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As Osh residents continue to flee the city, women are often those who stay behind to safeguard family homes.by Gulayim Myrzaeva 12 January 2011
The mob violence and arson attacks in southern Kyrgyzstan last June resulted in the deaths of several hundred people, most ethnic Uzbeks, and caused a mass flight to the nearby Uzbek border. Many Uzbeks soon returned to their homes or to dwellings built by the UN and Red Cross to replace the estimated 2,000 houses that were destroyed. Since the initial chaos, tens of thousands of people have left the main southern city of Osh by air and countless more by land. Many headed either for the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek or for Russia, long a destination for labor migration from Kyrgyzstan. A probe by Kyrgyz authorities into the violence released on 11 January lays part of the blame on local Uzbek leaders, along with supporters of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev and an array of other culprits. Local Uzbeks, who say they suffered by far the greatest loss of life and property, are sure to contest these findings. An ethnic Uzbek member of the government commission investigating the violence said that local authorities in southern Kyrgyzstan also bear responsibility. Uzbeks are a large minority in the south but ethnic Kyrgyz hold almost all key political and security posts. Land is another source of conflict, as rural people mostly of Kyrgyz origin move to the towns in search of jobs and better housing, watering down the Uzbek population in urban areas and, perhaps, their economic clout as well.
Today TOL begins a three-part series examining the human cost of what the author of the first essay calls the “war” of last June.
OSH, Kyrgyzstan | The tragic and violent events of June changed the lives of hundreds of Osh families. Besides rebuilding their homes, Uzbek and Kyrgyz families alike have a mountain of pain and suffering to overcome, while recovering their trust in each other. And for many a fundamental question remains: do they want their children to live on their ancestors’ land?
During the day I often see three women busily working on their homes, or what is left of them, after the June fires. After a long day of hard work they sit together and talk. Sometimes I join them and together we remember how it was before, how we miss our sons and husbands and wish happiness in marriage for our daughters and pray for those who by Allah’s will left us forever. We are all victims of those days of what the media call “violent clashes” and we simply call “war.” All of us are middle-aged women who stayed in Osh to protect what remained of our property and help the rest of our families get away from Kyrgyzstan.
In the first days of the war Kyrgyz who had connections in the police, army, or local government left Osh for Bishkek on the return flights of the cargo planes that had brought relief consignments sent by various organizations, missions, and just ordinary people. At that time Uzbeks fled headlong to the Dostuk crossing point on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Ten days after the conflict broke out, free flights on cargo airplanes were prohibited and people had to purchase overpriced air tickets. Later it was reported that the main road to Bishkek was safe so people started to leave Osh by bus and car. The most important thing at that time was to leave Osh by any means. Once in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz mostly stayed there; the Uzbeks headed on to Kazakhstan and Russia by car, bus, train, and airplane.
According to the National Security Service, around 20,000 people have departed Osh by air for cities in Russia since 20 June. Unofficially, the total figure of people who left the country is more than 300,000, mainly men, young women, and children.
Odina is the eldest among us. She is 48 and an Uzbek. The last few months added another 10 years to her looks, so that she seems to be 60 or even older. Her husband died 10 years ago and she raised her four children alone. She used to have two sons and two daughters. In June her youngest son was murdered by people who set her house on fire. After things settled down she asked her brother, who works in Yekaterinburg, Russia, to care for her other son and daughters. Odina decided to stay and protect what was left, waiting for real estate prices to go up so she can sell her property. She wants to buy a house in Russia. “My children are there, so I want to be with them. I don’t want them to come back,” Odina says. Before the war Odina sold women’s clothes at the Osh bazaar. Now she is afraid to go outside her mahalla, or Uzbek neighborhood, and most of the time stays in. Sometimes she goes to the nearest bank to collect money sent to her by brother and son.
Gulnara is a Kyrgyz woman. All her adult life she worked as a math teacher in an Uzbek school and lived in the mahalla. During the June events she hid women and children from her neighborhood in the basement of her house. “My son wrote ‘Kyrgyz’ on our gates and on the walls of our house. Maybe that’s why bandits didn’t enter. I had around 30 people in my basement. Allah saved all of us.” But Gulnara’s house also burned, after it caught fire from neighboring houses. She now lives in a two-room dwelling built on her property by a UN agency. “After the war was over, the police started to hunt down those who helped Uzbeks. They arrested my husband and asked me to bring $2,000. I used my brother’s connections and my husband was released; the same day he and my sons flew to Moscow. My husband wants me to come to Russia. I pray that I’ll be able to sell my yard, so I can leave,” Gulnara says. She is still teaching; her salary is the only source of income because her husband and son are still looking for work in Moscow.
The sad story of Kandolat is the story of many Osh women. She has dark eyes, and once had a beautiful smile, but things changed and she did, too. Kandolat says, “I died inside the day those beasts raped and killed my pregnant daughter. Now I have to move on because of my other children and husband.” We have heard her story many times, still her and our eyes water when we remember how her beautiful daughter Feruza died. At that time doctors refused to send an ambulance because she was Uzbek. After things settled down Kandolat sent her sons to live with her sister in Uzbekistan. The border was officially closed so she had to bribe soldiers to let the teenagers through, and the boys walked almost 50 kilometers to their aunt’s house.
Not long ago Kandolat saw her youngest daughter married to a man who will take her to Russia. “I don’t have time to learn more about my future son-in-law. People say that his family is good and decent, so when they came to ask for my daughter I agreed. I still have doubts and beg Allah to give her happiness with this stranger.” Kandolat’s husband, among dozens of other Uzbek men, was arrested and charged with spreading national hatred and stirring up interethnic conflict. She has not been able to find a good lawyer to defend him and does not know when the trial will end, but she has little hope that he will be acquitted and they will be able to leave Kyrgyzstan together.
Osh is permeated by mutual mistrust, hatred, and anger. Uzbeks, afraid to recover their shops and cafes, try to avoid trips outside their neighborhoods and visits to government offices, the police, hospitals, or clinics. They are marrying their children and sending them away because they want their families to preserve traditions, avoid non-Uzbek family members, and stay safe. On the other hand, the Kyrgyz divided into two groups. Native Osh residents are trying to leave for Bishkek or abroad. Others, newcomers from surrounding villages, are starting over on yards and land plots bought from those who have left Osh forever. In any case, those who decided to leave their ancestral land, Uzbek men and Kyrgyz men, are leaving Osh to start a new life in a new place and later bring the rest of the family.
The outflow of migrants is mainly made up of educated middle- and upper-class men and women. Women of middle age, children, and elders are left behind to protect and sell the remaining property. This makes Osh even more vulnerable if there should be a repeat of the June events. As long as the interim government of Kyrgyzstan is busy solving its internal problems, trying to win support from northerners and ignoring the social, security, and economic problems of the south, strong women of Osh will stay to protect their homes and patiently await the moment when they can reunite with their families.