Forced to leave the shelter of hastily-made refugee camps in Andijan region and border areas of Uzbekistan, more than 75,000 ethnic Uzbeks, traumatized and wounded, made their way back to Osh to vote in the June 27 referendum. Only about a thousand or so too injured to move were allowed temporarily to remain in a camp near the border; some were tricked into thinking they would be moving to a new camp and instead were put on buses to deliver them to the border. Many of them had nothing to return to, having suffered the burning and looting of their homes during pogroms that raged in Osh and Andijan for two weeks in June. There were reports that authorities were making some Uzbek householders sign statements that they were responsible for their destroyed property themselves.
Roza Otunbayeva, interim head of the Kyrgyz government, demonstratively visited Osh to vote in the referendum there herself and reassure both Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents that recovery would be coming. In a meeting with some 20 local non-governmental activists, she heard complaints about ongoing lack of security for citizens, continued raids into neighborhoods, police obstruction of the work of journalists, and the loss of 33 Uzbek schools, torched by rioters. She assured the people of Osh that she would make schools a priority and that victims of the pogroms could move into free apartments and have new homes built, yet distrust remained and numerous problems must be solved, including an end to the kidnappings still going on in the area.
NGOs remained concerned about an ethnic Uzbek human rights activist from Jalal-Abad, Azimjan Askarov, arrested by police on charges that he was involved with the murder of a policeman; his colleagues say in fact he was filming attacks on civilians. The Kyrgyz authorities have made a number of arrests of people they say were involved in the riots, who are believed to be related to deposed former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, but little detail is available about their motivations or actual activities leading up to the tragic events. Human rights groups have demonstrated for the removal of Azimbek Beknazarov, chief of law-enforcement and justice in the interim government, as they see him as sharing the responsibility for the brutality of the Kyrgyz response to the conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights and Labor and Eric Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration both visited Tashkent and refugee camps in Uzbekistan and pledged that the U.S. would do everything to make sure that more than $32 million in U.S. aid provided through the United Nations, would reach the victims. As the refugees were being forced back into Kyrgyzstan, there was concern by relief organizations who had just delivered tents – only to see them emptied out – about how the displaced would be cared for.
Cell phone contributions were pouring in to a charity run by Lola Tillyayeva, the daughter of President Islam Karimov, and accountability mechanisms were not in place. At a press conference, Posner received a tough question from a journalist about the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the U.S.-sponsored supply line for the war in Afghanistan, and the issue of whether Uzbek state-owned companies with NDN contracts may be engaged in human rights violations. Posner said he would investigate the allegations. The issue is likely to be more complex than finding a company abusing workers’ rights, for example, although exploitation of laborers, including children, in the cotton industry and other agricultural business is very well documented and the target of an international campaign. Rather, the Uzbek companies bidding for contracts are likely to be closely tied to the Uzbek state, and the Uzbek government widely sanctions torture and mistreatment of prisoners.
The terrible events in the ethnic Uzbek communities of southern Kyrgyzstan and the massive displacement of refugees into – and back out of – Uzbekistan, have naturally overshadowed other domestic events in Uzbekistan in recent weeks. At a recent discussion on Capitol Hill jointly sponsored by Freedom House and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Gulnora Juma, the wife of jailed Uzbek poet and political activist Yusuf Juma, summarized her husband’s plight. She fears he will die in detention as he has suffered torture at the hand of his jailers, and his daughter appears to have been allowed to visit him precisely to be able to deliver the awful news of his mistreatment to the outside world, and thereby deter any other activists from opposing the government.
An ongoing concern throughout the conflict has been the possibility that the Uzbek government, angered at the failure to protect the ethnic Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan, might launch cross-border raids into Kyrgyzstan– Osh is only 40 miles from the border of Uzbekistan. So far, Tashkent appears to have restrained such an option. Birlik, an Uzbek opposition party, called for the formation of an autonomous republic within Kyrgyzstan, because Kyrgyz authorities were unable to protect the Uzbek community. Rather than blaming outside instigators, Birlik said the interim authorities bore responsibility for the bloodshed.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent an assessment mission to review the issue of whether an international police presence could be established in Osh, and Human Rights Watch and other groups called for immediate deployment of protective international police without delay. If consensus was reached in OSCE, such a police unit would only be authorized to mentor local authorities and observe policing and could not disarm combatants. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russian-led regional security organization in which Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan participate, made a somewhat stronger response by sending an operations unit that supplied helicopters, equipment, and logistics to Kyrgyz law-enforcement, but also did not seem likely to obtain the consent of the parties to engage in robust policing actions to protect civilians.
There is some indication that the way in which the CSTO, the UN, Russia, and the U.S. are responding to the challenges of the region is by converting the complex set of problems into a war on drugs. While the CSTO says it cannot engage in pacifying civilians or stopping ethnic conflict, it does see its mandate as combating narcotics trafficking from neighboring Afghanistan through the Central Asian region. The UN recently provided more than $1 million in equipment and training to reinforce the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, to enable freight to move through the Termez river port securely. Uzbek authorities say they have arrested 127 foreigners with narcotics along the border, mainly Tajiks and Afghans.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog. To subscribe to Uzbekistan News Briefs, write firstname.lastname@example.org