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15 Jun, 2010 09:52

Official death toll in Kyrgyzstan ethnic clashes tops 190

Southern Kyrgyzstan is facing a humanitarian crisis. Ethnic Uzbeks are fleeing the country to their homeland in their thousands, desperately trying to escape the violence that has been targeted against them.

Ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan show no sign of abating, with 190 people now confirmed dead and 1,800 injured. Seeing as the majority of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks involved in this ethnic conflict are Muslims, it means they have to bury their dead within 24 hours. Many fear the truth about the real death toll in these clashes could also be buried for ever. The head of the interim government, Roza Otunbayeva, has officially announced that Wednesday, June 16, is to be a national day of mourning.

As a result of the chaos, southern Kyrgyzstan is now locked in a humanitarian disaster, suffering power cuts and food shortages.

More and more sporadic fighting has been registered over the last 24 hours. Reservists were mobilized on Sunday in a move to stabilize the situation. Shoot-to-kill orders remain in place, along with a state of emergency in the southern cities of Osh and Dzhalal-Abad.

In Osh and Dzhalal-Abad the government forces are reportedly controlling all the major assets, but those are only small parts of the cities. Outside of the cities there is no law enforcement and the attacks are continuing. With the interim leadership fighting to keep control and tens of thousands fleeing, fears remain the violence will spread to the rest of the country.

The UN Security Council says a corridor of aid into the country must quickly be established, as help is urgently needed.

The Red Cross has pledged US$8.7 million to try to help.

On Monday, June 14, Uzbek authorities ordered the border with Kyrgyzstan closed again, after brief opening on June 13. Russian radio Ekho Moskvy has quoted Uzbek deputy prime  minister as saying that his country could not accept any more refugees.

Most of the refugees are women with several children each, and children under 18 years of age have no documents, so there are no exact figures as to how many people have crossed the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Estimates range between 75,000 and 100,000. The camps that refugees are flooding into are running out of space very quickly.

Rushana Batyrova, an Uzbek student from Dzhalal-Abad People’s Friendship University, was airlifted from the city during an effort by local Indian and Pakistani communities.

“We stayed in our flat for three days on end with no electricity or gas," she told RT. "There were cries, shots and even explosions heard from outside. Then we went to the airport. There were about 150 foreigners together with us. I also saw armed and uniformed people there. I guess they were the army. As the helicopter carried us above the city of Dzhalal-Abad, I saw no people, only burnt-out buildings and cars, including the burning building of my university. The city was a terrifying sight.”

Apart from regaining law and order, priority for the authorities is also taking care of the injured.

“Our doctors are working under gunfire. Many of them have been repeatedly attacked, and the ambulances as well. Doctors are saving people’s lives there on the streets, risking their own,” Kyrgyz health minister Danira Niyazalieva has said.Since the beginning of the unrest thousands of people have called on the emergency services for help.

Many have been taken to hospitals in the region and in the capital. Some have also been sent to Russia for specialist medical treatment.

“Most are suffering from gunshot wounds; their bodies are full of bullet fragments, sometimes big, but sometimes many and tiny. We will try to help them – but if we are unable, we will be sending them to hospitals in Russia,” Nurbek Imakeev, a doctor at the Bishkek national hospital says.

One of those injured is Aydar. He has been taken to Bishkek national hospital from Osh – the city in the South where the bloodshed started. Being an art student, Aydar hopes Kyrgyz doctors will be able to save his eye.

“I went outside and there was shooting everywhere. Some shrapnel hit me in the eye. It is still there,” Aydar says.

Meanwhile, last night, masked men came in force to the Emergency Ministry headquarters in Osh, but were driven back. A similar group of masked men attempted to attack a humanitarian convoy, but were eventually fought off.

Roots of the crisis

Irina Kobrinskaya from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations says the core of the ethnic divide lies deep in the past, and to solve it today will be no easy task.

“The whole conflict has its roots not even in the 1990s, not even in the Soviet times, not even Tsarist times. This is a very complex nature conflict that has both socio-economic and ethnic nature,” Kobrinskaya told RT.

RT’s Maria Finoshina was in Osh at the peak of the trouble.

People in Kyrgyzstan as well as many outside the country believe the bloody clashes in the South have been orchestrated, and say those behind it use ethnic division to disguise their aims. Now they demand to know who exactly is behind the bloodshed.

Erica Marat, a Research Fellow at the Central Asia – Caucasus Institute said that the conflict could possibly have been provoked by external forces. There are many theories and speculative ideas surrounding what may have caused the outbreak of violence.

“Brothers or supporters of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev have dispatched their mercenary snipers into Osh and Jalal-Abad and they created chaos,” said Marat.

That is just one of the speculative theories, she said. However, they are being supported by the transitional government in Kyrgyzstan and many experts.

Marat says that although Kyrgyzstan is party to a number of international organizations and hosts foreign military bases, international involvement in the conflict is highly unlikely, outside of some humanitarian assistance.

“We need better police and we need mediators. We need attention from international NGOs and international organizations to get involved in the region more,” said Marat.

Although Kyrgyzstan is a member to a number of international organizations and hosts military bases from both the US and Russia, there is currently no indication outside parties or states will send military forces in to intervene or stop the violence. States with interests in Kyrgyzstan have opted to protect their people and evacuate their citizens, as opposed to sending aid to assist the people of Kyrgyzstan.

The Fergana Valley where the unrest is taking place is a strategic region bordering three countries, so even if the decision is taken to send troops to the region, it would be done with extreme caution, believes Samir Shakbaz, a political expert from RIA Novosti news agency. He expressed hope that the conflict would be stopped very soon with the assistance of Russia and OSCE.

The ruined Kyrgyz economy is the real reason behind ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan, thinks Shakbaz. “You’ll never have anything like that in a developed Western country, because people are well off,” he said, recalling that practically none of the money loaned to the former Kyrgyz president by Russia and the US has made it to the state budget.

Alisher Khamidov, an ethnic Uzbek and professor of advanced international studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC is currently in Kyrgyzstan.

Osh is in ruins,” he said. Khamidov himself is hiding in a safe haven near the border, about 20 miles west of Osh.

When Kyrgyzstan became a country it was multiethnic and operated relatively smoothly, in later years new leadership caused tensions to escalate. This pent-up frustration has erupted into ethnic violence, both today an in the past.

Kyrgyz have long complained that that Uzbek ethnic minority has controlled lucrative spots in the market, in the bazaars as well as trade. The Uzbeks, they complained of discrimination, of political discrimination, they felt that they were not represented. So, when the government fell two months ago the flood gates of tension were opened,” said Khamidov, adding: “I do not see any bright future for this whole country. After all this mess, what I can tell you is that this country, this state, is almost near its collapse. There’s no peace in this country and many of its citizens do not see their future with this country.”.

Professor Alisher Khamidov of Johns Hopkins University says a lack of trust towards the authorities is further aggravating the crisis.

“The problem is that there is this complete security collapse in south Kyrgyzstan,” Khamidov stated. “People do not trust the government and so they are taking matters of security into their own hands. I think that people are afraid and…don’t want to believe in anything the interim government is saying to them. So, it seem like it’s not the end for them.”

The 1990's Osh massacre

The recent violence echoes the deadly clashes in the country 20 years ago. The massacre in Osh back then claimed hundreds of lives, both Uzbek and Kyrgyz.

The so called “Osh massacre” started on June 4, 1990. Hostilities between Uzbek and Kyrgyz nationals turned into violent clashes, murders and pillaging on both sides.

Starting in the spring of 1990, young Kyrgyz demanded plots of land for housing construction in the capital of Frunze (now Bishkek), which was prohibited by law in the Soviet Union. Thousands of plots of land in the outskirts of the city were acquisitioned illegally. In Osh, two informal unions – an Uzbek “Adolat” and a Kyrgyz “Osh-aymagy” – were organized to settle the issue of land and let people own it.

The leader of the Uzbek minority living in the south at the same time demanded that the authorities create an autonomous region for Uzbek nationals, since Kyrgyz was declared the only national language and Russian the language for international use.

Both republican and local authorities ignored the demands. Only under pressure from Kyrgyz activists organizing daily demonstrations on the land did the head of Osh promise for housing 32 hectares of land that had belonged to a kolkhoz. The kolkhoz was run by Uzbeks, who considered the move a direct threat to their families and property.

On May 30, Uzbek nationals organize a demonstration at the same kolkhoz, where they called for creation of an Osh Uzbek autonomy and for making Uzbek a state language. They set June 4 as the deadline for an official response.

Starting June 1, Uzbeks began evicting Kyrgyz nationals from apartments rented in their community, and 1,500 men who had found themselves on the streets joined the crowd demanding land for housing. Kyrgyz activist also set the authorities a deadline of June 4.

Meanwhile, a republican commission found the allocation of the 32 hectares of land illegal and offered instead 662 hectares of land in different parts of the region. Although most Uzbeks and Kyrgyz agreed on that, a small group of activists insisted on getting the promised 32 hectares.

At dawn on June 4, 1990, about 1,500 Kyrgyz and 10,000 Uzbeks gathered at the disputed land. By noon kids were taken home from kindergarten, and by 4 pm employers let people go home. A thin line of armed police stood between the growing ethnic crowds.

There is no clear and definite information about which side started the fight. Someone started throwing bottles and rocks, and within an hour the crowd was out of control. Some sources say 6 Uzbeks were killed in the fight, others say they were wounded. With cries of “Blood for blood,” the mob led by “Adolat” moved to Osh, pillaging Kyrgyz homes on the way. Seeing this, the crowd of Kyrgyz retorted with similar destruction.

Massive ethnic clashes spread to the neighboring city of Uzgen and a number of southern territories. They were stopped only on June 8 by the Soviet army and internal forces that entered the region.

The Soviet prosecutor’s office stated that 1,200 Kyrgyz died during the conflict, while unofficial data put the figure at as many as 10,000. Approximately 1,500 criminal cases were taken to court, but only 300 people were imprisoned.