Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bukhara's Mysterious Mass Murder

The investigation of a grizzly multiple killing in an Uzbek tourist town has uncovered more questions than answers.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Olima Karaeva, a small, good-looking brunette, looked deadpan as she recounted to the judge how she had murdered six people, dissected them, filleted, diced and pickled their flesh in bottles, boiled their heads and limbs and dumped them in neighbourhood garbage bins.


Explaining her motives, Karaeva, 41, claimed the family she had murdered had borrowed 4800 US dollars and never paid her back.


No-one believed Olima Karaeva. The victims' relatives and other residents of Bukhara, where this heinous crime was perpetrated, say she could not have done this on her own, and that she and her accomplices were probably after their victims' vital organs or flesh.


Investigators, however, say they found no evidence corroborating these allegations. They have concluded that the murderer was motivated purely by her anger over a bad debt.


Twelve defendants stand trial, but only Olima Karaeva and her son, Jeikhun Karaev, 23, are charged with murder. Their victims were six members of the Aripov family: Rustam Aripov, his wife, three children (aged 2, 7 and 8), and Aripov's brother-in-law, Farkhad Jumaev. The other defendants - physicians employed by Karaeva's company and her husband, Firuddin Karaev - are charged with fraud and conducting business without a licence.


All sides hope proceedings under way at the district court will establish the truth behind this gruesome murder that shocked the entire community late last year.


UZBEK ENTREPRENUER Bukhara is an important south-western city with a population of about a quarter of a million. The 2500-year-old town used to be one of the world's principle Islamic centres during the Middle Ages. Along with Samarkand and Khiva, it is a major tourist attraction for travelers following the old Silk Road through Uzbekistan. Together, these cities are the main hope for the Uzbek tourist industry, attracting much needed hard currency.


But even Bukhara's beautiful ancient minarets and mosques cannot hide the brutality of Karaeva's crimes.


Well-known in Bukhara as an ambitious, career-minded woman, Karaeva started a staff recruitment company named Kora in 1998 in collaboration with the mayor's office of Bukhara. She also chaired the Ael counselling centre for women.


In August 2000, Karaeva started another business, named Karina, providing overseas employment and emigration services.


High unemployment and low wages in Uzbekistan force many people to seek opportunities abroad, and recognising this need, many entrepreneurs established companies offering help for those who either wanted to find a job abroad or sought to leave the country more permanently.


In business for only four months, Karina received applications from some 1,800 Bukhara residents seeking overseas placements or permanent residency abroad.


All applicants were required to undergo a health examination by medical professionals on staff. Based on these results, 500 applicants were selected and made to pay a deposit to cover paperwork processing and transportation costs.


The Aripovs and the husband's brother-in-law registered with the company to leave the country for Canada, hoping for a better life.


In late November 2000, Karaeva told Aripov and his family that their petition had been granted, and they were free to move permanently to Canada with their three children. Karaeva had more good news for the Aripovs: one person in the first group of emigrants headed for Canada had broken his leg, so now the brother-in-law, Farkhad Jumaev, could come too.


Farkhad, 23, had only been married four months, and his widow, Makhbuba Khaitova, recalls that he came home very excited one day in late November last year, and told her he was going to Canada. As she was already pregnant, he wouldn't be able to bring her along until later.


That pregnancy would save her life.


DEADLY QUARANTINE The Aripovs were thrilled by the prospect of starting a new life abroad, and they started making all necessary preparations. In their excitement they were willing to do whatever the Karina agency recommended to speed the process. But the agency's requests quickly turned strange.


"Karaeva told the Aripovs and my husband they had to undergo a two-week quarantine period before they left for Canada," recounted Khaitova. " She locked them up in a flat, and forbade them to leave or receive visitors. They had to endure an array of injections every day. Karaeva told us to buy them five or six kilos of lemons a day."


Karaeva testified that she had placed the Aripovs in quarantine at a friend's flat in order to make the father repay his supposed debt.


Then on December 12 of last year, Karaeva brought the six of them over to her own house. Telling the family they had to take one more preventative injection, she doped them.


"I searched them, but all I found was a piddling 200 dollars. I got mad and decided to kill them all. I gave them a petrol injection," Karaeva told the judges.


Karaeva took the bodies down to her basement and stacked them up against a wall. She says she spent more than a week cutting up the bodies, but her husband and three children never noticed anything.


Her two sons caught on eventually when they discovered blood-stained clothes around the house and a huge amount of meat in the fridge. "It's pork," Karaeva told them, perhaps to keep them from accidentally eating it.


But finally, her older son, Jeikhun, stumbled on a large metal bowl in the basement with a male haunch in it.


Beginning to comprehend what had happened, Jeikhun told his mother to get rid of the bodies. He said that, at that point, his father, younger brother and sister still had no idea what was going on.


Olima Karaeva told her victims' relatives that the six of them had successfully reached Canada and moved into a big house, and that the men had already found jobs. She did apologise that the family had had to leave at short notice, without saying goodbye to their relatives.


On December 21, Karaeva dumped her victims' skulls and limbs at two city dumpsters. The gory bundles were discovered the same day, and an investigation began. Shortly afterwards, the police found a lead to Karaeva's house.


A search of the house yielded a few bottles filled with pickled human flesh which, in their initial testimonies to prosecutors, the Karaevs said they had been eating. Olima's 13-year-old daughter said her mother had cooked that meat for them routinely.


MISSING PIECES The police may have uncovered the extent of the tragedy, but several aspects of the investigation don't quite add up.


First, why did Karaeva at one point claim to tell her son the bodies were forbidden pork, when at another stage of the investigations, members of her family claim to have eaten the meat? The testimonies are inconsistent, yet the prosecution chose to accept the mass murderer's confession at face value.


Second, a forensic examination revealed the Aripovs had never been injected with petrol, so why did Karaeva claim that they had? Defence attorney Marzia Makhmudova, who represents the doctors employed by Karaeva, cited medical evidence showing that, when injected in large amounts, the sedative Karaeva had used to dope the Aripovs stops blood circulation, making a second injection (in this case, of petrol) impossible.


The attorney further suggested that Karaeva may have claimed to have used petrol to avoid charges of organ theft, since petrol renders human organs unsuitable for transplanting.


Third, the investigation chose to ignore some striking details, such as Karaeva's insistence that her victims consume large quantities of lemons (for body cleansing?), a certain book entitled "Cannibals", which was found on her premises, and the fact that her husband and children left for Tashkent in a hurry the day after the murder.


Instead of looking at facts such as these, the prosecutor general chose to try the doctors who had been working for Karaeva. It is difficult to imagine that they would have known that the people they examined were slated for murder, and unlikely that paid staff would have been aware of the details of the legal basis of the company.


Fourth, prosecution staff in Bukhara complain that, as soon as the case was solved, the Uzbek prosecutor general's office took over to do some "fine tuning". As a result, all evidence suggesting organ theft or cannibalism was deliberately removed from the files.


Attorney Makhmudova suggested that a full and fair investigation and trial of this case might have exposed links to organised crime or perhaps even implicated some highly influential people. Authorities would also have a strong interest in seeking to protect Bukhara's image as a safe tourist destination.


According to Makhmudova, the court in Bukhara has been trying to present this story as a freak case of murder, but many in Bukhara believe there is more to it than that. Defence attorneys are convinced the real motive for the crime went far beyond settling a debt. They see the case as evidence of a possible criminal ring involved in the illegal smuggling of human organs for transplant.


By contrast, a straightforward - if particularly gruesome - murder over money looks harmless. But without a full investigation, one cannot rule out something more sinister.


Indeed, were the Aripovs the only victims? A spokesman at the Bukhara prosecutor's office told IWPR that 17 passports had been recovered from Karaeva's house. These individuals have since been tracked down and are alive. But persistent rumours of missing people continue to circulate in Bukhara. Some people have allegedly gone abroad to make money, and no one has ever heard from them again.


Could they, too, have fallen prey to Karaeva's morbid business practices?


In any case, it is too late for the Aripovs. On April 13, the late Rustam Aripov's father, Kurban Obidov, was summoned to the prosecutor general's office in Tashkent to pick up six coffins containing the remains of his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He returned to Bukhara and buried them.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR project director in Uzbekistan.