For those interested in the current problems in South Kyrgyzstan, the following quote was written by an NGO worker in Osh. If you want to read more about the area, the revolutions and don’t find your favourite newspaper is giving you enough, I’d recommend reading through Registan, New Eurasia and EurasiaNet.
For my friends and family back in the West, I want to make it clear this is in a different country, Kazakhstan is absolutely fine. Wherever you see “I” in the quoted text, please remember this is someone else’s account.
First hand experience in Southern Kyrgyzstan
Before I explain anything, let me just say that I am completely safe. I and the other NGO volunteers (except for 3 village volunteers in Osh who will be moved tomorrow but are safe right now) have been moved to the American military base outside of the Kyrgyz capitol of Bishkek. I totally and completely safe right now, and I will definitely never be returning to Osh.
I don’t know if you have been following the news. Mostly just NPR and Al Jazeera have reported, but they know very little as the conflict is so bad no one can get in.
I just had the most terrifying experience of my life. I’m going to let you know so you can get a small picture of what it is like where I live. And I am only letting you know because I am now out of the conflict.
It was Friday at 1am and I was awoken by a phone call from another friend in the NGO who lives in my neighbourhood in Osh. He was wondering if I heard any strange noises on the streets. I didn’t at that point, but I got up and looked out my balcony (it must be noted that I am the only volunteer in Osh who lives on the main street with my windows facing it as well, so they wanted me to look for them. I am on the 2nd floor). What I saw was horrifying. I looked to my right and saw a fire burning in the street about a block away and men screaming loudly around it. I thought they were just screaming to put out the fire. I waited a bit and noticed the fire growing and growing. It cast a red glow across the whole street I lived on. I then turned to the left and saw a hundred or more local men walking down towards my building carrying axes and shotguns. They were yelling cheers and shooting into the air. They began to set fire to more buildings around me, while breaking the glass and doors of the stores on the first floor of my building and the buildings around me. I was scared and had no idea what to do so I called our safety officer at the NGO and she had no idea what was going on (I woke her up). More and more men gathered in the red glow of the burning buildings around me (at least 300 by now), and they began to throw rocks at buildings. I was walking towards the bathroom to seek cover (as this is the only room in my apartment that doesn’t have a window facing the street), and a large rock smashed through my window and flew right by my head. I was lucky to have missed it as it was a fist sized stone. I spent the rest of the night hiding in my bathroom, staying on the phone with the NGO, and sneaking peeks to see if my building was on fire. Luckily just as my building was going to get caught by the flames, the fire department came, dispersed the crowd and put out the fire (which I am surprised they put out so much because we don’t have fire hydrants here).
I can’t even properly describe the terror I felt. I have never felt so trapped in my life. I didn’t know what to do if my building caught on fire because if I ran outside I would have surely been killed. I am so grateful that the fire stopped when it did. It was also incredibly terrifying because this incident was about 2 hours long. I spent the rest of the night packing my emergency bag and trying to rest in the bathtub, but I was unsuccessful as I was so nervous about men climbing onto my balcony or my apartment being set ablaze. I can’t get the image out of my head of all those mens and guns shadows destroying my neighbourhood.
I spent the whole time praying for dawn because I thought it would get better with light. Well, it didn’t. 5 o’clock hit and Kyrgyz men came with crowbars and started smashing up the stores right across the street from my building. This continued until a crowd of Uzbek men came and chased them away with rocks. Yes, if you didn’t know, this whole conflict is about the ethnic tension between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, possibly started by a third party for political reasons.
Hundreds of Uzbeks gathered again on my street, but soon scattered into the distant neighbourhoods because of police. I was then called by the NGO and told to move about a block away to another volunteer’s house, where many of us would gather to be safe. I did so, and it was relatively safe. 6 of us spent the rest of that first day trying to rest, conserve our energy (I didn’t get to eat for 2 days because the gas and electricity were shut off and no stores were open), and hope for the best. We just heard distant fighting and shots the rest of that day and then that night military tanks were roaming the city firing into crowds to disperse them.
The next day (Saturday), we all woke up and got the 4 other NGO volunteers in the city to join us (thats 10 now). We were told by the NGO that we were leaving to the airport to catch a flight to the capital, but the roads were blocked and shooting was heavy on the way. We then had to wait for a new plan. In the mean time, some local Kyrgyz threw a bottle and rock into our window and smashed it. We had to create an emergency plan because we heard that molotov cocktails were being thrown into windows, so we needed to do fire prevention. We positioned the bed and cushions against all the windows, hoping that a molotov would bounce off back into the street. Luckily this was never tested. We spent the rest of the afternoon in complete silence (all phones were off except for mine to conserve our batteries. I kept mine on for communication with the NGO), and getting many different changing plans from the NGO.
Finally, at about 6pm we were picked up by 5 kyrgyz men (trusted and hired by the NGO) who had masks on and guns. They were to escort us to a bus that would take us to helicopter. We left with them, but the bus got lost so we were exposed on the main street for 20 minutes. It was so eery as all the streets were empty, except for when random cars would drive by with dozens of men and guns in them. One of the cars was stopped on the way by a group of Kyrgyz who pointed their guns at the volunteers in it and screamed, “If any of you are Uzbeks we will kill you all.” Luckily our drivers were Kyrgyz and we were somewhat “safer” because we were in Kyrgyz territory. They went away and we spent the next 20 minutes trying to get the bus to come to us while watching troops of Kyrgyz driving past us with guns. We were so scared of being shot at this point. Luckily, we got to the bus that was controlled by the Kyrgyzstan border control, who was to take us to a helicopter in the city. We got in and after driving a certain way we were blocked by a crowd of hundreds and hundreds of Kyrgyz men who were demanding the guns from the military tank escorting us. The military refused and started firing guns into the air. We all ducked down, but I saw that more gunshots were being fired around us by the local kyrgyz and then rocks and sticks were being smashed against our car windows. We were in this position for about 5 minutes and we were all in control, but I truly felt for the first time in my life that I could have died at that moment. So many men screaming, so many shots in my direction, so much anger. I just could truly see myself not surviving that moment. Again, i can’t describe how that danger feels. It is beyond numbing.
Luckily the tank eventually decided to plow through the crowd and we followed. We made it to the heli base and were lifted to the Osh airport where we got a charter flight to Bishkek. We are now safe at the base while our homes and friends burn in the fires of ethnic conflict.
While we feel grateful to be alive and gone, I personally feel guilty because I am so privileged to have the ability to be lifted out of the danger like that while my local friends and coworkers hide for their lives. It is a horrible feeling to have left them to die. Hundreds are dead already, thousands are injured. 150,000 Uzbeks have fled to the Uzbek border; women are handing their babies off to Uzbekistan soldiers at the border so that at least they survive.
Whats worse is that the Uzbeks are not only blamed for this whole thing (as the ethic and hated minority), but they are being targeted not only by Kyrgyz, but also the military. We hear from our Uzbek friends that police are openly killing defenceless Uzbeks on the street. Entire Uzbek neighbourhoods are destroyed in Osh. I will never forget the last image I had, flying away in a heli over the city, seeing entire blocks of houses scorched to the ground, with smoke and fire covering the whole city. It will haunt me forever.
Whats worse is that the Kyrgyz government is only providing humanitarian assistance to the Kyrgyz, and leaving the Uzbek out. Please urge your congressperson to push the american government to urge the Kyrgyz government to provide equal aid to all ethnicities. PLEASE. These are my friends and neighbors that are being murdered. Just take a few minutes and call/email. It is an emergency situation, no time to lose. Please leave my name out of your message though.
Email me if you have questions. I have good internet at the base. The rest of the country is completely stable as Uzbeks are mainly just in the south, so don’t worry about me being in the north now.
I love you all and I am think I will be home in America soon.
I have not been able to verify the accuracy of this account, and others have noted that conclusions drawn about the police and military forces in Osh and surrounding areas (although repeated by different people) could be inaccurate, as uniforms can be stolen, and identification of allegiances/membership of official forces could be difficult to ascertain in the heat of a battle.
If you a UK citizen, and want to contact your MP, asking them to ensure the British government sends a message that humanitarian aid needs to be given out regardless of ethnicity, then click here.
Update to include information on the best contact methods and URL assignment, by KZBlog in the comments section below
All American senators also have websites at LASTNAME.senate.gov. So if you know your Senator’s name, you can go there. House members are at LASTNAME.house.gov. Or go harass Obama at whitehouse.gov. Letters and phone calls do tend to carry more weight than emails and Tweets, so I’ve heard.
(Just in case you don’t scroll any further)