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The Canvas Schoolhouse

Their school destroyed in the June pogroms, hundreds of Uzbek children in southern Kyrgyzstan will study in tents this fall.

русская версия


by Bakyt Ibraimov and Talant Sadykov 12 October 2010

OSH | June’s outburst of violence in southern Kyrgyzstan left hundreds of children from the Uzbek community without schools.


Mobs burned down two public schools in Osh, and an apparent attempt to burn down a school in Jalalabad was unsuccessful.


That leaves some children, like Akbar Mamatov, to live and study in tents, having lost their homes as well.


“We were told that we’ll study in these tents for a few months until they build a new school for us since we don’t have a school anymore,” said Mamatov, one of about 650 students, all ethnic Uzbek, from the Leo Tolstoy school. Uzbek-language public schools are more numerous than Kyrgyz-language schools in Osh, the largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Mamatov, a 13-year-old with eyes that seem older, said, “I went to visit my grandmother before the events, and when I came back home some time later, our school wasn’t there anymore.


“Everything was burned down, including our library, so we lost all our books and textbooks.”


Yulduz Alimova says her seventh-grade pupils have adjusted well to the difficult circumstances they find themselves in.


Still, Mamatov’s classmates were luckier than their counterparts at the Hamza school, named for Hamza Hakimzade Niyazi, an Uzbek poet and revolutionary from the early 20th century. Authorities say those students will be sent to other schools in the city.


The old site for the Hamza school, which lacked a playground, is too small build a new facility that would include modern requirements like a playground and space for part-time courses outside the school year, according to a source in the city’s education department who asked to remain anonymous. The destruction and rebuilding of the school is a sensitive issue, as some Uzbeks charge that Kyrgyz destroyed the old building in order to replace it with commercial premises.


But local teachers confirmed that the site lacks space for a new building and playground.


In the meantime, Kyrgyz authorities and international donors have set up a settlement of 11 tents on the outskirts of the city, where Osh experiences its own version of urban sprawl.


The area has no infrastructure, and a dirt road connects the tent school with the nearest Uzbek neighborhood, where the Tolstoy school once stood.


One tent serves as the teachers’ lounge and a kitchen, but as the school still lacks electricity, no hot drinks or food are available.


Students complain of the cold mornings in the tents and say it is uncomfortable, especially when it rains.


Nevertheless, teachers here seem determined to limit the disruption to their students’ lives, despite the ethnic tension that is still very much alive in Osh.


“We’re doing our best to make our children feel like they’re at any other normal school,” said Yulduz Alimova, an Uzbek language and literature teacher. “The city authorities said the new school will be built by December, and we’ll move in sometime in January.”


Alimova and her colleagues say most students are doing well and that they have generally overcome the post-violence stress and have adapted to the new conditions.


“Compared with the pre-conflict time, my students’ performance hasn’t changed much,” Alimova said. “But of course, a tent school can’t be compared to a real warm and comfortable school made of bricks.”

A shortage of tents forces the school to offer classes in shifts. On a recent school day one tent had been divided into two so that two lessons could be taught simultaneously.


Also in short supply are textbooks. “Before the June events, we lacked school textbooks anyway, but now in a class of about 20 pupils we have only five or six,” said an eighth-grade student, who introduced himself as Aibek. “Those who have books do their homework. Others just attend classes, but they don’t get bad grades because our teachers go easy on them because of the difficult conditions we have now.”


But there are currents of optimism here.


“In general, we’re doing OK. Of 843 schoolchildren [who attended last year], about 658 attend our school, and this is a big success for us, when lots of people are still fleeing the city,” Murodullo Muidinov, the principal, said. He said the new school will probably not be built before winter sets in, so winterized tents and heaters will be installed.


“Of course, we realize the quality of the teaching we provide under such circumstances is quite low, and our schoolchildren aren’t learning properly,” one teacher said. “But the main thing now is to keep our teaching staff working and have the new building constructed so that children of our community in this part of the city don’t lose their school.”




Other schools face a converse problem, as they remain standing but are losing their students. Although reliable statistics are not available under the circumstances, schools teaching in the Uzbek language in Osh seem to have lost as many as half of their students, and ethnic Uzbeks continue to leave the country.


“This year I took my daughter to the first grade for the first time, and there was only one class, compared with four last year where my neighbors’ children study,” said Khakim R., an Uzbek taxi driver.


School administrators complain that local authorities prohibit them from releasing the real number of pupils attending schools.


In the city of Osh, 55 of 57 schools are open. The largest single category is Uzbek-language, with 21 schools still operating, a reflection of the Uzbeks’ longtime status as the majority population here, despite recent assertions by the local government to the contrary. In addition, 14 Kyrgyz-language and nine Russian-language schools are open, with the remaining schools teaching in a mix of languages.


“The children who don’t attend school anymore have simply gone to Russia with their parents or are kept home because their parents are afraid to let them out,” said I.A., vice principal of an Osh school, who asked for anonymity. “Last year, we had about 1,100 schoolchildren, and this year only about 600 showed up.”


For their part, education officials downplay the number of missing pupils. According to Abdybaly Boltobaev, the head of the city education department, 93 percent of school-age children are attending school, the independent AKIpress agency reported on 28 September.


But that figure is impossible to verify, and other evidence suggests that it is inflated. Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Liberty, reported that this year only 41,000 children are attending school, down 18 percent from 50,000 last year.


“Nobody can say for sure either the real number of children attending schools or the number of people who have the left the country since June 2010,” I.A. said. “Ethnic Uzbeks leave mostly for Russia and other countries, as for the Kyrgyz, they leave for Bishkek.”

Isa Omurkulov, the acting mayor of Bishkek, said his city’s schools are overcrowded, with a need for 30,000 more seats, according to AKIpress.


Meanwhile, Akbar Mamatov attends the Tolstoy tent school every day, rain or shine, despite the long walk he takes to get there.


“It takes me about 30 minutes to walk to the tent school, and the road isn’t paved, so it’s either muddy or dusty depending on the weather,” said Mamatov, who walks with a limp. “I don’t want to miss my classes because my peers will laugh at me, saying I’m weak and can’t walk long enough to reach our school.”

Bakyt Ibraimov is a freelance journalist in Kyrgyzstan. Talant Sadykov is a pseudonym for a Kyrgyz journalist. Photos by Talant Sadykov.

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