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In Southern Kyrgyzstan, Rebuilding Under Way But Anger Still Simmers

  • Daisy Sindelar

Yryskul Amanov, 48, was severely injured during ethnic clashes in the southern city of Osh in June 2010. His 19-year-old son Avazbek is angry at the attackers, and at the Kyrgyz govenment.

Yryskul Amanov, 48, was severely injured during ethnic clashes in the southern city of Osh in June 2010. His 19-year-old son Avazbek is angry at the attackers, and at the Kyrgyz govenment.

OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- Thirty-year-old Umida has lived her entire life in a traditional Uzbek makhalya, or neighborhood, in this southern Kyrgyz city. But the two-story house where she and nine other family members once lived has been reduced to ashes -- destroyed during the ethnic violence that rocked southern Kyrgyzstan in June.

"Men came with automatic rifles. They were Kyrgyz. We saw them," says Umida, who refuses to give her last name. "They stole all our belongings -- they stole everything. And then they burned our house down. We barely made it out."

LISTEN as Daisy Sindelar reports from Osh in the audio version of this feature:


Some 400 people were killed in clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who had coexisted in Osh and other southern cities more or less peacefully for centuries. But Umida says that spirit of tolerance is now gone.

"The Kyrgyz call us 'sart,'" she says, repeating an anti-Uzbek epithet she says she heard frequently during the violence. "They said, 'Sart -- let them die, let them run away. Go back to Uzbekistan.' But why would we leave? We were born here. Our great-grandfathers were born here."

Umida, 30, an ethnic Uzbek woman, washes rice in a makeshift sink on the site of her former home, which was burned down during the June violence.
There are still few explanations for the deadly outburst of violence that turned Uzbeks and Kyrgyz against each other in Osh and elsewhere. Some say the unrest was a response to the ouster, in April, of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, whose power lay in the south. Others chalk up the violence to turf wars in a profitable drug-trade corridor. Many ordinary residents in Osh say they simply don't know, simply blaming "people in power" for the clashes.

No matter the origins, recovery is a long way off. The central market is once again bustling, but its vendors, once mainly Uzbek, are now Kyrgyz. Burned-out storefronts and cafes stand unrepaired throughout the city center as a reminder of the violence. And the Osh unrest continues -- angry standoffs as well as more serious threats, like the reported killing on November 29 of four suspected militants during a security operation.

The news has sent a shiver of fresh uncertainty through Osh, where even now, in some of June's worst-hit neighborhoods, people are working frantically to repair their destroyed houses as winter weather fast approaches.

Umida and her family are facing a long winter in a tent and two unheated rooms they have rebuilt with help from the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, one of a number of aid groups helping to restore the ravaged city. The months ahead look dismal. When a visitor suggests that ordinary Kyrgyz also suffered in the clashes, Umida and her relatives are far from sympathetic, drowning out the comment with angry shouts.

"They're lying!" Umida says. "It's the Uzbeks who aren't getting any support."

'We Don't Have Anything Left'

In a quiet, leafy neighborhood not far from the city's famous Suleyman Hill, Kyrgyz residents have stories of their own.

Ziyagul Tochubekova, a 50-year-old grandmother of five, sits over the remains of a simple breakfast in a sparsely furnished two-room flat as she recounts in a tired voice the events of June.

She says she was returning from a trip to Bishkek when she learned about the violence breaking out in Osh. Her children had managed to escape from the family home with help from local police. But the house, the first in a row of new buildings in a Kyrgyz housing development, was torched. Tochubekova says construction workers at the site told her later the attackers were Uzbek.

WATCH -- Rebuilding a life in Osh:

"When I saw my house, I was in shock," she says, melting into tears. "We worked so hard. We saved our money for 30 years, and in 30 minutes we lost it all. We're already old; we don't have anything left."

The family has been given a small, two-room flat while they attempt to rebuild their home with a $2,500 interest-free government loan that Tochubekova says barely scratches the surface of construction costs. She cannot even take in sewing work, her usual source of income. Her sewing machine was destroyed with the rest of her possessions.

Tochubekova says her family was lucky to avoid the worst of the violence. But the loss of her home has left her deeply embittered, and she repeats a belief common among some Kyrgyz: It is the Uzbeks who have always lived well here, she complains, while the Kyrgyz have had to work hard for every penny.

"There are rumors that the Uzbeks started all this, and I agree with that," she says firmly. "The Uzbeks are the richest people in Kyrgyzstan, and even that wasn't enough to satisfy them. They should have lived quietly. Before the conflict, all the nicest restaurants and cafes in Osh were Uzbek. They all had three cars -- one for fancy occasions, another just to go to the market. Our people don't even have one car, or if they do, it's something very simple."

Ziyagul Tochubekova, 50, and her granddaughter, Nurayim, 2. "We saved our money for 30 years, and in 30 minutes, we lost it all," she says.

In many instances, the greatest anger is reserved for the government.

One of Tochubekova's neighbors, 48-year-old Yryskul Amanov, was gravely injured in the June events when he led a group of Kyrgyz men to a nearby Uzbek neighborhood where he had been told three young Kyrgyz women were being held hostage.

As they approached, men inside the neighborhood opened fire with hunting rifles. Amanov says he was wounded 23 times, including in the throat. After a long and expensive hospital stay, the once-robust father of four is now bedridden, barely able to move and his voice reduced to a whisper.

Members of an ethnic Uzbek family sitting inside a tent provided by the UN refugee agency. Their home was burned down during ethnic clashes in June in Osh.
His 19-year-old son, Avazbek, watches over Yryskul tenderly, but when he speaks, it is with anger -- not only at the attackers but also at the Kyrgyz government for failing to take care of his ailing father, the family's only breadwinner.

"We haven't received any financial support from anyone, not from any companies, not from the government, not from the interim government," he says. "We got a little food -- some noodles, rice. And one company gave us a wheelchair. We got a little help with medicine. But nothing more than that."

Reconciliation Hopes Dim

In addition to anecdotes about their personal losses, both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have a seemingly endless supply of stories about atrocities committed during the violence. Umida and her relatives speak of seeing an elderly Uzbek woman burned to death in front of their eyes. Tochubekova tells a nearly identical story of a Kyrgyz pensioner burned so badly his family could barely identify his corpse.

In the telling and retelling of such horrifying tales, it is difficult to imagine reconciliation coming anytime soon to places like Osh. Although there have been no major outbreaks of violence since June, the mood remains combative.

"If the Kyrgyz had started this," Tochubekova says, "there wouldn't be a single Uzbek left alive."

Plans for a two-room house provided by the UN refugee agency to families who lost their homes during the clashes.
Hopes for reconciliation are further dimmed by the massive political distraction under way in Bishkek, as politicians haggle over the details of managing the country's nascent parliamentary democracy.

If successful, Kyrgyzstan's political makeover will mark a historic departure from the authoritarian-style presidencies that have dominated post-Soviet Central Asia, and add luster to its somewhat tarnished democratic image.

But this year's political instability in Kyrgyzstan -- beginning with antigovernment riots and Bakiev's ouster in April, and continuing through a protracted election season that may see a coalition deal only this week -- may have not only contributed to the violence in the south but also hampered relief efforts.

International agencies like the UN have provided some aid. But critics say the interim Kyrgyz government has been slow to respond to the crisis, and they fear the priorities of the newly empowered parliament may lie elsewhere.

Umida, rinsing a bowl of rice in a makeshift sink as her two young sons hover nearby, says only the state can help repair relations in the south in the wake of the June violence. But she says such an outcome is unlikely.

"When we have a normal government, then Uzbeks and Kyrgyz can have a normal life," she says. "As it is now, I don't know."

A burned-out Kyrgyz cafe in Osh, five months after the deadly violence.

A burned-out Uzbek cafe in Osh.

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