Uzbekistan is struggling to accommodate tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbek refugees who have surged into the country, fleeing the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Southern Kyrgyzstan has been plunged into chaos this last week as armed Kyrgyz gangs, allegedly instigated by an outside force, set upon ethnic Uzbeks, killing at least 187 and wounding more than 2000, according to the official count of the Kyrgyz Health Ministry. Rampaging through ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods in the cities of Osh and Jalal-abad and environs, Kyrgyz men, both civilian and in some cases police and military, shot, stabbed, and beat Uzbeks, drove around in armored vehicles firing upon fleeing Uzbeks, and looted and torched their homes, driving tens of thousands to rush to the Uzbek border to escape.
At first, Kyrgyz opened some border checkpoints to let a crowd of at least 6,000 ethnic Uzbeks through, but Uzbekistan did not open its borders for at least 24 hours, when it was finally persuaded to do so by mounting crowds of tens of thousands of desperate people, mainly women, children, and elderly. Some Uzbeks have remained in Osh and other towns, barricaded inside their homes, fearful of coming out, as snipers shot at people and rioters began to spray-paint signs on buildings as being “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek” to attract fresh fire. While at first Uzbekistan did not have even tents to house the refugees pouring in and rerouted those fleeing to homestays with relatives or volunteers, Tashkent quickly settled a reported 75,000 refugees in village schools along the border and began delivering humanitarian aid. But then Uzbek police blocked the refugees from leaving or attempting to contact their friends and families outside camps, and would not let them disperse into the region. Human rights groups have long had a concern that Uzbek refugees who had resettled in Kyrgyzstan after the 2005 Andijan massacre of protesters, and then later returned to Uzbekistan, might face detention by Uzbek authorities, as others have been, with one Andijan leader even being sentenced to 7 years of prison this year after returning in April.
The independent online Kyrgyz news agencies 24.kg and AKIpress.org, as well as the independent online Uzbek websites Ferghana.ru and uznews.net have provided the fastest, fullest, and least biased accounts of the unfolding horrors, even publishing official government bulletins that the Kyrgyz interim government itself was not disseminating locally. Kyrgyz local officials turned off local TV in the Russian and Uzbek languages, fueling the panic and unrest, and leaving the incomplete or sometimes deliberately distorted version of the news coming from state channels in Bishkek. An interim committee of exiles and citizens in Uzbekistan began publishing bulletins based on the reporting of a network of local NGOs. Uzbek civic activists, both in Uzbekistan and in exile abroad, came together to issue both appeals for peace-keeping intervention by the United Nations or the Uzbek military itself, even as some Kyrgyz NGOs, echoing the interim government, called for Russia to send troops. Meanwhile, the multilateral institutions sent only a few envoys, joining the watchdog NGO Human Rights Watch, which was first on the scene from the international community to report as they were already monitoring tensions since the April unrest. By the third day of rioting, UN humanitarian agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross began issuing alarming appeals and reports of deliberate “ethnic cleansing,” which is usually described by the old Slavic word “pogrom” in this region, which means “violent attack” such as beatings or killings.
Both the independent online press and the ICRC are questioning the current death toll of 187 and more than 2,000 wounded because they are seeing hundreds of people being buried without identification, as local Muslim custom requires rapid burial. Relief workers are also reporting that they have seen officials bury people without notifying relatives. There are still dead bodies uncollected on the street or laid in mosques, where they have been left because locals have either fled to the Uzbek border or fear coming out of their homes to face gunfire. Along the border and in the camps, children have been separated from their parents, and photographers have filed photos from the scenes such as a Kyrgyz soldier clutching a lost Uzbek infant and a weeping Uzbek grandmother holding up pictures of her misplaced grandchildren. Because the Uzbek government ordered the digging of irrigation trenches all along the border last year in a response to a string of violent attacks in Andijan and Tashkent, refugees trying to get into Uzbekistan had to scramble into and out of pits, and some were killed in the stampede.
Uzbek as well as international NGOs are raising urgent concerns about the unfair distribution of humanitarian aid, as both Kyrgyz citizens and officials are reportedly grabbing stocks being flown into Osh and are not getting into Uzbek neighborhoods with it. There are also alarming reports of a break-down in medical neutrality, as both Kyrgyz police and doctors are allegedly either refusing care or threatening wounded Uzbeks with further retaliation and reportedly causing some to flee hospitals. Medical supplies are said to have run out in some areas. Some internationals and exiles as well as a handful of those inside Kyrgyzstan are attempting to get out reports on Twitter and e-mail, but many people have complained of running out of cell phone minutes and not being able to restock them due to the breakdown in local services. Some Kyrgyz NGOs have topped off cell phone minutes for people trapped in the south, and have tried to collect and distribute humanitarian aid, as well as hold peace talks with the two ethnic communities, but their efforts have been drowned out by what appears to have been a sinister effort by armed forces instigated from outside to set Kyrgyz civilians and even military against the Uzbek population.
A number of experts have pointed out that the conflict is essentially not ethnic in nature, saying it is more about class –the Uzbek farmers have concentrated more wealth in their communities in businesses such as restaurants, and the Kyrgyz, nomads by tradition, have been poorer. Yet the rampaging has spread as much as it has precisely because of ethnic markers – the physically concentrated Uzbek ethnic neighborhoods and the Uzbek language.
The roots of the conflict go back to Stalin’s handprint on the map of Central Asia, when the Soviet government deliberately carved up territories and dispersed them among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in a “divide and conquer” strategy. Twenty years ago in Uzgen, in the same region, conflict broke out over land disputes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, and led to at least 500 officially-recorded deaths and thousands of injuries in violence that was never prosecuted or even documented. It was the failure to bring about accountability of the riots of 20 years ago that human rights leaders in the region are now saying is responsible for setting up another round of violence, and unless this time the numerous and egregious human rights violations are documented impartially and credibly, and perpetrators brought to justice, they expect more unrest.
Also at the center of protests from the Uzbek community is a lack of access to national and local government, whether it has been authoritarian or presenting itself as reformist and democratic. The Uzbek language does not have the status of an official language of Kyrgyzstan. There is insufficient television broadcasting in the Uzbek language to accommodate the needs of the communities there and also to provide an alternative to official Uzbek state broadcasts which are limited and propagandistic. There is concern that the referendum scheduled by Kyrgyzstan’s interim authorities for June 27, will not be free or fair, with the southern region, home of most of the country’s 850,000 or more Uzbeks, without working media or utilities and with tens of thousands still seeking refuge in neighboring Uzbekistan. Furthermore, there is concern that a new constitution would not address the issue of equitable representation and power-sharing between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
The question remains open as to which international or regional power will take responsibility for attempting to quell ongoing violence, assist the wounded, and attend to the urgent needs of some 250,000 displaced persons. There has been widespread disappointment and anger at the provisional Kyrgyz government not only for weakness and inaction but possible complicity in the violence at least among local southern officials. While Kyrgyzstan called on Russia for help, Russia wanted to avoid entanglement and sent only a ‘limited contingent” to guard the Russian air base at Kant and Russian military families. While the U.S. maintains an airbase in Manas to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan, it has refrained from involvement, and both the U.S. and Kyrgyz government deny a journalist’s report that the U.S. was approached by the Kyrgyz interim government for rubber bullets and declined to provide them. Uzbekistan issued a moderate statement expressing confidence in the ability of the Kyrgyz government to cope, but hinting at outsiders in the region interested in destabilizing the situation via instigation of ethnic conflict. So far, Uzbek troops that have instantly appeared at the border in recent weeks over flare-ups of conflict in enclaves straddling the border have not crossed into Kyrgyzstan on any missions, either of mercy or preventive action. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are both members, met June 14 but decided not to take any action, while not ruling out some future response; the body was not created for pacification of civilian unrest. As the OSCE response has been inadequate and unconvincing, particularly under the chair of Kazakhstan, that leaves the United Nations. The Security Council issued a presidential statement urging an end to violence on June 15, but the likelihood seemed quite remote, given the double veto powers of Russia and China, of any robust peacekeeping resolution mandating UN troops to be deployed in the region with the consent of Kyrgyzstan, or even a soft intervention in the form of a failure to condemn – or even a supportive statement – for a Russian or CSTO-led intervention.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog.