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.