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

Nameless Kyrgyz Enemy

Kyrgyz wonder who they're fighting in the war-torn Batken region of the country
By Sultan Jumagulov

After months of fighting, the Kyrgyz army claims that there are now no more armed rebels in south Kyrgyzstan.


As happened last year, the onset of winter has made the mountain passes bordering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan impassable, hampering any military activity.


But the population remains concerned, with one question on everyone's lips: who exactly is drawing Kyrgyzstan into this strange and incomprehensible war, which has left dozens of people dead and hundreds wounded?


Many assume that the rebels belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan - linked to the Afghan Taleban - which claims to be trying to establish an Islamic republic here.


But others say the fighting has nothing to do with religion and that the guerrillas are trying to expand lucrative drug routes - Batken's mountain passes are notoriously poorly guarded.


Whatever the cause, many have fallen victim to the fighting. Lieutenant Vladimir Vavilov lost his leg after he stepped on a mine while serving in Batken. The special forces officer, now recuperating, recalls how he was rescued by a military helicopter.


"As soon as the chopper started to climb, the radio began to pick up enemy communications," he said. "A rebel asked his commanding officer for permission to fire on the helicopter, which he said he had in his sights.


"The answer came back that he was under no circumstances to fire, as it was imperative that they keep their positions secret. Our lives were hanging by a thread - that was the most terrifying thing of all."


Vavilov has already been through the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989), where he fought for three years as part of Soviet army special detachment. He knows what war means.


"It seems to me," he said, "that the fighters in Batken, though they might call themselves mujaheddin, are nothing like the Afghan mujaheddin. Their appearance and their tactics are different.


"If the Afghans came across our wounded soldiers, they would just kill them and move on. But in Batken - or so I've heard - they poke out eyes, rip out hearts and cut off the ears of prisoners and the wounded. You just can't get your head round that sort of barbarity."


"Take their tactics. In Afghanistan it was like a 'normal' war: both sides do everything they can to seize key positions. You always knew what your opponent wanted. Here in Batken, it's always totally incomprehensible.


"Small groups of about five people going out on sorties. You get the impression that they're looking for something somewhere. Or maybe their movements are just diversions."


At this point, Colonel Robert Bekboev, head of the defence ministry's press centre, broke into the conversation.


"According to our sources, the majority of the fighters are Uzbeks and Tajiks, but there are a lot of Pakistanis, Arabs and even Bangladeshis as well. And many of them have a limited association with Islam. So there's only really one conclusion: they're fighting purely for money. It's no secret that many Asians live below the poverty line."


Whoever the rebels are, the Kyrgyz authorities are having to devote more resources to the country's depleted armed forces.


In the early nineties, President Askar Akaev famously declared Kyrgyzstan a "peaceful and open" republic. The subsequently neglected the military so much so that it's thought the country has one of the most poorly funded armies in all the CIS republics, with soldiers barely able to support their families.


Batken has changed everything. "Before," said Vavilov, "you just kept thinking about how you were going to feed the family, how to get a crust of bread, maybe moonlight as a night watchman. Now it's got better."


As winter draws in, southern Kyrgyzstan breathes a sigh of relief. For now, no shots are being fired. In recent months, the rebels haven't managed to take a single Kyrgyz village.


That said, government forces have suffered much heavier losses than last year. And the rebels have hardened their tactics. In 1999, almost all Kyrgyz hostages were eventually freed. This year, only one captured soldier survived.


But despite the long casualty list and the presence of large detachments in some areas, the authorities refuse to call what's going on in Batken a war.


If this isn't a war, then what is it? And if it is a war, then who is the enemy? Now Kyrgyzstan will have to wait for the snows to melt to find out for sure.


Sultan Jumagulov is a regular IWPR contributor.