Osh, Part I: City of Echo Chambers

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by Noah Tucker on 6/21/2011 · 2 comments

Osh is a city half alive. One year after the ethnic violence that claimed hundreds of lives, at best an edgy calm and a sense of some daily routine has returned to the city. Restaurants, shops, and even the nearly annihilated Osh central bazaar have reopened for business, but even in the city center, the scars from the violence that rocked the city only twelve months ago are clearly visible. Nestled in seemingly every row of shops and cafes are one or two burnt husks of former businesses, kiosks, or homes even in some places in the now fully functioning downtown area. In other parts of the city, entire neighborhoods lie in ruins, blocks and blocks of houses wrapped in tarps like bodybags that advertise halting reconstruction aid by UNHCR and an alphabet soup of a half-dozen or so other agencies.

That the city has returned to commercial life at least at some healthy fraction of what it once was (an acquaintance in Bishkek recently remarked “that whole city was one big bazaar”) is perhaps the most promising step forward. The local and national government marked the June 10 anniversary of the violence with events heralding rebuilding and reconciliation that played nicely on national television, especially as the country gears up for presidential elections this fall. But just past the surface of smiles for the TV cameras and carefully coordinated events closer inspection quickly reveals that while the city may be bravely staggering back to life, it is by no means returning to “normal.”

A return to normal would imply a recovery of the status quo ante, but this is very clearly not the direction things have gone in the last twelve months. Instead, what we see is a city radically changed, where the order of things and even the identity of the city have changed dramatically. While interviewees on both sides of the ethnic divide agree (with different meanings) that until last June the economy of the city was disproportionately dominated by ethnic Uzbek businesspeople, traders, and craftsmen—not necessarily surprising since most statistics indicate they were long the largest ethnic group in the city—now it has become difficult to find Uzbeks in public life at all. A huge part of the city’s population is now conspicuously missing. If Uzbeks so recently dominated the restaurant scene, as many here assert for example, now they are conspicuously absent from cafes and restaurants and only rarely even venture of their self-contained mahallas onto the streets after 6 p.m.

The violence and its aftermath have steadily erased most traces of the Uzbek presence in the city’s shared spaces, the Uzbek language has disappeared from shops signs, newsstands, the airwaves. While the mayor’s office supposedly promotes tolerance and ethnic harmony, over the past year vigilante groups of mostly older Kyrgyz women freely harass and sometimes even physically abuse ethnic Uzbeks who dare to appear in public, ride on city transport, attempt to interface with the city administration, or even show up to work in shops that still employ a multi-ethnic staff. Even the city’s much heralded new monument to victims of last year’s violence quickly became a site for screaming protests by these groups, denying the ethnic Uzbek half of the city access even to what was supposed to be a sacred space for common grief.

Politics and vigilante groups aside, however, the relationships between neighbors and common people are not so dire. Although still plagued by some degree of mutual suspicion, many people have resumed daytime interaction in the necessities of everyday life—people mix on the bazaar without incident, buy and sell from one another, taxi drivers of both ethnicities pick up clients without any discrimination during the day, and students in multi-ethnic neighborhoods attend mixed schools and universities without conflict or serious fear. Most Uzbeks afraid to leave their gated mahallas in the evening do not–at least in any interviews I’ve done so far–express a fear of their neighbors: above all they fear harassment by the police. Those cautiously rebuilding their burned homes don’t fear that their neighbors will burn them again—I’ve yet to meet a single person from either ethnicity who claims to have been attacked by a neighbor (though rumors about such stories are nearly ubiquitous)—but they do fear that the city administration will bulldoze anything they may rebuild under the pretense of widening a road or “modernizing” the city.

While the destruction of homes overwhelmingly occurred in ethnic Uzbek mahallas, the human and sexual violence itself and the destruction of commercial spaces, restaurants, and businesses was shared among all communities of Osh—although alarmingly, many on both ethnic sides seem to believe that only “we” were the true victims and “they” were wholly at fault. In the interviews I’ve conducted here so far, one of the most unsettling things that I’ve heard repeatedly (aside from the terrible stories of suffering and loss themselves) are statements that negate or dismiss suffering on the other side, the suffering of the “other.” Each ethnic group employs—with alarming frequency–narratives of homeland and defensive violence in order to cast the other group as usurpers or invaders.

For many ethnic Kyrgyz residents, the primary narrative used to explain the conflict is that “the Uzbeks wanted to declare autonomy,” or “the Uzbeks were trying to secede from Kyrgyzstan.” This rumor, fueled intensely by Kyrgyz-language media coverage that portrayed it as fact, has reached the status of “common knowledge” among much of the Kyrgyz community in Osh, in spite of occasional and rather feeble efforts by some members of the Bishkek government to acknowledge that it has no basis in truth. In Uzbek neighborhoods, people frequently claim that if any violence was done by them, it was done only to defend their own homes from nayomniki (mercenaries) hired from the surrounding provinces. One middle-aged Uzbek male interviewee told me confidently a few days ago that Uzbeks died with honor, defending their homes and their homeland, but the Kyrgyz victims of the violence died only as foreign attackers in someone else’s home.

These common self-justifying narratives (in almost infinite variations) fail tragically to acknowledge that the “we” who suffered were not just members of one ethnic community or another, but the whole city whose scars and wounds mark sites of human suffering.

It goes without saying that these narratives should not be taken to represent everyone in either community—I have met many wonderful and brave men and women from both (and other) ethnic communities who work hard to overcome mistrust and criticism from both sides either for being “the other” or helping “them.”

Among the broader populations, though, each ethnic community often becomes trapped in its own echo chamber that obsesses only on its own suffering and is often informed mostly by rumors that metastasized quickly into common knowledge. Worst of all, since each side recognizes the inaccuracy of the rumors that spread about themselves, it becomes easy to dismiss the stories about someone else’s suffering as “just another rumor.”

An excellent, though extreme, example of this is the belief fervently held by some in both groups that the other side murdered their neighbors and photographed the bodies–disfigured beyond ethnic recognition–and then claimed the bodies belonged to members of their own community attacked by the other, using the photos as a devious campaign to rally fellow members to attack the other for “revenge.” That is, some Uzbeks claim that grieving Kyrgyz mothers who carry posters with graphic pictures of their allegedly murdered sons are in fact showing pictures of Uzbek victims in a sinister and deeply ironic attempt to stir up hatred against Uzbeks. Some Kyrgyz claim that Uzbeks murdered Kyrgyz neighbors and then posted the photos on the internet claiming they were evidence that Uzbeks were being attacked in hopes that Uzbekistan would invade and purge the South of Kyrgyz residents, securing Uzbek autonomy in Osh or joining the whole of Southern Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan–a state that many ethnic Kyrgyz in particular despise and fear.

For many, the idea that that “we” would engage in such an elaborate plot is absurd and absolutely offensive, because it negates the reality of “our” own suffering and the humanity of “our” own victims and survivors. That it is for some so easy to believe that the other side perpetrated such a stomach-churning fraud is a sign that the reality of the other’s suffering and common humanity was already somehow in serious doubt.

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This post was written by...

– author of 54 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Noah Tucker is managing editor at Registan.net and an associate at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs Central Asia Program. Noah is a researcher and consultant for NGO, academic and government clients on Central Asian society and culture. He has worked on Central Asian issues since 2002--specializing in religion, national identity, ethnic conflict and social media--and received an MA from Harvard in Russian, E. European and Central Asian Studies in 2008. He has spent four and half years in the region, primarily in Uzbekistan, and returned most recently for fieldwork in Southern Kyrgyzstan in the summers of 2011 and 2012.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jangak June 21, 2011 at 3:03 pm

An excellent article. I look forward to the 2nd part.

Bakinets June 21, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Important testimony, incredibly depressing. To make an even more depressing point, doesn’t it seems almost inevitable that this situation will trigger another cycle of killing at some point? For instance: Will a post-Karimov ruler of Uzbekistan, new and fragile, be able to resist sending some troops across the border and exacting some revenge against the local Kyrgyz? It would give them 90% popularity for an extended period of time no matter what else they did . . . I hope this is wrong but I am worried it is not.

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