Twenty years ago, militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) appeared in southern Kyrgyzstan and took several hostages while battling local forces.
They were the biggest security challenge to appear on Central Asian soil in more than 60 years, the greatest threat in post-Soviet Central Asia's history, and their presence exposed the weak ties between the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan when confronted with a common threat.
And I was there for part of it to see firsthand what happened.
I arrived in southern Kyrgyzstan in September 1999. In Bishkek, I had obtained verbal permission from the Kyrgyz authorities to travel to Batken. I could not take the plane there but was told I could fly to Osh and, if I were able to manage it, I could travel as far as Batken, the closest town to where the fighting was and the location of the main base for Kyrgyzstan's operations against the militants.
I had passed through Batken in 1992 and 1993 when I was conducting research in Central Asian villages. The "if I could manage" part of the permission I received was not a light comment. There was not much of a road leading from Osh to Batken, the exception being the part of the road that passed through Uzbekistan's Soh exclave, which itself presented a challenge, as I did not have -- though officially did not need -- an Uzbek visa to do so.
Batken Or Bust
I'd left for Osh the same day I received permission to do so.
RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service (known as Azattyk) had a correspondent in Osh. He had been alerted to my arrival and had already arranged a driver for me.
Passing through Soh proved easier than I expected. A billboard at the eastern entrance to the exclave was covered with photographs of "wanted" IMU militants and the military presence had been greatly strengthened since my last trip through the area in 1996. The border guards and soldiers were looking for those people, not an American journalist from RFE/RL, so I was processed rather quickly after answering a few questions about my purpose there.
Night had fallen by the time we got to the exit of Soh and we suddenly came upon a roadblock at a low place between two hills. We stopped and lights hit the car from both sides followed by a voice telling us in Russian to put our hands up. Someone opened the doors from outside the car and we were instructed to get out slowly and keep our hands up. I couldn't see much with the lights shining in our faces, but my face quickly convinced the Uzbek soldiers -- that's who they were -- that we were not militants. The soldiers were in their late teens and early 20s. They were endlessly curious about me, even more when I explained to them in Uzbek who I was and why I was there.
"Martial law is in effect here," one of them said. "You should not be traveling at night."
I took out a pack of cigarettes and passed them around and explained I had nowhere to stay if I did not reach Batken. They didn't know what to do with me so, after a quick cup of tea, they said I could go. I tossed them two packs of cigarettes, we wished each other luck, and we drove into the pitch-dark night toward Batken.
There is not much between Soh and Batken and in the darkness we had difficulty several times picking out where the largely unpaved road was.
Ransoms And Bribes
We reached Batken, driving past the small airport, the stadium, and the military base. The additional military vehicles and freshly painted walls bore witness to recent, frantic activity at this usually sleepy base.
Batken itself was a sleepy town in those days, home to maybe 12,000 people. It looked much as it did when I'd passed through six years earlier. There was one main street. The bazaar was at the end of it and on the same side of the street was a modest restaurant and the regional administration building where the mayor's office was. The other side of the street had the telephone building and the town theater and, behind them, across a park, was the only hotel in town.
I don't remember the name of the hotel, I think it was just the Intourist, but it advertised that it had a "Nochnoi Klub," or nightclub, inside. The cost for one night's stay at the hotel was $2, which got you a small room with a saggy bed and a table. Any room key would probably have opened the door to all the rooms in the hotel but, as usual in those days, I had a bicycle chain to lock my bags to whatever large object presented itself. In this case that was the saggy bed. It was far from a guarantee of security, but it did require extra effort to steal my things. There was a bucket hanging outside the backdoor of the hotel with a plunger you pushed up to get water to wash up and in the corner of the yard was a wall with "M" for "men" written on one end and "Ж" for "women" written on the other. On the other side of the wall there was an open-air toilet, which I was used to from my village life experiences.
The nightclub was one room, a bit bigger than my hotel room, that offered some vintage cold chicken, an assortment of chips and peanuts, and an abundance of alcohol. The latter made the club a gathering place for journalists, aid workers, and military officers.
I went out the next morning to see what was happening in Batken. The residents' reaction to the events was interesting. Batken had never received much attention and I remembered it only as a place I stopped to change buses. But since the IMU had appeared in early August, the town was receiving more attention than anyone could remember.
When some 25 to 30 IMU militants first showed up in the village of Zardaly at the start of August, those fleeing their arrival and those the government later evacuated went to Batken. The UN refugee agency had arrived and set up tents in the soccer stadium, but by the time I arrived there was only one family there. The others had all found relatives they could stay with. And it was not difficult to spot the homes where they were staying. Clothing was hanging anyplace where it could be hung and in some cases was balled up and stuck in the boughs of trees. With temperatures nearly 40 degrees Celsius, everyone was seeking shade but it was visibly harder on the displaced villagers unaccustomed to the city heat.
Kyrgyz authorities had paid a ransom to the militants on August 13 (reportedly some $50,000) so they would release the villagers they took hostage and leave Kyrgyzstan.
But Kyrgyz authorities then asked the Uzbek government to send in warplanes to attack the militants as they made their way back to Tajikistan. The Tajik government had denied the militants had anything to do with Tajikistan, though a quick look at the map showed it was the only country from which they could have come. Uzbek authorities clearly did not believe Dushanbe. Uzbek warplanes bombed areas in southern Kyrgyzstan and, without the permission of the Tajik government, an area in the mountains of central Tajikistan, near Tavil-Dara, where the IMU was believed to have a camp. The Uzbek government later said the Tajik bombing was a mistake.
Signs that the crisis was coming to an end were short-lived as the IMU returned to southern Kyrgyzstan in greater numbers on August 21, seizing several villages and taking hostage four Japanese geologists working in the area. It was after this second incursion that the group issued a statement declaring who they were and demanding free passage to Uzbekistan, where they intended to try to overthrow the government of then-Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
Namangani and Yuldash
Karimov had warned Bishkek not to allow them into Uzbekistan. By the time I got to Batken, ties between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan had frayed due to Uzbek warplanes mistakenly hitting a Kyrgyz village at the end of August, killing at least three civilians, including a young girl. Kyrgyzstan's government then said they no longer required Uzbekistan's help and contact between the two governments was greatly reduced. At the same time, both Tashkent and Bishkek were angry with Dushanbe for the latter's reluctance to eliminate the militants in their camps in the Tajik mountains.
The first order of business for me was to find out what the displaced people knew about the IMU. I knew the leaders of the IMU were Tohir Yuldash and Juma Namangani, whose real name was Jumaboy Khojiev. The Uzbek government blamed them, among others, for bombings in Tashkent in February 1999. Namangani was also blamed for the assassinations of four policemen in Uzbekistan's eastern city of Namangan in November and December 1997.
Both Yuldash and Namangani had left Uzbekistan to join the United Tajik Opposition, the Tajik government's opponents during the 1992-97 civil war. The arrival of the first IMU militants in southern Kyrgyzstan coincided with the last stage of the civil-war disarmament process in Tajikistan, part of the peace accord signed in June 1997. The presence of Namangani's group was apparently no longer desirable in Tajikistan as the peace deal took hold.
The displaced villagers in Batken who had been forcibly hosting the IMU said the militants had treated them well, even paying the villagers generously for the food they ate. By some accounts, villagers were "lining up" to sell food to the militants.
An older villager had reportedly been shot dead trying to flee one of the villages, but none of the people I spoke with knew anything about it.
Many people had heard of Namangani. He was purportedly running the main narcotics route from northern Afghanistan through Tajikistan into southern Kyrgyzstan. It seemed the ranks of his relatively small band of Uzbek fighters in Tajikistan had swelled after the Tashkent bombings. Uzbek authorities had launched a crackdown that saw thousands of Muslims detained and sent hundreds of others fleeing to Namangani's camp in Tajikistan.
Namangani and Yuldash appear not to have been in southern Kyrgyzstan. A person named Abdulaziz was the "field commander" of IMU forces there.
The IMU chose to stay in the mountain villages and let Kyrgyz forces come to them. The Kyrgyz military was ill-prepared for the task.
Kyrgyzstan had not invested much money in its military since gaining independence in 1991. Kyrgyzstan had no warplanes. The soldiers in the Batken area in September 1999 appeared to be mainly conscripts.
We passed a unit running along the road one morning. Some did not have complete uniforms and were wearing sweatpants; some even in sandals. The government had already issued a call for those with previous military training and local hunters with knowledge of the area to join the force being assembled.
An odd crew had shown up in Batken, including one young guy who was always walking around town in a military uniform with a knife as his only weapon. Another time, while driving on the outskirts of Batken, we were passed by a motorcycle and in the sidecar, in civilian clothing, was a Slavic-looking man with a submachine gun slung over his shoulder.
There were also the people from the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR. As previously mentioned, when I arrived there was only one family living in the tents set up in the town's stadium. But as operations continued to dislodge the militants from the mountains, the stadium soon filled up again with newly displaced villagers. The UNHCR workers in Batken were busy all the time I was there.
And there were a few dozen journalists, most of them from Kyrgyzstan. When I arrived there was a group of Russian journalists, but they left to cover the spate of horrific bombings in Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk that would later provide the pretext for starting the second Chechen War.
Any hopes the Kyrgyz military had of Russian help in dealing with the militants evaporated with those deadly bombings in Russia.
There were also a few Japanese journalists in Batken covering the story because four of their compatriots had been taken hostage.
And there was me.
Not long after Azattyk and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service (Ozodlik) started airing reports based on my material from Batken, the authorities in Bishkek complained I was not accredited to be in Batken. So much for the verbal contract.
'I Know Who You Are'
When I went to the Batken administration building for the daily briefing about the fighting in the mountains, the mayor was waiting for me. He was a good guy and had been briefly held captive when he and three other officials went to Zardaly to negotiate with the militants in early August.
"You need accreditation," he told me.
"Okay, what do I need to do to get accreditation?" I replied.
"Give me $50 and I'll take care of it," he answered.
It seemed fair enough. It wasn't like I was spending a lot of money in Batken.
As I walked down main street the next day, the mayor was approaching from the opposite direction.
"Hello! Do you have my accreditation?" I called out.
He smiled and waved me off saying, "I know who you are."
That was a busy day in any case. KamAZ trucks bringing humanitarian aid were arriving, something organized by the head of the recently formed Ar-Namys party, Feliks Kulov.
Kulov had been the mayor of Bishkek until a few months earlier. Rumors had spread that Kulov, a veteran of the Interior Ministry and a former vice president, planned to oust President Askar Akaev. Kulov and his party arranged for the humanitarian aid, but it quickly became apparent part of his reason for being in Batken was to campaign ahead of the February 2000 parliamentary elections.
Kulov's people found me. The chance to speak with a "Western" journalist was something Kulov did not want to pass up. I had not seen anything like a bath or a shower in more than a week when I met with Kulov, but from a respectable distance he told me how he disagreed with the military campaign, which he considered too soft, and paying a ransom to get the militants to leave.
I reminded him about the villagers and the Japanese geologists.
"If you don't wipe out these people, they will just keep coming back," he told me.
Kulov left Batken and the next day different KamAZ trucks with the government's humanitarian aid arrived.
The longtime Soviet-era leader of Kyrgyzstan, Turdakun Usubaliev, who was nearly 80 at the time, headed the delegation delivering the aid. General Abdygul Chotbaev, the commander of the operation, arrived with him, flanked by two young women in army fatigues. It was a very carnival atmosphere.
Militants In The Mountains
Usubaliev also made time to briefly speak with me, applauding the government's actions in dealing with the militants. But he was there to preside over something like a town hall meeting at Batken's theater.
The military's elite Scorpion unit had also shown up and they filed into the back rows of the theater looking very tough. Usubaliev took the stage, vowing Kyrgyzstan would defeat the IMU. He also presented the son of the villager the IMU had killed with some compensation money.
A Russian UNHCR worker sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, "The militants probably gave him more money [than that]." Sadly, that was probably true. That ransom money the Kyrgyz government paid the IMU in August was no doubt helping the militants to win some hearts and minds among the villagers.
I had been in Batken for almost two weeks and was wondering when I should pack up and leave. That decision was then made for me.
One morning, the young woman from the hotel's reception desk was pounding on my door.
"The militants came down out of the mountains in the night. They're going to cut the road to Osh," she said.
I had just enough time to stop by the administration building and hear what the mayor knew. The IMU had come out of the mountains. The road was still open but the militants were surrounding Batken and might cut off the road soon. Field commander Abdulaziz had been killed.
My driver and I had been at the nightclub the night before. I left earlier than he did, and it took a pot of tea to bring him around and get going.
There was no one on the road. We passed through villages where wisps of smoke could be seen from fires lit to heat the morning tea, but there were no people and, even more eerily, no herds around. My driver and I discussed what we would do if we saw armed men along the road trying to stop us. We did not have a good answer to that.
We finally reached a very small place called Kara-Tokai. The Kyrgyz military had a checkpoint there but my relief at seeing the army quickly evaporated.
All vehicles were being searched. Among the things I had was, at the time, a state-of-the-art satellite telephone. It fit in a metal briefcase that was about the size a typewriter case. The case was the antenna and the phone could call anywhere in the world as long as the case was pointed toward the correct satellite. The soldiers at Kara-Tokai had never seen anything like it (neither had the people in Batken).
The meanest looking of the soldiers said, "How do we know this is yours?"
I knew where this was going, but I was determined not to give in to offering up "gifts" for passage.
"Who around here would have money to buy something like this?" I replied.
"Prove it's yours," was his answer, so I showed him my RFE/RL press card and pointed out the RFE/RL logo, at that time it was still the bell, was the same as the logo on the barcode of the phone. He looked at the ID number on my card and looked at the barcode and said: "The numbers are different."
"You cannot be serious," I screamed.
"I am serious and I am confiscating this phone, the camera, and the tape recorder," he answered.
"Fine," I said, "I'll be back in 48 hours with someone from MY embassy and YOUR government to collect MY stuff," I said.
That was a big mistake.
He walked away and picked up his Kalashnikov before pressing the barrel into my sternum. "I can keep you here for 15 days for no reason at all," he said.
That was true. Martial law.
I slowly raised my hands a little, palms out, smiled, and said: "We started this conversation out badly. Let's step off to the side of the road and discuss this in a civilized manner."
I'll make a long story short and just say that I left with all my things shortly after that.
But it wasn't over yet, not for me.
We arrived at Soh and the same young Uzbek soldiers were there manning their posts. "Bruce," one of them called out. I was happy to see some friendly faces, so we stopped and smoked some cigarettes and talked. I was sorry what I had to tell them brought them no comfort at all. As far as I knew, there was fighting going on not too far away and the militants seemed to be hoping to make it to Uzbek territory, Soh being the closest patch of ground that fit that description.
I headed on into Soh, but when we reached the eastern border this time the troops there were very interested in me. We had to stop and get out of the car. My Kyrgyz driver looked very unhappy. I was also. We were told to wait and shortly afterward an officer who identified himself as the commander of troops in Soh appeared.
He looked at me and said, "You have to come inside and answer questions."
Abdulaziz Is Dead
I did not like anything about these suggestions and objected strongly, but at a command from the commander, several soldiers moved around me. I couldn't help but think, "That's the second time today that didn't work."
The commander was extremely polite and apologetic for bringing me into a room for questioning. "The Kyrgyz side is not telling us anything about what is happening. You were just there, and we need to know what you know." He finished by reminding me he had the right to hold me there.
I went in, sat down, and the commander offered me a cigarette.
"They are American cigarettes," he said, and gave me a pack of Pine cigarettes that advertised in Russian and Uzbek that they were made in the "USA." It didn't seem like the time to say I'd lived in the United States more than 30 years and never heard of this brand of cigarettes.
We talked about the IMU and what I had heard about the fighting around Batken for a few minutes when we were joined by another person. A humorless-looking man in civilian clothes with a necktie walked in and took a seat. My heart skipped several beats. The SNB had arrived.
He took over the questioning. How did I know Abdulaziz was dead? Who told me that? When and where did that person say that? How many soldiers would I say were in Batken? And on and on. We kept covering the same ground, classic interrogation stuff. If I repeated an answer and strayed from my original comments, we had to stop and go over it again. Soldiers brought in my bags from the car. He took the tape player and listened to every interview, stopping at points and asking who was speaking, when was it recorded, and where.
Three hours and seven or eight cigarettes later we were done and they brought in a big plate of pilaf. They both apologized for the inconvenience and, always a company man, I told them if they had been listening to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service they would have known everything I had told them.
I left, but the fighting between Kyrgyz soldiers and the IMU continued into October. The IMU finally withdrew into the mountains as winter approached.
Eventually, the Japanese government paid a ransom and the remaining hostages -- including the Japanese geologists -- were freed.
Uzbekistan started sealing off the border with Kyrgyzstan after the summer of 1999. Batken was part of Osh Province in the summer of 1999, but in October the government formed a Batken Province with the city of Batken the provincial capital. The move was made in the hope that a provincial administration would be better able to respond to such situations in the future.
The IMU returned to Tajikistan and, after negotiations involving several parties, were ferried aboard helicopters of the Tajik border guards -- piloted by Russian border guards -- to northern Afghanistan.
Most people believed the IMU would return in 2000 -- and they did. And so did I. But that story will have to wait until next summer.