For Whom The Bell Tolls In Osh?

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by Matthew Kupfer on 6/13/2012 · 6 comments

Two years have passed since interethnic violence tore through southern Kyrgyzstan, pitting ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks against each other in street battles, and leaving 470 people dead, thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands displaced. Across the country, politicians attended memorial ceremonies on June 10th, dubbed “National Remembrance Day”. For example, Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov appeared at a ceremony on the old square in Bishkek, expressing his condolences to families who lost loved ones in the violence. And in Jalalabad, Speaker of the Jogorku Kenesh, Asylbek Jeenbekov, spoke about the continued importance of working towards interethnic harmony.

But the most interesting ceremony was likely in Osh, the epicenter of the violence, where President Almazbek Atambaev and Osh Mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov unveiled a “peace bell,” the first of its kind in Central Asia. The bell, which was poured from two kilograms of coins collected from Osh residents, contains the engraving “Mir vo vsem mire” (“Peace in the whole world”) in three languages: Kyrgyz, Russian, and English.

In his speech at the ceremony, President Atambaev said it was necessary to draw conclusions as to why “in the last fifty years the flame of interethnic conflict has engulfed the south of Kyrgyzstan three times” in order to prevent more pain and suffering.

Well, I’d like to take Atambaev’s advice and draw a conclusion that I’m afraid he and many other people in Kyrgyzstan are missing. It’s an important conclusion, an obvious conclusion, and one that might possibly mean the difference between interethnic reconciliation and more strife.

My conclusion: You’ve forgotten that there are two sides in this conflict.

My proof: There’s no inscription in the Uzbek language on the Osh Peace Bell.

As anyone who’s read a single news article on the 2010 unrest in Southern Kyrgyzstan knows, it was a conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. The vast majority of international investigations into the conflict recognize that Uzbeks made up the majority of the victims, although this point has been exceedingly controversial in Kyrgyzstan. Many Kyrgyz have asserted that the Uzbeks provoked the violence and that the Kyrgyz were the real victims. Kimmo Kiljunen, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Helsinki Committee, and all the other investigators and NGOs can intone “Uzbeks were the majority of the victims” for as long as they want. It won’t change many minds on the ground in Kyrgyzstan.

But that shouldn’t matter here.

Reconciliation—which all these politicians have been calling for—is not about proving “I’m right and you’re wrong.” It’s about agreeing to live together in spite of your differences. It’s about deciding to prioritize future peace and prosperity above past grievances. It’s about agreeing to solve your problems peacefully. Most importantly it’s about respecting each other.

The government may have failed to reign in Mayor Myrzakmatov. It may have failed curb ethno-nationalism and stop the arbitrary arrests and trumped-up charges sometimes faced by ethnic Uzbeks in Osh. Don’t get me wrong: these are major failures. But there is one failure that makes me doubt the possibility of reconciliation more than anything else: the government has failed to respect the Uzbek community.

In this case, it doesn’t matter who started the violence, who committed the most atrocities, or who was the most nationalistic. What matters is that innocent people in both communities suffered during the unrest. Even people who lost no loved ones or property suffered from the fear and trauma of the conflict.

I know. I was in Osh during those four awful days and remained in Kyrgyzstan after they ended. I saw the effect they had on people in both communities.

I remember meeting an ethnically Kyrgyz girl from Osh, who told me that Kyrgyz people had killed many Uzbeks. This was only two weeks after the violence ended and almost no one was willing to admit that his or her “side” had done anything that could be construed as bad in any way. So, naturally, I was surprised.

“You’re the first Kyrgyz person I’ve met who’s said anything like that to me,” I said.

At this, the girl became very defensive.

“We killed so many Uzbeks because we were scared. We thought that we would die. My family and I sat at home very afraid, waiting to be killed at any moment.”

You don’t have to have lived through the Osh unrest to see that chaos like that is its own form of suffering, and everyone in the city experienced it.

The Osh Peace Bell ought to be a monument to all these people, both those who survived and those who died. I think that’s what it’s meant to be. That means, it must also be for the Uzbeks.

Critics will argue (and, based on my past experiences writing about the Osh unrest, there will be critics) that Kyrgyz and Russian are the official languages of Kyrgyzstan and English is the international language spoken or understood by many tourists. I understand that. But this isn’t a session of the Jogorku Kenesh. It isn’t an address by Atambaev or a rally by Myrzakmatov. It’s a bell that is supposed to symbolize peace between people who once fought each other. How can it mean anything when its inscription is not written in the language that one of the groups of people speaks at home and with family? And who prioritizes tourists above that group?

I’m really rooting for Kyrgyzstan, where I look forward to returning someday. I sincerely hope there will be reconciliation in the South. But I don’t think that will happen unless Kyrgyzstan’s government and citizenry can accept that Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks are truly equal citizens and that they also suffered during the unrest. Symbolic gestures like including an Uzbek-language inscription on the Osh Peace Bell matter in that they show a commitment to including the Uzbek community in society.

Perhaps I’m making too big of a deal out of one mistake by the government, but I don’t think so. This is a big, symbolic mistake. And, if there is going to be true reconciliation, I think they will have to carve “peace in the whole world” in Uzbek into this bell.

Politics is hard. Stopping interethnic conflict is hard. But recognizing the suffering of another people, long after the passions of the moment have cooled, ought to be easier.

And if the people can’t do that, the government must set an example and lead the way.

Photo by RFE/RL’s Sanjar Eraliev

 


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This post was written by...

– author of 9 posts on Registan.net.

Matthew Kupfer is a writer focusing on Russia and Central Asia. A graduate of Brandeis University, he is a student of the Russian language and an enthusiast for the politics, cultures, and histories of the post-Soviet region. In 2010, he was in Osh, Kyrgyzstan during the interethnic unrest and blogged about his experiences in the conflict zone. He has also published an essay on women's leadership in the future of Kyrgyzstan, studied Russian in St. Petersburg, carried out extensive research on the 2010 Osh unrest, and written articles for EurasiaNet.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Matthew_Kupfer.

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{ 6 comments }

Alexander June 14, 2012 at 8:16 am
Matthew Kupfer June 14, 2012 at 10:46 am

Thanks, Alexander!

Will June 14, 2012 at 8:51 am

Kyrgyzs become very defensive for anything that is related to uzbeks. Perhaps, their government is too afraid of being next to be overthrown by its own people that it has to follow the wishes of nationalistic part of its citizens. It is afraid to the point that it cannot uphold the justice by prosecuting the kyrgyz criminals roaming the uzbek neighborhoods.

DW June 14, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Thanks for the article and for sharing your experience–very thoughtful and carefully considered. As you anticipated some might say that you make too much of a simple inscription. But on that count an event from earlier this year leapt to my mind immediately: when Myrzakmatov wanted votes for his faction in the city kenesh elections, there was no hesitation about prominently featuring Uzbek slogans in their election campaign, in spite of the fact that they were later accused of violating Kyrgyzstani language law. The local government was very much willing to make that symbolic gesture to the Uzbek community for their own–perhaps dubious–political gain, but are unwilling to make it on a monument commemorating the victims of the violence. This seems a significant contrast, at least to me.

Matthew Kupfer June 14, 2012 at 6:31 pm

DW, thanks for bringing this up. I remember this. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Uzbek, so I don’t know what slogans Myrzakmatov used. But I remember that he did advertise on billboards in Uzbek. This is definitely interesting (it was a real “WTF” moment for me when I first read about it). But I think it’s important to look at who Myrzakmatov is, what he’s up against, and his relations with the central government when trying to understand why he might have done this.

Of course, he could have been genuinely trying to get Uzbek votes, but it’s probably a little more complex than that. Consider:

1. Myrzakmatov is an extremely popular mayor. I’m not aware of any other campaigns advertising in Uzbek, and I would imagine that using Uzbek for political ads in Osh would be a pretty controversial move. My feeling is that Myrzakmatov and his party are the only people in Osh who could get away with it.

2. Myrzakmatov has been criticized as divisive and unhelpful to cooling interethnic tensions in the Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission’s report. Other reports have said worse. Meanwhile, Myrzakmatov claims the June 2010 unrest would have been worse if he hadn’t been there to try and stop it. By advertising in Uzbek, Myrzakmatov could have been trying to portray himself as genuinely concerned about interethnic harmony. Also, his party is called “Uluttar Birimdigi” (Union of Nationalities), so perhaps he felt the need to make it look like this union included other nationalities besides the Kyrgyz.

3. Finally, regarding the legality of using Uzbek on billboards: Myrzakmatov has been a constant thorn in Bishkek’s side, and has largely frozen the central government out of Osh. When I first read about Myrzakmatov’s billboards, I wondered if he might have done it to be intentionally and blatantly defiant. In other words, to show he can do what he wants in Osh, including disregard the language law.

Of course, I’ll never know what motivated Myrzakmatov, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these issues factored into his decision.

I also think it’s important to remember the difference between a political billboard and a monument. Billboards are relatively temporary. A monument, however, is presumed to be forever.

Myrzakmatov could appeal to the Uzbeks/pretend to appeal to the Uzbeks for whatever political reason with a billboard, and have it painted over after the election. But including an Uzbek inscription in a monument is a much more long-term message.

Furthermore, I doubt the Osh Peace Bell was just a project of Myrzakmatov, but of the whole government. I wouldn’t be surprised if the central government would be more afraid to include an Uzbek inscription than Myrzakmatov. After all, it doesn’t have anywhere near the popularity in Osh that Myrzakmatov enjoys, and being seen as supporting the Uzbeks could hurt its image.

Anyways, these are just thoughts…feel free to agree or disagree.

Aakanksha Singh June 22, 2012 at 12:37 am

Great article!!!!

Ethnic violence is truly a shame in our world today and is even more so when people fuel the fire for their own vested and political interests!

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