On Sunday I lay in bed and watched an Uzbek man be burned alive. The video starts with a fire in the center of a crowd. At first it is not even clear that the fire is a human being. As the Uzbek man thrashes and screams, the crowd laughs and applauds, shouting insults in Kyrgyz. No one makes a move to save him.
This video is all over the internet. In the version I saw, a link to which arrived in my inbox with the warning “attention — graphic”, there were captions to tell me who was who. “Kyrgyz”, it said, indicating the crowd; “Uzbek”, it said, pointing to the victim. About halfway in, another caption appeared over the burning man’s body: “Oh brothers, take revenge for me, for I can no longer live myself.”
I watch the Uzbek man writhing on the ground, screaming in pain, as a Kyrgyz man emerges from the crowd and runs to him. At first I thought he was going to help him, but instead he kicks him while the crowd roars in approval. My two-year-old daughter looks up at me and says “Who’s making that sound?” and I shut the laptop off.
* * *
The day before, I had received a request to translate a letter from a friend of mine, an Uzbek living in Europe. The letter, signed by a number of Uzbeks living abroad, asked the International Court of Justice to consider the Osh events to be acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing. They told the court that they had proof. Using the internet, they had amassed an large collection of videos, photos and documents detailing the violence against Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. Some of these materials were made public on YouTube and web forums; some were e-mailed from Kyrgyzstan to private addresses. On Facebook, Uzbeks have formed groups precisely for the purpose of archiving this information.
There will be some who will say that my friend was wrong to write this letter, and that I was wrong to translate it for him. Ethnic cleansing and genocide are inflammatory terms. They give permanence to tenuous accusations, they demand accountability for anonymous crimes, and they offer little hope for forgiveness. Furthermore, they tend to implicate by association more than just the direct perpetrators of a violent act. Many Kyrgyz online writers are resentful that terms like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are being tossed around. They claim that these words falsely imply that all Kyrgyz people support the brutality that took place in Osh. This is an understandable concern, and it is important to remember that many Kyrgyz are shocked by the violence and terrified about what is happening to their country.
But I do not feel bad about translating that letter. If Uzbeks want to make the case for genocide, then by all means they should, and the court will decide. The accusations of genocide do not bother me. The fact that their evidence is strewn all over the internet, moving from person to person and site to site, recopied and reposted so that nothing will erase it, is what I find unnerving.
* * *
No one knows who the burning man was. The Iranians had Neda — Neda, who fought passionately for a cause she believed in, Neda, whose face and name we came to know because her violent death was broadcast online. By contrast, the Uzbek man is tragic in his anonymity. No one knows why he was there, no one knows how his story ends, no one knows who the Kyrgyz men are or why they are cheering. He is a symbol of a conflict with no clear cause or solution, a conflict that, at the time I write this, has no end in sight.
Who was this man? Did he have children? Are his children going to watch a video of their father being burned alive ten or twenty years from now? It is impossible to follow the Kyrgyzstan conflict and not be struck by the ubiquity of images of children — tiny bodies lying dead in the street, toddlers sleeping in refugee beds, babies being passed over the border to soldiers in Uzbekistan by Uzbek mothers desperate to get them to safety. Are those babies going to find their photos online decades from now? What are they going to think? In an era when so many images and stories are so easily accessible, in a time when a fleeting thought can turn into a personal crusade with the click of the mouse –- how will Uzbeks forget, and how will they forgive? And should they? These are the questions you ask when a massacre is chronicled online.
* * *
In April, I asked Registan readers to save the information coming out of Kyrgyzstan. “Save the Twitter posts and the YouTube videos, the photos and the articles,” I wrote. “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.” At the time, I was worried that valuable information coming out of Kyrgyzstan would be lost, much like what happened in the aftermath of the 2005 Andijon massacre in Uzbekistan. Now I worry about what will happen if these images and stories and videos remain.
It used to be harder to document violence; now, as one of the slogans of Iran’s Green movement reminds us, “every citizen is a medium”. More to the point, it used to take effort to investigate genocide or ethnic conflict. It took patience, commitment, a trip to the library or to the site at hand. Now you can have a passing thought, type a few words into Google, and be directed to an image of an Uzbek man burning while Kyrgyz men cheer. Now you can watch a massacre on demand.
A few weeks ago, I read a book called “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age”, by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger. Mayer-Schonberger argues that the internet is making it impossible to forget. There are no second chances in a digital world, no possibilities of re-invention when your old self, and your old mistakes, are preserved forever online. The book dealt mainly with problems of the Western world — losing your job over an inappropriate photo; writing a controversial article in your youth and reaping the consequences twenty years later on Google. But what happens when mass violence plays out on the internet in real time? I have no doubt that the stories from Osh will endure without the help of the internet. But there may come a time where Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are trying to make amends, and digital memory spares no mercy. There will always be a catalogue of sins, searchable and accessible, impervious to the human desire to move on.
So in the end, what do we do? I still argue that we should make an effort to preserve the videos, photos and documents that come out of Kyrgyzstan, if only because they help contribute to the narrative of what happened. It is particularly important to do this now as the interim government attempts to destroy incriminating information. But it is easy for me to say this — I am not an Uzbek or a Kyrgyz. Like many Westerners who study Central Asia, I cannot read the coverage of Kyrgyzstan or watch the videos without becoming emotional. But what I feel when I watch these videos is not the same as what Uzbeks or Kyrgyz feel. And what my daughter feels, when she reads about these events years from now, will not be what the daughters and sons of today’s victims will feel. Tragedy persists in memory, as resentments over the 1990 Osh riots well show. But those riots were not meticulously documented and preserved online, accessible in seconds to anyone, anytime. Time may heal all wounds, but the internet goes on and on.