Like many readers of Registan following the events in Kyrgyzstan, I have spent the last few hours watching a revolution online. I watched militsiya forces fire into a city street and protesters tip over a police car on YouTube; I saw a devastating photo collection of the violence and its victims on LiveJournal; and I have read constant updates from witnesses of and participants in the events on Twitter — to say nothing of the blog posts and articles from RFE, EurasiaNet, Ferghana.ru, BBC and other media sources.
I have little doubt that the Kyrgyz protests, like those in Iran last summer, are going to be described as a “Twitter Revolution” — a hyperbolic term coined to describe the role of social media in battling authoritarian regimes. While I am skeptical of this take — the internet, I would argue, aggravates suspicion and distrust among opposition forces just as much as it brings them together — it is worth comparing the role of the internet for the current protests in Kyrgyzstan versus the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” — or, more strikingly, the massacre that same year in Andijon, Uzbekistan.
It has been five years since the Uzbek military shot to death hundreds of citizens in Andijon, and still the dominant question surrounding that event is — “What happened?” No one knows what really went down in Andijon, only that it resulted in the deaths of, by the Uzbek government’s count, 187 people, or, by most accounts, at least 800 protesters and innocent bystanders. Like the current protests in Kyrgyzstan, the Andijon events were covered online — but not nearly with the breadth or scope of the current protests in Kyrgyzstan. There were no YouTube videos, no Twitter updates, no Facebook posts from Uzbek witnesses — most reports came out of foreign media bureaus (such as BBC) scrambling to get to the scene before Karimov kicked them out of the country. The longest and most famous video of Andijon is in fact a propaganda video made by the Uzbek government which shows images of armed protesters and nothing of the shooting of civilians that occurred afterwards — a monopoly on information that stands in stark contrast to the videos from Kyrgyzstan available on YouTube today.
In the months after the Andijon events, there were numerous reports online about the violence that had occurred — many of them written by intrepid journalists thrown out of the country, and many of them written only in Uzbek. On online forums, Uzbeks posted their thoughts, stories and even poems about the events. I began to archive these in 2006, and later used them for two articles I wrote about Andijon and its aftermath. Now, in 2010, when I look for these materials online, many of them are gone. In fact, one of the key documents in understanding the Andijon events, the Uzbek-language version of Akrom Yo’ldoshev’s “Iymonga Yo’l”, was removed from the internet in 2005 by government censors. It was only because I had saved it that I was able to use it in 2006 for my own research. (Yo’ldoshev’s treatise is now widely available online and in book form.) In 2007, I casually archived some of the pages of a new Uzbek publication, “Siyosat”, run by an Uzbek journalist from Kyrgyzstan named Alisher Saipov. In October 2007, Saipov was murdered, likely by Uzbek government agents, and his website closed down. But because I had archived his site with SnagIt, I was able to use it later to better understand the Saipov affair.
The information coming out of Kyrgyzstan is not always reliable. It is often biased, short-sighted, confusing and contradictory. But it is giving us a view of Kyrgyzstan that demands our attention — not only now, but in the months and years to come, when we look back on these events and try to piece together what happened. Unlike with the Andijon events, we might actually be able to do so. But in order for that to happen, we need to create a record of these materials. We need to preserve them before they are wiped away — not necessarily by the Kyrgyz government, but by the true foes of revolution: apathy and neglect. Many of the Uzbek materials that I archived are gone simply because those tending to them let them go. The massacre became a memory, hopelessly unresolved. This is one of the reasons that “Do not forget the Andijon massacre!” has become a rallying cry of Uzbekistan’s political opposition. As the world’s interest in Kyrgyzstan fades — and, believe me, it will — so too will the desire to preserve the narrative of the events.
I am therefore asking those of you invested in the events in Kyrgyzstan to archive what you are reading. Save the Twitter posts and the YouTube videos, the photos and the articles. Print them out if you need to — just hold on to them somehow. Right now your goal might be to simply keep up with the information. But later, we are going to want to look back. And if the block on internet access is ever lifted in Kyrgyzstan, it is likely that the Kyrgyz are going to want to take a look too.
Sarah Kendzior is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Washington University in Saint Louis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.