In 2010, the Osh region in southern Kyrgyzstan was riven by ethnic violence in the aftermath of revolution. And still nobody wants to talk about it.
Jayma Bazaar in Osh city, Kyrgyzstan, looks like any ordinary Central Asian market. Built largely of metal containers, running for over a kilometre, it criss-crosses the Ak-Bura river that divides central Osh.
Small passages run like arteries between hundreds of stalls, children darting between them. Wooden carts hold stacks of lipioshka, the traditional Kyrgyz bread, and women in colourful dresses and plastic shoes over their socks crouch next to buckets of herbs and sacks of dried fruits, chatting and keeping an eye out for customers.
Stalls are organised by theme: rows of colourful bras hang in the underwear section, small shoes alongside children’s clothes. At the far end, dust floats in the air where vendors sell wooden furniture. The word ‘devotchka’ (girl) rings out as vendors ask: ‘Where are you from?’
But Jayma has a disturbing history. Stone arches stand partially hidden in layers of canvas, no longer supporting walls or a roof. In the meat hall, sellers wrap mutton and beef underneath a smoke-damaged, peeling ceiling.
Derelict and collapsing buildings line the western side of the market. The smell of smoke hangs in the air. It comes from burning rubbish or the grilled meat sold by vendors, but it creates the sense that, five years on, some of the buildings are still smouldering.
The riots of 2010
Last month, Kyrgyzstan marked five years since the tumultuous episode of rioting and violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks that tore through the Osh region, in the south of the country.
The events of 10-14 June 2010 left hundreds dead (estimates range between 200 and 1000), thousands injured, and an estimated 400,000 people displaced. Almost three thousand homes and buildings were destroyed, including large sections of Jayma Bazaar.
A toxic mix of poverty, ethnic discrimination against the Uzbek population, disenfranchisement, and under-representation of Uzbeks in local and national government (in 2010 only four out of 90 Members of the Kyrgyz parliament were of Uzbek descent), and a volatile political situation, combined to create the perfect storm.
Many accuse former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ousted in a revolution three months earlier, of using his local alliances and loyalties to stir up trouble in the south to agitate against the new provisional government.
Following the violence, the UN said they believed that outside groups had orchestrated and planned the attack in advance; and an international enquiry found that automatic weapons had been distributed to Kyrgyz crowds.
I travelled to Osh city in June to investigate the legacy of the 2010 riots, and the state of relations between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities. As my plane landed, a storm was trapped between the mountains that encircle Osh, causing lightning to flicker along the hills accompanied by a rolling rumble of thunder and torrential rain.
Osh sits just 10km from the Uzbek border. Forty nine per cent of Osh’s 200,000 residents are Uzbek, making it Kyrgyzstan’s largest Uzbek-populated city, and the country’s second city overall.
The idiosyncratic jigsaw of borders in Central Asia was created in 1924 by Soviet officials, and in Osh they placed ethnic Uzbek and ethnic Kyrgyz under the same nationality — Kyrgyzstani. The city nestles in the wide, dusty-red Fergana valley, a notorious geopolitical hotspot home to some of the worst human rights abuses in the region, including the massacre of hundreds of protestors in 2005 by the Uzbek government in Andijan, over the border from Osh.
I came to Osh to talk with people about the 2010 violence, but what I found is silence and a city where politics has become taboo.
An American friend in Osh looked concerned as I told him I planned to ask questions about June 2010, explaining that he has never felt comfortable discussing the issue with Kyrgyz or Uzbek friends.
Contacts in the city faded away once I told them the topic of my questions. One resident of Uzbek descent agreed to meet with me on the condition that we did not discuss politics. Instead we were to meet (‘this is what we will tell the security services’) to discuss English language tuition. On the day of our meeting, he too cancelled.
Many Osh residents, particularly those of Uzbek descent, are quiet for a reason: they are scared. The legacy of the government response to the 2010 violence has largely amounted to heightened repression of dissent and accelerated persecution of ethnic minorities in the south. The government viciously targets anyone they believe to be promoting ‘constitutional insecurity’, a catch-all charge for political dissent.
Although the majority of victims of the violence were Uzbek, they constitute 83% of those who have been arrested since 2010. The use of torture has been widespread in soliciting false confessions, according to Human Rights Watch.
In the build-up to the five-year anniversary, the GKNB (the successor to Soviet-era KGB) were reportedly tightening their surveillance of anyone who might highlight human rights violations or government abuse of Uzbeks.
In March, American journalist Umar Farooq was charged with extremism and deported after visiting the Osh offices of human rights organisation Bir Duino to investigate claims of human rights violations. The Bir Duino offices were also raided (the Supreme Court has since ruled that these raids, and the searches of Bir Duino lawyers’ homes were unconstitutional).
According to some, even saying the word ‘Uzbek’ is enough to get your name on a list.
State-sponsored ethnic discrimination
At national level, state-sponsored ethnic discrimination against Uzbeks is growing. Uzbek-language schools have been closed down, and following a ‘No-Uzbek language’ public campaign in 2012, Uzbek-language university entrance exams were terminated.
There is endemic mistrust by ethnic Uzbeks of government and state authorities, which are dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz. One Uzbek resident of Osh (speaking on condition of anonymity), said he believes that Uzbek imams are being replaced by Kyrgyz, who are compelled to deliver services in Kyrgyz language, even in areas where Uzbeks are the majority.
In June, Imam Rashot Kamalov from Kara-Su Mosque in Osh province was accused in court of training a terrorist network to subvert the constitutional system in Kyrgyzstan. The case was mounted against him based on evidence supplied by Vladimir Shkolny, an ‘expert’ who does not speak Uzbek (the language that Kamalov gave testimony in), and who based his evidence on his skills in ‘interpreting body language’, according to EurasiaNet.
Protesting the illegality and injustice of these charges is also considered evidence of posing an extremist and unconstitutional threat. The veracity of the charges against Kamalov are hard to judge due to the lack of transparency and corrupt officials, but it is certain that a charge of religious extremism is an efficient method of silencing undesirables in the current hyper-sensitive environment.
But in Osh, silence is not only about fear of government recrimination. A sign in my guesthouse reads ‘discussion of politics is banned. Violators will be expelled’. The landlord explained, ‘politics is a dangerous topic here’.
Nurlan, a 26-year old student from Osh who lives in the capital city Bishkek, told me ‘relations between Kyrgyz and Uzbek are dead. I love all nationalities, but here people really don’t like each other.’
Views on both sides have hardened since 2010. Many Kyrgyz view the events as an ill-advised power grab by the Uzbek community, while Uzbek communities have withdrawn further as their economic role has declined and political rights weakened.
People are worried that open expression of political views will spark another episode of violence. ‘It was terrible, shocking’ is a common description of June 2010. After all, despite the political machinations propelling the conflict, the spark behind the riots was a fight outside a casino between local Kyrgyz and Uzbek men.
Following rumours of Uzbek men storming a Kyrgyz university dormitory and raping women, the conflict further escalated to Kyrgyz groups raiding Uzbek mahallas and villages, attacking indiscriminately. Tolekan Ismailova, Chairperson of Bir Duino, who have documented abuse against Uzbeks since 2010, believes that relations between the two communities are now quieter, but that tensions remain underneath the surface.
The belief that neighbours turned against neighbours remains an obstacle to repairing relations between the two communities — and is a reminder that the current peace is a delicate one.
Relations ‘are better since June 2010, when hundreds of Uzbeks were killed and their houses were burnt, but much worse than March 2010,’ according to one Osh resident of Uzbek descent, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But in Osh, silence is not only about fear of government recrimination.
Turning a blind eye
In 2010, the interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva promised to investigate the riots, including the reasons behind the failure of Kyrgyz authorities to stop the violence. Otunbayeva’s government was accused of failing to produce satisfactory reports, and Almazbek Atambayev, president since 2011, has continued the trend.
In June, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for an ‘impartial’ investigation into the events. However, it seems that the political window for an in-depth investigation has passed. National and official discourse around June 2010 either obfuscates or pushes the conflict into the annals of history. On the five-year anniversary President Atambayev accused foreign intelligence services of fomenting unrest to cause the rioting, whilst also urging the nation to strengthen unity in the coming parliamentary elections.
All eyes will now be looking to the elections due to take place in the autumn. Nationalism is on the rise across the country, with conservative nationalist movements calling for a re-establishment and re-assertion of Kyrgyz tradition and culture. While they technically mean Kyrgyzstani — based on nation not ethnicity — their aesthetics and rhetoric is almost entirely ethnically Krygyz.
Movement leaders wear kalpaks, the traditional Kyrgyz felt hat, as a symbol of their cultural purity, and at rallies they speak in Kyrgyz, not in Russian. Nationalists have even made headlines by attacking Chinese businesses as a symbol of an undesirable foreign presence in the country.
What this means for the Uzbek population in Kyrgyzstan in unclear. What is certain is that the shrinking space for freedom of speech and civil society, brought about by the tightening bond between Russia and Kyrgyzstan, and recent efforts to silence NGOs that do not tow the government line, will make raising the issue of ethnic persecution ever more difficult. In the absence of meaningful justice and peace building, the wounds in Osh are very much open and weeping.
The root causes of the conflict in Osh — poverty, marginalisation, ethnic discrimination — are all very much still there, according to one journalist living in Central Asia (again speaking on condition of anonymity). The concern that a truce has been mistaken for peace is to be found here too. As one resident explained to me: ‘It will happen again, it will happen again soon.’
In Osh, it is quiet and the hot summer air forces people to seek shade. Vendors at Jayma Bazaar are working from the stalls they built around the rubble, and the main square is once again a witness to one of the many weddings that will take place there this summer. But this peace has been hard-won and belies the currents of distrust, suspicion, and fear churning beneath the surface.
All photographs courtesy of the author.