Osh

Posted by: Emily. Location: Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

As most of you know, I was just in a war zone in Osh. I still have a difficult time believing what has happened there, and my heart is broken to see this city and many of its homes and inhabitants destroyed by senseless violence.  Although I don’t feel that I was personally in significant danger as an American living with a Kyrgyz family, I have been writing an account of my experiences to try and explain what has happened. Here is a rough draft and preliminary sketch of my thoughts which I hope to turn into a larger paper. Thank you all for sharing your own field stories and for any feedback.

“They are not my Friends”:

Competing Narratives of Victimization in Osh

The day lasts more than a hundred years. The title of a book by Kyrgyzstan’s most famous writer, Chingis Aitmatov, never rang truer than over these past few days while I was in Osh. Although the images of the media demonstrate the chaos and violence that has ravaged the city, for most residents (especially for Kyrgyz people but also including myself), most of the time was spent simply waiting. For three days I waited with my Kyrgyz host family, never leaving the apartment except to pace back and forth across the complex’s courtyard, where one could see thick black smoke curling up towards the sky from the center of town, where most of Osh’s Uzbeks live.

As a consequence of roving gangs and targeted firebombing, not everyone shared the luxury of home as a safe haven from the violence on the streets. While all residents lived in fear during this time, those that were forced to flee their homes were mostly Uzbeks. One hundred thousand Uzbek refugees have already fled to the border with Uzbekistan, while no one yet knows how many thousands of people in Kyrgyzstan’s South have lost their lives. How could this happen? Based on observations during my time in Osh and previous research, it appears that contrasting forms of access to power, one political and one economic, provided the initial conditions for ethnic resentment to escalate to the point of violence. However, I believe that the violence was exacerbated to the level of ethnic cleansing based on the mode and type of information in circulation. The uneven transmission of conflicting narratives of suffering resulted in organized aggression by Kyrgyz men, many of whom perceived themselves as the true victims. Unfortunately this unequal circulation of information has mirrored itself on the national scale, whereby the vast majority of Kyrgyz remain unaware of the asymmetrical nature of the violence that occurred and likely will continue in one form or another.

Morgan Liu, an anthropologist at Ohio State, wrote an article about Osh in which he describes the contrasting spatial and economic realms in which Kyrgyz and Uzbeks inhabit as a “Tale of Two Cities.” In my grant proposal for this summer I also described the varying geography of the city as “gated garden courtyards of Uzbek mahallas (neighborhoods) which fade into crumbling Soviet-style apartment buildings occupied largely by Kyrgyz families.” I had no idea that merely one week after my arrival, these contrasting zones would become literally separated from each other by barricades and armed makeshift militias. The main problem with these “two cities” in the Osh violence that began last week is that behind versus beyond the barricade different aggressors were perceived. According to most Kyrgyz that I spoke with, the Uzbeks were fighting for political autonomy and even for their language rights – apparently the demand for Uzbek to be recognized as an official language was a salient political issue on the eve of the constitutional referendum that was scheduled to take place at the end of June. Uzbeks on the other hand found themselves under siege in their homes as a consequence of what appeared to manifest as contagion of xenophobic nationalism. The word “xenophobic”, however, is historically inaccurate in that Osh has always been an Uzbek-dominated city. It was not until the forced resettlement of nomadic populations during the Soviet era that Kyrgyz people came to Osh. As a result, structural inequalities persist and Uzbeks (at least as of the first week of June, 2010) own the vast majority of Osh’s businesses and its nicest houses (which contain small sheltered plots of land) in the heart of the city. Yet since the poorly drawn lines (in that there were no ethnically homogenous populations in Central Asia and yet each territory was ascribed a titular ethnicity) of the Soviet era were converted to the borders of new nation-states, the Kyrgyz majority has dominated at all levels of government and the military. Thus while Uzbeks may be the more prosperous ethnic group of Osh, they are largely alienated from access to political power. The fact that Kyrgyz lack the jobs and wealth and Uzbeks lack political rights and recognition facilitated inter-ethnic resentment, whereby each group sees the Other as the possessing more power and themselves as the underdog fighting for justice and equality.

Thursday June 10th , the day the violence began, proceeded as any other day; by nightfall there were still no palpable indicators of the horrors to come. In fact, many Osh residents (including myself and most of the residents of my neighborhood on the outskirts of town) had no idea that the fighting had begun until early the next day. On Friday morning at 7:22am, I awoke to the sound of a text message from a woman I had planned to meet that day: “Maybe we won’t see each other because of all these events in our city. It’s dangerous. On Monday I’ll call you.” At that point I was still clueless as to what had happened. I thought perhaps she was referring to events in the past few weeks involving pro-Bakiev supporters stirring up trouble, but nothing had happened to the point where safety on the streets of Osh was a noteworthy concern. I decided to investigate at a slightly more reasonable hour, but my drift toward sleep was interrupted by the sounds of people in the living room. I entered the room to find my host mother and brother scanning television channels and having a rather intense-sounding conversation. Still unable to understand most spoken Kyrgyz, I asked my English-speaking brother what was going on. “Two Kyrgyz girls,” he said, and then paused, searching for words. Not knowing the precise vocabulary, he made a frightening gesture of self-strangulation. “Uzbeks did it,” he concluded. I was shocked… had he just described an ethnically fueled lynching? I was confused—this sounded more like the American South of yesteryear than the Kyrgyz South of today. It was a rumor that did not match the stories being told in the Uzbek community.

By the next day (Saturday, June 12th), the advice of the Kyrgyz and Uzbek families began to diverge, precisely because Kyrgyz people remained safe in their homes where as Uzbeks were being driven out of theirs by fire and armed Kyrgyz gangs. Although these contrasting experiences of safety versus danger were apparent to those Uzbeks who were forced to flee, Kyrgyz people at this time continued to believe that they were the initial victims who were now under attack by organized militant Uzbeks. As such that same day my Kyrgyz host brother shared his feelings on the relative strength of the two groups: “The Uzbeks have guns, while Kyrgyz men have only sticks and knives.” According to the information circulating among Kyrgyz people, the Uzbeks were the powerful group possessing automatic weapons. All this time the number killed continued to rise according the official account on the national news channel, while the news simultaneously parroted the evidently false line that everything was under control and in the process of “stabilization.” All the local channels were down, and the one or two national channels continued to play the same clips over and over. In changing channels on TV one would never know there was anything going on based on what was playing on the national news stations: 1) a previously recorded report on the status of Islam in Kyrgyzstan, 2) tropical fish swimming serenely through coral reefs, 3) A Russian animated film for children. Actual news was unbelievably absent or lacking concrete information. Clips of a calm Bishkek were shown to contrast the placid North with the restive South. Commercials promoting Kyrgyzstani peace and unity recycled continuously but were clearly intended for an earlier time when the interim government first came to power. As a consequence of this banal and useless programming, the rumors continued to fly through Osh through the use of mobile phones. Who had started this and why? For each group it appeared to be the other one who had started the now-dubbed “war”, and their imagined struggles appeared as rooted to impossible goals: ethnic autonomy and ethnic annihilation. Yet only 24 hours before this began there were no signs of animosity of the streets of Osh. Perhaps this violence was orchestrated by the former president and his six brothers – “the hydra” as one Kyrgyz man described them. On the other hand, no amount of outside manipulation can account for the rapid deterioration of neighborly trust. I tried to understand why Kyrgyz and Uzbeks were received such widely divergent accounts of what was happening, so I asked my host brother, “how are your Uzbek friends reacting to all of this?” His answer surprised me: “They are not my friends.” Having a hard time believing that in a city where half the population was Uzbek that he did not have a single friend among them, I probed further until he admitted that he had “maybe one or two” Uzbek friends. Perhaps he lost touch with them.

Later that day I confirmed with my own eyes the misinformation that my host brother had received. A group of Kyrgyz men parked outside our apartment, and each of the three men carried large rifles in their hands. They milled around for a few moments waiting for some unknown errand to be accomplished, and then hurriedly disembarked once more. Meanwhile in the Uzbek neighborhoods people were fleeing their homes which were no longer safe. From the mahallahs you could see smoke rising and hear the sound of gunfire. Twenty funerals had taken place on one street alone that day.  Hearing from friends what was happening in the Uzbek neighborhoods made me realize the discrepancy between the tranquility of my own Kyrgyz apartment complex and the mayhem in mahallahs. The sight of guns outside my door filled me with terror, knowing all too well where the men with guns were headed. “Kyrgyz people also have guns,” my host brother later confirmed that day.

In the midst of all this periodic calm and chaos, I managed to collect my first bit of data regarding my research project. As a result, my stress and sadness for the suffering around me helped me realize how meaningful it is for people to understand what is happening here. I therefore became more committed than ever to continue with my dissertation topic of Kyrgyz and Uzbek language ideologies. The project helps unveil the very tenuously reified boundaries that divide Kyrgyz and Uzbek languages and culture. The example I had from my host family was presented during breakfast time, when I could tell the conversation was concerning a growing shortage of food should the fighting persist. My host brother is usually particularly concerned with the absence of meat, a fact which always amuses me as a vegetarian and for which we both each make fun of each other. As I heard him and his mother discussing meat in Kyrgyz, I noticed they both used the Uzbek word for meat, pronounced “ghosh.” Later that day after my host mother had miraculously procured some truly scary-looking cow parts, I tried to explain the wincing expression I was unable to hide from my face. “Men ghosh jebeym.” I don’t eat meat, I said in Kyrgyz, while consciously selecting the Uzbek word after hearing it that morning. This utterance of mine solicited a “correction” from my host brother: “No, that’s the Uzbek word. We say ‘et.’” “Ah ha!” I exclaimed, too delighted to hold back. I replied in Russian, wagging my index finger triumphantly, “But I heard you this morning say ‘ghosh!’” He simply laughed in response, clearly embarrassed by being caught in his own contradiction. I probably should have pursued the matter at the moment (which I did at a later point), but I was too excited about having confirmed my hypothesis that Kyrgyz people in the South are often in denial of just how “Uzbekified” they are, so I decided to go and write a reflection first. I couldn’t believe that in this moment of overwhelming despair, I had at least uncovered a shred of hope that maybe one day those Kyrgyz people who scapegoat Uzbeks as responsible for the structural violence they suffer will realize that those they kill are their kinsmen and those lives they could save are their own.

8 Responses to “Osh”


  • In uncanny ways this account reminds me of the documentary “We are all neighbors” about how the ethnic conflict ruptured the friendships and daily coexistence in a Bosnian village. But live this time… Be safe, Emily! Sad but true that such miserable situations help anthropologists – like journalists – collect data that would not surface otherwise.

  • Thanks for your comment Ieva! I have also been thinking a lot about this documentary and how much it relates to what’s been happening in Osh. I just wanted to share with you the evolution of one of the more interesting rumors – both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz talked about snipers of unknown origin – first it was Tajiks who were blamed and then later the story became that blonde Baltic female snipers were the ones behind the violence!

  • Keep observing, thinking, and writing, Emily. Perhaps we can learn enough to help heal the rift and to keep things like this from happening again.

    Be safe. Thinking of you.

  • Wow Emily, thanks for writing. My post seems so minor in comparison in terms of dealing with the comforts of everyday life. I really cant wait to read more. Be safe!

  • An illuminating and empathetic reflection Emily. I hope you write the larger paper – I’d love to read it. It’s such a shame, our propensity to “otherise” and the consequent denial of what we share with those we find ourselves in conflict with…

  • Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say excellent blog!

  • Definitely believe that which you said. Your favorite justification seemed to be on the net the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get irked while people think about worries that they just do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and also defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people can take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thanks

  • Your style is really unique compared to other folks I’ve read stuff from. Thank you for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this web site.|

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