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.
Photo by RFE/RL’s Sanjar Eraliev