Bishkek, 31 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- On 24 March, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Alatoo Square, in front of Bishkek’s Historical Museum, to demand the resignation of President Askar Akaev and his government.
A few minutes later, clashes erupted between the protesters and alleged government-hired agitators. The incident infuriated the crowd, which started confronting police forces and Interior Ministry troops deployed around the nearby White House.
Thirty minutes later, the White House that had once housed Akaev and his ministers was already under the control of street crowds. Scores of looters immediately began to plunder the building, throwing furniture through windows and bewildering opposition activists gathered below, such as Cholpon Bakieva.
"Everything happened in a flash," she says. "It happened so quickly that at first I didn't feel anything. I was in a state of shock. For approximately half an hour, I lost all sense of reality. Then people started pulling themselves together, started understanding what had happened. Then I felt joy. Radical thoughts came into my mind -- the people's power had come. Then I had more sober thoughts. What will happen now? Who will assume power? What should we do now, after all this?"
Bakieva, who is in her early 20s, is a member of the organizational committee of KelKel (New Epoch), Kyrgyzstan's main youth organization. She joined dozens of other group activists on 24 March on Alatoo Square -- to help control the crowd, but also to participate in the demonstration.
KelKel’s national coordinator, Alisher Mamasaliev, was also on the square when the angry crowd assaulted security forces. He tells RFE/RL that activists thought opposition leaders were failing to respond quickly to the rising chaos.
"If the policy conducted by [prime minister and interim president Kurmanbek] Bakiev runs counter to our expectations ... we will remain an alternative for civil society. We would like to exert control on the government and, if we are unhappy [with political developments], we will again stage rallies." -- Alisher Mamasaliev, KelKel’s national coordinator
"When the looting started, we expected that the opposition leadership would order us to form a cordon and take the whole perimeter under control," Mamasaliev says. "We waited, waited, and started collecting a few things. Then we understood that we didn't have to wait for an order."
Mamasaliev says KelKel members decided to take the perimeter under control themselves, and started telling people to stop plundering the White House. The 30-year-old KelKel coordinator also says his group had to protect soldiers and policemen from the wrath of the crowd.
"As I understood, there were agitators on our side who wanted to fight," Mamasaliev says. "We had to intervene between our guys, the protesters, and those young soldiers. They were all around 18 and had fear in their eyes. They didn’t know what to do. Their commanding officer didn’t know either. So we suggested they should leave, simply leave."
Following the looting that took place overnight throughout Bishkek, KelKel heeded the appeal launched by Feliks Kulov, the former interior minister who had been released from jail in the hours that followed the taking over of the White House, and undertook to recruit volunteers to help police restore some kind of public order.
Unlike what happened in Georgia in November 2003, when opposition leaders led protesters into the parliament’s building and forced President Eduard Shevardnadze to flee, the Bishkek events look more like a spontaneous uprising. Mamasaliev says he had expected the protests to build up slowly in an organized fashion.
"We thought we would follow a Ukrainian scenario and organize pickets during four or five days," he says. "We thought we would organize pickets, strikes, and that eventually the international community would exert pressure on [Akaev] so that he would agree to enter into talks with the opposition."
Yet, as KelKel activist Damira Ulukbaeva remembers, there were a few group activists among those people who took over the government headquarters. She says most of them were from those Kyrgyz cities that had come under opposition control in the days preceding the Bishkek events.
"In all these cities -- Osh, Jalal-Abad, Talas, Kochkor, Aksy -- we had our representatives, and we were already conducting work," she says. "Those representatives of ours took part in the [Bishkek] demonstrations and in the storming of the White House."
Mamasaliev also says that, in the hours that followed the ousting of Akaev's government, it did not occur to the opposition leaders congregated in parliament that the situation might get out of control.
"On the 24th, I spoke before the [new] parliament. I was still in a state of great excitement, and I simply yelled at them. I went there and was appalled," Mamasaliev says. "There was chaos in the streets and these people were sitting quietly, all neatly dressed. They were smiling, congratulating each other, discussing unimportant things. I was incensed, and I yelled at them: 'Do you guys realize that every 30 minutes something big is happening in the city? Come on, take action!'"
KelKel was set up in January with a view to inciting the Kyrgyz youth to be more politically active. During the run-up to 27 February and 13 March legislative polls, the group appealed to youth across the country to vote against a government they accused of corruption and authoritarian practices.
In the longer run, KelKel wanted to make sure that Akaev would not be a candidate in the next presidential polls, originally scheduled for 30 October. Although the Kyrgyz leader was forbidden by law to seek a third term, critics feared he would press a more compliant parliament to amend the constitution so that he would be able to run again.
Unlike Kmara (Enough), the youth organization that took an active part in Georgia’s Rose Revolution, KelKel claims it has no formal links with the Kyrgyz opposition figures now making up the interim leadership.
Moreover, KelKel -- which has 1,000 members and claims to be growing -- warns it will keep the country's new leaders under a watchful eye.
Mamasaliev says KelKel already has questions regarding the composition of the new government and an attempt by the country's new leadership to impose control over national television. He says his group has a responsibility to "defend the achievements" of the revolution.
"If the policy conducted by [prime minister and interim president Kurmanbek] Bakiev runs counter to our expectations -- and this is not only my personal opinion, I think this is also the opinion of all the members of our organization -- we will remain an alternative for civil society," he says. "We would like to exert control on the government and, if we are unhappy [with political developments], we will again stage rallies."
Despite their queries, KelKel leaders say they are optimistic for Kyrgyzstan’s future.
Asked whether he believes his and other civic groups will be able to influence political developments in the country, Mamasaliev says, "Of course, we will. What do you think the people rose up for?"