Bishkek Diary: Face to face with Kyrgyz rioters
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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