OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- The first place I wanted to visit upon my return to Osh proved, in the end, to be the longest journey.
It was there, in a tiny Uzbek neighborhood, or mahalla, in the city's Osh district in October 2010, that I had met Miralim Mirusmanov, a 52-year-old Uzbek man who was painstakingly rebuilding his family home, which had been looted and burned to the ground during the June clashes.
I chanced upon his courtyard as a small group of Uzbek and Kyrgyz workers had settled down for lunch over a large, aromatic bowl of plov -- the hearty rice-and-mutton dish laced with flavorful green and red peppers that's a staple of Uzbek cooking, and which Mirusmanov had magically conjured up despite the complete absence of a kitchen.
"I'm a master at plov," he said proudly. "Come back when I have a stove and you'll see."
As the men washed down the plov with hot cups of tea, Mirusmanov, dressed in a clean, dark-blue shirt, his posture impeccable, conducted a virtual tour of his former house as I followed him with a small video camera -- the roomy sleeping quarters, a lush garden plot, a Russian-style banya.
"You'd have been surprised to see how beautiful my house was," he said, as a weary smile involuntarily faded, reducing his face to pure sorrow. "It's a pity all the pictures were burned."
That remark stayed with me. Thousands of families across southern Kyrgyzstan, the majority of them Uzbek, lost everything on the nights of June 10-14, 2010. The violence that ravaged his small mahalla followed a pattern that played out in numerous Osh neighborhoods and other parts of the south.
On the night of June 10, he heard shots fired on the street beyond the gates of his house. By the next day, a massive crowd had gathered -- "people we didn't know," he said, wary, as many Uzbeks are, of baldly identifying them as Kyrgyz or Uzbek or something else altogether. He and the nine other men in the mahalla put their wives and children on buses, sending them out of town on the few roads that remained free of barricades, and turned to the business of defending their homes. But soon, they, too, had to flee.
"We were simply outnumbered," Mirusmanov said. By the time he returned, his house and everything in it -- including his photographs -- were gone.
"You'd have been surprised to see how beautiful my house was," said Miralim Mirusmanov, an ethnic Uzbek whose home was destroyed in the June 2010 clashes in Osh.
Now, after all the months since we had first met, I wanted to see what progress this dignified, house-proud man had made. On the street outside, the burned-out hull of a small mosque and a medical clinic showed robust signs of repair. But the metal gate to Mirusmanov's house was padlocked shut.
"He's dead," a neighbor said. "He died of a heart attack in February." He patted his chest sympathetically. "Stress. A lot of the men here have died in the past year."
What about his family? They still lived there, he said -- his wife and a daughter. But they were out, at the bazaar, where they worked. I left a card, and made several return visits, but it was nearly a week before I finally tracked down Mirusmanov's family -- his 51-year-old wife, Azadajon, and their 20-year-old daughter, Gulnoza. Mother and daughter worked together selling perfumes at a stand at the bazaar, and they came home only late at night.
'A Pretty Place'
Once inside the gates, I could see that Mirusmanov had worked hard in the months before his death. Two solid rooms had been fully rebuilt, and the garden was filled with flowers and rose bushes. And the work hadn't stopped there. The kitchen room was still unadorned, with rough cement walls and a simple fireplace stove. But the living room could not have been lovelier -- warm and cozy, with pale pink walls, elegant ceiling moldings, and soft overhead lighting.
"Guli was at the age where men were going to start calling," Azadajon says, reducing her daughter to girlish cries of protest. "My husband wanted us to have a pretty place where we could receive guests."
In what was to prove his parting fatherly gesture, he had succeeded handsomely.
One day in late February, Mirusmanov cut short his work at the bazaar, complaining he felt unwell. The family called an ambulance; within hours, he was lying on a hospital bed, dead of heart failure.
"It was a terrible shock," says Azadajon, her voice shaking. "He had always been so strong, so healthy. And now we're all alone, Guli and me. I don't know how we're going to cope."
There is still an older son, a doctor, who had once worked in a respected clinic in the nearby city of Kara-Suu. But after the June clashes, he lost his job, and it became impossible for him to find another. Ultimately, he left for Russia, where he is hoping he can relaunch his career once his medical credentials have been approved. If he succeeds, he can begin sending some money home to his mother and sister, who has put her own economic studies on hold to help her mother at the bazaar. But he is not coming home -- not soon, and potentially not ever.
"The men have all left," says Gulnoza. "Anyone who can still work has left. It's not so bad for Uzbek women here. They're not so hard on us. But for the men, it was impossible."
The plague of male labor migration is a common phenomenon elsewhere in Central Asia, particular in poorer countries like Tajikistan, where nearly one-fifth of the population is believed to be working in Russia. But such migration, until recently, was unheard of in prosperous cities like Osh, where generations of Uzbeks had built up a reputation as skillful entrepreneurs.
Fallout from the global economic crisis may have hit the city hard, but Uzbeks will argue it was the clashes that delivered the knockout punch, as they were sidelined from an already dwindling number of jobs. Although the European Union and some international organizations are backing job-creation initiatives, the Kyrgyz government has already signaled its satisfaction with the outflow, saying it "lessens tensions" in the country. (As for some Kyrgyz claims the men have departed not for Russia, but Afghanistan, an Osh aid representative familiar with the recent Uzbek evaporation says there is "no evidence to prove that even a single person has done this.")
Fewer men may mean "less tension" for some officials, particularly if the men are Uzbek. But for the women left behind, born and raised in closely knit family units, it can be devastating.
Glancing out at the unlit street beyond their metal gate, Azadajon and Gulnoza try to shrug off the anxiety of being left on their own at a time when the potential for further violence still seems to hang in the air like fog.
"We feel safe when the gate is closed, and the neighbors are ready to help us if anything goes wrong," says Azadajon. The harder part, she says, is living without her husband of 22 years, an "honest, good" man who first charmed her when they were young employees working together at a store in central Osh.
"I was a cashier, and he was a manager," she says, blushing. "He always took care of us. Even when he was rebuilding the house, he set us up in a small apartment so we wouldn't have to live in such dirty conditions. Then he would call us at night and tell us to come back, because he was lonely!"
'We Just Have One'
I remember his remark about the lost photographs. Did they have anything to remember him by? Perhaps a new picture, something taken since the clashes? Gulnoza pulls out a small cell phone.
"We just have one," she says, and shows an image of her father, already dead in the hospital, his eyes closed and his nostrils wadded with cotton. It is a gruesome image, but mother and daughter gaze at the picture placidly, grateful for something to remind them of their lost provider and protector.
I ask if they would like to watch the short video I made of Mirusmanov (above), back when he seemed merely bowed, but not broken, by the devastation wrought upon his life. I set the computer on a small table in the cozy pink room built for Gulnoza by her father, and they lean expectantly into the screen.
It's impossible to describe the experience of watching a bereaved person suddenly see the living, speaking, moving likeness of a lost loved one. It doesn't happen without tears.
"I don't want any more trouble," Mirusmanov says to the camera, his lined, handsome face sadly contemplating the effort of building a new home from scratch. "It's better to reconcile and live in peace."
Gulnoza quietly brings her mother a handkerchief from the kitchen, and together they watch the video again, and again, and again.