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Opinion: Kyrgyzstan's racial violence could have been prevented

U.S. diplomacy should make predicting and preventing genocide a priority.

Kyrgyzstan refugee camp
Ethnic Uzbeks walk between tents at a refugee camp in the village of Yorkishlak on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border on June 18, 2010. The United States called on Friday for an international investigation into ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

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.”