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Kyrgyzstan: surviving ethnic conflict

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

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?”