OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Rumors of alleged atrocities helped stoke the inter-ethnic conflagration that raged in this southern Kyrgyz city over the past week, and they are now threatening to unravel an uneasy peace.
News that an angry Uzbek mob broke into a local dormitory and raped (and killed, depending on which version you heard) two Kyrgyz female students quickly spread through the ethnic Kyrgyz sections of Osh last Thursday evening. The story struck a particular nerve — Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are traditional societies (and both Sunni Muslims) and react to issues of sexual violations with particular severity.
It didn't matter that the information wasn't true — the Uzbeks did not step foot in the dormitory. Within hours, a cry went up through the ethnic Kyrgyz sections of the city, calling for revenge.
"My sister called me at 1:30 in the morning," said Rustam, an ethnic Uzbek married to a Kyrgyz. "She said, 'The Kyrgyz are rising up, they're saying that the Uzbeks are cutting them to pieces.'"
The Uzbeks, for their part, had their own rumors that they were reacting to. On that fateful Thursday night, a crowd of several hundred of them did in fact go on a rampage, burning businesses and breaking windows. But participants say that they were responding to reports of a series of confrontations between Kyrgyz and them the previous days, which also may not have been entirely accurate.
Many observers here and abroad — including U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — suspect that the anti-Uzbek pogroms that subsequently swept over Osh and then neighboring city Jalal-Abad like a prairie fire might have been the work of outside forces.
The initial altercations that sparked the fighting could have been intentional provocations, as was the manner in which the news was quickly disseminated. And the revenge mobs that quickly formed and descended on the Uzbek neighborhoods may have been organized in advance. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Nari Pillay called the attacks "orchestrated, targeted, and well-planned."
Uzbek houses and business went up in flames. As many as 2,000 people may have died, according to Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva. This figure may climb even higher.
But the events that led to the slaughter are still taken at face value. Despite the fact that the dormitory in question is located in central Osh and can be easily reached, no one disputes the allegations of what happened there — including the mayor's office, which backs up this version of events.
But even if the pogroms were orchestrated, they still found strong support among the Kyrgyz population; the reports of the Uzbek crowd's alleged atrocities are still used as justification for what transpired to their entire community afterwards.
"The Uzbeks started all this — they're the guilty ones," said Kasym Anarbaev, director Osh-Gu University, standing not far from where the dormitory is located. "They broke into the dormitory and raped and strung up those girls."
Responding to the question of why so many Uzbeks needed to suffer for what might have been the actions of a few hundred enraged rioters, Daniyar, a ethnic Kyrgyz soldier wielding a Kalashnikov (and who preferred to give only his first name) simply said: "Those Uzbeks should have thought about the consequences before they started this. They got what was coming to them."
Amid the jumble of facts and rumors, accusations and counter-accusations over who is ultimately to blame for the violence, one fact is indisputable: both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are terrified of what may come next.
The Uzbeks, however, it must be said, are more afraid — and with good reason: they bore the brunt of the fighting. Although the death toll is still climbing — and many of Kyrgyz seem to among this number — they suffered disproportionately.
Outside observers who witnessed the hostilities, like independent journalist Dalton Bennett, have documented some of the Uzbeks' losses. Bennett described numerous terrible scenes, including a 14-year-old boy killed by sniper fire being delivered to a hospital, and the corpse of a pregnant Uzbek woman.
Those Uzbeks who live in primarily Uzbek sections of Osh have now barricaded themselves behind freshly dug trenches and overturned cars; a number who live in ethnically mixed sections of the city venture out infrequently to buy supplies from the recently opened stores or nervously trade stories with neighbors.
Hundreds of thousands have fled Osh and Jalal-Abad, the two southern cities that saw the worst of the fighting. About 100,000 of these escaped to neighboring Uzbekistan, where they are testing the local authorities' ability to cope with the humanitarian crisis.
Hordes have descended upon Surot-Tash, an ethnic-Uzbek town on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Women and children are mostly crammed into the locals' houses, sometimes as many as 30 in a single structure. They say that they can't stay where they are, but also many have nowhere to return to — their houses were burned to cinders. Kyrgyzstan — and more importantly Osh — is their home and they don't want to live anywhere else.
But they also say that they fear for their future, and the violence that may await them if they return.
"We are afraid. We can't live next to them — there will be war," said Odina Imendzhanova a refugee from Osh, as she was standing in the shadow of the town's main mosque, which had been turned into a field hospital.
But once again the rumors are taking central stage. During the fighting, a story spread that one side or the other had poisoned the city's water supply. Then there were claims of acts of barbarity: headless corpses, limbless bodies, babies that were dispatched by various gruesome methods, after they had been ripped from there mothers' arms. Now the rumor making the rounds is that the next installment of the fighting will begin June 21 or 22. Kyrgyz believe that the Uzbeks will try to exact revenge. Uzbeks think that the Kyrgyz will look to finish the job.
And stories of rape are again spreading like wildfire. It is possible that these stories are true — both sides were inflamed to the point of hysteria. But this particular accusation — given its history within this very conflict — should also inspire a level of caution.
A case in point was a recent report that 10 Uzbek women had been raped during the brutal fighting and looting in the Cheryomushki section of Osh. GlobalPost visited the field hospital where the story emanated from. One ethnic Uzbek doctor who had worked at the hospital during the duration of the crisis said it was definitely not true: no women had claimed that they had been raped, he said.
Another nurse said that the number of victims was in fact two, but she knew this for a fact. When questioned further, she admitted that she did not speak to the girls in question, nor their parents (who were originally quoted as sources), but in fact had "overheard some women" who claimed it happened. The story took however a number of forms in its telling, and the nurse in question could not name the victims.
"This is a provocation," said a nurse present at the interview, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. "I can imagine the Kyrgyz burning houses, even killing. But rape? That's a very serious issue for Muslims. You have to be sure if you say a thing like that."