Uzbeks flee Kyrgyzstan for Russia

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OSH, Kyrgyzstan — A month after ethnic clashes devastated southern Kyrgyzstan, Uzbeks are leaving the region in droves, citing police harassment and widespread discrimination.

An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Uzbeks have emigrated, most of them to Russia, with one prominent Uzbek leader suggesting that the real number may be two or three times higher. Uzbeks lacking the means to emigrate suffer from constant police harassment and intimidation.

Many of the Uzbeks interviewed said that the threat of police beatings and shakedowns has made them afraid to travel outside of their neighborhoods.

“If I have the money to go to Russia of course I’ll go,” said Baburjan, an ethnic Uzbek man who, like many interviewed, declined to give his family name. “There’s no life for Uzbeks here. No one can provide us with security.”

Uzbeks in Osh, the principal city in the south, have been regularly denied access to medical facilities. As the Osh city center regains vibrancy, Uzbek stores remain smashed and looted, the owners unable to reopen or, in some instances, even to return to the site of their businesses. 

Mistrust had long run high between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, with Kyrgyz accusing Uzbeks of hoarding wealth and of secretly desiring secession from Kyrgyzstan and with Uzbeks complaining of chronic discrimination by Kyrgyz authorities. But the outbreak of violence in early June caught both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks by surprise.

“We couldn’t have imagined this in our wildest dreams,” said Nazira Khasanova, an Uzbek woman whose house in Osh’s Cheryomushki neighborhood was destroyed in the fighting.

Clashes broke out on the evening of June 10 when Uzbeks and Kyrgyz scuffled inside an Osh casino. It then spread rapidly to neighborhoods throughout the city. By the next morning, several thousand Kyrgyz had travelled to Osh from their villages in surrounding regions to protect Kyrgyz from what they believed to be an Uzbek attack. The Kyrgyz were met by armed resistance from some Uzbeks, but in four days of clashes Uzbeks had the worst of it.

Estimates of the numbers killed varied, with an official tally of 316 dead. Some believe the real total runs into the thousands.

Police raids have been the greatest source of aggrievement for Uzbeks. Uzbek men, detained on charges related to the June violence, are frequently beaten in detention, denied access to a lawyer and released only after paying large amounts of money to police officers. 

Reports are widespread that police regularly extort money from Uzbeks traveling to the center of the city or to the airport.

One elderly Uzbek man told Human Rights Watch researchers that police placed a gas mask over his face and turned off the air in an effort to make him confess to a role in instigating the June violence. Another Uzbek man showed bruises from where police had hung him upside down while they beat him with rubber batons.

At least one Uzbek man, Khairullo Amanbaev, died from injuries suffered while in police custody. Human Rights Watch said it had collected evidence of police brutality against Uzbeks in over 30 additional cases.

“We’re scared that they’re taking our sons,” said an Uzbek woman from Uzgen, who asked not to be identified. “We want to hide our sons, to send them to Russia or Uzbekistan.”

Kyrgyzstan’s police and military are dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz with the vast majority of Uzbeks paying fines to avoid mandatory military service. Ethnic Uzbeks comprise around 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population with southern Kyrgyzstan almost equally divided between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

The intent of local Kyrgyz police remains an open question. With abuses documented in multiple police departments in southern Kyrgyzstan over a period of several weeks, Paul Quinn-Judge, the International Crisis Group’s Central Asia project director, said there appeared to be a degree of planning aimed at making Uzbeks’ continued residence in Kyrgyzstan unendurable.

“It seems to be a policy,” said Quinn-Judge. “It’s not the work of a few random angry cops.”

Alisher Sabirov, a four-term parliamentarian who is one of the few nationally-known Uzbek leaders still in Kyrgyzstan, said the abuses more likely stemmed from the anger and vindictiveness of individual policemen in southern Kyrgyzstan, operating outside of the national government’s control.

“I don’t think it’s a plan,” Sabirov said. “It’s based on individual, personal vendettas. One factor is police in the Kara-Suu department taking revenge [for the death of a police chief during the June violence]. There’s also an economic factor, with police rackets targeting rich Uzbeks.”

Police in Osh and the surrounding area uniformly denied discrimination against Uzbeks, saying that Kyrgyz have been detained as well as Uzbeks. An investigation has been opened by Osh police into the death of Amanbaev.

In private conversations, several policemen pinned the June violence on ethnic Uzbeks, who, they claimed, committed atrocities against Kyrgyz, including the rape and mutilation of Kyrgyz women, in an attempt to drive Kyrgyz out of the south.

“They wanted to take Osh and Jalal-Abad,” said one policeman, Alvaz.

Aziza Abdrasulova, a human rights defender who has worked with security forces in the aftermath of the June violence, said that hatred for Uzbeks ran deep in the police department and among Kyrgyz officials in Osh.

“There are no orders from the government,” she said, “but some [local] politicians are very nationalistic. They’re saying Kyrgyzstan is for the Kyrgyz. The police have made it very difficult for the Uzbeks and very difficult for them to leave Osh.”

Abdrasulova noted that Kyrgyz officials have denied Uzbeks papers necessary for emigration and that police have in some cases pulled Uzbeks off airplanes as they attempted to leave Osh.

With Uzbek leaders fleeing the country out of fears for their safety, ethnic Uzbeks complained that they lacked the ability to protest police abuses. And the decision by Uzbekistan’s government to close its Kyrgyz border deprived ethnic Uzbeks of a potential help and refuge.

"There is no one to protect us," is the usual refrain in Uzbek neighborhoods.

Yahir Ibaidulaiev, an Uzbek in Osh’s Amir-Timur neighborhood, said Uzbeks had no alternative but to defend their neighborhoods by force while, in the next breath, admitting that there was little Uzbeks could do against the police sweeps.

“We don’t have guns, we can’t do anything, we have no plans,” said Ibaidulaiev, one of the few Uzbeks interviewed who possessed a military background.

Sabirov, the Uzbek parliamentarian, said that faced with continuing police abuses, Uzbeks would have no choice but to resist. “All would say ‘I don’t want revenge,’” Sabirov said. “I would say that, but it depends on the police. If the police continue their repressions, then there will be a response, there will be further clashes.”

In Cheryomushki, one of the Osh neighborhoods that was hardest hit by the June unrest, many Uzbeks slept in U.N. tents in the yards of their ruined houses. The vast majority of those interviewed said they had no prospects in Kyrgyzstan and planned to leave the country at the first opportunity.

“This neighborhood could have been a model for all other neighborhoods,” said Polat, an Uzbek man. “There was no crime, there were all nations here: Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Russians, Tartars. There’s no future for this neighborhood now and there’s nowhere anyone can go.”

For couples in mixed marriages, the collapse of Kyrgyzstan’s heterogeneous society was particularly heartbreaking.

Gulmira Dashkenbaeva, who is Kyrgyz, described the laborious process she went through in convincing friends and family to accept her Uzbek husband.

"In the beginning when we were planning to get married, people would say ‘couldn’t you find a Kyrgyz guy?’ My friends all got to know him, they know that he’s a good person, but now when I go out I can see it in people’s eyes. They’re thinking ‘you’re married to an Uzbek.’"

During the June violence, Dashkenbaeva hid her husband in her house for days until the violence abated while her sister, also married to an Uzbek, did the same. “I was afraid to let other people see that they were in our house,” she said. “We didn’t let them out once.”

Dashkenbaeva’s sister and husband have since moved to Uzbekistan and have no plans to return. Dashkenbaeva said she and her husband will move to Russia in August. They will consider coming back in two years, she said, if the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan has returned to normal by then.

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