Kyrgyzstan: Dissecting the rage in Osh

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — “You’re a Westerner, so of course you love the Uzbeks,” said my taxi driver, Aibek, an ethnic Kyrgyz, as we drove through the still-charred streets of what is sometimes called Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital.

“You all think that the Uzbeks suffered the most — you talk only about the Uzbek refugees, and say that more Uzbeks died,” he continued, smiling, though his voice was strained. “But the fact is that far more Kyrgyz died, and we had just as many refugees. We just had homes to go to, whereas they were in camps.”

“The Uzbeks got what they deserved because they started the fighting, because they killed more of us, and because they were demanding things that they have no right to,” he concluded.

Aibek and I were discussing what are now called “the June events”: The eruption of ethnic violence at the beginning of that month in Kyrgyzstan’s south between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who make up a sizable minority in the region. The fighting resulted in untold numbers killed — the official number is over 400, but many think this is low — and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

This conversation was typical of my latest trip to Osh, last week. The city is slowly returning to normal, and people seem for the most part concerned with getting on with their lives and trying to put the horrific events behind them. In time, they may even succeed in returning it to the delightful, ethnically mixed Silk Road outpost that it was before. But there are worrying signs that this may be just a lull in the fighting: Anger and fear are in the bazaars, the tea houses and in the dusty, shop-lined streets.

Kyrgyz rage is often more in your face than that of the Uzbeks. Although the Kyrgyz are far more numerous than the Uzbeks, and the ethnic Kyrgyz fighters decisively vanquished their opponents in June, large numbers seem not to have relaxed — just the opposite. Many Kyrgyz maintain that they were in fact the victims, and that the international community is distorting the picture to minimize their suffering.

My conversation with Aibek the taxi driver was friendly, but other exchanges were considerably less so. The bearing of Ruslan Tashanov, a local human rights activist and ethnic Kyrgyz, transformed when I asked him if there was any danger of a repeat of the June events.

“It’s you: the Western press and human rights organizations. You’re pouring oil on the fire,” Tashanov said, his eyes wide with anger and his neck tensed. “If something happens, it will be your fault.”

The difficulty is that much about the June events is still opaque: their origins, the actual death toll — indeed what in fact happened. People were locked in their homes or their neighborhoods; unsubstantiated rumors still dominate the discourse.

Also part of the problem is that while the fighting raged, much of Osh was a no-go area for international agencies and journalists. They entered the war zone only as the conflict was dying down, and had to piece together a narrative from the physical evidence and the stories of those involved.

What we found was this: Uzbek houses and businesses burnt to the ground, while Kyrgyz buildings remained for the most part unscathed. If a house had “Uzbek” (or “Sart” — an ethnic slur for the Uzbeks) written on it, chances were that it had been completely destroyed. If “Kyrgyz” was scrawled on the gates, it was left alone.

The Uzbeks told harrowing stories of gangs of Kyrgyz, mostly from outside the city, swooping down on their neighborhoods, looting and shooting and torching houses, sometimes with families still inside. The Kyrgyz said that they were forced to do this as retaliation, after the Uzbeks had killed them in large numbers.

Kyrgyzstan's government has promised an investigation into the events (though it is slow in getting started), and an international inquiry is set to begin next week. Human Rights Watch is the only major organization so far to attempt a detailed report on the violence and its aftermath. They describe a conflict that was possibly sparked by Uzbeks rioting and beating Kyrgyz — with a few Kyrgyz deaths. This quickly developed into an all-out battle, in which the Kyrgyz gained the upper hand and destroyed Uzbek neighborhoods. There is also a lingering question whether security forces stood to the side during the rioting, or even assisted the ethnic Kyrgyz.

Many Uzbek refugees have now returned, but many say that they are simply living beside the Kyrgyz and not interacting. They also protest that they are still being targeted for abuse, and Kyrgyz officials are arresting and prosecuting them in disproportionate numbers in connection with the violence.

Human Rights Watch issued a press release last week calling on officials to crack down on recent attacks by ethnic Kyrgyz at the trials for Uzbeks accused of fighting in June. Recently, four ethnic Uzbeks were badly beaten — three of them relatives of a defendant in their 50s and 60s. Their photos can be seen on the HRW website.

(Read an account by Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch of one of the first trials for those accused of perpetrating the violence.)

In the recent parliamentary elections — which were roundly hailed as highly transparent — the Uzbeks in Osh voted in droves for the law-and-order party of Ar Namys. They said that they liked the party leader, Feliks Kulov, a former prime minister and KGB general, and the fact that he is believed to be close to Russia, which they hope could come to their protection if hostilities break out again. (Kulov used a photo of his shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as one of his main campaign materials.)

For their part, many Kyrgyz — justified or not — fear the Uzbek minority. They believe the Uzbeks monopolize the levers of the local economy, and when some Uzbeks started recently to demand more political say, the Kyrgyz took fright. In the elections unexpectedly large numbers of Kyrgyz voted for Ata Jurt, a party that called among other things for protection of Kyrgyz ethnic rights.

“The Kyrgyz feel themselves under threat, that the ethnic minorities are trying to reduce their role so that Kyrgyzstan is no longer based on the idea of single ethnic group,” said the human rights defender Tashanov.

“There is such a thing as the aggression of a minority,” he added. “The Uzbeks are the aggressor.”