After 4 days, violence subsides in Kyrgyzstan, but ethnic resentments linger

After gang violence broke out against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, refugees have been forced to the Uzbekistan border.
By Philip P. Pan
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

JALAL-ABAD, KYRGYZSTAN -- The main road through this rustic town on the edge of the rich fields of the Fergana Valley offers a telling view of the destruction that has unfolded in southern Kyrgyzstan in recent days.

On one side of the street, the University of People's Friendship is a charred ruin, a symbol of ethnic harmony no more. Across the road, a community TV station has been left a blackened shell. Then come the torched cafes and shops, followed by seven blocks of burned-out Uzbek homes, a miserable procession interrupted only by the trees that residents cut down in a desperate bid to slow rampaging Kyrgyz mobs.

After more than four days of ethnic clashes that have left hundreds dead, the violence appeared to subside Tuesday in Jalal-Abad. In an interview, Kyrgyzstan's defense minister said the government had largely restored order here and in the nearby city of Osh and was dropping its appeal for an international peacekeeping force to intervene.

Even here amid the rubble of Lenin Street, which had been a center of the fighting, there was a sign of progress: a mixed crowd of ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks stood peacefully together to pick up emergency rations of noodles, flour and cooking oil. Many said it was the first time they had dared venture outside since the killing began.

But when residents were asked about what had happened -- about why neighbors had turned against each other so suddenly and in such brutal fashion -- the simmering anger between the Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks quickly surfaced, hinting at the continuing volatility of the situation.

Gulsara Atabayeva, 40, a Kyrgyz woman jostling for position near the back of the crowd, confessed she was terrified that Uzbek gangs from nearby villages might "come to kill us." But in the next breath, she dismissed the fears of Uzbeks who had fled by the tens of thousands to refugee camps along the border with Uzbekistan.

"Of course they can come back," she said casually. "If they don't touch us, we won't touch them."

Like many Kyrgyz interviewed, she rejected the government's allegation that the country's recently deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, had provoked the clashes in an attempt to return to power in the chaos.

Bakiyev was born here and remains popular among local Kyrgyz. Uzbeks, however, tend to support the interim government that toppled him in a bloody revolt in April.

"No, no, there was no Bakiyev," insisted a 27-year-old Kyrgyz man in the crowd, who gave only his first name, Aibek. Voicing a common view, he instead blamed a prominent Uzbek leader -- Kadyrzhan Batyrov, the head of the university that was burned down and an active supporter of the new government.

Over the past few months, Batyrov has stepped up a campaign demanding greater political rights and representation for ethnic Uzbeks, who make up 15 percent of the population nationally but rival the Kyrgyz in numbers in the south. His efforts have fanned Kyrgyz fears that he wants to split part of the region into an autonomous Uzbek entity -- and that the interim government might let him.

"Batyrov said that Osh and Jalal-Abad would be theirs and that his policy was to make them Uzbek towns," Aibek said. Asked to explain the attacks on Uzbek neighborhoods, he replied, "People did this only after what the Uzbeks did to us in Osh." He then repeated widely circulating rumors that Uzbek gangs had raped Kyrgyz women there.

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