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Pulling The Rug Out From Under Uzbek Restaurateurs

The Nostalzhi cafe and hotel in central Osh
The Nostalzhi cafe and hotel in central Osh
Osh was once a city of restaurants and cafes -- spacious, welcoming eateries whose owners and cuisine, more often than not, were Uzbek. (In a city of many divisions, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, even now, are nearly unanimous in agreeing that Uzbeks are far better cooks.)

A year after ethnic clashes left southern Kyrgyzstan in tatters, Osh is laboring to restore its gastronomic reputation.

Throughout the city, and most noticeably along the city's main Kyrgyzstan Street, dozens of the burned-out hulls of businesses destroyed in the 2010 clashes have been rebuilt and reopened.

But there's a difference: this time around, the owners are Kyrgyz. And local Uzbeks blame criminal groups close to the mayor for squeezing them out of their businesses.

One case in point is Nostalzhi, a sleek cafe-hotel complex in a central district of the city, not far from its main bazaar and mosque. The cafe, opened by an Uzbek family in 1997, was soon followed by a sister cafe, Nostalzhi-Plus in the city's Aravan district.

The family took evident pride in its slowly growing empire. "We really put a lot of thought into our designs," says one family member, "Aibek," who refused to give his real name, be photographed, or even have his voice recorded, out of fear for his safety.

"We chose beautiful marble, lovely gates. We even got a patent on the names. We were always very careful with the law."

Not Enough Compensation To Clear The Trash

Even before last year's violence, Nostalzhi had attracted the attention of local Kyrgyz criminal boss Almanbet Anapiyaev.

According to information gathered by local rights workers, Nostalzhi was attacked five or six times by groups of thugs hired by Anapiyaev and borrowed, Aibek believes, from a sports club he says has ties to Suyun Omurzakov, a former deputy police chief for Osh and then the deputy interior minister for southern Kyrgyzstan. (Members of the international rights community in Osh claim Omurzakov was a key figure in the instigation of the June clashes.)

The newly reconstructed Yntymak restaurant (meaning “friendship” in Kyrgyz) had been Uzbek-owned before last year's interethnic clashes.

In April 2010, Anapiyaev demanded a payment of $30,000 in exchange for putting an end to the attacks.

When the clashes broke out in the city two months later, Nostalzhi was quickly seized by a gang of ethnic Kyrgyz. "Almanbet was there," Aibek says. "People saw him handing out money to the thugs who were there."

The complex began to be used as a holding site for Uzbeks taken captive in the fighting. According to the international Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission, Uzbeks were held hostage and brutally beaten at the site.

Women and girls were raped, and in a few instances, gang-raped in front of their family members.

Afterwards, the family received the flat sum of 50,000 som ($1,100) offered to all victims of property damage. "That wasn't even enough to clear away the trash left after the clashes," Aibek says. "And the system made no sense. Everyone got 50,000, no matter how big or small their property was or how badly it had been damaged."

All The Bandits Have Left

In the end, however, the question of cleanup was moot -- the family never restored de facto control over Nostalzhi.

On paper, the property remains the private holding of Aibek and his family. In reality, Aibek says, the restaurant reopened its doors in December 2010 under the control of a powerful lawmaker in the Kyrgyz parliament.

"The people who were handing out the weapons [during the clashes] are all in the parliament now," says Aibek, who spent the night of June 10, 2010, sitting on a rooftop watching the brutal clashes below. "No one is going to help us. The Kyrgyz are the only ones with a voice."

The Nostalzhi case is well-known to local and international rights groups. But it is unlikely that anything can be done to restore the cafe complex to its rightful owners.

The Nostalzhi's direct owner, Aibek's brother, has fled abroad, as have dozens of Uzbek business owners. A number of the perpetrators have fled as well, including Anapiyaev, who is believed to be in Dubai dodging an Interpol warrant on kidnapping and organized crime charges.

"Anapiyaev is the biggest bastard of all, and he's in Dubai," says Aibek. "All of the bandits have left."

-- Daisy Sindelar