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

Conflict Legacy Haunts South Kyrgyzstan

One year on, true reconciliation remains distant prospect as ethnic communities pursue parallel existences.
By Anara Yusupova, Isomidin Ahmedjanov
  • Rebuilding work in a low-rise area of Osh where the population is mainly Uzbek. (Photo: Pavel Gromsky)
    Rebuilding work in a low-rise area of Osh where the population is mainly Uzbek. (Photo: Pavel Gromsky)
  • The government has been building new apartment blocks, though some of those assigned flats are unhappy about having neighbours from a different ethnic group.  (Photo: Pavel Gromsky)
    The government has been building new apartment blocks, though some of those assigned flats are unhappy about having neighbours from a different ethnic group. (Photo: Pavel Gromsky)
  • Trade is slowly recovering at Osh’s markets.  (Photo: Pavel Gromsky)
    Trade is slowly recovering at Osh’s markets. (Photo: Pavel Gromsky)

A year on from fighting that tore southern Kyrgyzstan apart, people are cautiously optimistic that life is getting back to normal – but not when it comes to a rapprochement between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. If anything, the two communities appear to be growing apart.

Several days of fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in and around Osh and Jalalabad, starting on the night of June 10 last year, left over 400 people dead and many more injured. Massive damage was done to homes and businesses as mobs engaged in arson and looting that targeted specific ethnicities. (IWPR reports at the time included South Kyrgyzstan Slides Out of Control and Mayhem in Osh.)

The government agency in charge of post-conflict rebuilding says 15.5 million US dollars was spent on repairing damaged homes and putting up new ones in the second half of last year, with another 50 million earmarked for 2011.

The agency’s spokesman Melis Erjigitov says the building programme will be completed by the end of December, and will provide for everyone who lost their homes in the violence.

But physical rebuilding is one thing, and restoring cross-community trust another.

Few of the people from different ethnic backgrounds whom IWPR interviewed for this report would agree with Osh mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov’s claim that his administration has successfully “restored interethnic friendship and unity”.

The mayor made the comment at a meeting with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, on May 31. He focused on festivals and other events held in schools, universities and other state institutions around the theme of “friendship between peoples”, and a special flowerbed in the city centre spelling out “Osh – City of Friendship.

Osh resident Bolot Ryspekov moved to Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek after the conflict and has no plans to return.

“I fear for my children’s safety. How can I let them go for a walk when the burnt-down houses, looted shops and other buildings haven’t been cleared?” Ryspekov, who is Kyrgyz, said. “What should I tell them? I can’t lie but the truth is too terrible. And how can they play with other children? What if they face hostility, intimidation and threats?”

Ryspekov paints a depressing picture of a once busy city where families used to stay out until late at night.

“I often visit Osh and I can see that tension still exists,” he said. “As soon as you get into a taxi, the driver asks what your ethnicity is. There’s also a divide in the cafes – the Kyrgyz try to go to their ones in the west of the city and the Uzbeks go to their own.

“People are afraid to go out in the evenings, and they stay indoors. There are very few jobs in the city, so people, regardless of ethnicity, are leaving.”

The head of the agency for rebuilding the south, Jantoro Satybaldiev, told IWPR that while the work was going well, it was proving hard to get people from different communities to live together.

As new apartment blocks went up, he said, “We are trying to put people of various ethnicities in each block. We take the view that this will avoid the growth of mono-ethnic neighbourhoods and solve a problem that hasn’t been tackled in the last 20 years.”

However, he said, “Some people who are given apartments don’t want to live alongside people from another ethnic group. We’re trying to educate them, but without success. There’s palpable tension in the relationship.”

Another area where the communal divide is apparent is the level of confidence that people express in their local government and police.

Ryspekov, who is Kyrgyz, believes people are largely happy with the city authorities in Osh.

“They’re really doing something to restore peace and amicable relations,” he said. “Maybe it’s just for formality’s sake, for show, but it’s having a very positive effect.”

Uzbek interviewees, however, said they did not really trust local government or the central authorities in Bishkek, and preferred to take their problems to grassroots bodies like the “mahalla” or neighbourhood committees, and associations of apartment block residents.

They also expressed concern about the police. Even though more Uzbeks than Kyrgyz were killed or displaced in the fighting, most of those arrested and put on trial in the months that followed were Uzbek. Human rights groups have filed reports on the use of torture against detainees. (See for example Kyrgyz Violence Trials Must Deliver Justice.)

While the wave of arrests has died down, one Osh resident describes how he was picked up as recently as April and accused of participating in the bloodshed. At the time, he was working as a trainee doctor at a local hospital and treating the injured as they were brought in.

“They tried to get me to confess to a crime I hadn’t committed and then demanded a huge amount of money,” he said. “In the end, I paid 200,000 soms [4,500 US dollars] and they let me go.”

This interviewee, who is Uzbek, still feels bitter about the treatment meted out to him and sees no future for himself in Osh.

“I have a young wife and a small son. After this incident, I’m thinking of leaving for Russia or anywhere else,” he said.

Compared with the situation immediately after the conflict, and also in January when IWPR looked at the mood in for the report Deep Rifts Remain in Conflict-Torn Kyrgyz South, one marked change is that people are now less likely to say they fear for their lives. At the same time, they appear more reluctant to be interviewed – perhaps to avoid getting into trouble at a time when the authorities say everything is back to normal.

“There’s no longer the fear that there was before,” an Osh resident called Anvar said. “Previously, people were in a panic and worried about would happen to them if they stayed. Many left out of fear. Now that exodus has greatly diminished.”

According to people interviewed by IWPR, those who could afford to get out in the aftermath of the violence have left, often for good. Anvar said he knew of some families who returned to his Uzbek neighbourhood from Russia or Kazakstan, but then left again when the realised the job prospects were so poor.

The outflow now consists mainly of people like Anvar, who go abroad as seasonal labour for a few months at a time.

For people who decided to remain, or who could not afford to go, finding work is a major preoccupation, and this colours their perceptions of the success of the reconstruction project.

Small businesses are showing some signs of recovery, trade at the central market in Osh is about 70 per cent of what it was before the conflict, and aspects of government such as social services are functioning well.

Alisher, who sells meat and dairy products at the market, said things had improved since the early months after the conflict, when he and other Uzbek traders faced ethnic abuse from customers who made off with things without paying for them.

“I didn’t go to the police as I’m afraid of them,” he explained. “But for the last few months I haven’t had customers like that, and I’m very glad to be able to work in peace.”

Given the reluctance to move about the city as they used to, mosques are among the few communal spaces where Kyrgyz and Uzbek – who belong to the same Sunni Muslim faith – are beginning to gather together again. However, even this is a slow process, as people have tended to congregate in their local mosque, where most people tend to be from the same community, rather than making the trip to a bigger, more mixed one further away.

45-year-old Izatullo, a regular visitor to a mosque in the southern part of the city talked about noticeable rise in the number of mosque goers among representatives of both communities.

“After those events, many people want to turn to Islam as everyone is equal before Allah,” Izatullo, a truck-driver forced to stop work because of the lawlessness that surrounded last year’s violence, said. “Praying helps me have more faith that peace will be fully established in Osh.”

Izatullo was of the few interviewees who appeared optimistic about the prospects for reconciliation.

“I think people have realised that the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks don’t want war, and that wars are made by evil people with an interest in dividing these two brotherly nations,” he concluded.

Conflict studies expert Tatiana Vygovskaya does not see rising mosque attendance as a sign of radicalisation. “What we’re seeing here is people seeking support after all they’ve had to go through, and when their future looks uncertain,” she said.

Many of those interviewed in Osh were concerned that the debate about the causes and culprits of the June 2010 bloodshed had been hijacked by politicians and others seeking to demonise their opponents. (For more on this, see Kyrgyzstan Debates Rival Ethnic Policies and Kyrgyzstan Report Draws Shaky Line Under Violence.)

Accounts of what happened have been published by a national commission, an international investigative group, and several human rights organisations, and their sometimes conflicting narratives have been seized on for political ends. Kyrgyzstan will have a presidential election in October, and rival groups are already jockeying for position.

“Everyone watched OTRK [television] when it carried the presentation of two new reports to parliament,” pensioner Shahobidin said. “I don’t agree with the nationalist comments made by some parliamentarians. It looks like a political fight. We should spend more time learning to build and to provide food for ourselves. That’s when the troubles and wounds will heal.”

University lecturer Bakyt Omurkulov argues that the various reports that had been published just make people anxious.

“Ordinary people don’t like it when memories of these events are constantly stirred up. Those who lost their nearest and dearest take these things – every incautious word – very close to heart,” he said.

Although the process of reconciliation still seems a long way off, there are some signs that it is possible at a very local level – between people from different ethnic groups who know each other as neighbours or from working or socialising together in the past.

Omurkulov, who is Kyrgyz, said he saw indications this was happening.

“There’s more business in Uzbek cafes and other eating places, and people from different ethnic groups like to go to them,” he said. “We always invite our neighbours, colleagues and friends, who include a lot of Uzbeks. And they respond to our invitations.”

Anara Yusupova is a pseudonym for a journalist in Bishkek. Isomidin Ahmedjanov is an IWPR-trained journalist in Osh.