in her home.