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Qishloq Ovozi

An Uzbek flea market in the Ferghana region (file photo)
As it says up there in the right-hand corner, Qishloq Ovozi is a forum that also allows readers to get acquainted with up-and-coming experts in the field of Central Asian studies.

This time, we present the knowledgeable Emily Canning and her review of a new book about Central Asia titled "Restless Valley Revolution Murder and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia," by Phillip Shishkin, who spent 10 years as a correspondent for "The Wall Street Journal."

Emily Canning is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University currently writing her dissertation on language and ethnic identity in southern Kyrgyzstan. She conducted 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Osh, which culminated in a Fulbright Fellowship from August 2012 to June 2013.

She is also a member of CESMI (top entry under “Sites We Like”).

Book Review for "Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, And Intrigue in The Heart Of Central Asia" by Philip Shishkin

To introduce his chronicle of recent events in the Ferghana Valley, journalist Philip Shishkin asks readers to “imagine a region so rife with tensions and intrigue” that it contains the elements of a “thriller” stranger than fiction: murder, massacres, drugs, and “corruption schemes so brazen...they would be hard to invent.” (ix) The work delivers in its promise, painting a dramatic portrait of Central Asia’s “heart.” For a general reader, one’s interest in the region becomes vindicated. Scholars, however, face a dilemma. Is it worth fanning the flames of Central Asia’s “discourse of danger” to generate greater interest in this understudied and increasingly underfunded region? Although I address the book’s glossing-over of issues that merit a more nuanced approach, "Restless Valley" nevertheless fills important lacunae in the sparse literature on these subjects. While not every monograph that fuels fear-inducing rhetoric benefits the study of Central Asia, "Restless Valley’s" capacity to elevate enthusiasm for the region ultimately outweighs its flaws.

Shishkin’s enthusiasm and expertise is palpable throughout his stories. Those episodes that he does not recount directly from his own experience, he gleans from interviews and research. Claiming the Ferghana Valley as his locus, he chronologically recounts tumultuous episodes from recent history: Kyrgyzstan’s revolutions, heroin smuggling in Afghanistan, the Andjian massacre and human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, money-laundering schemes in Bishkek, and the June 2010 violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. Given that the area in question is no larger than the state of California and the time period merely a decade, the intensity of the episodes make the region appear especially “hot.” On the other hand, this dynamism is confounded by the author’s simultaneous characterization of the region as evocative of the “Middle Ages” or “frozen in time.” (60) Although the author invokes the medieval era to describe Afghanistan’s lack of infrastructure and a time capsule to convey Tajikistan’s Soviet kitsch, such depictions are nevertheless redolent of “Silk Road” travel writing.

Most chapters remain thrilling and informative, but the one that lent its title “Restless Valley” to the book leaves the most to be desired. By focusing on the murder of Maktybek Suleimanov, a Kyrgyz policeman who was killed in Bazar Korgon during the violence, in conjunction with the plight of Uzbek human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, who unjustly languishes in prison for the policeman’s death, Shishkin personalizes the violence with a human face. We can see photos of Suleimanov’s parents and vividly imagine Askarov’s brutal treatment at the hands of local police. However, this vignette gives us only a narrow frame of a much larger picture in which several hundred people died and thousands of homes were destroyed. The author largely ignores the events in Osh, the epicenter of the violence, only recounting a discussion with the town’s Russian Orthodox priest well before the fighting began in June.

Though the portraits in the “Restless Valley” chapter allow readers to grasp the complexities of competing narratives between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the causes of the conflict are insufficiently explored. For instance, Shishkin quotes 19th-century Russian orientalist Vladimir Nalivkin at length. Nalivkin describes Kyrgyz and Uzbeks as harboring historically deep disdain for one another, which is rooted in their settler versus nomadic modes of production. This ethnographic anecdote makes more recent historical developments appear primordially legitimized. While characterizing the border-drawing of the 1920s as Stalin’s personal project, he neglects the Soviet role in entrenching previously murky or nonexistent ethnic affiliations by referring to the Soviet era as a “big melting pot” where “distinctions became blurred, and a relative calm in interethnic relations held sway for decades.” (237) This assessment following Nalivkin’s observation seems to imply that the Soviets brought order to Central Asia’s inherent instability and that it was only upon the Union’s dissolution that their wild natures reemerged. Shishkin concedes that political and economic disparities between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks contributed to the violence, but his depictions of ethnic differences seem to, as Madeleine Reeves wrote, “ethnicize” the conflict rather than pinpoint the stark intraethnic, as well as interethnic, inequalities underlying its outbreak.

Although scholars would tell these stories in the timbres of their own disciplinary style, ultimately Shishkin deserves accolade for his compelling rendition. Ethnographers focus more on mundane moments of daily life, providing a valuable context for understanding a place but lacking the sexiness that sells. Thus my own perspective as an anthropologist living in Osh for two years, including during the June 2010 violence, is that tranquility triumphs over intrigue. In fact, I would argue that everyday life in the Ferghana Valley is less chaotic, and even less violent, than life in the United States. Yet as long as we who write about the region do justice to our interlocutors by faithfully rendering their stories as they tell them, our readers can ultimately decide which version of Central Asia they choose to imagine: one mired in perpetual chaos or one steeped in a calming pot of chai on the tapchan. After all, perhaps there is truth in both tranquility and intrigue.
Late on February 26, three Turkmen border guards were shot dead along the Afghan frontier. Suspicion quickly fell on the Taliban. They, or people allied to them, are known to be in the area where the killings took place. The Taliban has since denied any involvement.

But information obtained by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, indicates Turkmen border guards and Taliban fighters have run into each other more than once recently.

A previous Qishloq Ovozi post reported on the presence of Taliban and other militants along Turkmenistan’s borders with Afghanistan’s Jowzjan and Faryab provinces. The three Turkmen border guards were killed along the border of the Baghdis Province, just west of Faryab Province.

The Village Of Marchak

There is a man named Haji Molla Karim who is an ethnic Turkmen tribal leader in the village of Marchak, Baghdis Province. Marchak is located along the Murghab River. On the other side of the river is Turkmenistan.

Karim told Azatlyk that Taliban forces currently surround his village. Marchak is cut off from the rest of Afghanistan; though Karim said the Taliban militants occasionally allow a few people, apparently the very old and very young males, to leave the village and travel to the district center some 35 kilometers away for supplies and return.

The half-dozen or so soldiers stationed in Marchak make the village a government outpost. Karim said the Taliban fighters attack the village regularly and that recently a bomb was found in the village and safely detonated without any villagers being harmed.

Karim knows what is happening around Marchak. He knew about the three Turkmen border guards being killed “near the village of Mukur.” He said he believed it was retaliation.

According to Karim, there was an earlier incident, sometime around February 10 -- several people Karim described as Taliban fighters crossed the Murghab River, further upstream from Marchak, and entered Turkmenistan. Turkmen border guards shot one of them dead, wounded three, and captured two of the militants.

Karim said the Taliban gathered fighters together on the Afghan side of the river and threatened to attack. He said the Turkmen border guards then returned the body of slain fighter and surrendered the two captives to the Taliban.

Apparently that was not sufficient and the Taliban took revenge on the three Turkmen border guards a couple of weeks later.

None of this was reported by Turkmen media. That's not surprising considering Turkmen state media, the only media the country has, did not even report on the start of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001 despite the fact bombing was under way not far from the Turkmen border.

This reluctance of Turkmen media to report news about fighting and militants makes it difficult to dismiss another of Karim’s claims. He said incidents, including clashes, between Turkmen border guards and militants in Afghanistan happen “regularly.”

On March 3, the website quoted Taliban representatives as continuing to deny that their fighters were involved. These representatives insisted that Afghan government forces killed the Turkmen border guards and were blaming the Taliban to discredit the group to neighboring countries.

Karim said the militants involved in the killing of the Turkmen border guards were all from the Taliban. But he admitted he could not even walk one kilometer from Marchak (four young men who did so recently vanished).

In “Turkmenistan: The Achilles Heel Of Central Asian Security,” locals in Jowzjan and Faryab provinces said there was a mixture of ethnic groups in the militant units and not all were from Afghanistan, or part of the Taliban, though they all were Taliban allies. So the Taliban might not be alone in these events along Baghdis's border with Turkmenistan.

One Village’s War

Quite naturally, Karim was less concerned with border problems than he was with the fate of Marchak. “Turkmenistan has its own soldiers...and they call themselves a neutral state,” he said.

Karim said he, his fellow villagers, and the few government troops in Marchak were prepared to fight the Taliban surrounding their village alone. “Our belts are tightened and we are ready to fight,” he told Azatlyk.

But Karim was hoping that Azatlyk would make the plight of Marchak known to Afghan authorities in Kabul and that relief would finally come to the village.

While recounting the restive situation along the Turkmen-Afghan frontier in the Marchak area to Azatlyk, Karim several times said, “Please tell the government to come help us.”

-- Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service and Bruce Pannier

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.