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Uzbekistan: After Days Of Bombings And Armed Clashes, Citizens Remain Wary

More than 40 people are reported to have been killed in Uzbekistan since 28 March in a wave of bombings and clashes that authorities are blaming on Islamic militants. What is the mood in the capital, Tashkent, and how are ordinary Uzbeks reacting to the violence?

Prague, 1 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Residents of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, are doing their best to cope with fears prompted by this week's violence, the worst in the country since independence in 1991.

Polina Braunerg heads a local nongovernmental organization in Tashkent that offers legal assistance to prisoners. She says people are not panicking but that everyone is wary.

"Everyone is trying to defend themselves. There is this fear of going places, to public areas -- markets, bazaars -- although they are all practically closed," Braunerg said.

"The president spoke on the first day and blamed the religious parties [for the violence], including Hizb ut-Tahrir and Wahhabis."
She continues, "In Tashkent, schools are closed until 5 April, but outside the city, schools are open. And in every school or college, they have meetings to warn people to be cautious. That is why many parents are scared to let their kids go to school and prefer to have them under supervision at home."

Rakhmatjon Kuldashev is the Tashkent bureau chief for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. He says some people are leaving the capital out of fear.

"During the first day, people were somewhat indifferent to the events. Perhaps they didn't realize what was going on. But yesterday and today, people became scared. Some people are reported to be leaving Tashkent to stay with relatives. In the metro, there are not so many people -- indeed, fewer people than usual. Markets are open, but there are few people. People are scared to go out," Kuldashev said.

Kuldashev says many residents of the capital are now looking at ordinary events and situations with new suspicion.

"The psychology of terror is very interesting, I can see it now. An unknown person constitutes a threat. And a car parked by the street is a threat. That's how it is perceived. I have visitors now. They were telling me about their fears while walking in the street -- unknown people, parked cars seem scary. The first day was not like this. The thought was that it was a separate episode and wouldn't be repeated," Kuldashev said.

Kuldashev says people are keeping close watch on their children.

"People, of course, are scared to let their kids out. Take me. I call home every half an hour or so and ask my wife about our kids -- where they are, what they do."

The Uzbek government has largely been silent regarding the violence. State-run television news opened the other night with details of a meeting between President Islam Karimov and former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus -- not the three days of violence.

Braunerg says official comment and local press reports are extremely limited, which only causes rumors to circulate.

"There is no real hope and trust in the press, television or radio. If the mass media reported comprehensively on the events, people would have less conjecture and guesswork. That is why a grain turns into a large lump. And people have to act based on rumors," Braunerg said.

Kuldashev says the authorities in Tashkent have been very slow to comment on the crisis, which is forcing many Uzbeks to find alternative sources for their information.

"On the first day, 29 March, officials gave a press conference. After that -- two days have passed and there were explosions and shootings -- and officials make no statements. So, people have to look for information in the foreign media, on the Internet, in the Russian media. As for the local media, they probably have a different approach to that issue," Kuldashev said.

Kuldashev says rumors aggravate the situation and make the work of independent journalists more difficult.

"There are a lot of rumors. For example, yesterday, there was a tip that bombs had gone off in different parts of Tashkent. We went there, and it was calm. It is very difficult for journalists to check out all these rumors. It probably happens because the local media don't report fully and in a timely fashion," Kuldashev said.

As for who may be behind the violence, Kuldashev says many Uzbeks have no firm ideas of their own and are thus inclined to follow the official line.

"The president spoke on the first day and blamed the religious parties [for the violence], including Hizb ut-Tahrir and Wahhabis. We hear that arrests are under way -- the authorities are detaining members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. But there are no clear alternative versions. A lot of things are said," Kuldashev said.

Inera Safar, an RFE/RL correspondent in Tashkent, confirms the general information vacuum and says the foreign media is often blamed for reporting anything at all.

"Our local media do not reflect on the events in time. Of course, Russian and other foreign media report first on the events here. And there is a tendency to blame them. The foreign media is blamed for inadequate and incorrect information. Of course, it is very easy to be inadequate if no one from the Uzbek authorities wants to comment," Safar said.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)