After seven years of filming, thousands of interviews, and the arrest, torture and even murder of some of his sources, journalist-turned-activist Michael Andersen is about to release his documentary investigating the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan.
On May 13, 2005, military forces loyal to President Islam Karimov opened fire on protestors in the eastern city of Andijan. Uzbekistan has ignored calls for an impartial investigation and said it was battling Islamic militants, rather than peaceful protestors. The official death count is 187, while some activists say over 1,000 may have perished.
Andersen, a Dane, was inspired to make the film because of what he calls the “hypocrisy of Western governments who coddle Karimov in exchange for military supply routes and basing rights to support the war in Afghanistan.” Andersen has covered the region since 2000, and lived in Uzbekistan from 2000 to 2002. He was unable to film in Uzbekistan, however: He says Uzbek authorities “utterly ignored” 28 applications for a visa and repeated requests for comment. Instead, he relied on footage collected over the years from numerous sources and on interviews with witnesses outside the country.
The film, “Massacre in Uzbekistan,” seeks to inform Westerners about the events and shine a spotlight on the pattern of engaging (now fallen) dictators like the Shah of Iran and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. But more importantly, perhaps, Andersen hopes to reach Uzbeks who, he says, don't even know about the tragedy, by translating the film into Uzbek and Russian and putting it online – the only space for free information that Karimov has trouble controlling.
EurasiaNet.org interviewed Andersen by email about what drove him to make the film and how he hopes it will reach the people inside Uzbekistan. (Trailers for the film are available in English, Russian, and Uzbek.)
EurasiaNet: After seven years, why have you decided to release the film now?
Michael Andersen: We are putting it out now because after seven years we see an “ending” to the story. It’s a bit like a Hollywood romance, only this ending is decidedly unhappy. First they fell in love – the West and Karimov – or maybe rather closed their eyes to each other’s shortcomings. Then there was the break-up – when the West hesitantly withdrew from “the Butcher of Andjan,” after he killed 700-800 people. But over the past couple of years it has become clear that we need him too much for access to, and soon from, Afghanistan.
So, now we have our beginning, middle and end of this sad story.
However, I am afraid that with the continued oppression in Karimov’s Uzbekistan, the real end to this story may be a lot more painful than we in the West seem to be able to imagine. One would have thought we had learned some lessons from the so-called Arab Spring – about the dangers of siding with the dictators – but apparently not.
EN: How do you expect the film to be received?
MA: It is no secret that the West’s interest in Uzbekistan is very limited. So we honestly do not have high hopes that our heavy, 80-minute documentary about a massacre that very few have heard of, in a country few have heard of, will make it to prime-time TV in the West. But we have been working and collecting materials and interviews for seven years, and we feel that we owe it to all the courageous people who risked their health and lives to give us interviews and information to publish what they have told us.
Since releasing the trailer on July 16, however, we’ve had 10,000 views, and I’ve received hundreds of emails from people in Uzbekistan, so I’m hopeful our message will get out.
EN: This is clearly a challenging project. What were some of the major hiccups?
MA: Well, obviously making sure that the people giving you interviews do not get in trouble afterwards. Unfortunately, some of them have. Not necessarily because they talked to us, but in general, because they refused to shut up about the abuses of the Karimov regime.
The film gives a voice to these heroes – the human rights defenders, the independent journalists, opposition politicians, and “ordinary people,” eyewitnesses to the massacre – who tell us what happened, ignoring how dangerous this can be. That is really an awe-inspiring experience.
The other major challenge is of course that few in the West – leading politicians and officials – are willing to talk about Andijan. We saw this last year when Karimov was invited to Brussels – the EU and NATO officials desperately tried to ferry him around in secret. There was no press conference, no access. It was clear that they were embarrassed by their own cynicism in meeting, greeting, wining and dining “the Butcher of Andijan.” And they should be. Unfortunately, it does not stop them from dealing with him.
EN: What are you doing to get this film into Uzbekistan?
MA: This summer and autumn, whenever we show the English version of the film at events in Europe, we will at the same time be fundraising for a translation of the film into Uzbek and Russian. Also, on July 16 we published trailers in Uzbek, Russian and English in order to attract attention, asking people and organizations to help us.
When we started planning this project, we discussed bringing the film into Uzbekistan on DVDs. But the Karimov regime is desperately trying to keep the people of Uzbekistan in the dark about what is happening in Uzbekistan and about his oppression in general, so they clamp down very harshly on that sort of thing. It would be too dangerous. Fortunately, the Internet has radically changed things: We are now aiming to translate the whole film into Uzbek and Russian and give it away on the Internet. It’s as simple as that -- on YouTube, Facebook and all the social sites where the young Uzbeks are.
EN: What are some lessons from Andijan?
MA: At the political level, the West needs to look at what is happening in the Arab world (and Iran 30 years ago even) and try to grasp that.
In the film, Ken Roth, the president of Human Rights Watch, says, “If I were an Uzbek citizen, I would feel abandoned by the West, as if my fate didn’t matter to the West.” It cannot be put better than that. And I am not in doubt – I know from thousands of conversations with Uzbeks – that they increasingly feel that way. I am sure I would. And some of these people will lose all hope in this “Western” idea of democracy. They will also lose hope that we are with them and not with their brutal ruler.
We should be asking ourselves: “What happens when Karimov dies?” Who will take over? How will they look at us, who for so long happily supported the dictator?
Western leaders have shown a shameful lack of compassion with the people of Uzbekistan, total disrespect for other peoples’ lives. They have with their visits, photo ops and positive comments about the Karimov regime (like Hillary Clinton recently talking about “progress”), and not least all the billions we have given him over the years, helped him stay in power, helped him continue his oppression of almost 30 million people.
We should ask ourselves: “Whose side are we on? The dictator’s or the people’s?” Ten years of Western cooperation with the Karimov regime leaves you with a very bad taste in the mouth – the taste of shame.