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Correspondent Describes Fear Among Ethnic Uzbeks: 'They’re Sure The Military Is Against Them'

This woman is living by herself on a street in the ethnic Uzbek Cheremushky neighborhood of Osh.
The southern Kyrgyz city of Osh has been shaken by violence between its ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz inhabitants, with hundreds reported killed. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier, who is in Osh, describes efforts to restore a sense of calm, accusations by Osh's mayor that ethnic Uzbeks are holding Kyrgyz captive and harboring Islamic militants, and the worsening humanitarian situation on the ground.

(LISTEN: Interview with Bruce Pannier)

RFE/RL: Could you give us an idea of what you’ve seen over the past 24 hours, and how things have changed there?

Bruce Pannier:
Things are calming down. It’s pretty quiet in the city, but basically the city’s still fairly deserted. I’ve been here many times, and I’ve never seen that few people on the street. There’s still neighborhoods, Uzbek neighborhoods, that are barricaded in. We managed to negotiate our way into one of them yesterday. And the roadblocks are still all up. People are just wandering around, trying to figure out what they’re going to do. It’s not much better than it has been. But I suppose a little bit better and quiet. Although everyone’s waiting to see what happens tonight at 6 o’clock. [That] will be a big test of whether this calm is going to hold in this country, or at least in this part of the country.

RFE/RL: Talk a little bit about that. Tonight there’s a deadline for these barricades to be removed. Can you explain what that’s all about?

Yesterday, the mayor of the town, Melisbek Myrzakmatov, gave a press conference. Part of it was about the people who had gone missing and there’s still no word on them, so they were able to post pictures of relatives who were gone, and he wanted to get information on them. But the main part of his speech was about the roadblocks that are still guarding Uzbek neighborhoods right now, and he said they have to be removed by 6 o’clock tonight. If they don’t, he said, "I’ll send the military in to remove them, and if they have to use force to remove them, that’s what they’re going to do."

The military sent a helicopter up over the city, dropping leaflets over Uzbek neighborhoods with basically the same message. Unfortunately, the Uzbek neighborhood that we went into yesterday, which is called Mahzarin Tau, no one had seen these leaflets and [residents] had no information about it. We were the ones that told them. We said, "If you don’t remove these tomorrow, they’re sending the army," which of course terrified them even more.

Now whether the army participated in this [unrest] or not is unclear, and I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that they actually did participate in killing Uzbeks. But that doesn’t matter to the Uzbek population. They’re sure that the military is against them. So even the thought that the military is going to come in there and remove the roadblocks and possibly use force, of course, just terrified them, more than they [already] are.

And that’s pretty hard to believe because they’re scared people, there’s no doubt about it. And they have good reason to be. Their homes are destroyed. Their relatives are [dead] -- some of them shot, throats cut, all kinds of things. And, in Mahzarin Tau, just to bury the dead, there’s an old, old cemetery in Mahzarin Tau -- it’s not where they’ve been burying people for many, many years but that’s the only available land -- so that’s where they’re burying people at the moment. A bunch of fresh graves out there.

Like I said, it was not good news for [ethnic Uzbeks] that [the Kyrgyz government] wanted the barricades [taken] up because they think the barricades are the only thing protecting them from the ethnic Kyrgyz out here. And they’re even more worried that the military, which they claim is all ethnic Kyrgyz, is going to come in and remove them and shoot some more people.

Destroyed buildings in Osh city center
RFE/RL: What’s the theory behind removing the barricades? Is it an effort to restore a sense of normalcy? I mean, obviously you can understand why these people who are behind the barricades would want to keep them there.

Yeah, and that’s just it, that’s exactly it. I mean, the government here and certainly the local administration wants to show that things are returning back to normal. And when you have turned over trucks and sandbags and things everywhere, obviously it’s not a normal situation. So that’s why they want the barricades lifted.

There’s also another part to this, too. According to the mayor, and I have no idea what information he has, but he says inside these Uzbek neighborhoods that are barricaded are Kyrgyz hostages and Islamic terrorists. He didn’t elaborate on where these Islamic terrorists might have come from or anything, but he did say it. And it seemed to me it was only based on the fact that some of the Uzbeks, when they went out onto the street and were clashing with Kyrgyz, said, “Allahu Akbar” as they were going down the street. So from that, he’s managed to interpret that as being a sign that these are Islamic militants that are in there, and he wants all the weapons given over. He wants all the Islamic militants handed over to the authorities, and any hostages anyone has have to be freed.

RFE/RL: And so, when the barricades come down, are the streets going to be patrolled by Kyrgyz troops? What’s going to be the feel on the street there?

That’s just it, the troops are all out and, as far as I can see, I have to say that in fact all the troops are [ethnic] Kyrgyz. Now, there have been some neighborhoods where they’ve pulled up armored vehicles or tanks to block off the neighborhood, kind of imposing their own roadblock to keep the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks apart. And they seem to have done fairly well, a fairly good job of that, of at least instilling some kind of calm. The Uzbeks don’t come up to talk to them, but in the meantime no one goes in, so it’s a pretty effective barricade.

But, you know, when there's one ethnic group fighting against another ethnic group, you hate to turn over your whole future to the ethnic group you’ve just been fighting with and depend on the fact that the army is going to do the right thing and keep everyone apart. There’s plenty of soldiers here, plenty of paramilitary that they’ve called up. There’s no reason they couldn’t keep law and order in this city, but after what happened last week, certainly the Uzbek population doesn’t have much trust that the government is going to help them out.

And of course this deal of "lift the roadblocks so we can get back to a state of normalcy," they interpret that as serving the government interest and the local authorities' interest far more than their own.

RFE/RL: The humanitarian situation is obviously worse on the border area. But from where you are in Osh, what’s the situation like there in the city?

There is humanitarian aid. The problem with it is there’s not enough information about where you can find it. And for the Uzbeks, that means having to leave your neighborhood to go out and get it.

I do have one story. When we were sitting there yesterday in Mahzarin Tau, one of the Uzbeks actually took the government at their word and went out to buy food. And as we were talking to a group of Uzbeks, this guy came back and he was obviously beaten. And he said that he had gone out and got food and on the way back he had been beaten up by some Kyrgyz and they took his food, took his mobile phone, everything, and just told him "to get out of there."

So, when those things are still going on, it’s going to be pretty hard for anyone to want to lift the roadblocks. But, of course, the option there is, the military’s just going to come in and smash them down. And if anyone tries to resist, the mayor said, "We’ll use force if we have to."