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Portraits Of Osh: The Bottom Drops Out From The Middle Class

  • Daisy Sindelar

"We saved our money for 30 years," says Ziyagul Tochubekova. "And in 30 minutes we lost it all."

"We saved our money for 30 years," says Ziyagul Tochubekova. "And in 30 minutes we lost it all."

More than a year has passed since brutal Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan, leaving hundreds dead and thousands of homes destroyed. With critical presidential elections approaching, attention is once again focused on the south, where there are concerns of a fresh outbreak of violence and a broadening divide from the north. Daisy Sindelar first traveled to the southern city of Osh in October 2010, where she talked to residents, both Kyrgyz and Uzbek, about their ordeals. She recently returned to see how those people's lives had changed. What she found was a city that, resident by resident, was slowly falling apart.

OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- When Kyrgyz residents of Osh are pressed to explain any historic resentment toward their Uzbek neighbors, an astonishing number seem to focus on a single, vivid image -- that of the two-car family.

"The Uzbeks were so rich, they had two cars," I heard over and over during my stays in Osh. "Even their wives had their own cars!"

Any wealth gap between the city's Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations is now gone, if not reversed. The city's wealthiest Uzbeks have decamped for less volatile shores since June 2010; those who remain have in many instances literally seen their family savings go up in smoke.

"Any Uzbek with the means to get out of here is already long gone," says one aid worker in Osh. But for residents like Ziyagul Tochubekova, a 50-year-old Kyrgyz grandmother of five, even the perceived former luxury of Uzbek life still stings. (In her ramped-up version, the Uzbeks had three vehicles, not two.)

And yet in June 2010, Tochubekova and her husband were on the cusp of their own economic milestone -- home ownership. If one is to make sweeping generalizations about the living habits of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh, it is not entirely inaccurate to say that most Uzbeks live in houses while Kyrgyz are apartment-dwellers. But increasingly in recent years, middle-class Kyrgyz have sought to build or buy their own houses, as a sign that they, too, were ready to live well.

Before the clashes, Tochubekova was a successful small-business owner, running a productive textiles business out of a workshop where she and a handful of employees made colorful embroidered pillows for sale at the city bazaar. Her husband was an established journalist with the Khabar state news agency. And year by year, the couple had meticulously salted away their earnings until they had enough to buy a brand-new home, built from scratch in a new Kyrgyz housing development.

Burned To The Ground

On June 10, 2010, Tochubekova was returning from a trip to Bishkek when she learned of the clashes under way in Osh. Roadblocks slowed her progress, and by the time she made it back into the city, her house was no longer standing: it, like hundreds of homes throughout Osh, had been set alight and burned to the ground. Construction workers at the site told her Uzbeks had started the fires. Tochubekova was devastated.

"We saved our money for 30 years," she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. "And in 30 minutes we lost it all."

Even now, Tochubekova's situation remains difficult. She and seven family members continue to share a cramped two-room apartment offered by the state in the wake of the crisis. As property victims, they are entitled to receive housing in one of the dozens of new buildings that have sprung up in the city in response to the crisis.

Tochubekova says they were handed the keys to a new flat just days before the one-year anniversary of the clashes, by city officials eager to turn a chapter-of-history lemon into PR lemonade. But the two-room apartment is no bigger than the one they currently occupy. And although the cost of the actual flat is covered by the government, basic necessities like painted walls, doors, and appliances are not.

"We had to pay for that all ourselves," she says -- mainly by dipping into a 200,000-som ($4,400), 10-year interest-free loan the family received in November.

"That money -- that was nothing," she adds. "What can you do for 200,000 som?"

Tochubekova and her granddaughter, Nurayim, then 2, in October 2010

Tochubekova and her granddaughter, Nurayim, then 2, in October 2010

And even with work finishing on their new apartment, the family is reluctant to move. The new building is located near an Uzbek mahalla, a proximity that Tochubekova finds unnerving. She says she and her family will stay put until a second property can be found.

"We can't all fit into that apartment anyway," she says. "We're supposed to find out if we can receive a second flat -- that way we could split up and live more comfortably. And by then we'll know if things are calm in the mahalla."

Building Her Business Back

In the meantime, Tochubekova is slowly attempting to build back her business. Her sewing equipment was destroyed in the fire that leveled her home. But she has managed to buy a new professional-class sewing machine, and she has begun a small dress-making enterprise. Sketches of dress patterns litter her work table, and bolts of fabric and spools of thread -- "all from China, and all getting more and more expensive" -- stand at the ready.

A single dress, she estimates, takes her three days of work and earns her about 200 som, or just over $4.

"I can't really make the pillows anymore," she says. "They require glue, and that requires a special room, because the fumes are very harmful for the children."

One could argue that Tochubekova has it better than many survivors of the June clashes. Her family, which includes an ebullient 10-month-old grandson, is safe. She has an apartment with heating, a refrigerator, and a television -- and the prospect, of course, of better housing to come. Her husband, who was fired from Khabar in the wake of the June crisis, has since been rehired, and earns a modest but welcome $175 a month. A local bank has even forgiven a small loan she took before the crisis, out of consideration, she says, for her suffering. Uzbek businessmen have not been nearly so lucky.

But even a year after the violence, she is undone by the memory of her lost dream house, the thought of how far she has fallen. She hesitates before showing a visitor her sewing room, which doubles as a bedroom for her and her husband. She apologizes for the sight of the two narrow mattresses lining the floor and the laundry drying on the balcony outside.

"It's horrible, how we live," she says, bowing her head, and the tears begin again. "We're too old to start over."