Southern Kyrgyzstan pogroms

Blaming agitation by elements close to the ousted president seems scant explanation for the ugly violence against ethni

In a matter of months, there will be a number of investigations into why such intense violence was wrought on the ethnic Uzbek populations in the oblasts of Osh and Jalalabad.

None of the explanations I’ve gotten seem to pass the sniff test. &nbsp

The most popular is that it was agitated by remnants of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the ousted president, seeking to “counter-coup” the interim government headed by Roza Otunbayeva. &nbsp

There may be some truth to that claim, but it can’t explain the support base this ethnic violence had the vehement passions of the southern Kyrgyz population against their Uzbek compatriots, who have also called the Fergana valley home since time immemorial.&nbsp

Insults and blame

Everywhere I went this past week it was in my face. At the apartment we rented in Jalalabad from an ethnic Kyrgyz, it made for an ugly final night. &nbsp

Our landlord was a Kyrgyz and did not much appreciate us giving one of several boxes of our remaining food rations to our local Uzbek chef. Within minutes, two seemingly polite, motherly types were exchanging fisticuffs in our courtyard.&nbsp

The pleas from our Kyrgyz fixer, a talented young lawyer from Bishkek named Nasyr, were ignored.&nbspWithin minutes Nasyr was being insulted for defending our cook as a “northern collaborator” who “is the reason why the world is taking the side of the Uzbeks”.

An English-speaking Kyrgyz who lived in our building had earlier tried to convince our team that the Uzbeks were to blame for all that is wrong in this country.

She said that Uzbeks took all the good jobs, controlled all the money, and had it far better say, than a Kyrgyz would living in Uzbekistan under the arbitrary lines drawn here decades ago that fostered the present ethnic collision course. 

What she and many others have failed to explain is how the successful merchant class of Uzbeks here have wielded a disproportionate amount of political power or influence with Bishkek.&nbspClearly they have not.  

On my trip south with the interim president aboard the presidential aircraft, Roza Otunbayeva, acknowledged how Uzbeks are blamed for their success, and how statements by ethnic Uzbek leaders about having their language officially recognised last month in Jalalabad, could not have come at a worse moment.

Her military and law-enforcement apparatus is weak, as she also stated in this interview, and overwhelmingly staffed by Kyrgyz. 

Controlling the guns

In Central Asia, as in many other places I’ve visited, who controls the guns is often who wields the real power. That’s an even more acute reality in Kyrgyzstan where the armed forces are presided over by an unelected transitional government. 

Allegations of Kyrgyz military involvement in the sectarian killings has been well documented by this channel. But US and international calls for an impartial investigation by the Kyrgyz government strike me as very similar to the hollow slogans I heard last month in Washington in response to the Gaza flotilla crisis.

Surely the notion that those implicated get to investigate themselves is why someone came up with the “fox watching the hen house” comparison. 

That’s a shame because reconciling these communities will require a factual understanding of what actually took place.

In Osh, we visited Uzbek neighborhoods completely levelled by ethnically-motivated arson.&nbspThat’s a claim I feel comfortable repeating given that I saw, with my own eyes, so many of the homes with “KYG” spray painted on&nbsptheir doors left untouched (the targeting of ethnic neighbourhoods is also corroborated&nbspby satellite imagery).

Flying over the Uzbek areas of Osh and Jalalabad, my cameraman and I saw innumerable “SOS” markings, a plea to the heavens that went unanswered as more than 400,000 were forced to leave.&nbspSeeing them up close on the ground gave me chills.

Signs of danger

The occasional young Uzbek would venture out behind a barricade to query us, as if they were the only surviving humans following a natural disaster.

When we tried to approach three elderly Uzbek women, employed to help clean the debris, a group of Kyrgyz women came from nowhere to shout them down, calling them “liars” and accusing them of whipping up tears merely to please our cameras. &nbspWe left the scene after it became clear we were attracting a mob.&nbsp&nbsp

In the Krygyz south, large groups have all the signs of danger. Paramilitaries are everywhere – young men not in uniform carrying kalishnikovs, some of them wearing ski masks.

The only sign of professionalism I saw at the random checkpoints in Osh was just outside the devastated village of Nariman early on Thursday morning. 

We happened upon a squad of what appeared to be Russian soldiers (that is, they had all the features of troops from the Russian Federation), wearing unmarked uniforms&nbspthat resembled those of the Kyrgyz military. &nbsp

It was clear to us that Moscow may be quietly putting small numbers of boots on the ground to protect strategic assets (in this case, the airport at Osh which is vital to safeguard Russian humanitarian efforts). 

Such a force in small numbers&nbspwould&nbsphardly be&nbspenough to stabilise things, as the Kyrgyz-dominated military does not think they’re in the wrong and, even worse, have an investigation to fear

Returning home

In Bekabad, near the Krygyz-Uzbek border outside Jalalabad, we reported on thousands of ethnic Uzbeks that were coming home.&nbspIn most instances, they have no homes to return to.

The head of Unicef in Kyrgyzstan told me that many were staying with relatives in unaffected areas, or crowded into farms and forced to sleep alongside livestock.

The governor of Jalalabad, a Kyrgyz, told me they were providing&nbspgeneral purpose&nbsptents for Uzbeks choosing to return. But we saw nary a one, as most seemed to dissolve back into familial networks that run deeper into the country than just Osh or Jalalabad.

The politics of their return is yet another matter. Better late than never, Otunbayeva made several short trips to the areas hit hardest. But that was only after the killings had largely subsided. &nbsp

Her exhausted looking minister of defence and his subordinates seemed to understand her message that the international conversation needed to be changed by responsible official actions to help Uzbeks return immediately.

It is working for the moment, but many believe Otunbayeva only wants the appearance of life returning to normal as the country heads toward a referendum on June 27.

There may be some truth to that.The bigger picture item for Otunbayeva and her interim government is to get the seal of legitimacy so that reforms can finally begin.

Then, and only then, so the thinking goes, can they work out the underlying causes behind the pogroms that killed so many.