An update from Kyrgyzstan

June 14 2010

Obviously I’m not there at the moment, but I spoke to a friend of mine who’s a professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek this morning to find out his thoughts on the situation.

Emil’s family is from Osh, the focal point for this weekend’s extraordinary violence. He grew up there, before he moved to Bishkek to study. He was visiting the city last week, and scheduled to return this week with a visiting colleague from the UK in tow. He missed getting caught up in the rioting by a matter of hours.

Like most people who’ve sent eyewitness accounts to the BBC, he isn’t convinced that ethnic conflict is at the heart of the trouble. It’s just not been a feature of everyday life there, he says. The ethnic divisions are such that Uzbeks live mostly in the cities, while the countryside is dominated by the Kyrgyz. Both are so poor and underfunded that they have more than enough other problems to concern themselves with.

I’ve seen, however, the way men can react when they live in the poor and marginalised areas of the country. When I was in Kyrgyzstan last September it was to report on women who’d been subjected to the most horrendous domestic violence. I can easily believe that it wouldn’t take much to spark a bigger fight – three months of living under an innefectual interim government which has failed to deliver on the hopeful promise of actually changing people’s lives in a meaningful way perhaps? While constantly being subjected to the murmourings of exiled President Bekiyev’s supporters telling you the Uzbeks have it better? These are my thoughts, not Emil’s, I hasten to add.

Emil has heard through his family that the unrest was sparked by the arrival of 300 Uzbeks from outside of Osh – possibly Tajikistan – intent on causing trouble. He’s heard rumours – unsubstantiated – that they broke into a Kyrgyz dormitory and raped and murdered teenage girls. Whatever the cause, he says, he firmly believes they were organised by pro-Bakiyev supporters.

His family’s experience has not been good. At least one “distant brother-in-law” has been killed, shot three times by a sniper. His uncle, he says, lived in an Uzbek area of Osh, and pleaded with the mob not to burn down his house, explaining his Russian descent. The mob not only obliged, but in a way I find curiously Kyrgish, spared the neighbour’s house too, so that the flames wouldn’t catch Emil’s uncle’s roof.

Every other house nearby was razed.

In Osh I stayed at a beautiful little guest house with a serene garden that was filled with the smell of herbs in the evening. We met with a charming Muslim muftiat in his tin roofed mosque who explained how he was trying to educate the rural clergy in female emancipation. He used his walking stick to knock apples off a nearby tree for Amanda, Claudia and I. It saddens me to think that most of that has – by all accounts – probably gone. We arrived during Ramadam, and the high spirits of midnight feasters seems hard to reconcile with the images coming from the city now.

Worse, though, is that in the Suzak area near Jalalabat we saw this incredible primary school, being rebuilt by dedicated teachers after two decades lying unused – and unlike Emil I have no way of finding out whether or not the irrepressible Syrga who runs it is safe.

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