Posted by: sean | September 14, 2005

On the massacre in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is a strange and mysterious country that most people cannot find on a map. And it has been playing a fairly big role in international events for an isolated and remote central Asian former Soviet Republic in the last year or so. The US described the government of President Karimov, a former Sovier apparatchik who ran the KGB in Uzbekistan until independence, as an ally in the global war on terror, and according to Craig Murray, who was the British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004, both British and American intelligence agencies have been outsourcing torture there. As a matter of fact, UN Special Rapporteur on the question of torture, Theo van Boven, wrote a 64-page addendum (pdf), to his report to the Commission on Human Rights, on torture in Uzbekistan.

Furthermore, until recently, Uzbekistan allowed the US to use the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase in southern Uzbekistan for its missions in Afghanistan.

So it’s surprising and disappointing that there has been so little media coverage and diplomatic indignation about the massacre that happened in Andijan last May. In a Guardian article by Ed Vulliamy yesterday, the massacre and the survivors’ plight as refugees is pieced together from eye witness accounts.

The night of May 12 there was a jailbreak to release 23 businessmen who had been arrested for “religious extremism” (see Human Rights Watch’s report on religious persecution in Uzbekistan). This was then followed the next morning at 7 by a big demonstration the next day in Bobur Square. Estimates say that there were around 10,000 people at the demonstration, including some armed oppositionists near a government building and women and children, who had gone expecting “speeches, not bullets.” According to survivors, the shooting began an hour later with the arrival of cars and jeeps full of government militiamen, who proceeded to open fire on the crowd.

Naively, the protesters expected government forced to stop the slaughter: “we were expecting people from the government to arrive and stop it, to save us. Someone said Karimov was on his way, and people started cheering.” Instead, armored government vehicles arrived on the scene, and Uzbek forces starting firing indiscriminately on the protestors, apparently not targeting either the militiamen or the armed oppositionists. The shooting continued off and on until 5, when Uzbek armed personnel carriers arrived, which immediately carried on where the first column of vehicles had left off. The government then proceeded to use these vehicles, snipers, foot soldiers and perhaps even anti-aircraft weapons against the unarmed crowd. “The dead were lying in front of me piled three-thick,” said one survivor. To get out, “I had to climb over the bodies. There were dead women and children; I saw one woman lying dead with a small baby in her arms.”

The official death count was initially 9 people, but that figure was increased to 169 a few days later. Estimates from NGOs and opposition parties range from 500 to over 700. Tashkent claims that all of the casualties, except the 32 Uzbek troops killed, were armed fundamentalists; the survivors and eye-witnesses beg to differ. (According to a source of mine who is a specialist in the region, this story is more complex than suspected. There may have been a clash between the government militiamen and regular government forces, which would account for such a high casualty rate for the well armed Uzbek soldiers as they fired on a mostly unarmed crowd.) At least 439 refugees escaped to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, from where they were then transported to Romania. Amnesty International estimates that as many as 1,000 refugees are still in hiding in Kyrgyzstan, and there have been reports that those who were caught or went back to Uzbekistan have been imprisoned, tortured, and in some cases, killed. In addition to this, the family members of those who escaped and human rights and opposition activists have been arrested, beaten and intimidated.

After all this, the “international community” has done nothing.

Uzbekistan is a beautiful country with rich artisanal and musical traditions and very hospitable people. It is peopled by Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Tatars, amongst others, to form a rich mixture of different languages and traditions. I saw many amazing things and met many amazing people while I was there this month, and I came back with many good memories and made some really good friends. But I also saw the surveillance apparatus of a police state, and the number of police and armed forces it takes to maintain autocratic rule. Uzbekistan has a lot of potential, and it’s currently going to waste, because of a totalitarian despot and his strangle hold on the country and its people. As the “international community,” we should be doing something to help these people breathe free for the first time in centuries.



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