A few days ago I was sitting in what was left of a hovli with Akrom, a middle-aged Uzbek man who lost his family home in the June conflict. We were sitting on the porch of the little transitional house where his wife and five children live, and like many people who suffered directly in the tragedy, once we had established a little trust he talked to me for hours and it was hard to pry myself away when I eventually had to leave. After many years as a businessman who successfully navigated the economic collapse described in part III, he had lost next to everything in the past two years—first when his Russian partner in a restaurant venture in Siberia turned on him and cut him out of the business they had co-founded, and then when a mob had entered their mahalla last June on the third day of the violence and firebombed the home that had been in his family for more than four generations, barely 100 meters from the clinic where he was born. Like most Osh businessmen, he distrusted banks, and when his home was burned he lost not only the money he had invested in improving it over the years, but also $20,000 in US cash that turned to ashes inside the twisted safe still standing in the corner of the yard. In their haste to escape, they had forgotten to open the second drawer of the safe as they fled for their lives.
Now, with with no work, no income, and what he described as harassment waiting for him when he would venture outside the mahalla to conduct any daily business in the city, he talked about the crippling emptiness of his days and emphasized that he tried to find small tasks to keep himself “from going crazy.” He showed me how he waters his lawn and raises rabbits, activities he called “psychotherapy,” and pointed to the mat (korpacha) where we sat on the porch, saying that he slept there at night and would often lie there awake, explaining the constellations and the motion of the stars to his children. He said he frequently wakes up with nightmares in the middle of the night and lies awake, watching the constellations turn slowly around the north star—pointing up to the daytime sky to indicate where it would be that night and every night—and talked with something almost like reverence about the degree of comfort he took in that predictability, that point on which he could orient himself no matter the circumstances.
Though he was optimistic about his ability to re-establish himself and again provide for his family with what remained from his assets, he repeated several times a refrain that has become very familiar in these interviews: “there is nothing left for me now, now I am living for my children.” Having explained his whole situation, the ages of his children, the schools they attended and their individual talents, he then asked me very seriously to put myself in his position and tell him what I would do if his children were mine. After balking for a few minutes to see how hard he would press me for a detailed answer, it became clear that after sharing so many of the details of his life with me, this was something that he wanted in return, and he wanted me to take it seriously. When doing research, I generally try not to prejudice interviews by offering my own opinions or inserting my own politics into a discussion (of course this is not the same as offering consolation to those who suffered or recognizing that someone has experienced a profound injustice), but he kept pressing me and I knew it was only fair to speak honestly.
When I imagine, even for a fraction of a second, my own two small children clinging to our hands as my wife and I flee our home, all our possessions in flames, pursued by a murder-hungry mob and supported—at least according to every single person I’ve interviewed in a destroyed area–by soldiers with armored vehicles and heavy-caliber machine guns, the list of options for the future narrows down to one. I told him honestly I would want them to leave that place forever. This is the same answer I have heard over and over again in the last five weeks when I ask Uzbeks what kind of future they want for their children: they don’t just want peace, which is of course what all of them want, they want their children to be somewhere else.
This was the thing that Akrom wanted too, but he was disappointed in the lack of detail that I gave when I projected the situation on myself, and I think this is because being “somewhere else” was not by itself enough to solve the problem. As he explained his own plan that he had worked out for his children over the past twelve months in precise detail, including their exact professions, educations, and schools that they would have to attend, it became clear that the center of his plan was not just to remove the threat of physical violence. What he wanted for his children was something that would protect them from this other kind of existential, experiential violence his family had experienced over the last year and over the last twenty years: he wanted order, stability, and predictability for them. He wanted them to be able to make choices based on a stable order-of-things, and he was determined, as he told it, to invest everything he did for the rest of his life into giving that to them.
His plan was not for them to end up just somewhere else, but specifically for them to live in Germany. We had talked about Germany in an earlier conversation: Akrom was well-traveled and world savvy. (He related with great pride the way he had embarrassed a Russian drinking at his restaurant in Siberia who had derisively called him a nasty racial epithet implying he was an ignorant savage, eventually forcing the Russian to admit that he had seen far less of the world than Akrom had). Of all the countries he had visited, he was now fixated on Germany because he associated it order, cleanliness, and the rule of law. He interpreted this as the most extreme example of a highly-ordered society, and this is what he wanted most for his children: predictability, justice, stability, the same things that so many people have expressed to me were most missing in Osh not just since last year’s violence, but for the past twenty years.
These narratives of disorder occur in many different forms and are embodied in many different experiences, both everyday and tragic. They are the most common re-occurring theme in the way that people narrate their lives in the course of the time I’ve spent here. There is a sense in these narratives, built on dozens of everyday examples, that many people in southern Kyrgyzstan feel that rules or laws simply do not apply to them, and this creates unpredictability and disorder in everyday life. On another trip with Lochin (see part III) last week, he muttered a string of profanities as we stopped at a red light only to be passed by several other drivers in expensive imported cars who blew through the light without even slowing down long after the other cars were stopped. Twice this week I saw expensive SUVs driving the wrong way down Lenin street downtown, with no regard for the direction traffic moves both legally and practically on the crowded one-way street. Small incidents like these are used by Osh residents to punctuate and illustrate a story of disorder that—with people that I have gotten to know over a longer period—often becomes a long running narrative. A driver that ignores a traffic light suddenly becomes a symbol of the same unpredictability that comes from revolutions that occur “every five years,” of why banks cannot be trusted, why schools are perceived to be failing, why corruption is corroding the institutions of society, of why—for Uzbeks anyway—the next generation needs to leave.
Many on all sides, regardless of nationality, seem to agree that what is needed to transform Kyrgyzstan from a site of disorder into a stable and just state is a “strong leader.” Individuals from all communities have their own ideas about just how strong this leader should be, often citing historical examples of people or places that they believe embody their conceptualization of this strong leader. It is perhaps a sign of how far the concern with a feeling of disorder has gone that probably the most often cited historical figure is Josef Stalin. Among Uzbeks, as Morgan Liu already found some ten years ago in his excellent fieldwork here, Islam Karimov is frequently held up as a strong embodiment of “real leadership,” even if, as many acknowledge, he “sometimes goes too far.” Stalin is often caveated this way too—this mythical strong leader should be as powerful as Stalin, but more just. Disturbingly, the echo chamber effect applies to historical memory as well: “our” victims of the great repression under Stalin were innocent, but the Meshetians for example were traitors, as someone put it to me yesterday, and therefore deserved to be scattered to the wind or “drowned in the Black Sea.”
If disorder is experienced as violence, and embodied in violence, then many feel that putting things back in order will also require violence, and this is why the ideal leader must be “strong.” One person in a group conversation that was stretching late into the night recently said, in what was meant to be black political humor, that the only way to fix the Jogorku Kenesh (the parliament) was to “take a machine gun and shoot them all to hell.” Some people clearly cite Stalin because they have reasoned through the question of which kind of violence is preferable—the random, unpredictable violence of disorder and riots, or the cold systematic violence of a state that builds a nation or establishes the rule of law in the population through raw fear if necessary.
In one extended conversation, a young Tatar informant who fervently advocated the “Stalin, but more just” leadership model illustrated his point with what seems to be a spurious (or at best misdated) historical anecdote. He told a story about how he had heard that in Germany, he believed at the beginning of the 1920s, there had been a serious problem with people free-riding on the railroad system. He believed that the German government had solved this problem by ordering soldiers to ride on the trains and shoot everyone who did not have a ticket. “It’s extreme,” he admitted, “but look at now, in 2011, all those years later, everyone in Germany buys tickets for the train. It was extreme, but it worked. Maybe we need something like this.”
These anecdotes should not be taken to represent majority opinion in the city or in any community, but I have found repeatedly that these are narratives present in all communities and that people feel compelled to respond to them, even if that response is to emphatically disagree. There is not any consensus about what should be done to fix the disorder or who the right leader might be—though the narratives of disorder and collapse identify a problem that all communities agree on. Agreement on a common direction is even harder to come to because within the echo chambers in the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities, many of the narratives blame the “other” for the collapse in the order-of-things just as they blame the other for economic difficulties.
The sense of disorder–and generally the lack of rule of law–is a problem experienced in common, but experienced in different ways and sometimes extremely unevenly: first in the conflict, and now in the ethnicization of daily life. Cursing at someone for driving the wrong way down the street and having to sift through the ashes of your home are two very different things. But the fact remains that the harsh and disturbing experiences of the hundreds of families who lost their homes and their businesses in the conflict are only the extreme tip of a much larger iceberg. The issues that led to the conflict affect a much broader segment of the population, and the ethnicization of these problems drives the city apart and prevents neighbors from cooperating on the crippling issues that face them both. The disorder that Akrom faces every night as he lies on his mat in the ruins of the home where his family had lived for 200 years represents what in Osh seems to be the master symbol in the narratives that people from both communities relate to explain their lived experiences of the past two decades.
The levels and kinds of suffering that result from the disorder are different by orders of magnitude, but continued ethnicization of the issues, even by people with genuine grievances, can hardly help solve the institutional problems that create them. Akrom’s home was burned because someone became convinced that the disorder they experienced was somehow his fault—they were mobilized in the belief that if they used violence to re-order the city and its political economy, they could create a new order that would benefit them instead of him. This may have been true in the short term, but especially among those who have already suffered there is a constant fear that as soon as someone else becomes unhappy with the new order, they will again use violence to create another order-of-things, and with each round of violence the city and the country fracture further until there is nothing left to do but flee.
That the most common answer for those for these problems for those determined to stay is “the strong leader”–who often in fact represents only a different kind of violence (the ordered violence of a strong state rather than disordered violence from below)–is a perhaps understandable but alarming trend. This hunger for a strong leader, and the predisposition among many in both communities to believe that the fundamental problems they face are the fault of the other, leaves the south in particular frighteningly open for any political entrepreneur who is cynical enough to harness rumors and fears and mobilize people again along ethnic lines. As a local religious leader told me an interview recently, mourning the lack of real efforts on the part of the local government to bring the two communities together, “conflict between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz now is an option that’s always on the table (postoyanno gotoviy variant) for anybody who feels like it would be in their interest.” As national elections approach, many people fear that just such a candidate will appear, and their sense of powerlessness to do anything about it is just another part of disorder-of-things that dominates their lives.