Uzbeks stick to rebuilding in Kyrgyzstan’s divided south as elections approach

By Peter Leonard, AP
Friday, October 8, 2010

Uzbeks avoid politics in Kyrgyz divided south

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Down the entire length of Navoi street in this southern Kyrgyz city, piles of sand await use as construction materials by homeless ethnic Uzbeks.

Elsewhere, the country is in the grips of election fever as parties vie for seats in the newly empowered parliament in Sunday’s vote, but the priority here is on rebuilding homes destroyed during this summer’s deadly ethnic clashes.

An Indian summer has been a rare lucky break for the Uzbek community that has given them some extra time to work before the harsh winter sets in.

A once-bustling trading town on the famed Silk Route, Osh has for years been a well-trodden stop-off point for backpackers traveling across Central Asia eastward to China. That all but ended over the course of five blood-soaked days in the middle of June, when fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks left hundreds dead, mainly Uzbeks, and displaced tens of thousands.

With the economy devastated, possibly beyond repair, livelihoods have been ruined and many rely on international aid agencies for building materials.

“If there were no foreign agencies, we would not be able to build our houses,” unemployed resident Kamoletdin Isakov, 63, said Friday.

Isakov’s courtyard, lying in the shade of an apricot tree singed in the ethnic upheaval, is now filled with cement and bricks provided by British-based aid organization Save the Children.

Campaigning politicians are the last thing on people’s minds, and the indifference is reciprocated. Across the road from Isakov’s house, 40-year old taxi driver Lutfulla Khalbayev says almost no politicians have taken interest in their plight.

“Not a single candidate has come to ask what we are doing, or how the rebuilding is going,” Khalbayev said.

The country has been in an almost perennial state of convulsion since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown amid deadly street protests over worsening living conditions and perceived corruption.

Although an interim government quickly seized power, it was helpless to prevent Osh and Jalal-Abad, the second largest city in the south, from descending into a frenzy of violence.

While Kyrgyz communities may have suffered less material damage, emotional scars will take years to heal.

The pride often shown in offering hospitality to outsiders has been replaced in past months with suspicion of foreigners’ motives. Many Kyrgyz are deeply aggrieved by the feeling that the international community, the media in particular, appears to have singled them out for blame in an ethnic conflict that they insist was thrust upon them.

At the opening hearing of a murder trial Thursday, the relatives of the presumed victim — no body was ever found — attacked a New York Times reporter for speaking to the family members of the defendants, all of whom were ethnic Uzbeks.

The origins of the conflagration remain a fraught subject.

A government commission to investigate violence, set up in part to ensure some sense of closure, concluded its survey in shambles as its members offered varying interpretations and bickered among themselves.

For fear of damage to their reputation, many politicians have shied away from questioning the widely ethnic Kyrgyz narrative, which argues that they endured the first blow on June 10 by a well-prepared and heavily armed Uzbek force determined to seek territorial autonomy.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, a mob of Uzbeks assembled in central Osh in response to interethnic scuffles earlier that day. While Uzbeks are believed to have been responsible for much of the initial attacks, the days that followed saw mass looting and violence predominantly by Kyrgyz crowds.

Despite the lingering differences, political campaigning in Osh has tentatively sought to convey a sense of a community on the mend. Huge posters advertising some of the larger parties, such as Ata-Meken and the Social Democratic Party, remind voters of the need for peace and stability.

The message is clearest in the slogan of the fledging Sodruzhestvo, or Friendship, party: Our Strength is in Our Unity.

The sharp rise to prominence of the nationalist Ata-Zhurt party, which has gained a huge following in the south, had some worried that some politicians might even seek to exploit the ethnic tension.

Ata-Zhurt representatives have been at pains to downplay their nationalist bent, however, indicating that they understand that the rhetoric of intolerance would be a political dead end.

“At all our meetings, we try to make sure that all ethnic groups are represented,” said Osh-based Ata-Zhurt candidate Azhibai Kalmamatov.

Kalmamatov also acknowledged that the police, which is dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz, have mistreated the Uzbek community and said his party is doing everything possible to put a stop to the discrimination.

Possible Uzbek refusal to engage in the political process threatens to further entrench the sense of disenfranchisement in the community. That is something that acting President Roza Otunbayeva warned against Friday.

“I think that it is very important that Uzbeks vote for those parties that they feel will ensure their safety and future,” Otunbayeva said.

Associated Press writer Leila Saralayeva contributed to this report from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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