Osh’s greatest blessing, and its greatest curse, is its geography. The tragedy of June 2010 was not merely the extent of human suffering. It was the rupture of a unique space of cultural interchange straddling the Kyrgyz-Uzbek interface.
As a geographer of Central Asia, I have been working on the city for a decade and a half. I first visited in 1995. Knowing no-one, I spent a day walking around its markets, parks, neighbourhoods, civic buildings, and mountain. It was ‘love at first sight’, and I soon moved to the city.
I had previously lived in both Uzbekistan and northern Kyrgyzstan. In Ferghana, I grew to know and admire ‘Uzbekness’. The neighbourhood mahalla, with its intrigues, frustrations, and pleasures, provided a rootedness in place which fascinated me. I grew to relish its wonderfully exaggerated performances of hospitality, the sensual cadences of the Uzbek language, the haunting strains of classical poetry sung to the rubob, and the apparently inexhaustible capacity for askiya (humorous banter). I was astounded at the intellectual versatility of Soviet-era educated Uzbeks, who could move seamlessly between logical Marxist dialectic and soaring Islamic spirituality.
"Osh was perhaps the most authentically Central Asian city in Central Asia, where the richness of mahalla life coexisted alongsidelively Kyrgyz neighbourhoods"
Subsequently moving to rural Naryn, I likewise immersed myself in Kyrgyz life. I came to savour the directness of the language, and the arresting immediacy of qomuz music. I learnt to revel in the sheer brilliance of the tradition of tokmo akynchylyk (bardic improvisation), and found the stridency of politically-acerbic dastan music mesmerising. The rhythms of pastoral life informed both a unique elemental philosophy preserved by oral tradition, and an admirable ability to feast well at the right times. An awareness of the difficult road that the Kyrgyz had travelled in modern times produced a proud sense of national character that was sensibly moderated by their marvellously sardonic humour.
That is why I found in Osh the ideal Central Asian home, where the richness of mahalla life coexisted cheek by jowl alongside the lively Kyrgyz neighbourhoods. There were Kyrgyz and Uzbek musical concerts and theatrical productions in the same city, and university departments that sustained intellectual life in both traditions. Music in both languages blared out across the markets that embodied the symbiotic economic relations between the two groups. In a region of nation states each anxiously promoting the language and cultures of the titular nationality, Osh was perhaps the most authentically Central Asian city in Central Asia.
The Osh riots shattered the city's shared history. Many simply fled the city, and those Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens that remained behind live in fear of reprisals and further violence. Images: demotix/rfefl. All rights reserved
This is not to romanticise it. Osh has always been both shared space and divided space. Ethnic tensions were never far below the surface of a city suffering from grinding economic inequalities, rapid social change, and chronic misrule. For many Uzbeks, it seemed as if in recent decades Kyrgyz had moved into their city from the villages and were slowly taking it from them. For many Kyrgyz, likewise, it was as if the Uzbek residents of the city challenged legitimate Kyrgyz primacy in their own state – a state in which Russian/Soviet mastery had reduced them to second class citizens.
The calamitous mismanagement of these tensions in the late Soviet period precipitated the violence of June 1990. Kyrgystan’s first President, Askar Akaev, handled inter-ethnic relations more wisely, promoting the idea of Kyrgyzstan as a ‘common home’ for all. The jettisoning of his vision of civic nationalism by his populist successor, President Bakiev, proved disastrous. By 2009 everyday relations had become very tense.
I spent some months in Osh shortly before the June 2010 tragedy. Before departing, I hired a restaurant and threw a party for friends in the city. Nearly half the guests were Kyrgyz and half Uzbek, with a smattering of foreign aid workers and native Russians. Feasting, dancing, and laughing together, it was a microcosm of the Osh I had come to love.
That Osh has gone. Many of my Uzbek friends have fled abroad, to Russia, Uzbekistan, or further afield. The rest live in fear: of the sudden seizure of their property, of daily verbal and physical abuse, or of further serious violence. Many Uzbeks have quit working in government offices, and large numbers of the young have dropped out of study. Increasingly excluded to the margins of the city’s social and economic life, they routinely avoid public space as a strategy to survive.
But it is not only Uzbeks who live in fear. Many of my Kyrgyz friends are terrified of Uzbek retaliation and terrorist attack, and restrict their own use of public space accordingly. For Kyrgyz residents of Osh who grew up together with Uzbeks in the Soviet period, the destruction of the social fabric of the city as they knew it is likewise a tragedy. Unsurprisingly, many with professional skills quietly relocate to Bishkek or elsewhere.
A few months before the June tragedy, I was conducting research with university students in Osh about how the city and region is portrayed in Western film and documentaries. They were appalled at the crass stereotypes of a backward and dangerous city that these peddled to British audiences. When I asked them for suggestions of good local films I should watch instead, a Kyrgyz student waxed lyrical about an Uzbek film she loved, and some Uzbek students recommended a Kyrgyz film. Such cross-cultural interchange or even familiarity would be unusual in Tashkent or Bishkek, but has been the stuff of everyday life in Osh.
It is this long experience of Osh as shared space that offers a resource for hope. For sure, justice must be done and be seen to be done. But that alone is insufficient. May God grant the people of this remarkable city the ability to build a future that will again be marked by shared, as well as divided, space.