Counting the Cost of Devastation in Kyrgyzstan

Eyewitness accounts tell human stories behind bare statistics on June fatalities and destruction.

Counting the Cost of Devastation in Kyrgyzstan

Eyewitness accounts tell human stories behind bare statistics on June fatalities and destruction.

Armed men roam the streets of Osh as a pall of smoke settles over the city. (Photo: Inga Sikorskaya)
Armed men roam the streets of Osh as a pall of smoke settles over the city. (Photo: Inga Sikorskaya)
Rows of shops and homes now stand in ruins. (Photo: Inga Sikorskaya)
Rows of shops and homes now stand in ruins. (Photo: Inga Sikorskaya)
A disused military vehicle into service as a barricade on the outskirts of Osh. (Photo: Isomidin Ahmedjanov)
A disused military vehicle into service as a barricade on the outskirts of Osh. (Photo: Isomidin Ahmedjanov)

The number of dead in recent ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan is still rising as the authorities discover more bodies under the ruins of destroyed homes and in common graves.

In its latest casualty update for July 12, the Kyrgyz health ministry said 312 people were now known to have died in the several days of violence that broke out in Osh overnight on June 10-11 and spread to Jalalabad and rural areas around both cities.

Forensic examinations conducted on 249 bodies showed that 90 per cent were men aged between 20 and 44; 56 per cent died of gunshot wounds, and around 16 per cent showed stab wounds and other signs of assault. Some 2,300 people were injured and given medical assistance

The bloodshed displaced 400,000 people, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, from their homes, although most have begun moving back, including the 80,000 who sought refuge over the border in Uzbekistan.

The security chief or “commandant” in Osh, Kursan Asanov, said there were 24 unidentified bodies and 41 people still counted as missing there.

IWPR contributors went round Osh and Jalalabad to look at the damage and speak to residents gathered eyewitness accounts which show the human suffering behind the bare statistics of casualties and wrecked buildings.

While not attempting a comprehensive body count, they spoke to people who had seen dozens of dead in each area.

In Jalalabad, an elderly Uzbek told IWPR that on June 14, when fighting broke out in the city, 36 people were buried. The next two days saw fewer burials – between five and ten people a day. This corresponds roughly to an official report two days later that 47 people had died in the city.

Evidence gathered by IWPR suggest that the largest number of fatalities in Osh occurred in the Furkat and Amir-Temur residential districts in the east of the city, and in Cheremushki in the west. The former two districts are mainly ethnic Uzbek, while Cheremushki is more mixed, with Kyrgyz, Russians and Tatars as well as Uzbeks.

A junior doctor in Osh who asked not to be named was on duty from June 11 onwards, for the three days that saw the worst of the violence. Initially, he was stationed at the big provincial hospital in the city, and later he was sent out to smaller hospitals which were short-staffed.

Early on, he said, a lot of people were brought in from the Furkat district, mostly with gunshot wounds. He said he could not remember how many were admitted to the hospitals he was at, but it was dozens every day.

“There were lots of injured people – so many that other wards were emptied [to make space]. There were wounded people everywhere, and the morgues were overfilled. We were barely coping,” he said.

Dead bodies from Furkat were also delivered to the hospital. Most were in sacks or wrapped in Muslim shrouds. They were buried early on, the doctor said.

IWPR reporter Isomidin Ahmedjanov explained that many of the bodies at hospital morgues were buried in common graves, because the ongoing violence and presence of road blocks made it impossible for relatives to come to get them and give them a decent funeral.

A man from Furkat who gave his first name as Jusup, and who unlike the majority of residents there is Kyrgyz rather than Uzbek, said he witnessed many deaths caused by sniper fire from the roofs of buildings and from some nearby hills.

“There seemed to be a lot of them. That’s how it seemed to us. They were firing in sustained bursts. Mostly they shot people in the back. There was a huge panic,” he said.

Shekerbubu Dyikanova, a lecturer at Osh State University, lives in the area adjoining Furkat district, with a more mixed population.

She and her family, together with two of her students who had come to repair her computer and were afraid to go back to their hostel, left her house on June 12, under the protection of the Kyrgyzstan military.

“I found out afterwards that my neighbour, a Kyrgyz, was killed and his house burnt down. He hadn’t wanted to abandon the house and go away with his family,” she said.

Dyikanova’s home was also burned down, and the family is now staying at relatives.

In some cases, attacks seemed to be completely random, rather than focused on a particular ethnic quarter of the city. A taxi driver in Osh said he witnessed a mob setting on and murdering a man and a woman who were merely walking along the street.

“They were just unlucky. They were caught and set on fire,” the taxi driver said.

In the aftermath of the violence, images of houses and shops looted, wrecked and burnt out flashed across TV screens around the world. But it has been difficult to build up a more comprehensive picture of the physical devastation in osh and Jalalabad, not least because of security concerns.

Duyshenkul Chotonov, acting head of the ministry for emergency situations, the government’s disaster relief agency, said on June 26 that 1,386 houses were known to have burned down – 744 in Osh region and 642 in Jalalabad region.

The United Nations came up with a somewhat higher figure in a June 25 damage assessment update based on satellite imagery provided by UNOSAT, part of the UNITAR training and research agency. The images indicated that 1,877 buildings had been damaged, almost all of them completely destroyed, with arson the most likely cause.

The vast majority of damage to buildings occurred in residential neighbourhoods, although some cases involved government facilities, commercial properties and industrial warehouses.

The UN report provides a clearer picture of the geographical distribution of attacks on buildings in Osh. It says there were seven major focal points for the destruction, located along an axis running east-west through the centre of the city.

The evidence provided by the UNOSAT pictures suggested that several ethnic Uzbek neighbourhoods escaped relatively unscathed, presumably because of the substantial barricades put up to block entry roads, which were visible in satellite images.

IWPR journalists in Osh and Jalalabad provided a view from the ground that broadly coincided with this assessment.

Their very rough conclusion was that half of Osh was destroyed, with a concentration along a swathe of areas running east to west as the UN pictures showed.

Osh is a sprawling city, the second largest in Kyrgyzstan after the capital Bishkek. Officially, its population is over 240,000, but when outlying suburban areas are taken into account, this rises to half a million.

The city centre of Osh, where the violence broke out, saw the worst of the damage with shops, cafes and casinos being targeted. A central market serving the whole city was also devastated.

From the centre, the violence spread out to other districts. Most of the city was affected, but the nature and scale of the damage varied.

Eyewitness accounts indicate that when residents organised and put up barricades around their areas, this played a significant role in reducing loss of life and property.

Cheremushki in the west of Osh was one of the areas that suffered most.

A local name who gave his first name as Vladimir said he saw close to 50 homes there completely destroyed by fire. He himself lives in an apartment block, though most people in this area live in one-storey detached houses. He says most houses were either looted or torched – or both.

“I don’t want to talk about this war any more,” Vladimir said, adding that he would be leaving if he got an opportunity to do so.

Asan, an ethnic Kyrgyz from Cheremushki, said homes there including his own were set on fire by a group of attackers who seemed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, some of them armed with automatic rifles.

“All of the residents of our streets tried to stop them,” he said. “Many of our people were killed or wounded. I will never forget that,” Asan said.

Northern parts of the city, and Frunzenskiy district in the south, appeared to experience fewer human casualties although there was still looting and arson there. Some parts of Osh got away with little destruction; these included the mainly Kyrgyz district of Ak Tilek and the predominantly Uzbek area called Yuzhny.

Abdumalik, a resident of Yuzhny district, said the neighbourhood was saved human losses and damage by the prompt action of locals who put up strong barricades made from concrete blocks. To reinforce their roadblocks, they towed in some old armoured vehicles from a disused army training ground.

“We were very scared,” he said. “But we could see that our barricades were strong. It seems that even the people who were roaming round the city were aware of this.”

Damage in Jalalabad, a city of 90,000, or 120,000 if outlying areas are included, was serious in places, but on a less massive scale overall than in Osh. An IWPR reporter on the ground estimated that between ten and 20 per cent of the city was devastated.

The city’s Uzbek population is concentrated in central parts of the city, The People’s Friendship University, was set up by Kadirjan Batirov, a businessman often regarded as the leader of the Uzbek community there, lies in ruins, and its roof has crashed to the ground.

The university was the focus of a first round of ethnic trouble in mid-May, when a crowd of ethnic Kyrgyz attempted to storm the premises.

In streets around the university, 30 to 50 houses were devastated by fire. Similar destruction can be seen on a street next to an Uzbek school.

Elsewhere in the city, businesses and public buildings on Lenin Street came under attack. Two cafes believed to belong to Kyrgyz businessmen were set on fire, and buildings housing Jalalabad TV and Radio and the local customs office were damaged.

A resident who gave her name as Jyrgal witnessed the arson attacks here. She said they did not look like locals, and spoke Uzbek rather than Kyrgyz. She speculated that they had come in from Suzak, a village with a large Uzbek community around five kilometres from Jalalabad.

“I watched out of the window as a group came from [the direction of] Suzak and set fire to Kyrgyz-owned shops on Lenin Street,” she said.

A month on, residents of Jalalabad and Osh are still recovering from the trauma and trying to rebuild their lives.

Although many aspects of life appear back to normal, tensions remain. People are continuing to stock up on food just in case, and organise their squads of residents to patrol their neighbourhoods.

By three in the afternoon, the streets of Osh are deserted, and it is going to take some time before shops stay open late, public transport runs until night and people go out in the evenings.

Ainagul Abdrakhmanova, Isomidin Ahmedjanov and Ilya Lukashov are IWPR-trained journalists in Kyrgyzstan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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