Accessibility links

Portraits Of Osh: Betrayed By The State

  • Daisy Sindelar

Yryskul Amanov and his son Avazbek, then 19, in October 2010

Yryskul Amanov and his son Avazbek, then 19, in October 2010

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 -- Yryskul Amanov is still known as a hero in his neighborhood in the Tulekyen district in southeastern Osh.

On the night of June 10, 2010, as interethnic clashes first broke out in this city in southern Kyrgyzstan, the unassuming accountant and father of three left his apartment and walked, unarmed, toward the neighboring Uzbek neighborhood of Cheremushki, where he had heard three Kyrgyz girls were being held hostage.

"I was just trying to help," he says.

But within minutes, he was lying bleeding on the ground, badly beaten and riddled with shotgun pellets. More than a year later, 48-year-old Yryskul may still be a hero to his Kyrgyz neighbors, but he is also still bedridden, and largely ignored by the Kyrgyz state.

I first met Yryskul in October 2010. His face was drawn and impossibly thin, and his voice had been reduced to a whisper by a pellet wound in the throat. His younger son, Avazbek, watched over him gently as he lay on a small bed in a corner of the family's two-room apartment.

A year later, Yryskul remains in the same spot, but there are small signs of improvement. His face is fuller, he sports a full, dark head of hair, and his voice is growing stronger. His skin is no longer paper-pale, thanks to occasional outings in a wheelchair provided by a donor. But he is still unable to walk, one arm remains paralyzed, and his kidneys have yet to recover from the beating he sustained.

Yryskul's family is tight-knit. Both his sons, now 21 and 20, hover protectively nearby, and his prematurely careworn 8-year-old daughter regularly runs in from play with neighborhood kids to sit quietly at her father's side. But their father's prolonged recovery has put an unmanageable strain on their lives. Their mother, 47-year-old Karamat, suffers from severe asthma and is able to work just one day a week, as a cook in a cafeteria at a city livestock market.

For years, Yryskul had been the sole breadwinner, earning a comfortable salary of 20,000 soms ($440) a month and running a small business on the side. But now the family is reduced to surviving on a tiny pension and some social-defense funding that adds up to just over $100 a month -- a pittance in the best of times, and a disaster in a household where Yryskul's monthly medical costs are more than twice as much.

"We never lived like rich people," says Karamat, a tired, round-faced woman who has seen even the smallest of comforts evaporate. "We lived normally. But now...I've had to sell our refrigerator. We had a nice big refrigerator, with a freezer. That's gone. I sold our video camera. I've sold all of my gold jewelry. That's how we live. My husband's brother helps out, my brother helps out. But his recovery is going very slowly. It's hard to imagine how this will end."

Abandoned By The State

In the early days after the crisis, Karamat sought support from the local government, even going directly to the city's controversial mayor, Melis Myrzakmatov, who she says offered her 5,000 soms "right out of his pocket." But that gesture was the first and last handout she would see. After repeated trips to the oblast administration, where she was repeatedly promised some form of support, a young official who had nodded sympathetically through previous meetings suddenly turned her away. "He yelled at me, saying it wasn't his fault that my husband had decided to go out on the street that night. He threw me out and told me not to come back."

Since then, Karamat says, she refuses to ask for help. Many women she knows still make weekly or monthly trips to the mayor's office and oblast officials to plead for money, an apartment, or some form of support. But she says she can no longer bear the humiliation.

"Before this, I never once had to ask anyone for help," she says. "I was raised to believe that those who worked would receive. That was how I understood life."

In June 2011, Yryskul is looking a bit better (with his wife, Karamat, and their daughter).

In June 2011, Yryskul is looking a bit better (with his wife, Karamat, and their daughter).

She sighs, a long, heavy wheeze, and looks mournfully at her husband. "If a person simply fell ill, if he was just sick, maybe I could understand that it would be hard to get help for him. But this is a person who found himself in the middle of a huge crisis that had nothing to do with him. All he wanted was to help people. I'm angry because what he did wasn't for himself, or for his family, but for the people, for the city. He went out to help keep things calm, to help people he didn't even know. And he's getting nothing in return."

Industrious, educated, a gainfully employed white-collar worker: Yryskul Amanov may once have represented the model Kyrgyz citizen the central government would choose to focus on as it attempted to reclaim the south from a population traditionally dominated by Uzbek money and culture. Karamat says she personally takes no interest in the country's approaching presidential election, and her husband doubts there can be a better option than Kurmanbek Bakiev, who ruled the country after the 2005 Tulip Revolution until he himself was ousted following a wave of antigovernment protests in April of last year.

For Yryskul, it was Bakiev who was the best provider for the country. "Factories were working," he says. "Roads were being built."

But Bakiev's ouster -- an event that many cite as the spark that lit the powder keg of southern violence three months later -- now seems little more than a disposable twist in a never-ending stream of political games. "I don't pay attention to what's going on in Bishkek," says Karamat. "That's a whole other world, and it makes no difference to us."

Wounds Still Unhealed

Back in her own very real world, Karamat admits reluctantly that relations between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have failed to recover from last year's clashes. Many now believe the violence was the orchestration of powerful criminal and political clans rather than an organic expression of ethnic hatred among ordinary residents. But that hasn't stopped a lingering resentment from poisoning once neighborly relations.

"We never had any kind of conflict before that; we lived like true friends," Karamat says. "But now people are angry. If I see an Uzbek on the's not that I'm frightened. I just try not to pay attention to them. But I'm angry at them. They almost killed my husband." She sighs again. "That's something I can't forget."

More than a year after the clashes, many accuse the authorities of trying to drive out Uzbeks through a systematic mix of arbitrary arrests, shakedowns, and a biased job market. Kyrgyz nationalism is dominating the current mood in Bishkek as the presidential election approaches. In Osh, officials have accused the presidential front-runner, northerner Almazbek Atambaev, of hiring thugs to "persuade" vulnerable Uzbeks to cast their votes for him, a scenario some Bishkek authorities reject.

Human rights activist Azimjan Askarov is one of many ethnic Uzbeks who have fallen foul of the nationalistic mood.

Human rights activist Azimjan Askarov is one of many ethnic Uzbeks who have fallen foul of the nationalistic mood.

Uzbeks have lived in Osh for centuries. But would the city be better without them? Karamat thinks carefully, then shakes her head.

"We have many different people living in this city, and they've all given us something. I like to live in a city with Russians, Tatars, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Turks, Koreans. It's a real point of pride for me, and I think many people here feel the same way. I can't even imagine how we would live without any Uzbeks here. My children still have Uzbek friends -- they even help them when they get in trouble with the law, which seems to be happening a lot now. You will never hear a bad word spoken at our table about Uzbeks."

She looks again at her husband, and suggests that in the absence of real support from the state, the best she can hope for is time -- time for her husband, and her city's shattered population, to heal. Many have speculated that the outcome of the presidential vote will, to the contrary, destabilize the country -- particularly in the instance of a second-round vote pitting a northern candidate against one from the south.

But from his bed, Yryskul seems to have privately settled on a peaceful mind-set long ago. "All I want is to walk," he says. "I don't care about money or politics or anything else. I just want to know that, sometime in the future, I'm going to walk again."

The prospect of seeing her husband walk again seems distant to Karamat. But one thing is clear: whatever happens, this neighborhood hero is hanging up his cape. There will be no selfless gestures the next time around. The state, in its neglect, has made sure of that.

"If something like last year ever happens again," Karamat says with finality, "he's staying inside."