Editor’s Note: Registan.net and Thinking-East.Net are proud to bring you this exclusive, first-hand report from Elnura Osmonalieva of Bishkek. Though edited for spelling (by Andy Young), Elnura’s account is presented in its original form. For all of the photos that accompanied this article, please see Thinking-East.Net
Elnura Osmonalieva, Bishkek, Kyrgyztan
At 10:00 am on 24th March 2005 opposition forces gathered about 10,000 people to protest the falsified parliamentary election results and demand the resignation of President Askar Akaev in front of Nazaraliev’s Medical Clinic in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Most of them arrived from the southern parts of the country the night before driving for more than 12 hours to get to the capital. They were coming from Jalalabad, Osh, Batken, and some from Talas (in the north). Boys as young as nine and ten years old came along to “ouster Akaev”, as ten-year old Azim from Batken said. The crowd cheered and chanted “Akaev out, Akaev out” as a number of leading oppositionists addressed them from the roof of the Clinic calling for continued demonstrations until President Akaev steps down. A word came around 11:15 am that the government has sent a battalion of special forces to their direction; the decision to block the roads leading to the Clinic followed and demonstrators quickly took stand on Chui Avenue and Fuchick St. The leaders changed their mind soon and ordered everybody to march in the direction of the main city square Ala-Too.
Thousands of protesters moved in the direction of the square, marching peacefully and calling amazed people who stood by the street and looked out of the windows to join them. Some joined, some waved and cheered, but stayed out. The demonstrators looked impressive as they walked, smiling, cheering, confident, carrying daffodils and pink and yellow arm and headbands. Their banners read: “Get Akaev’s regime out!” and “Doctor, we are with you”, stating their support to Professor Nazaraliev, famous for his unique drug rehabilitation technique and harsh and bold criticism of President Akaev. The main leaders of the Kyrgyz People’s Unity front, Kurmanbek Bakiev, Roza Otunbaeva, Ishengul Boljurova lead the march, walking hand in hand, not having the slightest idea that in a few hours they would be celebrating victory.
As they passed the White House (House of Government where the President, and until February 2005 the Central Election Committee (!) resided), they saw hundreds of special force fighters in their proper gear cordoning off the building. The demonstrators passed by the main square adjacent to the White House. As they reached the square they gathered in front of the Erkindik (Freedom) Statue that replaces the Statue of Lenin and stands in front of the History Museum, where their leaders addressed them from. In their speeches, opposition leaders emphasized that this is to be a peaceful protest aimed at getting the government to finally start the negotiations. Crowds cheered and somehow there was a feeling that this was not just another demonstration, that something big was coming up.
Soon, on the side of the square that is closer to the White House fighting broke out between the protestors and other men, identified by protestors as people from the pro-government Alga party and as “sportsmen and criminals hired by the Akaev regime”. These men had dark blue arm bands and white caps, “so the police and special forces can identify them and not attack” protesters believed. These men threw stones and sticks and had wooden shields for protection – it was apparent that they had prepared for their attack. As stones and sticks flew on protesters who were expecting attack from military, not from civilians, they ran eastwards. However, very quickly the shouting “Don’t run or they will get us out of the square” spread and the protestors turned back encircling some of the attackers. A few were beaten up by the protesters and when questioned said that they were paid 500 soms each to do this.
The angered protesters started tearing tiles up from the square to break into smaller pieces necessary for protection and attack. Some were injured and banners were ripped to make bandages. When asked if this attack influenced their resolution, protesters said no. One protestor said: “We thought we’d be killed when they got here, this is nothing. We came with our people’s blessing having promised that we will either die or return with victory. We will stand till the end. They can shoot us, we are not afraid”. At this moment, a few more thousand protesters arrived from a rally on Ahunbaeva-Almaatinskaya where they were protesting under the leadership of Almazbek Atambaev, President Akaev’s opponent at Presidential Elections 2005 and prominent opposition figure. They were met with cheers and applause.
Soon the pro-government men attacked again and this time they were met with resistance. The turned back very quickly and the protestors moved towards the White House. This was not directed by the leaders. The coordinators were ordering “Don’t hit anybody, don’t hit anybody”.
The special forces around the White House gate shielded themselves and stones flew in their direction. Soon they moved on the crowd driving everybody back to the square. Again, the protesters stopped running and threw more stones at the military and were able to push them back to the gate. After some fighting the special forces retreated to the back of the White House and military on horsebacks came out unexpectedly freaking out the protesters who ran for a hundred meters before realizing they should not run and again orders not to run spread around and everybody turned against the horsemen. One protester got hold of a horse and rode it before the cheering crowd – a very symbolic ride for Kyrgyz who are traditionally a nomadic people. The soldier who had lost the horse was protected from angry protesters by a representative from the campaign of peaceful resistance KelKel who led him aside (see pic).
Now that the outside area of the gate was free, the protesters gathered round the gate and started asking the soldiers inside to switch sides and not hit against their own people. The negotiations continued while some protesters managed to break the locks on the gates. White House staff was out on the side porch watching, in their suits and hands in trousers, calm and confident. Those who peered through windows looked more excited and entertained than scared.
Soon the bravest protesters came inside the gate and approached the soldiers with their arms raised, though it did not look like the soldiers were armed. General Chotbaev, who was responsible for guarding off the White House, said that he did not want for there to be any bloodshed and asked the protesters who went inside the gate to leave. He said it “was his job” and “there was nothing he could do”. The protesters asked the General to order his soldiers to leave the grounds or to join the protestors. He refused and left saying there could be no further discussion about that.
A few stones came flying on the soldiers while protesters cried not the hit the soldiers, but some angry youth did, risking hitting their comrades who were trying to talk the soldiers into a peaceful resolution.
As protesters saw that the soldiers looked calm and not extremely hostile, more and more crossed the gate and came in. The soldiers retreated slowly. Very soon there was a large crowd on the steps of the White House cheering and celebrating victory. Stones came breaking windows and people were pounding on the front doors that were locked from the inside. Soon the doors opened and the cheering crowd ran into the building. As they came, they broke glass, chandeliers and ripped down curtains. Some were on the stair case in the entrance hall, cheering, hugging each other and taking pictures. There was a large water pipe lying on the floor and some water – it appeared like the military planned to use water hose against the protesters.
As people went round the building, the soldiers and General Chotbaev left, taking their injured, arms and boxes with them. General Chotbaev said: “I decided to vacate the building for the sake of security of both sides”.
There were several hundred people walking around the building, some stealing what they wanted, despite other protester’s attempts to stop looting. Soon, security units were established on each floor and each exit and people couldn’t take out stuff.
Excited journalists looked for the President’s Office. When they arrived they found human rights activist Tursunbek Akun in the President’s Chair announcing that he was the first one to enter the room and was there to protect it. Kurmanbek Bakiev arrived to the President’s office in an hour and appealed to all to retain order. He congratulated people with their victory and said “This is people’s property and nobody has the right to take anything. Please have patience, retain order. We must save the White House and this room for our future leadership”.
Later Bakiev appeared before the cheering crowds in front of the White House but could not speak to them for lack of a microphone. He told a smaller group of supporters as he left the White House that Felix Kulov, political prisoner jailed on allegations of misuse of power while serving as Minister of Interior, was released and would arrive soon. Then he quickly left to the National Security Service (former KGB) where he had a meeting behind closed doors. A voice behind the doors ordered somebody to convene a meeting of all members of the Supreme Court. Following that, he had a meeting will all staff remaining in the building where he introduced himself as Chairman of the Coordinating Council of the Kyrgyz People’s Unity Front who was given the responsibility to take care of things now. He said that he “did not plan to come to power this way”, and that he was “a man of peace and law”, but since it happened, the main task was to retain order. He appealed to officers with requests to help re-establish order and prevent people from tearing buildings down. “Nobody is fired and all of you keep your posts until decided by the Coordinating Council otherwise”.
The same night the former Parliament convened with some members of the new Parliament with demand to nullify the results of February 2005 Parliamentary Elections that were recognized as undemocratic by numerous election monitoring organizations. In the meantime crowds, that many local people recognized as residents of Bishkek, were looting malls and smaller shops taking out goods starting from yogurt to furniture. Most of protesters came from the rural areas and are known to have harsh discipline, therefore it is unlikely that many of them participated in the looting. After the White House seizure hundreds of young Bishkek residents came to the square and it is likely that they took advantage of the situation and robbed the shops.
Kyrgyz State Television appealed to everybody through the night to prevent looting and keep order; some opposition figures appeared talking about new future for Kyrgyzstan and the need to elect a good President. Nurlan Motuev, member of the Coordinating Council, said that he would ensure the Akaev family got proper punishment for the stealing.
President Akaev’s whereabouts could not be identified with rumors saying he was on the Russian military base in town of Kant near Bishkek, or in Kazakhstan. People were very surprised that the government gave up so quickly, State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov resigning even before the White House was seized.
The unexpected revolution created chaos, but hopefully not a long one. This morning military and police, now under leadership of newly released Felix Kulov, came out to Bishkek streets to restore order.
The Constitutional Court recognized February 2005 Parliamentary Election results as illegitimate. New elections are expected to be held soon. Everyone is waiting to see how events will unfold from now on and what the face of the new Kyrgyz leadership will be like. The victory was easy and fast, the most difficult challenges are still ahead. People fear disputes among opposition leaders as the movement was known for lack of unity and agreement.
– Elnura Osmonalieva, Bishkek, Kyrgyztan