Osh, Part II: The Suffering of Others

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by Noah Tucker on 6/21/2011 · 12 comments

It would be a difficult and frankly pretty depressing task to make a list of all the things that worry me about the future of Osh, but these occasional (though disturbingly common) narratives that negate or refuse to believe in the suffering of others are the what cause me to lose the most sleep. Whether or not these narratives are more common among Kyrgyz than Uzbeks would have to be dealt with by a different methodology (my research is ethnographic, not quantitative, so it would be wrong to assume broad extrapolation). I have to admit I have frequently been disturbed by the lack of empathy toward Uzbeks and the amount of anger sometimes expressed toward the international community for helping them rebuild their shattered lives.

The anti-Uzbek sentiment certainly has more power because of the support it receives in the local media, the completely disproportionate rate at which Uzbeks were arrested and continue to be tried for “participation in mass riots,” and sometimes outlandish rhetoric of politicians in the Kyrgyzstani government who clearly find nationalist demagoguery a useful political tool for the moment. But this flat disbelief in the suffering of members of the other community—dismissing it as “just another rumor”–is sadly present among the Uzbeks as well.

I will cite one example that was particularly unsettling to me personally. I am staying in a building mostly occupied by Kyrgyz people and Kyrgyz-owned businesses just on edge of a large cluster of Uzbek mahallas that were all but destroyed on the third day of the violence. The Kyrgyz family that owns the apartment where I’m staying and a restaurant in the building have been very kind to me. The building where I live and the restaurant below it were not spared either. It was immediately obvious that building had been attacked; the first floor, which used to be the restaurant, is still burned out and empty, and the first apartment I was shown still had a couch that looked like it had been cut open with a knife when the building was ransacked. Later, after I had been there for a few days, I was told in another context that the girls who work in the building—who in fact clean my apartment and wash my dirty clothes–were raped when the building was attacked.

Every day in my apartment I am surrounded by survivors of both ethnicities: out my window I can see Uzbeks with UNHCR temporary shelters still in their empty hovli where their house once stood, and in the halls I pass Kyrgyz survivors of terrible sexual violence. I walked into the hall one day to find one of the women conducting a ritual to drive off dark spirits, and an act that I used to find somewhat humorous when offered for money on the bazaar took on a new and horrible meaning when connected to specific human suffering in a space that we now temporarily share.

A few days later I was doing interviews in a mahalla nearby, where my building was still visible. I had a wonderful (but exhausting) interview with an Uzbek family and some neighbors that began on the street after I had just walked into the gated mahalla in the late evening and resulted, after building some trust, in being invited into their home to sit for hours as we talked and drank tea until almost midnight. My main informant, Hamid, was interesting, thoughtful, and remarkable for his willingness to correct the record when he felt a story of Uzbek persecution might be exaggerated. He frequently dismissed questions that I asked about discrimination I had heard about from others, stating often that while those things might happen in other parts of the city or to other people, he had not personally experienced them. He is still to this point the only Uzbek I have met in Osh who was an avid supporter of the city’s mayor—whom many feel was the prime beneficiary of the massive property re-distribution that resulted from the violence.

He displayed no resentment or antagonism towards his Kyrgyz neighbors and emphasized that, as a self-employed craftsman, he was happy to take Kyrgyz clients and never felt like any of them were less willing to hire him because of his ethnicity. As we finally agreed to retire for the night, though, and he and his neighbor began to walk me to the mahalla gate in order to lock it behind me, they asked again where I was staying, and I pointed at the building nearby. “You know,” I said sadly in Russian, “they suffered too, the restaurant was burned, the apartments were looted, and the girls who work there were raped.” I assumed, and still do, that the building was attacked by the same mob that burned the homes we were standing among there in the mahalla. I assumed that we would agree that this was an example of the arbitrariness of the violence. Hamid shocked me by what he said, though: “that the televisions were stolen, that kind of thing, it could have happened. That I believe. But the rapes are just the same old slander against us” (ocherednaya kleveta protiv nas).

Standing in there in the dark with this man who had just displayed so much thoughtfulness and at times even hope for the future of Osh as multi-ethnic city, I could hardly believe my ears. This was something that needed to be explained. This inability of an otherwise kind and thoughtful person to recognize the suffering of his own neighbors was clearly something that stood out. He was not a sociopath. It was not that he dismissed their suffering as unimportant or unworthy of attention; it was that even when delivered by an outside observer, he dismissed the idea that such suffering had actually occurred.

In the middle of this deeply disorienting violence that had shattered the homes and daily lives of a whole part of the city, rumor became the chief source of information supposed to make sense of the chaos. Hamid had already experienced that many of the rumors were directed against him, against his community, and felt that many or most of these rumors were not true. In order to defend himself and the innocence of his Uzbek neighbors–who had suffered much–he refused to believe in the suffering of his Kyrgyz neighbors, writing it off as “just another rumor.” Instead of seeing that he and his neighbors were part of the same human tragedy, he felt attacked.

As I said above, it’s difficult to make a full list of all the things that worry me about the future of Osh, but these narratives that allow both sides to dismiss the reality of the other’s suffering strikes me at the moment as the one most disturbing. Maybe it’s because of my own physical location, my temporary home that I share at the moment with members of both communities and on the fault line between them. It’s also very possible that these narratives are quite a bit more dangerous in the hands of Kyrgyz nationalists—if the June conflict was a war, as everyone here calls it (in Russian at least), then the “Kyrgyz side” clearly won, and this makes that community’s power over the narratives much more influential for the future of the city and the country as a whole.

I suspect, though, that in fact what happened was not a war: wars have winners. If this was a war, it was a war that everyone lost. These narratives hamper the ability of many in both ethnic communities to see the human losses that the whole city has sustained: the horror of sexual violence, the economic damage that will eventually affect the whole city (even if for the moment some people seem to be profiting very nicely), the damage to the fabric of families and communities as so many fathers and sons are forced to leave the country to work elsewhere, the degree of arbitrariness and unaccountability granted to police who have already begun to spread their lucrative practice of kidnapping for ransom beyond the now fully cash-drained Uzbek community to the rest of the city.

Maybe I’ve just been infected by the habit of Central Asians to repeat things multiple times for emphasis, but you know, it’s hard to make a list.

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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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Joshua Foust June 21, 2011 at 3:37 pm


These dispatches are quite excellent, and thank you for sharing some of your research with us. I just want to make one comment:

I suspect, though, that in fact what happened was not a war: wars have winners. If this was a war, it was a war that everyone lost.

Wars with clear winners and losers, at least in the sense of suffering, are rare. For example, Germany lost World War II and Russia won World War II, but both underwent horrifying, shattering trauma in the process. There are countless other examples of victors being victorious but deeply wounded in the process as well.

However, the rest of your analysis is, I think, absolutely right on.

Ian June 21, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Stunningly good posts.

Noah Tucker June 21, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Thanks guys, and valid comment Josh. Also, an anthropologist friend called me out on saying that I couldn’t extrapolate from my research because it was ethnographic–he’s right, I shouldn’t have thrown anthropology under the bus to pollsters. We wouldn’t do ethnography if we didn’t feel that it captured broad commonalities and not just individual opinions. Cultures have power. What I should have said is that I’ve only been here for a relatively short time and it’s too early to say with any authority how widely these views are held. I meant to be realistic about my own limitations, not to make a comment about what ethnography can and can’t do.

Amoria June 21, 2011 at 11:41 pm

I’ve had similar conversations with Serbians about the Balkan Wars and the Bosnian Genocide. There is an adamant refusal to accept the truth or that people in their community were responsible for some of the most horrific war crimes.

One man believe that most of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre were actually Serbs.

Noah Tucker June 22, 2011 at 8:18 am

Amoria–I’ve been wondering if I could find literature on Serbia that I could reference for comparison. Do you have any recommendations?

Amoria June 22, 2011 at 11:03 am

I’m not an academic. I was in Serbia at a particularly bad time and was just observing popular sentiment.

Nathan June 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Noah, it shouldn’t be hard to find stuff like this for Serbia, Rwanda, and elsewhere in the upbeat world of genocide studies.

Sarah Kendzior June 22, 2011 at 12:21 pm

“In the middle of this deeply disorienting violence that had shattered the homes and daily lives of a whole part of the city, rumor became the chief source of information supposed to make sense of the chaos.”

Anyone who wants to understand Central Asian politics should heed this point — not only in the case of Osh (or Andijon for that matter) but in everyday life. This is why it drives me crazy when people promote the internet as a panacea for Central Asian political problems, because while there are enormous benefits to internet access, the internet also feeds into the bizarre combination of skepticism and credulity that develops from living in a police state. The assumption that all political information is unreliable, and all sources biased, has had the perverse effect of ensuring that all rumor is taken seriously. This is not to say all rumor is believed – on the contrary, most information, especially about politics, is received with skepticism – but that it is shared, parsed and discussed to a degree belying its uncertain origins. The difference with the internet is that the ephemera of rumor becomes permanent, as seen in the example you gave in your other article about how photos of the Osh violence were presented and interpreted.

BTW Noah, I thought both articles, though heartbreaking, were well-written and informative, and I hope you have more to come.

Sima June 22, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Uzbek men never found Kyrgyz women attractive, Kyrgyz men often marry Uzbek women.

Robtastic84 June 23, 2011 at 10:33 am

Yea…they kinda look exactly the same I’ve had Uzbek looking people tell me they were Kyrgyz and vice versa.

Richard Heider June 23, 2011 at 9:16 am

Thank you. Great article. The best on that topic that I have read so far.

Caomengde June 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm

During the spring of 739 A. D., Arslan Tarhan, the Hakan of Ferghana, attacked with his troops the domains of Talas Hakan Tugasiyen, destroying the land and scattering the army of the latter.

The fighting between these Turk tribes did not produce a winner. Unfortunately, the severe losses of the Turks, as a result of internecine fighting, were benefiting the Arabs who were amassing troops at the foothills of Usrushana. Moreover, the Turk State, keeping its existence by the force of sword against the Chinese troops in Davon was weakened.

Excerpt from “SUN IS ALSO FIRE”

by Alisher Ibadin

printed in the periodical Gulistan
(published in the Uzbek SSR), issue No. 9, 1980

Feel free to substitute “Arabs” with “American”, “Chinese” with “Russian” or vice versa.

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