Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Unsung Heroes Took on Kyrgyzstan Mobs
This car proclaims its owner’s Kyrgyz identity on the streets of Osh. (Photo: Inga Sikorskaya)
Arson attacks were highly selective. The writing says this house belongs to ethnic Kyrgyz, and indicates it should be left alone. (Photo: Inga Sikorskaya)
During last week’s bloodshed between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks – the worst in two decades – there was a widespread sense that only intervention by an outside force could restore peace to southern Kyrgyzstan. Many traumatised residents who lost family members in the fighting placed were hoping that if military peacekeepers were deployed in the region, their presence would be a deterrent to further violence.
On June 12, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, Roza Otunbaeva, asked Moscow to intervene militarily, but this request was turned down and no peacekeepers were sent. Three days later, the members of Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Russian led regional security bloc, decided to offer logistical support to the Kyrgyz security forces on the grounds that the situation was fragile and in danger of deteriorating further.
This assistance may well help secure a kind of peace in the short term. But over the longer term, what will be needed most is dialogue between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
This process must be driven by new leaders and new structures coming out of both communities. Local government cannot fulfil this role, as it is regarded with deep mistrust in some communities. One only has to think of the brutal murder of the Karasuu district police chief and his driver, who went unarmed to the village of Nariman with the genuine intention of negotiating a truce.
Nor is there much point relying on the traditional elders or “aksakals” who have moderated in disputes since time immemorial. Without diminishing their importance, it needs to be said that a different kind of mediation is required in such a febrile atmosphere. The crowds of armed men – and it was men, mainly between the ages of 17 and 35 – who ran amok on the streets of Osh and Jalalabad were not listening to their elders, and were way beyond their control.
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Jalaliddin Salahiddinov, who heads the Uzbek cultural centre in Osh. “They won’t listen to us. We have no authority over them.”
Some experts argue that this lack of obedience is an indirect consequence of Kyrgyzstan’s success in creating greater freedom and democracy than neighbouring states. People of the younger generation have grown up in a different world from their elders, and were not prepared to heed their advice once they were pumped up with rumour and ready for the fray.
Others say the aksakals had little influence over the crowds because the latter were largely drawn from a marginalised “lumpenproletariat” which has little connection with the traditional order.
Yet amidst the chaos, I have seen potential leaders emerge – individuals with the authority and sheer grit to steer communities towards reconciliation. Many are people who enjoy respect within their communities as persevering, hard-working local organisers, people with the gift of speaking to others on their own terms, rather than talking at them.
Many of them used these skills to uphold civilised values and face down the mob during the ethnic violence.
One of these unsung heroes is Adyl, a middle-aged Kyrgyz man who runs a small business and has lived in Cheremshki, an Uzbek quarter of Osh for 20 years. When armed men arrived and started torching Uzbek homes in his neighbourhood, he went out to put out the fires with whatever came to hand.
Adyl faced the mob and told them they had no right to attack private property acquired through honest labour, whatever the ethnicity of its owner. Some of the arsonists, at least, listened.
“It will be hard to look my neighbours in the eye when they return, as they will do, to live and work on the land we share,” said Adyl.
A couple of days later, Adyl persuaded a neighbour to come back to her partly ruined home. She had taken five grandchildren to hide in a cellar in the next street.
“I take responsibility for what these marauders have done,” he said. “If they return, I will try to persuade them to stop this anarchy.”
Similar courage was shown by a middle-aged woman in Osh who stood guard to prevent a small computer centre from being destroyed. It survived unscathed when other shops and cafes along the same central street were wrecked and set alight.
Over the course of three days, she conducted lengthy negotiations with armed gangs eager to loot and smash the IT centre. They told her they were poor and envious of those better off than them.
Nevertheless, the woman continued to urge them to refrain from their shameful plan, and to leave the premises alone.
“They listened to me because they could see I was like their mothers,” she said.
On another battle-line, in Jalalabad, where the bloodletting began later than in Osh, the “people’s peacekeepers” employed different tactics. Here the main role was played by the Women Leaders of Jalalabad, a non-government group.
One its members picks up the story. “We managed to stop a group of young people from entering the city,” said Nurgul Joloeva. “We initially halted them by saying troops were on the way here and would shoot them all. That worked, for some reason.”
When a group of young men began massing at the racetrack outside the city, the activists went there and talked to those that seemed the most reasonable. They got them to give them the mobile phone numbers of other participants and began calling them to persuade them to disperse.
“Why are you going about with weapons?” asked one of the NGO members. “Because they [Uzbeks] are doing the same,” came the reply.
Asked whether he had actually seen this, the man replied that he had only heard it was true.
“I realised it was all being orchestrated in the interests of provocation, so we tried to set them right and explain why it was wrong. Maybe they listened to us because we are women and less swayed by emotion,” said Joloeva.
At the moment, community leaders say that while animosity is still running high in both communities, there is also a readiness to call a truce. That suggests dialogue is both possible and essential.
According to another member of the Jalalabad women’s NGO, “We’re holding talks by phone with the head of Tash-Bulak [Uzbek village in Suzak district] which has been 97 per cent torched and wrecked. People there are already organising themselves to rebuild.”
Another important group that could help bridge the gap between Uzbek and Kyrgyz is people of mixed ethnicity. Marriage between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks is quite common, and people who share both backgrounds could act as emissaries and intermediaries in the peace-building process.
Many of these potential peacemakers are ready to offer their services. It will be essential to coordinate their efforts to avoid overlapping or worse, conflicting activities. Such coordinated programmes could lay the foundations for a new ethnic harmony, and could ultimately serve as a model for the government’s ethnic policy.
Inga Sikorskaya, IWPR’s chief editor for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, was in Osh throughout the worst of the bloodshed. She is now back in Bishkek.
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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