The fifth anniversary of a bloody uprising that destroyed hundreds of lives in eastern Uzbekistan, on the eastern fringes of the volatile Ferghana Valley, is on many people's minds as May 13 approaches. But you wouldn't know it by asking.
"People don't talk about those days anymore, at least not in public," says Sohibjon-Ota, an Andijon resident who gives only his first name. "The media are not free in Uzbekistan, and they don't discuss those events."
Discussing the antigovernment protests that were brutally suppressed by government forces in May 2005 remains taboo in Andijon, where media, officials, and even local residents seem to prefer not to mention the event at all.
"It's as if nothing happened here in 2005," Sohibjon-Ota says. "Many people have forgotten about it. Only families directly affected remember those days. As for other people, they don't know anything, they don't feel anything."
"Those days" began with peaceful antigovernment protests in which Andijon residents initially demanded the release of 23 local businessmen imprisoned on religious-extremism charges related to their membership of Akramiya, a group banned by the government as extremist. Protesters also voiced their discontent with their economic situation.
Events turned bloody when a group of men attacked a military garrison and reportedly seized weapons there, then raided Andijon's jail and freed prisoners, including the local businessmen.
In the course of their rampage, they killed prison guards and took over official buildings, prompting government troops to descend on the city by tank and helicopter. Eyewitnesses say soldiers then fired into crowds of protesters on Andijon's central Bobur Square and surrounding streets.
Official government figures claimed that 187 people, including many soldiers, were killed. But rights groups and government opponents place the number of those killed that day closer to 1,000. Moving On With Life
Five years later, life -- at least on the surface -- has returned to normal for the city's 360,000 residents, who rely mainly on their expertise in local handicrafts and trade to make a living.
"I'm content with my life," says 26-year-old Farrukh-Bek, who runs a butcher shop in downtown Andijon. He, too, will only give his first name, but adds, "If you work hard and pay your taxes, you won't have any problem here."
"The city is expanding and improving. New buildings and parks were built in recent years. Roads are being renovated," says Andijon doctor Abduqodir Sattorov. People's living standards are improving, he adds.
The city -- especially in its central areas where the protests took place -- looks very different from its more modest state in 2005.
The provincial government's office that was taken over by protesters has been completely rebuilt. It's now a modern, fortified building surrounded by a cast-iron fence.
Bobur Square, where the protesters were gathered, no longer exists in the same form. A newly built complex of fountains surrounded by flowers stands on the now-unnamed site in front of the provincial government office. The name "Bobur Square" is reserved for a separate location near the city's railway station, far from the city center. There, too, stands the statue of Bobur, a 15th-century Andijon-born king that "witnessed" the May 13 bloodshed.
It seems authorities are determined to ensure that people put the city's bloody experience behind them and move on with their lives.Andijon Taboos
Andijon residents say local media never mention the city's uprising. After initially blaming religious extremists for the bloodshed, closely scrutinized local radio and television stations no longer discuss the massacre that took place five years ago.
Some Andijon residents insist the reason behind the silence is a climate of fear in the city. Local human rights activists say the public and the government are still highly suspicious of each other. WATCH: RFE/RL Uzbek Service Director Alisher Sidikov describes the security measures that contribute to the atmosphere of unease in Andijon:
Sohibjon-Ota, two of whose sons are serving "long" prison terms on charges of plotting to dismantle the constitutional system, suspects he is "on the authorities' blacklist."
"I have a lot to say, but I am afraid," he says. "The authorities check on me once a month. They visit my place, asking questions about my sons. I want to talk about it, but honestly, I wouldn't dare. I fear for my life. They paid a visit yesterday, too. Every newly appointed neighborhood police officer comes to my house once."'Infectious Precedent'
During the recent antigovernment unrest that prompted President Kurmanbek Bakiev to flee neighboring Kyrgyzstan, hard-line Uzbek President Islam Karimov declared that, contrary to some media reports, "in Uzbekistan no one is delightedly following the actions of the freedom-loving Kyrgyz people."
But the actions of authorities in Andijon belie such public pronouncements. In the days after Kyrgyzstan's eruption, local police summoned several Andijonis for questioning, most of them regarded by neighbors as deeply religious men and women without any known ties to political activities.
The city of Andijon is located some 30 kilometers from the Kyrgyz border. The 2005 uprising in Andijon took place less than two months after the so-called Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan toppled the government in Bishkek.
President Karimov, speaking on a visit to Moscow last month, voiced his concern over the "infectious precedent" of "colored" revolutions. He said such events created "the illusion that it is very simple to overthrow any legal from of leadership or government."
"It is our government's policy, the government wants us to be silent," says an Andijon resident who describes himself as a 70-year-old retiree. He, too, withholds his name out of fear of official retaliation. "Government control has been tightened here," he says. "I don’t see any other changes in the city. Only government control has increased."
Every May, the city remembers the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with official gatherings in which war veterans receive gifts and financial aid. There are no such gatherings in Andijon to remember those killed in the city just five years ago.
"I heard last month that the new Kyrgyz authorities are paying financial compensation to the families of the Bishkek protests' victims," says Barno-Khon, an Andijoni teacher. "In Andijon, however, officials don't even want to acknowledge that antigovernment protests took place here, let alone pay compensation to victims' relatives."RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Mehribon Bekieva contributed to this report
This letter was secretly passed from strict penal colony No. 64/33 (near the city of Karshi in the Kashkadarya region) in July or August 2009 and received by the group Human Rights in Central Asia in December 2009:
From Colony No. 64/33 we write, those who were imprisoned on false charges and sentenced according to Article 159 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
There are 121 prisoners here imprisoned according to Article 159. We all ended up here in different years. We are all different people. Our characters are also different, but our destiny is the same. Our destiny has been pleased to see what man could never have imagined.
Looking at these masters and jailers it is hard to believe that they were born to women. Born a human being should remain a human being. And they are wild creatures and inhuman monsters. The pain they caused us is impossible to describe. They rape us with a club (stick), enema syringe with a red pepper; and beat on the heels till they bleed.
These are the methods of violence they like. This all seems not enough to them, and they come up with various new methods of torture. They rape with sticks those who suffer from AIDS, and use those same sticks to rape other prisoners. They laugh and say with a jeer: "You all pray, call each other 'brothers,' and aren't you ashamed to infect each other with AIDS?"
In the medical unit for healthy people, they use syringes that were previously used for patients with AIDS. A prisoner called Holmirza, who expressed indignation, was forcibly given the blood of a prisoner with AIDS. Then Holmirza was transported to another colony, and it's still not known to which one.
Dear friends! Mothers! Fathers!
Our torments are increasing, not diminishing. The torturers threw aside all restraints and became violent. They know that they will not answer for this under the law, but do not know that they will have to give an answer before God and his judgment. For certain reasons known to you, we do not write our names. Consider that the letter was signed by 121 prisoners.