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11 Apr, 2010 23:16

Bishkek Diary: Face to face with Kyrgyz rioters

Bishkek Diary: Face to face with Kyrgyz rioters

Well known photographer Ilya Varlamov visited Bishkek where he captured life on the streets of the riot-torn city.

Civil disturbances began in Bishkek on April 7th. The Kyrgyz opposition started staging mass protests on April 6th. Starting in Talas, a central city in one of the provinces, the protests soon engulfed the whole country. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev left the capital, Bishkek, on April 7th, after the opposition seized control of the government buildings. Sergey Mukhamedov and I flew to Bishkek to take a look at how the city was living after the revolution (watch the full account of the trip here), have a talk with the looters and try to figure out why the riots occurred in the first place.

The city was left at the mercy of the looters for two days. The majority of them were drunk teenagers who had gotten completely out of control. Improvised militia squads and the police have since managed to bring some order to the city. The people have no enthusiasm about the revolution. Bakiyev’s clan will be replaced with another clan, and nothing will change in the long term – that is how they feel. At the moment, the only ones feeling comfortable in Bishkek are the young men in Adidas track suits. They came to Bishkek from outlying regions, had two days to loot the city and are now hoping their friends will get appointed to government positions. “We are the ones who made this revolution happen” – they say.

A rundown of the events:

The civil disorder started in Talas on April 6th when the opposition, following a rally, captured the mayor’s office. On April 7th the disturbances transferred to Naryn and Bishkek. The oppositionists managed to seize control of the Bishkek television station and go on air, live. A criminal case was opened in relation to the riots, opposition leaders were detained by the police.

On the night of April 6th and morning of April 7th, Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiyev, who had been sent to Talas to look into the situation, was seized by the oppositionists and beaten severely. Several armed men were spotted in the crowd surrounding the government office building. Snipers began shooting these people. The enraged crowd then proceeded to storm the building.

On the morning of April 7th, the crowd of several thousand people stormed the parliament building and attempted to take the government offices, but was met with fierce resistance from the police and the national guard.

The Kyrgyz government then resigned. To replace it, the opposition formed what was called a “government of people’s trust”, headed by former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva.

On the evening of April 7th Otunbayeva said in a statement that the opposition had seized complete control over Kyrgyzstan. On the evening of April 7th and morning of April 8th a wave of lootings rolled through the capital. Several shopping malls, “Narodny” chain stores and other central stores have been looted.

By the morning of April 9th, as a statement issued by the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry said, police squads fighting alongside militia squads managed to drive all looters out of Bishkek. Passenger buses started running again in the city.

April 9th and April 10th were declared days of mourning for the dead. We flew into Bishkek in the middle of the night. The taxi driver charged us 600 rubles for a trip from the airport to the city. It usually costs only 250 rubles. We needed the car for the day, so we made an arrangement with the driver, agreeing to pay him $100. $100 is an average monthly wage in Kyrgyzstan, but after a few hours the driver started complaining that we were not paying him enough. His main argument was “this is not Moscow, I won’t live 3 days here on a hundred bucks! I’ll have to spend half of it on gas! Give me twenty more, I ask you heartily, brother!”

The driver’s talent for complaining yielded an extra $30 for him in the end.

There is no gasoline in the city. All the gas stations are closed shut for fear of the looters. There are rumours that two of the gas stations that belonged to the president’s son have been burned down. A liter of gas is priced at 20 rubles. Our driver seems to have no problem with breaking traffic rules – going through red lights and making u-turns across double lines. “It’s revolution here. The cops are scared to show their nose in the streets. You can do whatever you want, no one can do anything to you!”. This phrase reflects the general attitude of many of the citizens. Many of them took the chance to go out to the streets not to clean up the city, but to steal what they did not have time to steal yesterday.

The Bishkek center is empty at night. Sergey and I get out of the car and try to take some video footage. Suddenly, a group of people come running at us from the direction of the Government offices. We jump in the car and drive off quickly. As the driver explains to us later, the police and the looters have been shooting at each other all night throughout the city. There are currently about 200 looters still remaining in the government office building.

We come back several hours later, after the sun had come up and people had gone out on the streets. There are traces of looting – the carcasses of burned cars litter the square. This square was the scene of the major clashes between the opposition and the military. You have probably seen the video footage of what happened here on April 7th in news programmes.

This is the famous armored personnel carrier that the rioters had seized from the military. The locals told us a story about it which I am not prone to believe. Then again, no other story is available. According to one of the versions, the APC was left by the local police special forces with the engine on after the police was issued an order to walk to the government offices to defend them. The APC was seized immediately by the oppositionists, but they crashed into something and were unable to switch it to reverse gear for a long time, until a former tank driver came along. The tank driver drove the APC to the city square, where it got hit.

People told us different stories when asked about what had caused the people to riot. The majority, however, name poverty and unemployment. A raise in the electricity charges became the last drop, they say. Electricity cost 75 kopecks last year, but in 2010 the price was increased twofold.

Nurse: “I am paid 2000 rubles, I pay 80 rubles for electricity, and it used to be only 40!”

The nurse believes a 40-ruble raise of her electricity bills is sufficient reason to tear down the regime.

A revolution took place here in 2005 – Akayev was forced out of the president’s office then. The people say that had led to no changes at all. “Akayev may have done nothing for 17 years, but at least there was peace, and he left with no bloodshed. Bakiyev ordered his men to shoot at people, the people will not forgive that…..No one believes anything will change now that Bakiyev is out. Another clan will come to power. The new leader’s relatives will get all the good jobs, and the people will still starve…..You have it really good in Russia, you have jobs!”

The crowd burned down all the cars in the White House yard. Drunken young men proudly told us stories about how they burst into the president’s office, bragging about who stole what. One young man told us that the first six guys to rush into the building were shot dead by security guards, but this did not stop anyone. “Look at the blood on the pavement, this is where a 14-year old kid got shot.”

On the first day of the revolution, the government house was looted and vandalised. On the second people were taken on tours around the building but the looting continued. On the third day the building was encircled by militiamen and no one was allowed in except firemen, cleaners and plumbers. About 50 thuggish-looking men are guarding the government house perimeter while 200 more people remain inside.

The locals are inspecting the still-smouldering military vehicles. The vehicles will stay here for three more days, then they will be hauled away.

Flowers are laid at spots on the square where people had been killed.

In spite of the fact that all Jews left Kyrgyzstan right after the Soviet Union was dismantled, they are still the least favoured nation in the country, with the Chinese following them. The Chinese are hard-working, and they have money. This is wrong in the eyes of the Kyrgyz. They don’t harbour much love for Americans either. On Friday, after the situation had stabilized, rumours started circulating about interethnic clashes in the countryside. A lot of people approved of that. They think people of other nationalities take money and jobs away from the Kyrgyz and they have to be driven out. The history of Uganda and the dictator Idi Amin seems to have taught them nothing.

A dialogue very characteristic of the time is cited by my counterpart from Gazeta.ru, Ilya Azar:

- Are you a Jew?
 – I’m a journalist from Russia. Let me work – I answer, sensing hostility in his voice.
 – Answer my question. Are you or are you not a Jew?
 – I’m from Russia, let me work.
 – Are you a Jew or not?
I start muttering something, and he says: “We respect Russians, but Jews have to be killed. All of them.” Then he walks away.

Look at the brave defenders of the White House, parading in their stolen helmets and uniforms, acting aggressively, not allowing anyone to enter the White House. You know why? The gangs that took part in the pillaging are demanding seats in the new government. As long as they maintain what looks like order, no one will touch them.

Later on, when the opposition establishes real order, these soldiers will be sent back to their villages, to sit there with no jobs, no money, and, undoubtedly, to return to sack the capital again in a few years.

More and more people start coming to the square.

The APC is the chief attraction. Later it will be towed off by a tractor.

The young are behaving very aggressively – grabbing our camera, swearing, and not letting us film. The first thing is not to let the crowd surround you. A few people come by at first, asking where I’m from. While I explain to them that I’m not American (my hairstyle looks a bit American), more and more people come by to look. The crowd effect sets in after a while. One thing you have to make sure of is that you’ll escape in time. We got surrounded once:

- What channel do you work for?
 – Animal Planet – I made a bad joke, but I never intended to offend anyone.
 – Are you trying to screw us over?
We barely escaped that time.

A Reuters photographer was beaten up and robbed here on the first day of the revolution. He wanted to take pictures of people beating up a sniper. Instead, he was mistaken for a sniper himself and robbed of all his things and equipment. He is currently being treated in the Almaty hospital.

A tire suddenly burst on fire on one of the trucks as they were towing them away.

I have a feeling that Adidas had scored the most publicity points on this story – 90% of the young are wearing Adidas track suits.

Another gang of “defenders” comes along, I don’t know what they are doing here.

The situation is heating up, a kid with a cigarette is shouting something in Kyrgyz.

The crowd surrounds the speakers, listening closely.

People are drawing with lipstick on the pavement near the White House. It is mourning day.

This is how they mark a place where a person was killed.

A lot of people died at the gate. People are trying not to lay flowers in a pile, like it is done in Russia, but to distribute them evenly, forming a flower carpet.

Newspapers with photos are hung on the White House fence.

People start praying from time to time. I spot graffiti on one of the pillars. It says “Bakiyev is a dick”. Graffiti like that is all over the city.

79 people died in total, the majority killed during the siege of the White House. Snipers were positioned on the roof at the time and shot anyone who came close to the gate. According to one of the versions, there were six snipers in total. Two of them had been “slaughtered like lambs,” two others “beaten into intensive care”, two others escaped. Another version says there were only two snipers and it is unknown what happened to them. Some people say they were Baltic mercenaries, others say they were Chechens, yet others – Kyrgyz. No official information is available, but people can’t confirm that the snipers were “of their own.”

The windows of this person’s apartment overlook the square where the skirmish occurred. Seven bullets have hit his apartment.

All the windows have been broken; one bullet is stuck in the wardrobe, another one – in the ceiling. Once they started shooting, the owner of the apartment and his wife hid in another room.

The fence demonstrates the scale of the battle as it is covered with bullet marks.

The director of a textile factory based in the neighboring building has shown us the bullets that he found in his office on the third floor.

After the opposition seized power, thousands of young people started looting the city. During the first night they looted and burned down the city center. During the second night, the looters switched their attention to Bishkek’s suburbs. Groups of 50-100 people were trying to rob and burn down civilian houses. As civil servants were the first to be harmed – both the authorities and the police refused to show up for work.

To somehow cope with the looters, troops of volunteers were summoned. Their central headquarters were at the Spartak stadium. The city was split into quadrants, and the residents of the district who volunteered were on duty in those areas. The TV-channels broadcast the phone numbers of the headquarters, and if people noticed looters, they could call the hot line to get several cars with volunteers to come there. It’s worth mentioning that the squad members were not armed, their main weapon being numerical advantage and the power of conviction, though there was a cleaver and an air pistol in the car we were in. Despite the order to shoot to kill looters, not a single looter was killed. “Who on earth would shoot children because of a fridge?” was repeated.

These volunteers are not organized, they guard their trade points. They have bottles of cognac in their boots and all are drunk and inadequate.

A bandage on an arm is a sign. A red bandage means an organized volunteer. A white one – a non-organized volunteer guarding his property. The blue color is the color of the opposition. A yellow bandage marks parliamentary bodyguards; nobody explained to us what this color means.

And these are the menacing guards of the “Altyn” jewelry shop, they do not need any bandages.

To somehow protect their property, entrepreneurs have to write on windows and containers “BIZ EL MENEN” meaning “We are together with the people”. It is believed that the looters will come by.

The Central Department Store (ЦУМ) is the biggest store in the capital and has not been taken over by the looters. According to the head of security service of the store, Victor Zhirkov, “As soon as we realized that our store would be on the path of the crowd of looters, we immediately shut up the windows with metal sheets. This is the second revolution, and not a single looter made it into the store.” When a crowd of drunken armed looters approached the store, the guards went out and convinced the hooligans that there are no goods left inside and that the owners are common people. “We are just like you, so please don’t try to prevent us from earning money,”- that’s what the guards were saying in Kyrgyz into a megaphone.

Guys with the Slavic appearance behave aggressively, they are ordinary thugs. They came from the country to rob the fat capital. The average looter is a young man from the country, between 14 and 30, aggressive and heavily drunk.

This is the former house of Maxim Bakiev, the son of the president.

During the first day the looters robbed and burned down the house. Sometimes, when a crowd of drunk looters comes along the street, there is a truck following the crowd, which is used to carry the loot. Some looters took weapons with them, that is why the skirmishes in the streets lasted two days.

They took everything from the house: furniture, carpets, bathroom equipment, and took off the decorations, where possible. Two days have passed, but people are still coming here to find anything that they could steal. 5 years ago they hated and destroyed the property of Askar Akaev’s children in the same manner.

They do not touch the pictures of the family of the president in London.

They put them on a window sill as proof of the “wealth” of the presidential family. For most Kyrgyz residents who live on 100 dollars a month, such an unsightly country-house and trips to London are an inexcusable luxury.

These are looters. They are searching for the loot in a former library. They do not allow us to film, promising to “stick the camera up your bottom”.

These people have come to steal parquet flooring, the parquet was taken away yesterday. It is written across the walls: “Death to Bakiev!”, “Maxim is gay!”, “Death to the Bakievs! Talas!”, “Tashbaran to you!”

They do not like Maxim, the son of the president, because he took over the profitable businesses in the city: gas stations, fashionable boutiques, mobile connection business, restaurants. We heard that once Maxim, accompanied by 19 guards, broke into a night club. The security officers kicked out all the men, and Maxim stayed there to have fun with women. Most likely, this is another myth about the bad Maxim.

The former owner.

That’s everything that is left from the outfits of the hostess. When men were trying to steal the remaining parts of the house, women were digging out tulip bulbs and someone stole a fir tree.

This is the phone of the General Prosecutor’s Office, it has been thrown out of the window, now it is hanging on wires. The building of the General Prosecutor’s Office suffered the most damage.

First they robbed the building, then it was burned down, and then they continued the robbery. In the front, there was a parking site. All the cars were burned, and they stole everything they could out of the burned cars. Please note the bricks and the absence of hubcaps on the wheels.

A boy with a plastic bag is taking pieces of a car that has been burned out. It reminded me of a grasshopper plague: over the 2 days, the residents and guests of the capital managed to steal everything they could take with them.

On the left you can see great sockets – this man will screw them off in a minute.

That’s what I witnessed at the exit.

A woman is guarding “her” chairs. If she doesn’t, another looter will steal them.

Children are looking for something valuable in a burned down building.

All the documents at the Prosecutor’s Office have been burned up or scattered around the area. A sheet of paper reads: “I, so-and-so, live next door to so-and-so, who is a very polite and quiet man. He neither drinks nor smokes. He loves his family and takes care of them. He is temporarily unemployed, as he cannot find an appropriate job. He is gentle and behaves well. He cannot offend other people. I live in a neighboring house.”

That’s what most offices look like, they have stolen even the picture frames. All the decorations have been taken off, all the safes broken into. They burn everything they couldn’t take away.

Look, the building is still on fire, but children are taking chairs out of it. This boy has sold 2 chairs to a woman, 10 rubles each.

A casino did not remain intact either. While the owners are shutting the entrance to the burned building, looters continue taking away what is left.

The owner of the former casino told us: “When the first crowd came, we managed to convince them not to touch the casino. We explained that there was no money there, and gave them 50 dollars. In 40 minutes we had to meet another crowd of looters, who started breaking the windows. I found their chieftain and gave him 200 dollars to make him take all those people away. 500 more people came to us in an hour, they were drunk and they destroyed and burned the building while we were standing nearby and watching. But that’s OK, during the previous ‘revolution’ they also burned us down”, the owner laughs.

At first, looters ransacked all food shops that had vodka. According to eyewitnesses, all looters were very drunk. “Narodny” chain stores suffered the most damage, as they’re considered a state chain.

This shop was lucky: all its windows remained unbroken.

Shop assistants told us: ‘When a crowd went by our shop, we went outside, joined our hands and begged them not to destroy our shop. All goods in it belonged to us, not to the state.’

For the third at night in a row, women collect all goods and bring them home.

Bishkek’s parliament, where the interim government is located, is guarded without guns. Each day, unhappy capital residents assault the doors of the parliament. We were allowed to go in. Our names were put on a list.

Checkpoints are located on each floor.
Traces of destruction are visible here, too, but looters didn’t make it in here and all things are in their places.

Our driver fearlessly overtook a column of armoured vehicles by driving on the wrong side of the road. Nobody cares about traffic rules and road police are nowhere to be seen.

A minor road accident.

While looters were ransacking the remaining stores and administration buildings, other people began seizing land that belonged to officials. This field was split into 4-hundred square meter plots by squatters.

In this tent, people are allocating land. They call themselves invaders and act rather aggressively.

This is what the land-allocating headquarters looks like.

The entire field was split into squares. People are sitting on their plots, refusing to leave. If they leave someone else would seize their plot. They are willing to sit like this for weeks, until the new authorities of the country recognize their right to this land. 10 minutes later a boy ran up to Sergey and me. He said it would be better for us to leave, as we were making people nervous with our expensive equipment.

So far, the number of casualties in the aftermath of the mass insurgency in Kyrgyzstan is 79 people. 45 injured are still staying in hospitals in Bishkek and the regions. 7 people are in extremely grave condition. Altogether, more than 1.5 thousand people were given medical assistance; more than 500 were hospitalized, mostly with gunshot wounds.

Head doctor of Hospital #4, where most of the injured were sent, told us that on 7th April, almost all personnel stayed late at work. Emergency ambulances were doing a great job; nurses were bringing in the wounded while under fire and nobody was hindering them. Someone broke the windows of one ambulance. Most wounds were gunshot. Looters were obvious: mostly locals were shooting small-shot at them.

Finally, I’d like to show two pictures.

The opposition is posing in the seized president’s office. As you see, nothing has changed; the opposition has become a little fatter over the 5 years, though. One clan replaces another one; people remain unemployed; from time to time they drive away governors who had ransacked the country; however, they take the opportunity to rob their neighbours in the process.

Ilya Varlamov for RT