A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- With an empty gaze, Alishir surveys the rubble of what once was his neighborhood.
Climbing over the debris of crumbling stone walls and shattered chinaware, he gestures toward the smoldering husk of a burned-out house where he recalls a "nice family" used to live. He then points to a dark red spot on the road where he says a man was shot.
"He bled a lot," Alishir says, simply. His vacant stare betrays a mixture of fear and despair.
Alishir, who declined to give his last name out of concern for the safety of his family, is a lanky ethnic Uzbek in his mid-20s with short dark hair and sad brown eyes. He has nothing left but the clothes on his back, a pair of blue sweatpants and a cream-colored sport shirt, both smeared with dirt and ash. He says his home in the city of Osh and all his other possessions went up in flames when deadly clashes erupted between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeksfrom June 10-14.
"Many people died for nothing," Alishir says. "They were women, children, and old people. And the men who saved themselves were only able to do so by fleeing from one building to another."
Hundreds -- and perhaps thousands -- were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced in the fighting in southern Kyrgyzstan, which began with a brawl in a casino that spilled out onto the streets of Osh, the country's second-largest city. The fighting quickly escalated into armed conflict and spread to Jalal-Abad and other areas in the south, leading to a mass exodus of ethnic Uzbeks as Kyrgyzstan's government appeared unable -- or unwilling -- to assert control.
Various factions in the ongoing struggle that has roiled Kyrgyzstan since President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted in a popular uprising in April appear to have stoked and manipulated ethnic tensions in the south as they attempted to gain political advantage. The interim government, led by Roza Otunbaeva, blames forces loyal to Bakiev for sparking the violence as part of an effort to discredit Kyrgyzstan's new rulers. But a number of analysts, human rights activists, and other observers present a more complicated picture.
While not denying a possible role for Bakiev and other instigators in sparking the violence, these observers say that police and military in the south appear to have participated in attacks on ethnic Uzbeks, suggesting that as ethnic kinship trumped loyalty to the state, the authorities in Bishkek lost control of at least some of their own armed forces.
Moreover, the interim government's unwillingness to acknowledge that it had lost control of the situation in the south and take responsibility for the actions of rogue elements in the armed forces harmed its credibility and hindered its ability to address the ongoing crisis.
"I think, partly because of the scale of this unrest, that it becomes difficult to pin it on a relatively small number of people," says John MacLeod, Central Asia analyst for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Studies. "What you have here is a massive and what appears to be an orchestrated -- but absolutely chaotic [and] anarchic -- situation with quite large numbers of people running around with weapons committing atrocities."
There have long been latent ethnic tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbeks make up approximately 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population but account for nearly one-third in the country's southern regions.
Intermarriage is rare and business partnerships infrequent. Uzbeks, who predominantly live in urban areas in the south, are underrepresented in the government and complain of being treated like second-class citizens. Kyrgyz, who live mostly in rural areas, complain that Uzbeks dominate the commercial sector.
In 1990, when Kyrgyzstan was still part of the Soviet Union, a dispute over land rights in Osh led to violent ethnic clashes, causing authorities in Moscow to send thousands of troops to quell the unrest.
Kyrgyzstan's south, which is a known haven for drug traffickers, has long been difficult for authorities in Bishkek to control.
The latest round of fighting in Osh began in the predawn hours of June 10-11, when two youth gangs -- one Kyrgyz and one Uzbek -- were gambling in a local casino. Each accused the other of cheating and a scuffle broke out. The fighting spilled out onto the street as reinforcements on both sides -- alerted by text messages -- joined the brawl.
Rumors quickly spread -- which were later debunked in a Human Rights Watch report -- that an Uzbek mob raped as many as 12 Kyrgyz girls and killed three at a nearby dormitory. The false reports stoked Kyrgyz anger as mobs took to the streets to exact revenge.
Vastly outnumbered, the Uzbeks took cover in their homes. But early in the morning on June 11, heavily armed men in black ski masks stormed Uzbek neighborhoods, followed by rampaging mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz who massacred residents and torched their homes.
Alishir and others from his community say residents of his predominantly Uzbek Mahzarin Tau district blocked the incoming road with a KamAz truck in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the mobs at bay.
“Early in the morning, about 5:20, people slowly came out and gathered together. Then an armored vehicle showed up and the people feared for their lives," Alishir said. "A high-speed armored vehicle broke through that barrier that was constructed at the edge of the neighborhood, through the KamAz. The people on the vehicle had automatic weapons and behind them there was a large crowd, and they were covered by snipers.”
Similar scenes played out in other Uzbek neighborhoods, where armored vehicles manned by what residents say were Kyrgyz soldiers broke through makeshift barricades allowing mobs -- supported by sniper fire -- to enter and pillage. In a statement on June 25, Human Rights Watch said "many Uzbeks told us they believe security forces either participated in the attacks or deliberately turned a blind eye to them."
Kyrgyz officials deny the armed forces were involved and allege that criminal groups stole military uniforms, vehicles, and munitions before staging the attacks. The authorities, however, have provided no evidence to support that claim and appear to have made no effort to investigate wrongdoing on the part of rogue elements in the armed forces and security services.
Azamir Sydykov, a spokesman for the Osh police department, said his force was unprepared to deal with the violence. Police had no advance warning that anything was coming, he said, adding that he had an insufficient number of officers to deal with the scale of the conflict.
Witnesses say the snipers shot with deadly accuracy, striking their victims in the head and heart. And the mobs seemed to understand how far their safe zone, where they were covered by sniper fire and free to attack with impunity, extended.
The snipers in Mahzarin Tau, for example, were perched on top of a five-story building with a commanding view of the Uzbek neighborhood. But the damage to the district extended only to the point where the snipers had a clear field of fire. Areas screened from the five-story building were practically untouched, suggesting that the so-called random angry mob that attacked the neighborhood knew exactly where their cover ended.
Witnesses say those in the areas covered by sniper fire never had a chance:
“[The snipers] were positioned on the furniture factory near Suleyman Hill. So [the Kyrgyz] could rely on support if the [Uzbeks] put up a strong resistance, which they were unable to do," Alishir said. "They just killed [Uzbeks]. The snipers killed them. We didn’t even have a chance to resist them.”
Kyrgyz law-enforcement officials say they arrested 20 snipers, seven of whom they claim are foreigners. The authorities, however, have provided no additional information about the alleged snipers' identities.
In another Uzbek neighborhood, Cheryomushki, the trouble also started early in the morning on June 11.
Unlike Mahzarin Tau, which is a maze of narrow streets on a hill, Cheryomushki sits on flat piece of land and has wider roads, giving Kyrgyz gangs wide berth as they went from house to house, killing inhabitants. By nightfall, every Uzbek home in the neighborhood had been burned to the ground. One house, where a Ukrainian woman and her Tajik husband lived, was spared.
Gulbahor Juraeva, an ethnic Uzbek resident of the city's downtown Osh district, says he was with his father when the violence began there on the night of June 10.
"A group of young people came down the road chanting, some 200 to 300 of them," Juraeva says. "This was the night of June 10. They started burning cars and everything erupted. They burned down a store near our home. And next to that there is a restaurant, but they didn't touch that. The store is open 24 hours and they started to destroy it and kill the Uzbek guys who were inside."
In the Nariman neighborhood near the Osh Airport, Uzbek residents staged their own counterattack on adjacent Kyrgyz neighborhoods.
Kyrgyz witnesses and soldiers manning checkpoints in the area say snipers in Nariman fired on the main road leading to town and at the nearby ethnic Kyrgyz village of Mangyt. There were also unconfirmed reports of kidnappings of ethnic Kyrgyz. Residents of neighboring Kyrgyz villages said the bodies -- and in one case a severed head -- of slain Kyrgyz washed down an irrigation canal from Nariman.
These incidents, however, were clearly less prevalent than the ones that occurred in ethnic Uzbek quarters. In the aftermath of the violence, ethnic Kyrgyz were out on the streets of Osh in large numbers, while ethnic Uzbeks huddled in their homes and behind barricades.
A soldier in downtown Osh points to a burned out cafe.
"You see that place there? Kyrgyz worked there. Kyrgyz girls washed the dishes and waited on the tables," he said in an effort to show that Kyrgyz were the victims in the fighting.
Asked who owned the restaurant, he replies, "An Uzbek."
Moreover, observers say that while the Kyrgyz had automatic weapons and armored personnel carriers at their disposal, the Uzbeks fought back mainly with hunting rifles.
At a hospital in Osh, chief doctor Turek Kashgarov says he had treated a roughly equal number of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks since the fighting began.
When RFE/RL correspondents visited the hospital, 20 of the 22 patients still being treated were Kyrgyz. But most of them, Kashgarov says, were being treated for minor shotgun or buckshot wounds.
Looting continued in Osh for a week after the violence subsided, mostly targeting Uzbek-owned stores and cafes, with police and security services doing little to stop it. As late as June 19, scavengers could be seen searching the wreckage for anything useful.
Throughout Osh, homes and businesses with spray-painted signs reading "Kyrgyz" were untouched, while others were burned to the ground.
The interim government led by Roza Otunbaeva blames forces loyal to Bakiev, who was ousted in April and is living in exile in Belarus. Speaking at a press conference on June 11, she referred darkly to a "third force" that sought to undermine a constitutional referendum -- held on June 27 -- to establish a parliamentary democracy.
"Those who want to disrupt the referendum, who stand against the government's course, against everything that started on April 7, are doing all they can to stoke the tensions so that relations between the old government and the new forces turn into an ethnic [conflict]," Otunbaeva said.
Bakiev, who played on Kyrgyz nationalism, had his main base of political support in the south, although he was reviled by Uzbeks there. Uzbeks, for their part, had hoped that the new interim government would end discriminatory practices against them.
The government's case is somewhat bolstered by an intercepted telephone conversation in May, which was posted on the Internet, in which Maksim Bakiev, the ousted former president's son, said he planned to bring down the government by provoking unrest in the south. According to press reports, he is currently seeking asylum in Britain.
Officials in the interim government say the Bakievs hired mercenaries from Tajikistan and Afghanistan to do the job. Kurmanbek Bakiev, for his part, denies playing any role in the violence. Otunbaeva has also alleged that drug traffickers in Osh also contributed to the violence.
The government also claimed that militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had infiltrated Uzbek neighborhoods and were provoking the violence. Mainstream Muslim leaders, however, appeared to be going out of their way to urge restraint.
At Friday Prayers at Osh's Imam al-Buhari Mosque on June 18, a week after the fighting broke out, the loudspeakers blared out the imam's message. "Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are Muslims and Muslims are brothers," the imam said in Uzbek. "Do not give into provocations. If you do, you are doing the work of Satan."
At the conclusion of the prayers both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz exited the mosque together.
Prelude To Violence
In laying all the blame on Bakiev, his allies, Islamic militants, and drug traffickers, the interim government fails to acknowledge that it may have inadvertently contributed to the tensions. Some observers trace the roots of the latest unrest to May 13, when, shortly after the interim government took power, supporters of Bakiev seized control of a provincial government building in Jalal-Abad.
As Aziza Abdyrasulova, director of the Bishkek-based Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century) human rights group, explains, the authorities in Bishkek appealed to an Uzbek businessman and university rector, Kadyrjon Batyrov, to retake the building with armed volunteers.
"The interim government involved some Uzbeks in their politics battles, which was not a good idea," Abdurasulova said. "They involved them when they took control of the Jalal-Abad administration building. They were from a party led by Kadyrjon Batyrov. On May 14, they gave people weapons so they could take back the administration building."
After taking control of the administration building, Batyrov's group then burned down a Bakiev family house.
The following day, thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz demanded Batyrov's arrest.
Batyrov, however, initially remained free. He later further alienated ethnic Kyrgyz by publicly advocating for an autonomous Uzbek region in southern Kyrgyzstan and calling for the new draft constitution to include specific provisions for Uzbeks, such as official status for their language.
The government later issued a warrant for his arrest and he fled the country.
With the authorities in Bishkek unable to control the south, the face of the authorities in the region throughout the crisis was Osh Mayor Melis Mirzakmatov, a controversial figure who is viewed suspiciously by ethnic Uzbeks.
A close ally of Bakiev, Mirzakmatov managed to remain in power after his patron was overthrown by using some unorthodox methods. A day after Bakiev's ouster, 250 burly "sportsmen" assembled on the square in front of the mayor's office and demanded that Mirzakmatov be kept in office. Seeking to avoid further upheaval, the provisional government in Bishkek agreed.
Speaking at a June 19 press conference, Mirzakmatov attempted to portray himself as a friend of the Uzbek community. But at the same press conference, with Kyrgyz families displaying photographs of their relatives still missing after the violence, he also announced security operations to search for the missing, which ethnic Kyrgyz say were taken hostage by Uzbeks.
Mirzakmatov also said the authorities suspected that Islamic terrorists were hiding in Uzbek neighborhoods, adding that "all the barricades" protecting these quarters must be removed by the next day or security forces would "resort to force."
The interim government has been unable, or unwilling, to exert control over Mirzakmatov.
At least two Uzbeks were killed when security services targeted the ethnic Uzbek neighborhood of Nariman. Another operation targeted Otkhona, an untouched area where those fleeing violence in the adjacent Cheryomushki neighborhood had taken refuge.
Security forces said they found heroin in humanitarian supplies in Otkhona and detained an ethnic Uzbek businessman there who had been helping the displaced. Residents said security forces also took food, money, and jewelry.
There were no reports, however, of any alleged terrorists being apprehended or hostages freed.
Kyrgyzstan's new constitution went into effect on July 2, ostensibly giving the interim government greater legitimacy and authority. But in the absence of an independent investigation into the recent unrest that would hold those responsible accountable, observers say the new government's position will remain precarious and the situation in the south volatile.
As recently as June 30, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service was receiving calls from Osh residents saying security operations were still under way in Uzbek neighborhoods. One Uzbek woman said police mocked her, saying, “America won’t help you. Russia won’t help you. [And] Uzbekistan won’t help you.”
RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Uzbek Services contributed to this report
A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL