The recent ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan has left children distressed and traumatized. Nearly a month after clashes broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, many children are still living in uncomfortable conditions, missing the homes they fled in fear for their lives and worrying about their futures.
I recently visited some displaced ethnic Uzbek children at a school in Osh where half of the 60 people living in the corridors are children.
Eleven-year-old Saidmurat Abbos-ogli fled with his parents and two brothers as armed gangs attacked their neighborhood of Cheremushki. “I was frightened that all the Uzbeks would be killed,” he said.
“I want to go home but there’s no chance,” said another boy, 17-year-old Doston Zakirov. Some families have no homes left to go to; others are afraid they’ll be targeted by fresh violence.
One 17-year-old said he’d received threats over the telephone from a former friend who’s ethnic Kyrgyz. He said the boy threatened to kill him if he returned home and told him ethnic Uzbeks should go and live in Uzbekistan.
Some of the children face dealing with the trauma without their parents’ support. Sixteen-year-old Rakhmatullo Madaminov is one – his father was hospitalized after being beaten up during the violence and his mother is a migrant worker in Russia.
“We estimate that around 150,000 children have been affected,” Anna Ford, Media Manager of the UK-based charity Save the Children, said. “Many of them are still suffering from emotional distress.”
A Bishkek-based human rights activist working in violence-plagued Osh, who was interrogated over a false media report, has expressed concern that the authorities are seeking to hush up the real circumstances surrounding ethnic violence that has left up to 2,000 dead.
The Osh prosecutor’s office summoned Tolekan Ismailova and fellow activist Aziza Abdurasulova after media reports quoting them said 20 people had died during a security sweep in the mainly Uzbek-populated village of Nariman on June 21.
Ismailova acknowledged the reports were false – the official death toll was two – and put it down to a “technical mistake, which distorted data about the situation in Nariman.”
The two activists spent several hours on June 28 under interrogation at the Osh prosecutor’s office in an episode Ismailova described as “strange and alarming.”
In remarks quoted by the 24.kg news agency, she suggested the authorities may be seeking to hush up the truth. “The impression is forming that they want us [rights activists] ‘sent out’ of here to cover up the scale of crimes committed with the connivance of bodies of power,” she said.
For the last few days, the Uzbek government has been forcing back to Kyrgyzstan all refugees officially registered in Uzbekistan after fleeing ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan since June 11, ferghana.ru reports. The number of people affected has been estimated at 100,000. Only those who are too sick or wounded to move are being allowed to stay.
Some women and children who have lost relatives and whose homes are burned were told that a separate camp was being built in Uzbekistan for them. After they were forced to board buses supposedly to go to the new camp, they were taken to the border and told to cross back into Kyrgyzstan. Muhammadkady Karabayev, a leader of ethnic Uzbeks from Jalal-Abad, confirmed the story for ferghana.ru.
Only those were not registered and crossed the border illegally and are staying with relatives now remain in Andijan and Namangan regions, says ferghana.ru. They are forced to hide from Uzbek authorities. Uzbek human rights activists believe that the reason the Uzbek government is forcing the refugees to go back to Kyrgyzstan is that they want them to take part in the
referendum. They estimate that only several thousand refugees now remain in Uzbekistan, mainly in hiding. The Osh administration authorities have reported that more than 317,000 people were displaced by the violence, AKIpress.org reported. Some 600 ethnic Kyrgyz who lived in Uzbek neighborhoods and were forced to flee are now in camp for internally-displaced persons in Osh.
Kyrgyz interim government officials had offered to bring ballot boxes to refugee camps in Uzbekistan. Amnesty International has called for an end to the forced repatriation of refugees in Uzbekistan.
Officers exhume unidentified bodies they say are Kyrgyz and were hurriedly buried in an Uzbek cemetery.
Osh investigators have embarked on a macabre task that could stir tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities ahead tomorrow’s referendum on constitutional reform.
Early on June 26, Kyrgyz troops began exhuming bodies from a graveyard in an Uzbek mahalla (neighborhood) on Kurmanjan Datka Street. Officials say they have been ordered to dig up 10 unidentified corpses that were hurriedly buried during the ethnic violence that left hundreds – if not thousands – dead.
Officials overseeing the operation at the cemetery said the corpses are of ethnic Kyrgyz buried in an Uzbek graveyard.
“These are Kyrgyz corpses,” an Interior Ministry officer from Osh, wearing civilian clothes and a medical mask over his mouth and who declined to give his name, told EurasiaNet.org. “When the war [ethnic fighting] was taking place, they took them and buried them here. The local people did it. … These corpses are unidentified and there are Kyrgyz people looking for their relatives.” He did not provide any substantiation for the allegations.
Nearby, an elderly Uzbek man, visibly upset, was tending the grave of his nephew, Nabijon Korabayev, who was killed in the violence. As armed soldiers shoveled the earth out of a grave behind him, he knelt to pray by his nephew’s burial spot.
Troops kept other local people at a distance and discouraged them from talking to journalists. Contacted by telephone, one resident said there was tension in the area; troops have been conducting house-to-house sweeps and summoning some members of the community for questioning at the prosecutor’s office.
Interior Ministry forces from Bishkek guarding the graveyard during the exhumation said they doubted any reconciliation was possible between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the wake of the bloodshed.
“There won’t be any [reconciliation]. There are a lot of Kyrgyz casualties and they have relatives,” said one officer speaking on condition of anonymity.
Not available during Bishkek's greatest hour of need, CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha and his team are now paying a visit. They are in the Kyrgyz capital to assess and assist, the CSTO website reports.
The group's main tasks are to assess the military-political situation in the Kyrgyz Republic and assist law enforcement agencies of Kyrgyzstan in the aftermath of the riots.
The Moscow-led body refused Bishkek's requests for peacekeeping assistance when ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Bordyuzha and co. will also visit Osh and Jalal-Abad, the southern cities hit hardest by the violence.
Needing two weeks to make a decision is not an admirable quality in a security organization. Or was Moscow too afraid to upset the CSTO's delicate balance by committing troops?
Earlier this week, Russia's drug tzar, Viktor Ivanov, said a CSTO base in Osh could help combat drug trafficking. Tashkent has long opposed the presence of Russian troops in the shared Ferghana Valley and Moscow has long sought a good reason for stationing them there.
A frequent critic of America's anti-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, Ivanov compared the proposed Osh base to "US military bases" fighting drugs in Columbia, RIA Novosti reported.
Both Kyrgyz and Uzbek local human rights groups in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been attempting to document the stories of internally displaced and refugees to attempt to record atrocities and shed light on the events in southern Kyrgyzstan since the outbreak of conflict on June 10.
As tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbek refugees are now making their way back to devastated neighborhoods in Osh, Jalal-Abad and environs, with many thousands remaining, violence seems to have abated. Yet the fear of fresh outbreaks is palpable and rumors of revenge abound. Questions continued to be asked about the origin of the events, with the hope that if the perpetrators can be found and prosecuted, further distrust and violence can be deterred.
Human Rights First, a U.S.-based international organization with a lot of experience covering conflicts and helping asylum-seekers in the U.S. fleeing from the world's war zones, has issued a statement that Kyrgyzstan's conflict has all the red flags of mass crimes against humanity seen in other troubled regions of the world:
The violence that started in southern Kyrgyzstan last week demands attention not only because of the deaths and displacement of civilians and a growing humanitarian crisis. Perhaps more worrying is the greater violence these recent events could portend. Reports indicate that the outbreak of killing in Kyrgyzstan not only is occurring along ethnic lines, but is also organized. These two characteristics are common harbingers of mass atrocities and have been seen in countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan.
Human Rights First says the international community must take seriously these warning signs of mass atrocities and immediately seek answers to the following questions, which they say have similar patterns in various situations around the world:
The independent online Central Asian news service ferghana.ru has reported that the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has withdrawn 300 short-term observers who had been deployed last month to observe conditions for the June 27 constitutional referendum in Kyrgyzstan. The observers were recruited and placed by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
Although no statement has appeared at the OSCE Press Centre or from the chair-in-office Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev, in a statement on its website, ODIHR said that while originally OSCE deployed a referendum observation mission:
Due to the current security situation, however, ODIHR decided on 18 June not to deploy short-term observers as part of its ongoing monitoring of the referendum. The mission will continue its observation of the process as a limited referendum observation mission (LROM) with a core team based in Bishkek and long-term observers deployed to several regions.
The removal of the observers may constitute a tacit signal from OSCE that conditions were inadequate for conducting a free and fair referendum; in other conflict-ridden or oppressive country situations ODIHR has used the method of withholding full-fledged observers and sending a small, limited observation term to avoid validating unfair pre-election conditions.
ODIHR said a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions would be issued on June 28, a day after the referendum. A comprehensive final report on the mission's findings is planned for approximately eight weeks later.
Local Uzbek human rights activists have been attempting to document the plight of ethnic Uzbeks fleeing pogroms in their villages in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which they report have been perpetrated by Kyrgyz civilians as well as military personnel. Yet having fled the frightening attacks in Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Uzbeks are now facing harassment in Uzbekistan by the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov.
With reports of renewed violence and continued attacks on ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, international and local NGOs have repeatedly called on the United Nations to respond by sending peace-keepers to the scene to deter violence. Reports from observers in Osh say that locals believe even a small number of armed foreign troops would help prevent escalation of the unrest.
Yet ultimately, for structural as well as geopolitical reasons, like many other humanitarian crises in the world, some with far higher numbers of persons affected, the situation on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is likely not to be addressed by the UN Security Council or UN Human Rights Council effectively or even at all, and as many similar situations, it will be left to agencies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to respond directly to the more narrow issue of immediate care of refguees.
The recent ethnic clashes in Osh have sent the local rumor mill into overdrive. Starved of reliable information and isolated in their communities, people have been chewing events over among themselves. In some cases, especially in the Uzbek mahallas (neighborhoods) where people blocked themselves inside for fear of attack, they became convinced that the most unlikely sounding events were talking place beyond the barricades.
One of the most popular topics of conversation has been snipers. In many Uzbek mahallas, inhabitants offer convincing testimony of gunmen targeting their neighborhoods from vantage points. Men barricaded into the Arygali Niyazov neighborhood, for example, testified to seeing gunmen on the upper floors of a nearby medical institute hostel with a view over the district's narrow streets. They said that during the height of the violence these gunmen were covering attackers and looters, assaulting their area with sniper fire. Men in other Uzbek neighborhoods tell similar stories.
Whatever the truth about these gunmen, the idea of snipers has assumed a life of its own. Many people are convinced that they’ve seen foreign mercenaries acting as snipers. These alleged foreign combatants are distinguished by their appearance – inhabitants report seeing black snipers and tall, blonde, female snipers from the Baltic states. The idea that English snipers have been roaming the streets of Osh shooting at Uzbeks is also popular. There’ve been no independent corroborations of such sightings by foreign journalists or representatives of international organizations.
Another rumor that’s been doing the rounds is that plans existed to poison water supplies to the Uzbek mahallas. No one can give a convincing explanation of how supplies to Uzbek areas could be poisoned without affecting Kyrgyz neighborhoods, given that they’re interspersed throughout the city.