Rumor Mill Works Overtime in Osh
The recent ethnic clashes in Osh have sent the local rumor mill into overdrive. Starved of reliable information and isolated in their communities, people have been chewing events over among themselves. In some cases, especially in the Uzbek mahallas (neighborhoods) where people blocked themselves inside for fear of attack, they became convinced that the most unlikely sounding events were talking place beyond the barricades.
One of the most popular topics of conversation has been snipers. In many Uzbek mahallas, inhabitants offer convincing testimony of gunmen targeting their neighborhoods from vantage points. Men barricaded into the Arygali Niyazov neighborhood, for example, testified to seeing gunmen on the upper floors of a nearby medical institute hostel with a view over the district's narrow streets. They said that during the height of the violence these gunmen were covering attackers and looters, assaulting their area with sniper fire. Men in other Uzbek neighborhoods tell similar stories.
Whatever the truth about these gunmen, the idea of snipers has assumed a life of its own. Many people are convinced that they’ve seen foreign mercenaries acting as snipers. These alleged foreign combatants are distinguished by their appearance – inhabitants report seeing black snipers and tall, blonde, female snipers from the Baltic states. The idea that English snipers have been roaming the streets of Osh shooting at Uzbeks is also popular. There’ve been no independent corroborations of such sightings by foreign journalists or representatives of international organizations.
Another rumor that’s been doing the rounds is that plans existed to poison water supplies to the Uzbek mahallas. No one can give a convincing explanation of how supplies to Uzbek areas could be poisoned without affecting Kyrgyz neighborhoods, given that they’re interspersed throughout the city.
Afraid to leave their mahallas, people have had little else to do than drive themselves into a panic with stories like these. As the barriers between neighborhoods start coming down, people will start venturing out and seeing for themselves what’s happening in the outside world – but the story of the tall, blonde Baltic women working as crack snipers in southern Kyrgyzstan looks set to die hard in the popular imagination.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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