Opinion: Kyrgyzstan's racial violence could have been prevented

WASHINGTON — If you have followed the news of the deadly violence in Kyrgyzstan over the past week, then this eyewitness account might not surprise you:

“A deadly human tide ebbs and flows. There is blood on the streets. The wounded are being dragged away and pushed into cars and ambulances. The insurrection has passed a point of no return. Rioters have now armed themselves.”

What you might not expect, however, is that these words were written two months ago by freelance journalist Ben Judah. Judah was describing the overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, president of Kyrgyzstan since 2005, by a coalition of political opponents. The coalition succeeded, but inherited an impoverished and shaken state, with some elements of society still loyal to Bakiyev, and a thin thread of consensus for change holding the new government together.

Although the interim government under Roza Otunbayeva immediately began to develop plans for democratic change, the world should have recognized that the risks of group-targeted violence were great. Sudden political change — for better or for worse — coupled with deep economic stresses, corruption and inter-group tensions leaves a society ripe for political manipulation. This mix too often explodes on the vulnerable target of minority groups.

So the events of last week should have come as no surprise to policymakers paying attention to facts on the ground. In violence concentrated over four days largely in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad, Kyrgyz mobs attacked the minority Uzbek community: setting homes aflame, murdering a minimum of 176 people, and sending 100,000 refugees fleeing over the border to Uzbekistan and displacing another 300,000 inside Kyrgyzstan, according to estimates by aid groups. Reports are already surfacing of the kind of violence that seems intent on rending the already fragile fabric of multi-ethnic communities: rape, killing based on ethnicity, and the targeting of children.

In one incident, reported by Luke Harding of the Guardian, a woman reported seeing Kyrgyz men break into her Uzbek neighbor’s courtyard: “After confirming she was an ethnic Uzbek they stripped her, raped her and cut off her fingers. After that they killed her and her small son — throwing their bodies into the street. They then moved on to the next house.”

Was this mob violence? Political violence? Ethnic cleansing? Genocide? There is still a lot to be learned to understand more fully the patterns of the assault and whether it connected to any larger plans. Early reports indicate that the violence began with five simultaneous attacks in Osh, suggesting planned instigation. We know from past cases of genocide and related violence that neighbors do not spontaneously assault each other, even where tensions are high. This means that the interim government’s calls for calm can be effective, especially if those involved in catalyzing this violence are brought to justice.

The highest immediate concern is to support efforts to quell the violence and tend to the civilians in need. There should also be an accounting of the facts of what happened. Rumors thrive in such conditions, as civilians flee violence, attempt to hide and are cut off from their usual networks for safety and information. The fog of uncertainty too often contributes to later rounds of violence. Kyrgyzstan faces the same political challenges it faced a month ago; now made all the more difficult, and overcoming them all the more important, as its population is scarred by this trauma. Victims and perpetrators alike must have an honest accounting in order to move forward.

Further violence can be prevented. The United States has one of the largest embassies in Kyrgyzstan. Its central focus has been the maintenance of a military base there that offers strategic support for the war in Afghanistan. But human rights protection and prevention of genocide ought to be core foreign policy priorities for our government.

Kyrgyzstan has shown us all, once again, that there are always warning signs of group-targeted violence. They must be more carefully heeded or else such atrocities will continue to happen again and again.

Bridget Conley-Zilkic is the director of research and projects with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s genocide prevention program. The museum, with the U.S. Institute of Peace and The American Academy for Diplomacy, jointly convened the Genocide Prevention Task Force. For more information, see http://www.ushmm.org/genocide/