Midway through this research trip, I stood on the corner of Alisher Navoiy street near the Alay hotel at the intersection where the conflict that destroyed so much of the city began. I was there because I had been asked to brief a colleague—a foreigner like me, who had never been to Osh and knew next to nothing about the conflict or the current situation in the city—on what had happened then and what was happening now. So I had brought him to the spot where the violence started, and I began to retell the story as it has been reconstructed by international investigations in the way that is supposed to be the most neutral available. As I moved through the narrative of how the violence escalated and pointed to structures that had erupted in flames visible below us from that high hill, the entire process began to feel wrong. It felt wrong first of all because it was not my story to tell. As people passed by me and eyed me warily, pointing at things and speaking in English to other foreigners, I felt like I had no right to choose how to re-tell the story of their experience. I also felt they had a sneaking suspicion we were yet more foreign “disaster tourists,” who come to the city with intentions however noble but in the end leave and go home again, or go on to the next emergency, as so many well-meaning foreigners with cameras and notepads had come and gone before.
Underlying all that, though, it felt wrong for me to re-tell the story of the violence because no one was anymore. When people do get around to talking about “the war”—which sometimes didn’t happen until the second or third meeting—they are reluctant to retell the progress of the events, to talk about their fear, or even to talk about what they lost. In fact, in roughly two weeks of revisiting mostly the same people who had each narrated their own versions of the conflict to me in sometimes deeply personal ways, no one volunteered to retell their experiences of suffering, and all were reluctant to elaborate on them when questioned. Instead, many chose to depersonalize the story and talk about the violence as something the city experienced, and often to talk about the events in way that specifically de-ethnicized the violence and instead narrated the conflict as one between outsiders “come down from the mountains,” criminal gangs, the drug mafia, and most of all corrupt politicians taking advantage of a power-vacuum for cheap political gain.
Jyldyz, a middle-aged, well-educated professional Kyrgyz woman talked at length about how she had ventured out into the chaotic streets full of looting bands of young men armed with guns and clubs several times during the violence to check on some visiting students from Uzbekistan who were hiding in her office building, how she brought them food and ensured that they could remain safe inside. She talked about how her neighborhood had built and manned barricades to keep the looters out, and how she and other women had coordinated to cook for the men keeping lookout. Jyldyz’s version of the war has no ethnic element—only a neighborhood that banded together to keep order against lawlessness and disorder that had no ethnicity in her version of the story.
Sitting up late at night with Hamid and his neighbor Alim, we drink tea amid newly reconstructed houses in their mahalla that rise around UNHCR tents still standing in the yards. They made a point to retell stories about people like Jyldyz. They wanted me to know about another mixed-ethnicity neighborhood where the residents had manned their barricades together and said, “if Uzbeks come, we will fight them; if Kyrgyz come we will fight them too.” Alim, a salty Afganets (a veteran of the Soviet Afghanistan war) who saw combat in Herat for two years and has always been an active member of his veteran’s association, emphasized the way that this identity always came before his ethnicity, as it did for the other members of his group. “We put on our uniforms and patrolled the streets after the conflict. In the Aghantsy, there are no Uzbeks and Kyrgyz or Russians; we put on our uniforms and did our duty.” He spoke with pride about how he and his Kyrgyz comrades had kept in close contact during the violence, how they traveled through the chaos of the burning city to meet up with one another and ensure their families’ safety. Then, in the profane and accentless Russian that marks these men along with their unit tattoos and military habits, he told me with a wry laugh about how his unit leader, a burly Kyrgyz veteran, had escorted him to the City Administration to collect a veteran’s benefit to which he was entitled but had long been denied. “When we walked into that office, there were three people sitting there at the desk and they just stared at me, not a single one of them wanted to help me. The komandir was pissed. He walked over to the desk and screamed at them, ‘what’s the matter with you, haven’t you ever seen an Uzbek before? Keep staring and I’ll rip your #$@ing eyeballs out!!”
The point of these stories, along with similar ones they and others told was clear: there were other categories of belonging besides ethnicity, and retelling the conflict and its aftermath with narratives like these were ways of showing that it was something the whole city experienced. They were deliberately moving away from the echo chambers filled with stories of absolute blame and absolute innocence along ethnic lines and finding ways to talk about the conflict as something that happened to everyone. Alim never mentioned whether his friend’s profane solidarity had actually moved the administration to give him what was promised under the law, though, and I don’t think they ever have. In this, too, was another theme that seems to have become more common: that there were no winners in “the war” or in its aftermath, and every seeming victory was pyrrhic. Politicians who rallied their followers along ethnic lines or corrupt businessmen and Mafiosi who seized new assets in the violence would sooner or later be eaten by a bigger wolf, or turned on by their own pack.
The emergence of both polarized communities from their echo chambers and their ability to act outside an ethnic mode of identity is catalyzed by these kinds of narratives, and many seem very conscious of that fact and therefore selective about the way they narrate both the past and the present. Everywhere many seem ready to make concessions and compromises necessary to resume their lives and move beyond the conflict. Many Uzbeks seemed willing to accept the post-conflict order in exchange for peace and a return to normal life—they have accepted reductions in Uzbek language schools, accepted the erasure of their language from the public space (only high up in the mountains in Arslanbob, an almost 100% Uzbek rural community did I ever see so much as a store sign written in Uzbek), and adapted to the closure of Uzbek media outlets in part by turning to Kyrgyz-language ones. One day driving back from Uzgen with an Uzbek informant who often expressed bitterness against Kyrgyz people, I was surprised to notice a Kyrgyz-language newspaper sitting on his dashboard. Last year he had expressed no interest in Kyrgyz media, and when I asked him if he regularly read Kyrgyz papers this year he used it as a chance to express personal pride. “Of course I read Kyrgyz papers! I read Kyrgyz perfectly. I can also read Uzbek, Russian, and Arabic, so of course I can read Kyrgyz.” Somewhat to my surprise, he neglected to make any political comment—his was a pragmatic approach. He was interested in the news; the news was printed in Kyrgyz; he could read it. End of story.
Sitting in a café over lunch earlier that week a younger Uzbek professional, Ikram, had been much more direct about it. He outlined his efforts to create an online news portal and SMS update service focused specifically on his small city outside Osh where the population was somewhere around 90% Uzbek. He mentioned that he was currently aggregating news in Russian and planned to add a Kyrgyz-language version of the site in the near future. When I asked if he would ever add Uzbek content, he smiled and said, “I don’t need those problems.” When he went on to talk about advice he gives to friends about interacting with local government officials, he said, “I give the same advice to everyone: I tell them to learn Kyrgyz.” He said that in his own experience, everyone from traffic police to city officials reacted much more positively when he approached them first in their own language. It was a gesture of respect to the individual, to their culture, and also a conscious concession to the idea that Kyrgyz language and culture occupy a privileged position in Kyrgyzstan.
For some, the coping and concession strategies even go as far as accepting some of the dominant narratives about who was to blame for inciting the violence. Many Uzbeks informants both this year and last cursed Kadyrjon Batyrov for his political ambitions, and described him as a cynical plutocrat who claimed to represent their ethnicity as a voting demographic without taking any real interest in their needs or well-being. Most are careful to distance themselves from everyone involved in the political turmoil that led up to the June events and are willing to heap blame on manipulative politicians with no sense that they owe any of them special ethnic solidarity. Beyond this, though, according to a Kyrgyz family who shared both family and social ties across ethnic lines (and who were themselves directly effected in the violence), some Uzbek families in the past year had gone as far as to apologize to them for the conflict itself. These acquaintances accepted that that Uzbeks were to blame for what this Kyrgyz family and their employees suffered in the violence, but distanced themselves from “those Uzbeks” who were troublesome or unreliable.
Whether these strategies represent some sort of justice or injustice in terms of the conflict is irrelevant to those deploying them. Each of them represents a strategy for ratcheting back the tensions that polarized the city a year ago, for moving on with lives. Each is a way of de-coupling ethnic identity from everyday interactions. Because no common narrative about the violence, or even common facts about its causes or the unfolding of the events themselves have ever been agreed upon, the strategy that many individuals in both communities have reached is to avoid contentious issues and find ways to frame the events in ways that emphasize that the violence was an assault on the residents of the city (“us”) by outsiders (“them”) of one kind or another.
Most are resigned to the idea that no just end will come out of the conflict, at least in this life. While hope remains for an ultimate justice at qiyomat—on Judgment Day–part of the price for moving on from the conflict and returning to a semblance of normal life seems to be abandoning the idea there might be more investigation, or that hundreds of remaining families whose relatives were murdered and the thousands who lost their homes and businesses might ever see the process of justice in the here and now. The highly-politicized trials of the first year after the violence have now all closed, covering only a small fraction of victims of the violence in a way that in almost all cases fit the political narratives on both the local and national levels. While ordinary people can accomplish the de-ethnicization of the conflict in their own narratives and everyday interactions, there remain hard lines created by political institutions: Uzbek victims have almost no right to seek justice, and are forced by the unflinching political narratives to tacitly accept the blame for the conflict. This much has not changed, and seems unlikely to change anytime in the future. Perhaps it is the price of peace. Many seem willing to pay it, but then again it would be hard to tell; no one is offering them a choice.
In the face of the security services or the government, ordinary citizens of any other ethnicity are hardly more enfranchised. Rape victims of all ethnicities were denied access to victims’ compensation for reasons that are both murky and at the same time abundantly clear—in the current system, they count for nothing, no matter what language they speak or community they were born in. The endemic police violence and extortion that ballooned in the chaos after April 7 last year has moved on from preying primarily on Uzbeks in the immediate aftermath of the conflict (when they were easy victims) and is a problem facing the whole community equally. The long economic crisis facing Southern Kyrgyzstan, the perpetual budget shortfalls facing the country as a whole–all these are shared problems facing all Osh residents regardless of ethnicity. The strongest note of hope in the changes of the past year is that people from all communities seem to have a better sense that their current problems and their future development are a fate they share in common, and are less likely to blame a mythologized, homogenous “other” for their common challenges.
As Alim did that night he told the story of how his Kyrgyz friend defended him, though, many sense the fragility of this progress. Ethnic tension was never the problem, was never the underlying issue. As it fades, a deep sense of impermanence and instability remains. Gesturing to the half-finished room he was building in his hovli for the son whose marriage I witnessed last year, Alim quietly expressed doubt that what he was building would last. “It will all happen again,” he said sadly, “it’s only a matter of time. The next political crisis, and it will all happen again.”