Osh, Two Years On (Part I)

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by Noah Tucker on 9/7/2012 · 3 comments

Two years after the June 2010 events, Osh is coming back to life. The fresh scars of burned buildings no longer stand out from the background of the rest of the city; some are rebuilt and new, others painted over on the outside, covering the charred burns. In the worst-affected areas, the rubble that made whole sections of the city look like it had been bombarded with artillery shells has been cleared away. Even the remaining unrepaired damage from the June violence has faded into the background of a city losing its battle with time in many neighborhoods, with crumbling apartment buildings and abandoned factories from the Soviet era. The slow disappearance of these scars mirrors the ebb of the hyper-ethnicization of everyday life that followed the conflict and resulted from the conflicting narratives about it, as people deliberately move on with their lives, rebuilding shared trust in everyday interactions with their neighbors. Much like physical marks the conflict left on the city, the damage left in individual lives and on the city as a community is healing in many places—and where it doesn’t heal, it seems at least to fade into the background of other scars, other challenges.

During the day the city is far different than it was just a year ago. Not only do residents of different ethnicities now mix much more freely in public spaces, restaurants and social events, there are more people out on the street in general, often with their children in tow. Two years after violence shook the city, it seems almost as if there are more children than there were before. The first day I went back into the city center was Eid-al-Fitr, and walking down into the park along the Ak-Bura river I was surprised to see so many families crowding the shaded sidewalks; the games and rides that had barely functioned the year before now had long lines of excited children. In encouraging ways, the public life of this ancient city is beginning to resemble its old self–a famous melting pot of all and a meeting place of all the Ferghana Valley and Soviet cultures.

The most unambiguously encouraging thing I found on returning this year is that the conflict is diminishing as the master frame for everyday interactions. In sharp contrast, it is no longer the first thing anyone wants to talk about. Often, it’s not even the third or fourth thing. While a year ago people would pull me aside on the street, eager for an opportunity to tell an outsider their version of what was usually a story of black-and-white absolute blame for “them” and complete justification for “us,” now these hard frames are fading and many are reluctant to talk about the conflict at all. The business of everyday life demands their attention, and many say that they see no point in continuing to focus on the past. As Hamid, whose neighborhood was half destroyed in 2010 put it, “once you go to the doctor and get stitches, you don’t keep taking the bandage off and keep looking at it—you have to let it heal. You have to leave it alone and forget. You have to go on with your life.”

Moreover, Kyrgyzstan’s relatively free media has meant that the descent of Libya and Syria into civil war after the initial euphoria of the “Arab Spring” has become a topic of frequent conversation in Osh. Many informants had put their own conflict into the perspective of bloodshed elsewhere in Muslim World in the past year and articulated both that they felt fortunate that their conflict had not escalated into a full-scale civil war and that, resigned to fate, there was nowhere to go to escape unrest. Many who had emigrated for work elsewhere had now returned, and though economic circumstances might force them to leave again, most—regardless of ethnicity—expressed that Kyrgyzstan was their home and there was nowhere else they felt they belonged, no matter how difficult things may get.

As I re-visited the same people I talked to a year ago, even drastic changes made in their lives that were explained as a direct result of the conflict and mistrust of others then are narrated in a different way now. A middle-aged nurse from a neighborhood unaffected by the violence told me last year that she had quit her job at a hospital because “she couldn’t stand to work with “them” anymore, couldn’t even look at their faces, because of what they did.” A year ago, even though not personally affected by the events, she felt deeply involved in them by virtue of being a member of what she considered the victimized group, and described the others as “animals” (a narrative common among many Uzbeks and Kyrgyz alike at the time). Now, volunteering to explain the same career change, she listed economic reasons for leaving the hospital and working as a private on-call nurse instead: she made more money and didn’t have to travel as far to work every day. This year, instead of talking about the conflict, she preferred to talk about her children, to ask me about mine, to speculate that her husband—long working in Russia—had found a new wife and would never return, making the economic perspective on her career choice all the more important because remittances from him had become more and more infrequent.

In the year after the violence, the rumor mills were split into echo-chambers of polarized ethnic camps that re-told narratives of atrocities allegedly committed by the other and negated the veracity of others’ stories of suffering. Now, they are busy with everyday political gossip (Tekebaev looting gold bars from the Bakiev mansions) and the occasional conspiracy theory about the great powers’ plans to divide up Kyrgyzstan or plunder its natural resources (the U.S. and Russia have reached an agreement to divide Kyrgyzstan in two, with the U.S. taking over the South and Russian taking the North, according to some of the latest scuttlebutt).

More significant than ordinary rumors were the disturbingly graphic viral videos from the conflict that often fueled rival claims about which side’s victimization they depicted. As Sarah Kendzior surmised in her excellent essay about the way digital archiving changes collective memory of the conflict, these videos and photos and the narratives about them are not gone, and their persistence continues to make moving on from the conflict more difficult. But as time passes their popularity and urgency have been replaced by other trends that have conflicting explanations attached to them. A popular video of a woman turned into a snake, for example, has a wide variety of moralistic meta-explanations ascribed to it. Uzbeks in Aravan pass the video from phone to phone with the story that she was an Uzbek from the Uzbekistan side of the valley who returned from the Hajj this year and spoke ill of it, for which blasphemy she was supposedly transformed into a serpent (with the usual elaborate chains-of-transmission to add to its supposed veracity—viewers were assured that she was so-and-so’s cousin’s sister, who filmed it himself). Kyrgyz young people pass the video around too with similar claims but different stories—in reality, a more skeptical web designer in his early thirties told me he had Googled it and discovered the video was produced in Southeast Asia in 2009. He felt that the buzz around this video was a sign that the conflict was fading from the front of everyone’s minds, but also a troubling reminder of how inaccurate, unreliable–and readily accepted–even the most high tech mish-mish can be.

One of the most powerful and enduring narratives about the conflict a year ago was the set of rumors about the mayor’s “master plan” to remake the city, break up Uzbek mahallas and displace the economic role of the famous Osh Bazaar. The city development plan, which has existed in several iterations since the late Soviet period, is real and progress on it is moving forward—however, the city administration has backed away from early statements about its desire to resettle Uzbek residents in mutli-story mixed ethnicity apartment buildings. The projects implemented so far are limited to extending or widening roads in high-traffic areas. Although the extension of Monueva street to the new “river road” did, as many feared, result in the long-threatened demolition of several homes rebuilt after the violence, these families were given land and some modest compensation to rebuild new homes again above the city in the O’n Adyr district (where Uzbeks who could no longer fit into their family mahallas in the city center have been building for several decades). The deal was a significant—if however imperfect—compromise from the city administration, who have elsewhere left neighborhoods intact, despite harsh resistance last year to issuing permits for rebuilding in areas that conflicted with redevelopment plans. As the construction projects unfold without serious conflict, fears of a large-scale population resettlement seem to have begun to fade.

In the days just before I left, construction began on the central artery that runs through the bazaar. Though some stalls located in the street were torn down and vendors forced out, it caused little stir in the city—many, including Uzbeks—seem to agree that widening the congested road is a reasonable project. The bazaar is bustling again now at something near full capacity, with new container stalls and a few cafes sprouting up around the charred and still unrepaired skeleton of the burned out brick-and-mortar structures destroyed in the violence; few seem to fear that the city administration or anyone else could try to shut it down even if they wanted to.

As the grip of rumor and the fear and mistrust of neighbors that it sparked gradually lifts from the city, life goes on again. Construction has become a steady business as families continue to rebuild and expand their homes as sons and daughters marry and begin new families. But as the anthropologist and Harvard Divinity professor Michael D. Jackson wrote in his reflective study on narratives of suffering and political violence, The Politics of Storytelling, our desire to bend narratives into a happy ending or to fit a desired political outcome–in which the sufferer is redeemed by her pain or a phoenix rises again from the ashes after a city burns—often isn’t shared by our informants or by the way they interpret their reality. I read those words the first time a year ago sitting in a cheap oshxona in the middle of the bazaar, looking out at the ruins of so many far richer restaurants and cafes reduced to twisted metal and broken glass. This year, in interview after interview those words came back to me again; not a single person I talked to expressed any real optimism for the future of the city, no one felt they had gained anything from the conflict, or that anyone else had either. As the scars, both physical and psychological, from this short outburst of violence fade they recede into the background of serious economic challenges, the small-scale violence of disorder and everyday life, and the feeling that there is little most people can do to control their fate. Osh is returning to life after the “war,” but everywhere are the reminders that this was a war with no winners. The only victory is that life goes on.

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This post was written by...

– author of 54 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Noah Tucker is managing editor at Registan.net and an associate at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs Central Asia Program. Noah is a researcher and consultant for NGO, academic and government clients on Central Asian society and culture. He has worked on Central Asian issues since 2002--specializing in religion, national identity, ethnic conflict and social media--and received an MA from Harvard in Russian, E. European and Central Asian Studies in 2008. He has spent four and half years in the region, primarily in Uzbekistan, and returned most recently for fieldwork in Southern Kyrgyzstan in the summers of 2011 and 2012.

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Jonathan Birchall September 7, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Thanks Noah for a very interesting post. Does anyone in Osh talk about what happened to Azimjan Askarov (the 61 yr old human rights defender sentenced to life after blatantly unfair trial in Bazar Korgan after June violence)? Thanks.
Jonathan Birchall
Senior Officer for Communications
Open Society Justice Initiative

Nina Aron September 8, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Thank you for a rich and nuanced piece, Noah. Best post-conflict coverage I’ve seen.

Bakhrom September 9, 2012 at 1:24 am

I felt better after reading your post, in which part of Aravan you have been?

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