Overwhelming Osh

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by Joshua Foust on 10/16/2011 · 8 comments

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — This is a beautiful city. It doesn’t quite appear so on first glance, with the shattered asphalt on the streets, the open gutters gushing runoff and choked with discarded plastic bottles, the occasional burned out husk of a building, crumbling facades, mostly older and used cars belching diesel fumes, and the occasional waft of trash or cow dung baking in the afternoon sun. But Osh is gorgeous: leafy, gregarious, and persistent.

As a newcomer to this part of Kyrgyzstan, I spent much of the day today getting acquainted with the city: feeling the potholes beneath my feet, letting the sun push sweat out of my forehead and neck and down my back, digesting the many sights and smells of normal life. Osh feels much more Central Asian-y than Bishkek does, perhaps because it’s far, far older and, as a result, contains within it far deeper memories.

I always appreciate the authenticity of immigrant foods in my hometown of Washington, DC, and Osh is no different… only this time Americans are the immigrants. So I ate a “fajita” at Cafe California, nestled next to Osh State University between Lenin Avenue and Kurmanjan-Datka Street. The place was founded by an American, naturally, and so I had to support their business. Lunch was terribly inauthentic, but there was still something weirdly affirming about some boiled chicken, beans, corn, and a big glop of smyetana rolled inside some burned tortillas. Cafe California was downright bustling, and the waitress even allowed for some patience as I struggled to order my food in the pidgin Russian I never maintained after moving out of Karaganda, Kazakhstan eight years ago.

In short order, as I was trudging up and down the streets looking for an ATM that would actually work with my ATM card, I met an Uzbek man who asked me and my fixer where we were from (my fixer is a local, which made the question hilarious, in a way). He wanted to know why I was in Osh. “You’re clearly not from here,” he said, swaying slightly.

Through my fixer, I explained why I had come to Osh: to try to understand what happened last year, during the June Events, as they’re known, and to maybe try to see if there is a way to make things better for the future.

The Uzbek man scoffed. “How can you make this better?” His eyes wandered down the street. “We’ve spent the last year trying to find out who did this to us, and why. But we get no answers, never any answers.”

There’s nothing you can say to that. The Uzbek man told a harrowing story: one morning in June, drunk, young Kyrgyz men began running through the streets, shouting and brandishing homemade clubs and weapons, and pounding on the doors to Uzbek neighborhoods, called mahallahs. Some Uzbeks fired guns into the air to warn away the hooligans, he said, but that only resulted in the Kyrgyz later claiming they had to attack the mahallahs to defend themselves from Uzbek aggressors. Provocateurs would shout into Kyrgyz neighborhoods that the Uzbekistan military was about to send ten thousand troops to conquer Osh for the Uzbeks, so Kyrgyz must protect themselves.

The entrance to a mahallah being rebuilt by UNHCR, Osh, Kyrgyzstan

This mahallah, an Uzbek neighborhood, was destroyed during The June Events last year. UNHCR is helping to rebuild it, but many Uzbeks don't want to return.

The next 72 hours, as both my fixer and this Uzbek man described it, were worse than anarchy, they said, worse than hell. “Under Akaev,” my fixer explained, “there was basically anarchy — very little government control. Bakiyev imposed law and order, which a lot of people didn’t like. Now, it’s anarchy again, where you can not tell who is good and who is bad. The government doesn’t control anything.”

I was surprised to hear my fixer say this; he is normally very upbeat. But the Uzbek man chimed in: “I have no hope for the future. I helped to bury 26 people, and we could not identify four of them because their faces were so badly beaten. My son was shot and killed, and his shop burned to the ground, and the government will not help me. I have no hope for the future.” At this point, the Uzbek man shook my hand. “Do you know what it’s like? I can’t leave for Uzbekistan, they won’t have us. I’m stuck, I’m terrified for what my grandchildren will face.”

I most certainly do not know what it is like, and I couldn’t begin to pretend. As the three of us were speaking, Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek people — men, women, more than a few children begging their mama for an ice cream — all breezed past us, seemingly oblivious to the obvious foreigner talking to an obviously distraught Uzbek man. He seemed to noticed as well, and begged me not to take his picture or record any audio of our conversation. “I don’t want to be found talking to you,” he said. “The police, some street people, I don’t know someone will come after me if that happens.”

At this point I had run out of words. There is nothing to say in response, is there? You can’t say anything in response. I tried to assure him that I didn’t want to get him into trouble. He responded by asking me to join him for 50g of vodka. “I would barely feel that,” I responded. “But, I’m also exhausted from my journey here and would like to rest. Can I come back tomorrow?”

The Uzbek man laughed, really loudly. “You are a polite American!” I grinned and shook his hand again, this time placing my other hand over his. We then both performed the ubiquitous Central Asian gesture of gripping the right hand and placing it over the heart.

Osh is an overwhelming place. It is far less “friendly” to foreigners, in the sense that it’s harder to get around on your own if you don’t speak at least Russian (Uzbek or Kyrgyz is even better), but its people are far friendlier to foreigners than in Bishkek (though no one was really rude to me in Bishkek, they were never this open and warm). It is clearly a poor place, and just as clearly a socially and economically shattered place. I really don’t know how much I’ll be able to learn during my few short days here. But I came here to try anyway, and to see what could be learned. Maybe that’s all you can do anyway.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Watcher October 16, 2011 at 10:58 am

Funny that your local fixer spins the story of Bakiev installing order after “lawlessness” of Akayev era. Obviously, this is the north-south framework through which the Osh residents (mostly Kyrgyz but some Uzbeks as well) choose to explain the bloodshed – blame outsiders in Bishkek and elsewhere.

Joshua Foust October 16, 2011 at 11:15 pm

The north-south framework is deeply confusing. You get totally different stories depending on which aggrieved group you talk to. I’m not sure anyone can unravel it at this point, frankly. We can examine Kyrgyz and Uzbek media beforehand, the Russian press, the few English-language reporters who’ve tried to untangle it, and some UN/OSCE reports on the violence.

But literally everyone has their own perspective, which they believe very strongly, and which they believe, with almost religious certainty, is the only real version of events that happened.

Rather than challenging people who I think have things wrong, I’m trying instead to just record the many competing narratives. Since I can’t devote a solid six months to investigating this (which seems like the minimum one would need for something this contentious and unstable), I think the best I can do is to present the different viewpoints as honestly as I can.

ETJ October 17, 2011 at 4:16 am

s ths yr frst vst t Kyrgyzstan vr? Cntrl s? Fls bt lk I’m rdng hmmd ‘trvl blg’ . . .

Joshua Foust October 17, 2011 at 10:33 am

I feel I should point out that asshole trolls who misuse quotation marks lose the right to include vowels in their comments.

ETJ October 17, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Wow. Testy. My point was that I was really quite surprised that your recent pieces on Kyrgyzstan–and your depictions of your interactions with locals–had a very ‘intro’ feel to them (and, yes, inverted commas can be used to denote irony, often referred to as scare quotes–feel free to look it up), which is not what I expected, given what I thought to be your experience and expertise in the region. Was not trying to offend you, but really just make a comment as a fairly regular Registan.net reader who has spent a lot of years living and working in the region. However, I do note that my tone was a bit dismissive. Apologies for that. All the best . . . @sshole Troll

Russ Zanca October 17, 2011 at 3:36 pm


while I didn’t agree w/ your recent take on Uz-Amer relations in light of Afghanistan, I really liked your informative piece about the position/plight of Uzbeks in southern KG.

Having traveled on and off there for a varieties of reasons for almost 20 years, your piece read authentic and sincere.

Thanks much. Very important that you are documenting such encounters.

Be well.

anna October 18, 2011 at 12:22 pm

American spy, go home

John Walker October 31, 2011 at 8:45 am

It’s impressive how after years of not being in the region and lacking the ability to speak Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek you have been able to share so much with us!!! Thanks Josh.

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