Residents are hesitantly dismantling barricades and emerging from behind burned cars and felled trees, but the streets in central Osh remain painted with large white letters looking skyward: S-O-S. As violence engulfed the city June 11–14, ethnic Uzbeks scrawled the pleas hoping that some of the helicopters circling overhead might come to their aid, that the government might stop the pogroms. In their mahallas, or separate neighborhoods, small groups of Uzbek men mingle and reminisce, sharing news of family members taking shelter across the border in Uzbekistan and guarding what’s left of their homes. They worry that some Kyrgyz will return to finish the job.
On Internatsionalnaya Street, named after the Moscow-sponsored 1920s movement that pledged to bring the fruits of Communism to workers of any ethnicity in every country, Uktam Turdibayev pulls charred pieces of his neighbors’ bones from the smoking debris that was their house. He’s already retrieved a whole family – five children and two adults – dead, from the cinders. They were all Uzbeks, a minority in this post-Soviet state.
Led by armored military vehicles, Turdibayev says, several hundred young Kyrgyz men, some with Kalashnikovs, ransacked his neighborhood, methodically shooting, then looting, then setting the houses alight. I heard the same story a dozen times.
“The helicopters saw but didn’t help. The government doesn’t help. No one helps,” he said. Turdibayev stayed in the mahalla while his wife and children fled to a village outside of Osh. “If we had weapons, we would have defended ourselves, but we have no weapons. They’ll pay.”
Perhaps 2,000 died in the violence, according to interim President Roza Otunbayeva. Most were Uzbeks, but Kyrgyz died as well. Now there is no clear way forward for reconciliation. It appears the combatants were ordinary young men, reportedly aided on one side by a few Kyrgyz soldiers passing out weapons, or even jumping into the action.
Unaddressed stereotypes have allowed tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to fester ever since the only previously reported conflict between the two groups, in 1990. These typecasts were a breeding ground for the surge of rumors—spread by Internet chat rooms, text messages and word of mouth—that helped provoke the attacks: “Uzbek men raped a group of Kyrgyz girls”; “young men brawled over a restaurant bill”; “Uzbeks, in their efforts to declare autonomy, had armed themselves.”
But frictions between the two groups aren’t the result of some ancient ethnic hatred. They have waxed and waned for only a generation, as local elites, manipulating economic grievances, vie for control of resources. In recent times, that has meant Afghan heroin. In place of a functioning state, southern Kyrgyzstan has become a network of trafficking routes controlled by narco-barons and their extended families.
Although Otunbayeva’s interim government attributes the latest violence to the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in a bloody revolt on April 7, and a handful of other bad guys such as Islamic terrorists or a mysterious regional “third force” seeking to weaken Kyrgyzstan, the most likely explanation is a mafia power struggle gone horribly wrong. A third of Afghan narcotics pass through Central Asia en route to Russia, and a majority of those through Osh. As weapons and drugs tend to travel along the same routes, lack of government oversight since Bakiyev’s overthrow has prompted widespread fears that the country has become overrun with guns. Local criminal bosses have used the instability to solidify their networks and increase control, effectively blackmailing the new government to preserve their Bakiyev-era concessions.