Alisher Suleimanov, an Uzbek, has been married to a Kyrgyz woman for 10 years. Together they have a 9-year-old son, but he hasn't seen either since southern Kyrgyzstan was rocked by interethnic violence in mid-June.
"We would be living fine, if our relatives wouldn't bother us," Suleimanov, 34, said. Even before the recent conflict, "[my wife's] brother didn't want to see us together. He was against our marriage because I am Uzbek and she is Kyrgyz. And now, since the conflict, they won't let me see her."
Mixed marriages have been one of the hidden casualties of June's ethnic violence. Living side-by-side for so many generations, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz intermarried, especially in urban centers such as Osh and Bishkek. Many of these couples say their lives have been altered by the violence.
As Suleimanov's example illustrates, a major source of tension for those in mixed marriages comes from disapproving relatives. Angry family members have forced engaged couples to cancel wedding plans, teenage lovers to break up, and even, since the violence, married couples with children to separate. The disquiet is not entirely new, however. Some men in Osh admit they have long hidden the ethnicity of their Kyrgyz wives from their friends.
Though he only communicates with his son and wife these days by cell phone, Suleimanov remains positive, proposing mixed marriages as a mechanism to increase tolerance in southern communities. "I think we Uzbeks and Kyrgyz could come to reconciliation through mixed marriages," he said, standing on the street before his destroyed home in Osh's Cheremushki neighborhood. As he spoke, his mother wandered through the charred rubble, attempting to salvage a dented metal cooking pot. [For background see EurasiaNet's archive].
Conflict resolution experts express doubt that - under the prevailing, charged circumstances -- mixed marriages can help build trust. Such marriages can help foster reconciliation within the broader community only after a period of healing, said Raya Kadyrova, the director of the Foundation for Tolerance International, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Bishkek.
"In order for mixed marriages to help the reconciliation processes, we have to have conditions that are absent at the moment. In the long term, it is possible because mixed marriages give people a chance to get to know each other's cultures better and show more tolerance towards each other," Kadyrova said.
A 27-year old Uzbek married to a Kyrgyz woman in Bishkek, speaking on condition of anonymity, was similarly cautious. "There was too much bloodshed during the [June] events," he said. After the violence, "my mother-in-law stopped visiting our house and told her young sons that if they go outside late in the evening, Uzbeks will come and kill them. What kind of education is that? Her granddaughter - my daughter - is Uzbek. It really hurts."
These mixed marriages remain an example of tolerance only in peaceful times, some say.
"People are very angry now and I don't think that soon they will be ready for mixed marriages," said Erke Salieva, a 47-year old ethnic Kyrgyz woman married to an Uzbek man in Osh. "But, one of the biggest advantages that mixed couples have is that they are very objective about anything happening involving both sides. Mixed marriages can be a good example for the community and can influence the situation [positively] because people always look at how we behave."
Conflict resolution experts say all ethnicities living in Kyrgyzstan must be treated as citizens before any progress can be made toward a sustainable reconstruction. Government policy "should be directed not at having a titular nation state, but giving one identity to all citizens," said Kadyrova of the Foundation for Tolerance International. "When someone marries, he should not think he is marrying an Uzbek or Kyrgyz; he should think, 'I am marrying a citizen of Kyrgyzstan.' The government should value each of our particularities, because beauty lies in diversity."