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A Massacre Becomes Folklore

Uzbek refugees express their feelings for the city they fled in verse and song. by Yusuf Rasulov 21 June 2006 [In the early hours of 13 May 2005, a mob stormed the town jail in Andijan, Uzbekistan, to free 23 local businessmen accused of Islamic extremism. Weapons were seized, hundreds of prisoners freed, and the official buildings in the center of the city occupied. The following day, government security forces opened fire on protestors in the city center, killing perhaps hundreds of civilians in the process and causing 500 or so people to flee across the border to Kyrgyzstan.]

A stand in the Adelet (“Justice”) law office in Bishkek, Kyrgystan displays the handcrafts and poems of Uzbek refugees who fled the unrest in Andijan last year.

The poems were written during the refugees’ time in a camp in Kyrgystan’s Jalal-Abad district. The names of the authors are not always known – for understandable reasons, some prefer to remain anonymous.

Over 400 Andijan refugees spent two-and-a-half months in Jalal-Abad, later, with the assistance of the UNHCR, moving to Romania,. Recently, 340 were granted political asylum in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Finland. Another 80 remain in Romania, waiting to be assigned a country.

The author of a poem entitled “The Dawn is Not Far Away,” who preferred not to give his name out of concern for the safety of his family in Uzbekistan, said he had the urge to write about the bloody events of May 2005 in Andijan. “I saw with my own eyes how people were being shot at,” he said. His poem speaks of the struggle between good and evil, predicting the eventual and “inevitable” victory of good. He forecasts a brighter future for Uzbekistan, and calls upon people to open their eyes, overcome their fears, and become the masters of their will.

The author was an ordinary trader in Andijan, although he admits he always liked poetry and had composed little poems since childhood – some of which were published in a local Andijan newspaper. “It’s been seven months since I left Andijan,” he said, “but I still don’t understand what happened. Why were the troops shooting at the peaceful demonstrators? Why were the soldiers killing women and kids? It’s like a bad dream you want to forget and never remember.”

Some of the refugees’ poems express anger and resentment. In one, the author addresses Uzbek President Islam Karimov directly: “Karim shot from white and black guns/He humiliated and betrayed his own people/He responded with bullets to the people’s demands for their rights/He made kebabs from the dead bodies.”

But other poems are steeped in sadness and nostalgia for the homeland. Many refugees had to leave the country suddenly, without an opportunity to say goodbye to close family members. They left loved ones – mothers and children – behind. Therefore, a lot of the poems speak of love and separation. “My beloved, you are waiting for me/I know your soul is dying to see me/I know I can’t be next to you now/But please don't feel sad/you are not alone:/God is with you.” The author of this poem is confident he will soon return. Years will pass, and he will be reunited with his loved ones.

Kholdor Vulkan, himself a poet and a member of the Uzbek Writers Union, said these refugee poems eschew established techniques of modern poetry. What comes across most forcefully, he said, are the political views, and anger at the government. But their chief characteristic, he said, is that they were created from an inner urge and desire. Vulkan says such forms of self-expression emerge at full strength only in moments of crisis or oppression. Uzbeks composed such political poems and songs during the Russian occupation of Turkestan (after present-day Central Asia was conquered by the Russian Empire), including a famous folk song about the artillery of the Russian Tsar Nicholas.

The poems can help us understand what really happened in Andijan on 13 May 2005. They provide direct evidence of the events and the repression. One poem, for example, tells of Jaslyk, the high security prison in Karakalpakstan where most political prisoners are sent.

Vulkan, himself forced to flee Uzbekistan, continued, “There is always a reason behind the creation of songs by ordinary people, i.e. folk songs. It is public anger and torment. In the beginning of the 20th century, Tsar Nicholas II shot and killed many residents of Andijan. History repeated itself at the beginning of the 21st century – this time, by order of President Islam Karimov. Although in the first case the Uzbek people were shot by Russian soldiers, in the latter case, Uzbeks killed their own people. Nobody can forget such a thing. The Uzbek authorities have been trying to hide the repressions of 13 May 2005, but a day will come when we will find out the truth. And these poems will help, as they portray those events so vividly.”

According to the Uzbek government’s version of events, 187 people died in the Andijan protests. Eyewitnesses, however, say between 500 and 1500 peaceful demonstrators may have perished. The exact figure remains unknown.

The refugees’ poems speak openly of the deaths of peaceful residents, including women and children. But the Uzbek authorities continue to insist that those who died were Islamic terrorists.

Dozens of poems have apparently been written about the 13 May events, and some have been turned into songs, but the authors publish at their peril. A song about Andijan by Uzbek poet and singer Dadakhon Khasanov was recorded and spread throughout the country. He now stands accused of propagating revolt. And two members of the opposition Erk party, Jamol Kutliyev and Khazrat Akhmedov, were recently sentenced to seven and four years, respectively, in prison just for possessing and listening to an audio cassette recording of Khasanov’s song. Another leading member of Erk, Nusrullah Saidov, also being investigated in connection with the case, fled the country.

“One cannot even listen to those songs in Uzbekistan,” said Saidov. “Those who compose poems or songs about politics are seen as criminals. The surge of literary self-expression following the Andijan events has made the authorities panic.”

A criminal case was launched against the poet Nurmukhammad Azizov from the Shakhrikhan district of the Andijan region after he wrote a political poem. The poet and journalist Rizo Obid from Namangan, who also wrote poems about Andijan and read them on the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, left Uzbekistan, following what he said were threats from the national security services.

Since the events in Andijan, the authorities have arrested about 20 human rights activists, opposition party members, and journalists. Another 100 independent journalists, human rights activists, writers and artists have been forced to leave the country. The offices of the BBC, Internews, IREX, and Ozodlik (the RFE/RL Uzbek service) have been shut.

Official data say 4,000 prisoners are currently being held in Uzbekistan’s prisons and camps. Human rights activists say that figure is closer to 7,000, but the chair of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, Talib Yakubov, insists there are about 30,000 religious, secular, and political prisoners behind bars.

Some poets have responded with sarcasm. A poem by Yusuf Jumayev says everyone in the country is a terrorist or a member of the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir, and that only the family members of Islam Karimov are people, the respected ones.

Yusuf Djumayev, who has dedicated a number of poems to the tragedy in Andijan, in one sarcastically describes President Karimov as a “just and fair” father who burns the country in order to protect his people.
Yusuf Rasulov, an independent journalist from Tashkent, currently resides in Sweden.
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