For many in Osh, the anniversary of last year's ethnic violence offers a painful reminder of the severe strains weighing on society. But for Gulmira, an Uzbek, and her husband Saparbek, an ethnic Kyrgyz, the anniversary created an opportunity to promote reconciliation. The couple planned to gather, for the first time since the outbreak of violence, their suspicious Kyrgyz and Uzbek relatives.
Gulmira and Saparbek must contend with conflicting narratives every day. Living in a Kyrgyz neighborhood, they worry about the suspicions of their neighbors. And, fearing for his safety, Saparbek has not visited Gulmira’s relatives in an Uzbek town outside of Osh since the violence.
"It is very hard [to be in a mixed marriage]. But we learned how to deal with differences and social pressures in an effective way," said Gulmira. “After all, we [Kyrgyz and Uzbeks] share the same roots, the same religion and the same homeland.”
Part of the challenge for Gulmira and Saparbek -- who refused to give their last name -- stems from the government’s apparent unwillingness to look objectively at “the war,” as the events are popularly known in Kyrgyzstan.
Between June 10 and 14, 2010, rioting left over 400 ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks dead in and around Kyrgyzstan’s southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. This year, the government set aside June 9 and 10 as days of remembrance. Authorities in Osh planned to unveil a monument and hold public prayers in a central mosque.
While the state has taken action to remember the tragic events of a year ago, lingering prejudice and politicking are hampering government efforts to make peace between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities.
"Compared with last year, things are much calmer. But people live in constant fear," Osh-resident Isamiddin said (Like many sources in southern Kyrgyzstan, Isamiddin, fearing retribution, asked his full name not be published.)
Neither side is addressing the grievances dividing the two ethnic groups, says a Kyrgyz conflict specialist working for the UN. "You can feel nervousness in Osh,” he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “The level of trust is very low.”
Uzbeks assert that Kyrgyz crowds carried out the majority of the violence and complain that they are excluded from political and economic life. They say they are still being mistreated by Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies – an allegation supported by international research, such as a June 8 Human Rights Watch report detailing extensive torture and unfair trials pinning most of the blame on Uzbeks, even though Uzbeks suffered the majority of casualties.
“How can you mend relations when we are still viewed as enemies, when our young people are still arrested in great numbers?” said Aibek, an Uzbek restaurateur from Osh who fled Kyrgyzstan and obtained asylum abroad after his properties were burned and seized by Kyrgyz.
Many Kyrgyz, following increasingly nationalist rhetoric in parliament, reject claims that Uzbeks suffered disproportionately, blaming the Uzbek minority of attempting to secede from Kyrgyzstan and thus triggering the unrest. “The Uzbeks started it; it is not the fault of the Kyrgyz. If the Uzbeks lived in peace, respected the Kyrgyz traditions and rules and did not demand autonomy, there would not have been a war,” said Daniyar, a Kyrgyz resident of Osh.
Officials seem to be adding to these grievances. The State Directorate for Reconstructing Osh and Jalal-Abad’s opaque method of distributing financial compensation and free housing for victims, for example, has deepened divides, both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh complain.
In parliament, deputies are bogged down in heated debates over who bares responsibility – Uzbek “separatists,” Islamists, loyalists to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. But few seem willing to look at the complexities of ethnic relations in southern Kyrgyzstan.
After a respected international commission found evidence that Kyrgyz authorities may have committed crimes against humanity, parliament rejected the findings as “biased” and banned the author, Finnish politician Kimmo Kiljunen, from entering Kyrgyzstan. The president’s parliamentary envoy has blamed international human rights groups for deliberately stoking tensions. Some Kyrgyz deputies, such as Jyldyz Joldosheva from the ultranationalist Ata-Jurt party, have also fueled ethnic tensions by spreading materials she insists prove the Uzbeks started the violence.
The situation seems somewhat brighter on the local level. Some municipal officials are trying to address the tensions. For example, several mixed-ethnicity towns in the south have sponsored events such as athletic competitions and celebrations of local holidays to bring communities together.
In Kara-Suu and Aravan, officials have offered up to 100,000 soms (approximately $2,500) to newlywed interethnic couples. Some Uzbek and Kyrgyz entrepreneurs are setting up new business partnerships. Before the June 2010 violence, Uzbek and Kyrgyz entrepreneurs cooperated but they rarely operated businesses jointly. Though the reasons may sound cynical -- having a Kyrgyz partner allows an Uzbek entrepreneur to avoid harassment from Kyrgyz authorities and nationalist groups; having an Uzbek partner allows Kyrgyz to reach out to Uzbek customers -- both sides say mixing is good for business.
“One thing is clear – people are tired of living in fear and they want to act,” explained Aravan resident Abdulajan Dadabaev, an architect.
Local conflict prevention specialists applaud the baby steps, but lament they are happening only in isolated, mixed towns. Reconciliation efforts need to happen across Kyrgyzstan, especially between towns with homogenous populations, and they must involve not just local authorities and residents, but also the national government and powerbrokers, the specialists say.
“Reconciliation needs to start at the elite level. Only then we can talk about genuine stability,” said the UN conflict-resolution specialist.
Alisher Khamidov is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asian affairs.