Kyrgyzstan: surviving ethnic conflict

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.

For many Kyrgyz, though, it was the Uzbeks who started the violence and therefore bear responsibility for what transpired. According to Gulmira Kadyrdzhan, who is tasked with collecting information about the events for the Osh mayor’s office, Uzbek leaders were preparing for some time for an uprising — even stockpiling weapons. She claims that the initial spark occurred when a large crowd of Uzbeks stormed a local dormitory and raped two students on June 10. Kyrgyz attacks on Uzbeks shortly thereafter were merely in reaction to this initial act of bestiality, she said.

Osh’s Kyrgyz mayor, Melisbek Myrzakmatov, agrees that the Uzbeks started it. But he is quick to add that the majority of Osh’s Uzbek community is “peaceful” — the attacks were carried out by “terrorists and religious extremists,” he said. Officials had arrested “three or four” individuals connected with the attacks, he added.

Many elements of the official version of events do not check out, however — Uzbeks never stepped foot in the dormitory, numerous witnesses attest. Nor were they armed with automatic weapons in the initial encounter. (Uzbeks however did go on a rampage that first night, breaking windows and torching some buildings, witnesses said.)

Whatever the actual act was that initiated the bloodbath, one fact is emerging: The bulk of the violence ended up being directed by Kyrgyz against Uzbeks. Kyrgyz said that they were fighting pitched battles against armed Uzbeks and they merely gained the upper hand. The Uzbeks say that they were attacked suddenly, in the early morning hours, often with local police and army aiding their Kyrgyz assailants. They say that they had no weapons.

The areas that suffered were in fact those where Uzbeks lived exclusively, or in large numbers, while completely Kyrgyz neighborhoods went unscathed. Uzbek houses and businesses were overwhelmingly those that were torched. Kyrgyz structures — with the words “Kyrgyz” written across them, apparently to ward off marauders — were left alone. Occasionally, a Kyrgyz house was burnt, but neighbors said that this was because the fire from the Uzbek home next door had spread.

“The Kyrgyz attacked the Uzbeks,” said one Kyrgyz man in the heavily damaged Chermyomushki neighborhood, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, standing amidst the burned out carcasses of dozens of Uzbek houses.

Some people point to the possibility that the violence against the Uzbeks was planned in advance and orchestrated, since the initial attacks were widespread and simultaneous, occurring in the early hours of June 11. Many witnesses — both Uzbek and Kyrgyz — said that the groups carrying out the attacks seemed to be comprised of Kyrgyz from outside Osh. (Others however said that there were locals involved.)

In the Uzbek neighborhood of Shark, Saip Rakhmanovich stood among the ruins of his home were his eight family members once lived. They fled in the early hours of June 11, but he remained behind. Now his earthly possessions consisted of the clothes on his back: a pair of dusty jeans, a brown shirt, and gray windbreaker.

“After this, how can we live peacefully with these people?” he asked. “How can we look them in the eyes?”