OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- Everything about Nasiba looks vulnerable, from her soft voice to her small hands folded unmoving in her lap.
But that changes when the 34-year-old Uzbek -- who asked that her real name not be used -- begins to recount her rape. As she talks about the attack, which took place during a visit to a friend's house in the Osh district of Cheremushki last year, her account is clear-eyed and unflinching.
"It happened after dinner," she says. "We had had a nice evening. We ate, and then later we watched TV. We were having a great time. Then, at night, around midnight, we had just gone to bed when we heard some kind of shouting. Men, seven or eight, probably. They opened the door -- they didn't knock, they just came in with no warning. They opened the door and came in, and then they said: 'Oh, an Uzbek girl. We've wanted to be with an Uzbek girl for a long time.'"
Before she could defend herself, one of the men struck Nasiba on the neck, knocking her unconscious. When she finally came to the following morning, she was naked, covered with blood and bruises, and surrounded by her two sobbing children, aged 3 and 9.
Nasiba, whose husband died four years ago, says she remembers her attackers as tall, well-built Kyrgyz men wearing matching baseball caps -- "definitely not locals," she adds.
She doubts she will ever see them again in Osh. But they have left her a parting legacy of serious health problems, including hepatitis, as well as an unshakeable sense of fear.
"I don't even want to see a man. I just can't," she says. "If someone sits next to me -- even my brother, if he just touches me with his hand, I feel sick. I start to shake. My brother will say, 'Why are you shaking?' He's my older brother. He really loves me a lot; he's always hugging me. And I just tremble. I don't want to tremble like that. It just happens. And he says, 'Why are you being like this?' And I say, 'I don't know, but just stop.'"
Crimes Against Humanity
Nasiba is one of dozens of women believed to have been raped or sexually assaulted during the June 2010 clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in dual reports released on June 8
in Bishkek, make note of the use of sexual violence against both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks during the clashes, while acknowledging the lack of firm statistics on the crime. Amnesty in its report said there are currently 20 documented cases of rape, but that rights workers believe the real number to be much higher.
Amnesty also notes that rape and other crimes of sexual violence committed as part of an attack on civilians can qualify as crimes against humanity, a charge Kyrgyz officials have sought to dismiss amid increasing international scrutiny of the events in the south.
Rape, as a crime, has the power to incite massive public anger. Uncorroborated accounts of the start of the June violence allege that a single text message -- saying a Kyrgyz girl had been raped by Uzbeks in an Osh dormitory -- was enough to mobilize hundreds, if not thousands, of Kyrgyz men in the city.
"So how are we going to go on living like this?" asks Khafiza Makhmudova of the Uzbek women's support group Legal Order, an NGO based in Osh.
At the same time, however, rape is a difficult crime to trace -- in large part because of the deep cultural stigma associated with it. For Kyrgyz and Uzbeks alike, rape is a crime that casts shame not on its perpetrators but its victims, and can place an unbearable pressure on families.
For this reason, Nasiba says, she has told no one about her rape -- not her mother or friends, and certainly not her children, who remain uncertain about the nature of her attack. To explain the blood and bruises, she told them she had been beaten by Kyrgyz women during the clashes.
"It's a very difficult thing for Muslim families to discuss," she says. "I don't want anyone to know. It could make my children's lives very difficult."
Rapes Go Unreported
Instead, Nasiba turned to Khafiza Makhmudova, the head of Legal Order, a local NGO offering support for Uzbek women. Makhmudova says she knows of at least 13 cases of Uzbeks being raped during the June violence, including two men. But she says women only come to her as a last resort when health problems force them to seek assistance.
Nor will any consider going to the authorities to report the crime. "That would only make it worse," says Makhmudova, pointing to the growing wave of arrests and unfair trials targeting local Uzbeks. Such conditions, she says, leave little hope for reconciliation between the two groups.
"You go to the market and Kyrgyz women will yell at Uzbek women and say, 'Your women and girls who were raped are going to give birth to Kyrgyz, future Kyrgyz,'" Makhmudova says. "So how are we going to go on living like this?"
In the meantime, the best that organizations like Legal Order can do is provide medical advice and a sympathetic ear to the city's rape victims. The women take modest satisfaction in stories about rape victims who went on to get married, although Nasiba says she's far from ready for such a step herself.
"With time, we'll see," she says.
Attackers Walk Free
Other rape victims face the misery of knowing their attackers still walk free in the city that they share. Sevara, a striking 50-year-old woman with light brown eyes, was raped in her own home by a Kyrgyz man she had known for years and considered a close friend.
Sevara, 50, an Uzbek woman who says she was raped by a group of Kyrgyz men, including a close family friend, during the June 2010 ethnic clashes in Osh.
During the attacks, she and her brother had remained in their home in an Uzbek neighborhood in Osh, hoping to wait out the violence. But several days in, her friend -- whose children Sevara, a midwife, had helped deliver -- called to say he was coming to visit her to make sure she was all right.
"I thought he was going to take me somewhere, because we weren't able to get out," Sevara says. "Everyone in our mahalla had left, but we stayed, because we thought it would be like 1990, that there would be a little trouble but that it would stop after a while. Then he called and I said, 'Sure, come pick me up,' and he said he would come over.
"But when he got there, he started to say terrible things," she continues. "'I offered you something and you turned it down.' I told him he was wrong, that we were friends and it had never been like that. He had two co-workers with him, and he said to them, 'That's it -- I'll go first and then you can have her.' And then they took me into a room and raped me -- first him and then the other two. I said to him, 'You're my friend!' And he said, 'You always led me on and this is your punishment.' I said, 'But I respect you!' And he said he didn't care about any respect; he just thought all Uzbeks should die."
Sevara, like Nasiba, now suffers from hepatitis, among other health complaints. With her husband dead and her children studying in Russia -- "where they're safe" -- she has no means of support other than occasional handouts from relatives.
Sevara still faces the discomfort of inadvertently running into her attacker in the city. "People ask why we're not friends anymore," she says. Like Nasiba and others, she has kept her secret largely to herself.
"Uzbeks like to gossip," she says. "I have a 20-year-old son I need to marry off. What would people say about me if they knew what happened?"
Gulasal Kamalova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report