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Kyrgyzstan atrocities: rumor or fact?

Fear stalks the streets of Osh, as rumors of mass killings and rapes run wild.

Ethnic Uzbek refugees are seen through a broken window on a street in the city of Osh, June 20, 2010. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Rumors of alleged atrocities helped stoke the inter-ethnic conflagration that raged in this southern Kyrgyz city over the past week, and they are now threatening to unravel an uneasy peace.

News that an angry Uzbek mob broke into a local dormitory and raped (and killed, depending on which version you heard) two Kyrgyz female students quickly spread through the ethnic Kyrgyz sections of Osh last Thursday evening. The story struck a particular nerve — Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are traditional societies (and both Sunni Muslims) and react to issues of sexual violations with particular severity.

It didn’t matter that the information wasn’t true — the Uzbeks did not step foot in the dormitory. Within hours, a cry went up through the ethnic Kyrgyz sections of the city, calling for revenge.

“My sister called me at 1:30 in the morning,” said Rustam, an ethnic Uzbek married to a Kyrgyz. “She said, ‘The Kyrgyz are rising up, they’re saying that the Uzbeks are cutting them to pieces.'”

The Uzbeks, for their part, had their own rumors that they were reacting to. On that fateful Thursday night, a crowd of several hundred of them did in fact go on a rampage, burning businesses and breaking windows. But participants say that they were responding to reports of a series of confrontations between Kyrgyz and them the previous days, which also may not have been entirely accurate.

Many observers here and abroad — including U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — suspect that the anti-Uzbek pogroms that subsequently swept over Osh and then neighboring city Jalal-Abad like a prairie fire might have been the work of outside forces.

The initial altercations that sparked the fighting could have been intentional provocations, as was the manner in which the news was quickly disseminated. And the revenge mobs that quickly formed and descended on the Uzbek neighborhoods may have been organized in advance. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Nari Pillay called the attacks “orchestrated, targeted, and well-planned.”

Uzbek houses and business went up in flames. As many as 2,000 people may have died, according to Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva. This figure may climb even higher.

But the events that led to the slaughter are still taken at face value. Despite the fact that the dormitory in question is located in central Osh and can be easily reached, no one disputes the allegations of what happened there — including the mayor’s office, which backs up this version of events.

But even if the pogroms were orchestrated, they still found strong support among the Kyrgyz population; the reports of the Uzbek crowd’s alleged atrocities are still used as justification for what transpired to their entire community afterwards.

“The Uzbeks started all this — they’re the guilty ones,” said Kasym Anarbaev, director Osh-Gu University, standing not far from where the dormitory is located. “They broke into the dormitory and raped and strung up those girls.”

Responding to the question of why so many Uzbeks needed to suffer for what might have been the actions of a few hundred enraged rioters, Daniyar, a ethnic Kyrgyz soldier wielding a Kalashnikov (and who preferred to give only his first name) simply said: “Those Uzbeks should have thought about the consequences before they started this. They got what was coming to them.”

Amid the jumble of facts and rumors, accusations and counter-accusations over who is ultimately to blame for the violence, one fact is indisputable: both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are terrified of what may come next.