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Correspondent Describes 'Tragic' Situation In Embattled Kyrgyz City

An Uzbek school that was burned during the unrest in Osh
An Uzbek school that was burned during the unrest in Osh
The southern Kyrgyz city of Osh was shaken by violence between its ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz inhabitants over the course of several days last week. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier, who is in Osh, describes the current state of the city and the efforts to restore normalcy.

(LISTEN: Interview with Bruce Pannier)

RFE/RL: Can you describe the scene in Osh?

The scene in Osh of course is very, very tragic. [Some] neighborhoods were fairly untouched by what happened, but there are neighborhoods here where buildings are absolutely burned out. [The] fire was so hot that it caved in the roofs of homes, mostly Uzbek homes that we've seen. But the Kyrgyz suffered, too.

Downtown it's the same. You can go to any neighborhood. You'll see the damage and destruction -- broken glass, gutted buildings, burned cars.... And it's true in the center, too. There are neighborhoods right in the center of town where the main bazaars are and the buildings are just absolutely gutted by the fire. They're still smoldering in some places from the intensity of the heat, so there's still smoke coming up in some of these places.

It's true on both sides. It's not just the Uzbeks who suffered through this -- the Kyrgyz also suffered a lot. They have neighborhoods where it's all burned too. Horror stories too. Everyone wants to talk to you, and the stories they tell are absolutely gruesome about what happened.

RFE/RL: Is it possible to get a clearer picture from speaking to people about what actually happened?

It is possible to get a little bit clearer picture. Like I said, the Uzbeks have their version of the story and the Kyrgyz have their version of the story. And the level of violence appears to have been equal on both sides, and the tactics used on both sides also appear to be equal.

While you can get a little bit clearer picture of the chronology of events -- when it started, where it spread to -- it’s difficult to exactly [say] who provoked the conflict. The Uzbeks will say the Kyrgyz came into their neighborhood, and the Kyrgyz say the Uzbeks showed up in their neighborhood.

So it's hard to believe everything everyone says -- it's hard to believe entirely because on both sides there has been a lot of suffering and a lot of death. But it's very difficult to say -- I guess the truth lies somewhere in between what they are saying right now.

I think fear sparked a lot of this stuff. The army did their best, as far as I can tell, to keep the two sides apart. But unfortunately what happened in at least a couple cases was the army came through in armored vehicles and the Kyrgyz crowds, at least in a couple [Uzbek] neighborhoods I went to, just followed the armored vehicles right in.

The soldiers were shooting in the air to disperse the crowd. Unfortunately, a lot of the Kyrgyz groups [took that] as opportunity to open up an avenue to get into the [Uzbek] neighborhoods. And the soldiers really did not stop. They just drove through the neighborhoods hoping that the show of force would be enough to keep people apart. But it worked kind of the opposite way. They looked at the armored vehicles as providing a kind of safe passage right into these neighborhoods…

RFE/RL: What is the government doing now to restore order?

I'll give the government credit. [The] soldiers that came in, and I know the Uzbeks are still afraid to come out to talk to them or anything. At least two different Uzbek neighborhoods we went to were being guarded by Kyrgyz soldiers and they put tanks out on the road.

The Uzbeks did not come out, [they] were still back there in the neighborhood. But there was no possibility for anyone to get at them. In the meantime of course humanitarian aid is coming in. Again, the biggest problem is going to be that the Uzbek population here is just afraid to come out of their homes wherever they're hiding and go and seek help because they don't think they'll be able to make it to where these places are without being harassed or worse.

So while there is some aid getting in and the government is doing everything possible to tell people that it is safe to come out and safe to return to their homes, there is still a lot of reluctance to actually believe those stories. On an informal level, things seem to be going much better. I was at the main mosque in Osh yesterday, and while the crowd was far smaller than normal for Friday Prayers, it was mixed Uzbek and Kyrgyz and when they came out of the mosque I talked to both Kyrgyz and Uzbek who were talking words of peace.

The one Kyrgyz man said actually that if you work for the radio please get on the radio and tell our Uzbek brothers and sisters it's safe to come back and there's nothing that will happen to them. [We] want them to come and live like things were before all this happened… [The] neighborhoods are right next to each other and some are mixed, so there is some informal talks between the two groups about. [They say] let's put this all aside as much as possible and let's try to get on with our lives and let's understand that Uzbeks and Kyrgyz lived here for a long time so bury the hatchet basically…

RFE/RL: And in those reconciliation talks you've mentioned, have they been discussing the return of the refugees to Osh?

Yes, it's surprising but pretty much everyone I've spoke to really wants those people to come back. Those people there said that it's safe, and that these people have been living here and they're citizens of Kyrgyzstan like everybody else. And there's no reason for them to be worried.

But again, the intensity of violence was such that a lot of people aren't sure if words are enough - if this is really going to come to pass, or is this really just a trick or something. And I really don't think it is a trick. I think they really do want them to come back, but as I said, in both Kyrgyz and Uzbek neighborhoods the violence was so intense…

And a lot of reports in the West say they had guns and they were shooting and that's certainly true but from talking to people about what happened in their neighborhoods, the fighting was close in and hand-to-hand. It really was sticks, and people being knocked to the ground, doused with gasoline and set on fire, and having their throats cut.

So when it gets to [where] you're practically face-to-face with people, it's going to be tough to engender trust among the people for a little while. It was too much for a lot of people. Having said that, I would also add that the refugees who went to the border, a lot of them are coming back simply for the reason that there is nothing there for them at the border. Uzbekistan still has the border closed the last time I heard. And there's no shelter and no food and no medical attention there. I'm told they're better off just coming back here.

And I'm also told that even in the Uzbek neighborhoods, there are some doctors -- not just from outside the country but also Kyrgyz doctors who have volunteered to go in to treat the wounded and some of them have even succeeded. So there is some medical attention being given and hopefully that will help to foster trust between the two people but right now -- like you can walk out in the street and you will not see Uzbeks in Osh just walking around at all. You'll see Kyrgyz but you won't see Uzbeks right now.

RFE/RL: You've talked a lot about reconciliation but surely there must be extreme anger and fear on the Uzbek side. Have you seen much of that, or are the Uzbeks just holed up in their neighborhoods and you can't get access to them?

[I've] been in a couple Uzbek neighborhoods. And yesterday I went to Cheremushki which is not far from where I am talking right now. And of course the whole neighborhood was pretty much destroyed you know. Everything was burned down for the most part but a few buildings were still holding up there.

And since I do speak a little bit of Uzbek I went down the street calling out to people in Uzbek and Russian that I was an American journalist and I wanted to talk to them. And finally one guy came out the window of his house. It had been burned. There was hardly anything left in there that was usable. And he came out and talked to me for a minute. His main question -- he did not so much want to give me an interview -- as he was interested in what road I took to get in and were there any people on there. Was it safe to go out? He wanted to make sure there was no one standing around.

I'm sure he meant Kyrgyz [people standing by the road], but in the meantime he said I'm not going out there and walking along that road and try to get to where I'm going unless I'm sure there's no one there. And I told him I'm sure there was not. And he left right away. And he was Uzbek. And that's the situation where he really didn't want to see anybody. He was that afraid. He only talked to me for about two minutes. [He] said if there's no one there I'm going right now.

RFE/RL: Walking around Osh, are there troops on the street? Is the government making a show of force to give people a sense of security?

Absolutely. Not only do they have their regular soldiers who are out here, and the police are back on the street, but they called up all different kinds of people. The Uzbek neighborhood that I was talking about that was guarded by Kyrgyz soldiers…So it's kind of strange to walk around and see. You can see people in various kinds of uniforms. Some of them [are] actually the camouflage and green uniform of the army. But you can see the people who were called up. Some of them are wearing tennis shoes, some of them have shorts on, [and they are wearing] different shirts… And of course they all have guns and some kind of insignia that indicates they're from the government on some level or another…

RFE/RL: Are those troops or security forces in the Uzbek areas as well?

Yes. They are kind of [present there]. They more guard the outskirts of the Uzbek neighborhood, [and] they don't really go in. Again there's not much trust in some of these places at the moment…

But again it's not that the Uzbeks see the army there and they get the feeling that everything is safe… I'm sure they're glad for the protection, but they're not certain enough of the situation to actually come out and go and see the soldiers and talk to them. And there are very few bazaars that are open -- but you don't see Uzbeks going to get food or anything else there.

There were a couple of places I passed yesterday that were run by people who weren't Kyrgyz… When I talked to those people they said yes, sometimes Uzbeks do come up and buy stuff as quickly as possible and then return to wherever they came from. But there's not a whole lot available -- some fruit and some vegetables, but not very much because the situation hasn't returned to normal yet. And the main bazaars aren't open yet either.

RFE/RL: This morning you went to the local administration office in Osh. Any sense of what the authorities are doing, not just to restore order, but to deal with the situation?

Yes, besides the show of security I suppose, they're trying to bring troops out there and stuff. They are actually appealing by whatever media means they have to people [for two reasons]. One, [they want people] certainly not give in to any provocation. Two, [they want] to reassure people the situation will return to normal.

And they do have the situation under control. And that it's quiet and it's becoming safer by the day and that's true… Like I said there are still armored vehicles driving around -- I just assumed that was for security but, [that] was also to show people that they were in control of the situation and that it was safe to come out…And generally speaking, there really isn't anybody out on the street.

This city is usually packed with people and there are neighborhoods that usually have thousands of people. [These days] you don't ever see more than a few dozen people anywhere in this town walking around. It gets better [though] day by day… No one really knows if this peace will hold, or if this is just the calm before the storm.

RFE/RL: What about local media? Are newspapers down there covering this? Is local television covering this? Or is there a [news] blackout?

No. To the best of their abilities, [the local media] actually are covering the news [here] and again they're being very careful about what they report. You don't hear or see interviews with one side or the other side saying this is what happened in our neighborhood. It's more about the efforts to restore order and get the city back on its feet.

So it's not like they're ignoring the problem, but they don't really want to bring it up because it's still obviously a very sore point to try to get into. They don't want to cover what happened last week, as much as they want to cover what's going to happen next week.

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