Matt Kupfer ’12 reports on continuing unrest in Kyrgyzstan

After traveling there to research AIDS prevention, he’s now trying to help with relief efforts

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Matt Kupfer ’12, who is majoring in anthropology and international and global studies, was looking into AIDS prevention efforts in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, when a wave of ethic violence erupted there in mid-June, sending masses of minority Urbeks fleeing from the Kyrgyz majority. Kupfer escaped to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, from where he sent this second message about his experiences and observations in the central Asian country. He has changed the names of the people about whom he is writing to ensure that he does not cause them any trouble.

I have now been in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with my friend for about a week. I am currently looking for volunteer work with an organization that is helping with the relief effort for Osh. If I find it, I will stay in Bishkek for a while. If not, I will probably head home.

It is amazing how different Bishkek, the capital in the north, is from Osh, the largest city in the south. Osh was much more Muslim than I expected it to be. Virtually all married women over 40, and some unmarried Uzbek women, wore headscarves. Men, mostly Uzbeks, often wore Islamic skullcaps.

And there was no shortage of mosques. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, mosque construction has increased dramatically in South Kyrgyzstan. When I was in Osh, the largest construction project was a new mosque funded by Saudi Arabia and intended to be the biggest in the city. I don’t doubt that this project is now on hold. When I saw it, most of the construction workers appeared to be Uzbeks, and I wonder how many are still alive.

Bishkek, by contrast, is like a Kyrgyz take on Moscow. I have yet to see a mosque here, although I have been told they exist. There are plenty of bars and restaurants, supermarkets, and trendy boutiques. Foreigners can be found almost everywhere downtown, and it sometimes seems like all young people have at least moderate proficiency in English. Headscarves are a rarity; I probably would see more of them if I were walking through New York City.

Although the busy streets of Bishkek seem a world away from the conflict in Osh, not everything is right here. Rumors are circulating that today or tomorrow there may be “trouble,” but no one is sure exactly what “trouble” means.

In April, mass protests in Bishkek ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose regime was widely regarded by Kyrgyz in the north as corrupt and plagued by nepotism. However, this did not end as a peaceful revolution like those in Ukraine and Georgia in recent years. Security forces fired on the protestors outside the Kyrgyz White House, killing more than 80 people and leading to chaos in the streets. A tourist can still stroll down Chui Street in Bishkek, past scenic Ala-Too Square, and examine the bullet holes in the wrought iron gate around the Kyrgyz White House.

During the unrest in Osh, the government television channel broadcast an audio recording purported to be a phone conversation between Bakiyev’s brother and son. While I cannot confirm the veracity of this crackly, difficult-to-understand recording, it seemed to suggest that Bakiyev and his family had planned the conflict in Osh. The recording is also the source of the rumors about trouble in Bishkek, as the two men talking discussed a plan to bring restore Bakiyev to the presidency.

It is hard to say whether trouble is imminent in Bishkek. Different people give different opinions.

During my first three days here, I stayed with the relatives of my Kyrgyz friend, Ainura, who is currently taking her university exams in Russia. Ainura’s uncle Almaz, a geography teacher and excellent cook, was very concerned about the possibility of unrest, and advised my friend and me to stay indoors at night. Ainura’s “Chong Apa” (grandmother) an 85-year-old woman filled with interesting opinions on virtually anything and everything, thought that there would be no trouble, or, at worst, very little.

Another unsettling thing about Bishkek is the groups of young men wearing colored bands around the sleeves of their t-shirts.  When we first passed a group of these men on the street, their bands were red, the color of the Kyrgyz flag, and so we dubbed them the “Kyrgyz Pride Squad.” As an American and a Jew, I was immediately reminded of the red armband adorned with a swastika that was part of the Nazi uniform in Hitler’s Germany.

However, after seeing a group of men with blue bands around their upper arms, we started to get more curious about what they meant. Later, we found out that these men were “druzhiniki,” unarmed volunteers who pledged to help the police keep order in the city, perhaps if “trouble” broke out. The owner of the little hotel where we currently are staying says that the armbands identify different groups who patrol different areas. However, another person told us that the different armbands showed that each group had aligned itself with a different political party. It’s unclear which story is correct.

What’s clear is the incredible distaste the people I know have for the old Bakiyev regime. Over tea and snacks, Chong Apa repeatedly referred to Bakiyev and his family as “duraki” (Russian for “idiots”) and rattled off in incredible detail the ways the prices of meat, vegetables, and apartments went up during the Bakiyev regime. Interestingly, she also referred to Bakiyev, an ethnic Kyrgyz from the Uzbek-majority, southern city of Jalalabad, as a “pure Uzbek.”

Seeing as the five years of the Bakiyev regime had been so bad in Chong Apa’s mind, I was curious to hear her opinions about Soviet times.

“Was life in the Soviet Union better?” I asked.

“Of course it was better! Everything was better!” she replied emphatically. “Everyone worked, and there was no war.”

While Chong Apa was correct that unemployment has become a major problem in Kyrgyzstan since the fall of the Soviet Union, she was not entirely correct about war. Ethnic riots broke out in Osh 20 years ago as the Soviet Union was falling apart, and 200 to 300 people were killed, according to official estimates. [Locals in Osh locals often assert the number was more like 2,000 to 3,000.] However, unlike the Kyrgyz Republic, the USSR had a huge army, and was therefore able to put down the unrest after three days.

Another person with an interesting perspective on the Bakiyev regime is my friend Ainura’s father, Alimbek, a businessman. As he talked about Bakiyev, his face twisted into an indescribable expression of revulsion.

In a mixture of Russian and English, Alimbek told us that Kurmanbek Bakiyev wanted to be “khan” (as in Genghis) of Kyrgyzstan. But the Kyrgyz were originally nomads, he said, and they never had a khan. He also took issue with the nepotism in the Bakiyev regime.

“Bakiyev has eight brothers, and his eight brothers each have around eight sons,” he said. “They are like the hydra!”

Alimbek then pantomimed the solution to the hydra problem: Slicing off the heads.

Alimbek is much more optimistic about the current interim government and President Roza Otunbaeva. He sees the fact that the president is a woman as a sign that Kyrgyzstan is more progressive and democratic than its neighbors. This would not work in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, or Tajikistan, he told us. At the sight of two women in full-hijab, Alimbek remarked that this was not normal for Kyrgyzstan and that it was better that women not wear headscarves. However, the perception of veiling as abnormal also shows his northern bias. In South Kyrgyzstan, headscarves are the norm.

Not everyone is as optimistic about the new government as Alimbek. Farida, the daughter of my host parents in Osh, feels that the government has, at best, mismanaged the situation there. Farida works for the United Nations Refugee Organization, but I am sure she never thought the refugees she was dealing with would be her own people from her own hometown.

As an Uzbek in Kyrgyzstan, Farida is very worried about safety, and the rumors of trouble in Bishkek make her nervous. When we met with her, she suggested we sit down at a Mexican cantina next door to the Bishkek UN House. That way, she reasoned, “if anything happens we can just run next door.”

“I am pissed off at my mother,” she said to us soon after we sat down. “I tell her to be careful. But everyday she risks her life and goes out in the city to get medicine for the clinic she works at.”

Farida quickly told us something we had never heard before, something that significantly expanded my perspective on what happened in Osh: While this attack on Uzbeks was sudden, over the past seven or eight years the government has gradually usurped almost all positions of power held by Uzbeks.

“It started under the Akaev regime, but picked up speed under the Bakiyev regime,” she said. “For example, in the past, the governor of Osh Oblast was usually an Uzbek, but now he is Kyrgyz.”

The same thing even happened to those who were not politicians – top Uzbek officials of state hospitals and Uzbek directors of schools were replaced by ethnic Kyrgyz, until political power was consolidated almost entirely in the hands of the Kyrgyz. Farida suggested that this gradual usurpation was tied to nepotism: If you were friends with someone in the government, you’d ask your friend to get you a position you wanted. They’d say “no problem” and call someone higher up. Eventually, you’d get the position.

Farida told us that her mother, an ethnic Tajik who is married to an Uzbek, once worked as the deputy head of a state hospital. Usually the head of the hospital made the decisions, but the deputy head carried them out and took responsibility for them. One day, the government replaced the head of the hospital, an Uzbek, with a Kyrgyz. Farida’s mother decided to quit her job, because she didn’t feel comfortable working under a new boss in a political system where a person can lose his job because of his ethnicity, and where she would be less respected for not being Kyrgyz.

At this point in the conversation, I began to hear police sirens, and wondered if the “trouble” everyone had been talking about was actually starting. But Farida told me not to worry, and pointed out that the street in front of the restaurant was totally free of cars.

“The president or someone important from the government is probably going home,” she said. Sure enough, two or three police cars soon sped down the street followed by two black SUVs.

I am sad to say that I don’t feel very hopeful about the situation in Osh. Even if the Uzbeks who fled the city choose to return, they may face violence in the future. Fundamentally, the perpetrators of this violence must be brought to justice and Kyrgyzstani society as a whole must be made to recognize the shamefulness of these atrocities, much as Americans have come to recognize slavery as a stain on the history of our nation.

There is plenty to be ashamed of. Farida told us that there are now reports of men raping eight- and nine-year-old Uzbek refugee girls. But how will society as a whole ever come to accept its portion of the guilt if the government will only blame the unrest on the Bakiyev family? Furthermore, at the moment, it seems that many Kyrgyz believe that the Uzbeks in the South started the unrest to gain political autonomy and possibly even to get their language recognized as an official language in Kyrgyzstan. This simply isn’t true.

The bottom line is that unless Uzbeks can be given some kind of political power, their interests will never be represented by the government of Kyrgyzstan, and they may always find themselves second-class citizens in their own country. Before this unrest, they at least had economic power -- the majority of shopkeepers and microbus drivers were Uzbeks. But this has effectively been taken from them, leaving them entirely powerless should they return to Osh. Creating a political party of their own is not a possibility: Parties based on ethnicity or religion are illegal in Kyrgyzstan.

Osh was an Uzbek city long before it was a Kyrgyz one. The Kyrgyz residents of Osh were nomads who were forcibly settled by the Soviet Union during the 1970s and ‘80s. Thus, the erasure of history is a key component of the oppression of Uzbeks.

Rumor is a large and important component of the continuing unrest. One rumor that fueled the violence was that Uzbek men had invaded a women’s dormitory in Osh and raped two young women. However, Farida says she has a friend who knows a Russian woman who lives in that dormitory, and according to her nothing happened that night. But the truth isn’t all that useful, when people’s passions are fired up.

The hardest thing for me, when I think about what happened in Osh, is remembering the faces of the people I would see as I rode the crowded microbus to work in the morning and home at night. How many of them are dead? How many of those who survived have lost their homes and livelihoods, and are living in refugee camps? How many have escaped to Uzbekistan and will never return to Kyrgyzstan?

It’s hard to imagine that one day Osh was a vibrant, bustling city, and the next day it was a war zone. I’d like to believe that, some day, Osh will return to normal, but I also remember that the neighborhood I lived in had 20 funerals in one day when the violence abated. How do you forgive your neighbors when they killed your sons, destroyed your livelihood, and burned your home to the ground?

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