OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- If there's a certain dilemma to interviewing Uzbeks in Osh, it's that they are unfailingly reserved -- wary might be the better word -- even when standing amid the charred wreckage of their once-beautiful homes.
In this, Umida is an exception. With blazing light-brown eyes and a voice like a battle cry, she has long since lost her taste for niceties. When I first met the 30-year-old mother of two, she was grimly preparing for a winter in a UN tent and two unheated rooms hastily rebuilt after her family's 10-room house was burned to the ground. Even as her mother-in-law and grandmother smiled and courteously offered tea in their chilly tent, Umida remained stone-faced, her anger swimming under her skin, occasionally rising to the surface.
"The Kyrgyz call us 'sart,'" she fumed, repeating an anti-Uzbek epithet. "They said, Let the sart die, let them run away back to Uzbekistan. But why would we leave? We were born here! Our great-grandfathers were born here!"
Forty-eight Uzbeks are believed to have died alone in Umida's neighborhood, a typical Uzbek mahalla, or neighborhood, after men in uniform arrived in armored personnel carriers on the night of June 10, 2010, clearing out residents with automatic gunfire and then setting the street ablaze. Additional snipers fired down on the neighborhood from the northern slope of the city's dominating feature, Suleyman Hill, which cradles the mahalla in a way that might once have seemed picturesque but now seems only ominous.
Umida and her relatives still remember the horror of seeing an elderly neighbor, a woman caring for her grandson, shot dead on the street and then set alight. But even those nightmare memories, it seems, are somehow easier to bear than the grinding poverty and pressure that has followed.
A year later, the tent is gone and there are signs of progress on Umida's house. Three rooms have been rebuilt, and the family is preparing for what her father-in-law somewhat ruefully calls "Stage 2" -- a fresh influx of building materials from international donors that will allow them to complete another pair of rooms by winter. But if Umida has moved past her early anxieties about shelter, she now seems in the grip of a deeper, more lasting desperation. Something harder to build back than a missing room: a missing life.
Umida once worked as an elementary school instructor; local children in her mahalla still refer to her as "teacher." Her husband had enjoyed a good living as a driver. But those jobs have dried up in the wake of the June clashes, as unemployment casts a shadow over the city in general, and its Uzbek residents in particular.
Umida's husband has been jobless for months, and her own dream of pursuing an advanced teaching degree has been abruptly cut short.
"I had all my papers in order and I was ready to go back to school," she says. "But then June happened, and the administrator suddenly told me I'd have to wait three or four more years before I could get in."
Umida (right) washes rice in a makeshift sink in October 2010 on the site of her former home, which was burned down during ethnic clashes in June 2010 in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh.
The result, she says, is like slow starvation. With no jobs and no money, life has become a fight for survival for many in the mahalla, whose streets are lined with men, many of them former cooks in the city's once-bustling Uzbek restaurant trade, now sitting idle.
More than a year after the violence, city police -- all but a handful of whom are Kyrgyz -- still stage regular raids on the neighborhood, rounding up men on what neighbors and human rights groups both say are spurious charges and subjecting them to vicious beatings or shakedowns or both. (Umida's father-in-law points to a visiting neighbor, a shy young man with a pronounced stutter, saying he was forced to pay $3,000 to secure his release after being arrested, and suffered a black eye and broken ribs in the process.)
Human Rights Watch, in a report earlier this year, warned that the deeply corrupted delivery of justice "undermine[s] efforts to promote reconciliation and fuel[s] tensions that might one day lead to renewed violence."
Cut Off From The World
Enduring such hardship is perhaps manageable for an adult. But Umida is a mother, and the worry she feels for her two sons, aged 8 and 3, is a torment.
"The winters are so cold," she says. "Last year we had rooms, but no one gave us any carpets or mattresses, so we had to sleep on thin, thin coverings on the floor. The children were constantly sick. Now it's warm, but I don't have any money to buy them nutritious food -- no meat, no fruit. I can't even take them out of the mahalla to the playground. The Kyrgyz children gang up on them and the parents immediately get involved. It's terrible. My husband managed to buy my older boy a bicycle and that's all he does -- ride his bike up and down this one street. That's his life."
Umida's own life follows a similar path. Uzbek-language news coverage is virtually nonexistent in Osh, and the family has only limited information about local events. They pepper every visitor with questions: What are the rumors in the city? What's happening in the other mahallas? Are people expecting more violence?
It's a 10-minute walk from Umida's house to the bustling central market and the urban heart of Osh, but her family's isolation is so profound it's as though they're living in the wilderness. Officials from Bishkek frequently visit Osh to assess the situation, but Umida's family say they rarely venture into Uzbek neighborhoods.
"Not a single official has been down this street. Not a single aid worker has actually sat down and talked to us," her father-in-law says. "I remember when [Russian Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin met with people after their houses burned down in forest fires! He stood and listened to what people had to say. I saw it on television. But nobody did that here. Why not?"
Umida and her family say they have no intention to vote for any presidential candidate in the upcoming election.
In their anger, Umida and her family members are the kind of Uzbeks that Kyrgyz officials may point to as they argue that Uzbek extremists, not Kyrgyz nationalists, will be the downfall of the south. The government in Bishkek -- including even pro-Western dependables like the outgoing President Roza Otunbaeva -- has suggested that young Uzbeks are leaving the country in droves to undergo militant training in Afghanistan in preparation for a violent return.
Kyrgyz security agencies this year launched large-scale counterterrorist operations, pointing to groups "using Islam as a disguise in their attempts to undermine the state" -- a none-too-discreet swipe at the Uzbeks, who are traditionally more devout and who have turned to faith in growing numbers over the past year of increasing ostracism.
A suicide-bombing incident in Osh in the spring, to many onlookers, seemed more like political pantomime cooked up in a corner of Bishkek than a spontaneous outbreak of ethnic anger. But as a member of the international community in Osh put it, "If you play the terrorism card enough, sooner or later it will become the reality."
Many anticipate the election will provide a platform for a fresh outbreak of violence.
Umida, meanwhile, says she would welcome a split with Kyrgyzstan. She says she had plenty of Kyrgyz friends before the clashes last year, but for her, that time is over. "I was sitting on a bus next to a Kyrgyz woman, and she was wearing thick gold bracelets -- the kind that only Uzbek women used to wear," she says.
"She caught me staring at her, and she said: 'What are you looking at? See something you don't like?' I just looked away. But it was awful. They should just grant us autonomy, let us have part of this territory. They should break Kyrgyzstan into pieces, like they did in Yugoslavia and Korea. That's what they want, isn't it? To get rid of us?"
After an afternoon of such tough talk, Umida's take-no-prisoners attitude suddenly fades, replaced by a kind of sad vulnerability.
"I want to leave here," she says, with an imploring gaze into the distance. "I want to move to Europe. I want to see the world, to live in a place where not everything is a problem. Can you help me? Can anyone help me?"
Screams interrupt her reverie -- the shrieks of her two sons, who run giggling from their grandmother as she teases them in the family courtyard. They run in circles, shrieking, and for a brief, brilliant moment, Umida laughs as well -- a beautiful, birdlike trill that momentarily infuses the dead-end yard with a feeling of hope. Then her scowl quickly returns, and it's business as usual.
Another day, like any other. Another day to be gotten through, just waiting for it all to end.