How ordinary people are stepping in to help the displaced in Kyrgyzstan
When the state can’t deal with crisis, people step up – inside and outside the country
Journalist Nazgul Zharbulova first heard about fighting on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border on 16 September.
After just two days of violence, tens of thousands of people had been displaced in Kyrgyzstan’s eastern border regions due to the latest escalation in the ongoing violent dispute with Tajikistan over border demarcation.
As of today, nearly 100 people are believed to have died on both sides of the border.
Zharbulova, at her home in Almaty in neighbouring Kazakhstan, felt she needed to help Kyrgyzstan. After all, Kyrgyzstan society had helped just months earlier, when protests erupted in Kazakhstan and president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued shoot-to-kill orders, leaving 238 dead and thousands injured.
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“It was Kyrgyzstan that reposted information about the victims and organised assistance,” says Zharbulova. “They also received residents of Almaty who fled across the border and… provided housing and food.”
It was time to repay the favour, she thought.
But Zharbulova couldn’t find a humanitarian fund run by her own government. Instead, she reached out to Ismail Karypov, a Kyrgyz activist who was posting on social media about the conflict. Zharbulova offered to start a fundraiser to help the residents of Kyrgyzstan’s Batken border region.
In three days, Zharbulova raised over 10,500,000 tenge – about £20,000 – in Kazakhstan and around the world.
“Small-scale mobilisation and mutual aid are things that Kazakhstan is already quite good at”
Karypov used the funds to buy essential goods like clothing, food and medical supplies. He then directly delivered these supplies to evacuees in smaller towns near destroyed villages like Isfana, in Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken region, one of the most affected by the clashes – and which had been left out by official distribution channels.
Both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have faced recurring crises in recent years – from the global pandemic to civil unrest, police crackdowns and armed conflict. Grassroots responses like those of Zharbulova and Karypov are becoming swifter and more sophisticated, driven by the need to fill the gap left by authorities, whose response can be sluggish, inadequate or absent.
Karypov told openDemocracy: “We cannot change our neighbours. We should find points where we can help each other and grow to just being friends.”
United in the face of crisis
When the exchange of fire at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border was first detected on 14 September, volunteers and bloggers were the first people to arrive at the Sports Palace in Bishkek – a complex in the Kyrgyzstani capital that serves as a nexus of humanitarian aid distribution.
Sophia Aidana Saipjan, who has become a seasoned organiser in recent years, lept into action.
She geared up for aid collection immediately, making calls and arranging meetings as a representative of the Centre for Youth Initiatives, a public association for volunteers founded in 2019.
Saipjan drew on her experience in a series of grassroots and third-sector responses to crises in the Central Asia region – including previous flare-ups with Tajikistan at the border, and Kyrgyzstan’s 2020 revolution, which toppled its government. During Kazakhstan’s own “Bloody January” earlier this year, Saipjan also coordinated travel, accommodation and meals for Kazakhstanis from Bishkek during the protests.
“The state wants civil society and the state not to move separately, but simply to move as one. Now is not the time to divide into the state and the public”
As the aid effort led by a coalition of volunteer organisations gathered pace, Kyrgyzstan’s government designated Bishkek’s Sports Palace as the central hub for aid collection, opening up other collection points throughout the city.
“Almost all of the work is done by volunteers, young leaders, activists and caring citizens who work round the clock,” Soyuzbek Nadyrbekov, the country’s deputy culture minister, told openDemocracy.
“The state wants civil society and the state not to move separately, but simply to move as one. Now is not the time to divide into the state and the public,” Nadyrbekov said.
But behind the well-oiled volunteer machine, Kyrgyzstan’s quick civic mobilisation was rooted in the public’s lack of trust in their government to do anything.
“I think it is very clear to people that civil society has to be resilient and self-reliant,” said Aijan Sharshenova, a political analyst based in Bishkek.
“Whenever a crisis happens, people just take everything into their own hands,” she said.
Kasiet Mamyrbaeva, who was one of the first handful of volunteers at the Sports Palace, explained that Kyrgyzstan’s third sector was resigned to action because of a continued lack of state support.
“It was the same during the pandemic and the previous events in Batken,” Mamyrbaeva told openDemocracy.
In the early days of the global pandemic, volunteers in Kyrgyzstan stepped in to provide essential services, from putting together food parcels and information campaigns to helping Kyrgyzstani labour migrants return from Russia after lockdown led to layoffs. Kyrgyzstan remains one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world, with an estimated 438,000 migrants working in Russia in the first half of 2022.
Urmat Nasykulov, a social entrepreneur and blogger who rallied his followers to donate to Bishkek’s Sports Palace, maintains public trust by posting screenshots of bank transfers, receipts and proof of delivery on his Instagram.
He has raised over £18,000 towards body armour, thermal imaging devices, night-vision binoculars and other life-saving military equipment, after noticing that Kyrgyzstan’s outnumbered border patrol needed additional protection.
“The Tajik aggression turned out to be massive and well-prepared, and they ambushed different places,” Nasykulov said. “There was a shortage of defensive equipment.”
As the government’s record on crisis management has cast doubt on its efficiency and transparency, influential bloggers often act as a trustworthy bridge between the government and the public.
Their online appeals are galvanising others like Eliza Bolushbekova, who drove to the Sports Palace with plastic bags full of female hygiene products, nappies and wet wipes in her trunk.
“I trust our blogger Urmat [Nasykulov],” Bolushbekova said. “And as for financial contributions, the activists are collecting the money separately.”
“I have a lot of volunteer experience in emergency situations, which unfortunately, periodically occur in my native Kazakhstan”
But while bloggers may have taken the lead in filling the gaps where the government has fallen short in Kyrgyzstan, their actions have also been met with cynicism at the official level.
For instance, Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security warned against “taking advantage” of the situation “to pursue personal goals”, calling on the public figures to “refrain from self-promotion” in the volunteer response. In response, volunteers called the statement tone-deaf.
Support from afar
The recent turmoil within Kazakhstan has largely positioned the public against the government. This means that most activity to support people affected, like initiatives to find the families of victims of police violence in January, has unfolded in secret.
But as Zhandos Seiit, a textiles entrepreneur from Almaty, scrolled through videos of hundreds of fleeing civilians in Kyrgyzstan, he knew he couldn’t sit still.
“I have a lot of volunteer experience in emergency situations, which unfortunately, periodically occur in my native Kazakhstan,” he said.
Via social media, Seiit joined forces with Kyrgyzstani volunteers at the border. He then used his expertise and networks in the garment industry spanning the region to manufacture large numbers of sleeping bags at low costs for Kyrgyzstan’s underfunded border patrol guards. Outside Kyrgyzstan there is also a strong public perception that Tajikistan’s government initiated the hostilities earlier this month.
“Small-scale mobilisation and mutual aid are things that Kazakhstan is already quite good at,” said Caress Schenk, associate professor of political science at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University who studies state-society relations.
Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, there have been “a lot of examples of very strong, independent voices from inside civil society,” according to Vyacheslav Abramov, the founder of Vlast.kz, one of the few independent news sites in Kazakhstan that were able to provide vital information throughout the internet shutdown during the January 2022 unrest.
But there is also the spectre of repression. Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutors recently requested a five-year sentence for journalist Bolot Temirov on charges that are widely believed to be politically motivated – and related to Temirov’s investigative work into high-level corruption cases. On 28 September, a judge acquitted Temirov, describing the case as having been concocted by state security officials.
While Kyrgyzstani society “set aside all differences” at the start of the emergency response, Sharshenova says critical voices on the actions of government agencies have already begun to emerge - a tradition that she calls a “big advantage” for the country.
“I see from [Kyrgyzstan’s] example of active citizenship that they have a growing democratic society,” said Zharbulov, whose fundraiser reached donors far and wide. “This is a very positive example for Kazakhstan.”
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