OSH, Kyrgyzstan — This is a beautiful city. It doesn’t quite appear so on first glance, with the shattered asphalt on the streets, the open gutters gushing runoff and choked with discarded plastic bottles, the occasional burned out husk of a building, crumbling facades, mostly older and used cars belching diesel fumes, and the occasional waft of trash or cow dung baking in the afternoon sun. But Osh is gorgeous: leafy, gregarious, and persistent.
As a newcomer to this part of Kyrgyzstan, I spent much of the day today getting acquainted with the city: feeling the potholes beneath my feet, letting the sun push sweat out of my forehead and neck and down my back, digesting the many sights and smells of normal life. Osh feels much more Central Asian-y than Bishkek does, perhaps because it’s far, far older and, as a result, contains within it far deeper memories.
I always appreciate the authenticity of immigrant foods in my hometown of Washington, DC, and Osh is no different… only this time Americans are the immigrants. So I ate a “fajita” at Cafe California, nestled next to Osh State University between Lenin Avenue and Kurmanjan-Datka Street. The place was founded by an American, naturally, and so I had to support their business. Lunch was terribly inauthentic, but there was still something weirdly affirming about some boiled chicken, beans, corn, and a big glop of smyetana rolled inside some burned tortillas. Cafe California was downright bustling, and the waitress even allowed for some patience as I struggled to order my food in the pidgin Russian I never maintained after moving out of Karaganda, Kazakhstan eight years ago.
In short order, as I was trudging up and down the streets looking for an ATM that would actually work with my ATM card, I met an Uzbek man who asked me and my fixer where we were from (my fixer is a local, which made the question hilarious, in a way). He wanted to know why I was in Osh. “You’re clearly not from here,” he said, swaying slightly.
Through my fixer, I explained why I had come to Osh: to try to understand what happened last year, during the June Events, as they’re known, and to maybe try to see if there is a way to make things better for the future.
The Uzbek man scoffed. “How can you make this better?” His eyes wandered down the street. “We’ve spent the last year trying to find out who did this to us, and why. But we get no answers, never any answers.”
[The following archival video from CNN is on the “June Events” of last year–editor]
There’s nothing you can say to that. The Uzbek man told a harrowing story: one morning in June, drunk, young Kyrgyz men began running through the streets, shouting and brandishing homemade clubs and weapons, and pounding on the doors to Uzbek neighborhoods, called mahallahs. Some Uzbeks fired guns into the air to warn away the hooligans, he said, but that only resulted in the Kyrgyz later claiming they had to attack the mahallahsto defend themselves from Uzbek aggressors. Provocateurs would shout into Kyrgyz neighborhoods that the Uzbekistan military was about to send ten thousand troops to conquer Osh for the Uzbeks, so Kyrgyz must protect themselves.
This mahallah, an Uzbek neighborhood, was destroyed during The June Events last year. UNHCR is helping to rebuild it, but many Uzbeks don’t want to return.
The next 72 hours, as both my fixer and this Uzbek man described it, were worse than anarchy, they said, worse than hell. “Under Akaev,” my fixer explained, “there was basically anarchy — very little government control. Bakiyev imposed law and order, which a lot of people didn’t like. Now, it’s anarchy again, where you can not tell who is good and who is bad. The government doesn’t control anything.”
I was surprised to hear my fixer say this; he is normally very upbeat. But the Uzbek man chimed in: “I have no hope for the future. I helped to bury 26 people, and we could not identify four of them because their faces were so badly beaten. My son was shot and killed, and his shop burned to the ground, and the government will not help me. I have no hope for the future.” At this point, the Uzbek man shook my hand. “Do you know what it’s like? I can’t leave for Uzbekistan, they won’t have us. I’m stuck, I’m terrified for what my grandchildren will face.”
I most certainly do not know what it is like, and I couldn’t begin to pretend. As the three of us were speaking, Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek people — men, women, more than a few children begging their mama for an ice cream — all breezed past us, seemingly oblivious to the obvious foreigner talking to an obviously distraught Uzbek man. He seemed to noticed as well, and begged me not to take his picture or record any audio of our conversation. “I don’t want to be found talking to you,” he said. “The police, some street people, I don’t know someone will come after me if that happens.”
At this point I had run out of words. There is nothing to say in response, is there? You can’t say anything in response. I tried to assure him that I didn’t want to get him into trouble. He responded by asking me to join him for 50g of vodka. “I would barely feel that,” I responded. “But, I’m also exhausted from my journey here and would like to rest. Can I come back tomorrow?”
The Uzbek man laughed, really loudly. “You are a polite American!” I grinned and shook his hand again, this time placing my other hand over his. We then both performed the ubiquitous Central Asian gesture of gripping the right hand and placing it over the heart.
Osh is an overwhelming place. It is far less “friendly” to foreigners, in the sense that it’s harder to get around on your own if you don’t speak at least Russian (Uzbek or Kyrgyz is even better), but its people are far friendlier to foreigners than in Bishkek (though no one was really rude to me in Bishkek, they were never this open and warm). It is clearly a poor place, and just as clearly a socially and economically shattered place. I really don’t know how much I’ll be able to learn during my few short days here. But I came here to try anyway, and to see what could be learned. Maybe that’s all you can do anyway.