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No Requiem for the Dead After Uzbek Massacre
Galima Bukharbaeva is the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's (IWPR) program director in Tashkent. Matluba Azamatova is an IWPR contributor covering the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan. Originally published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, <www.iwpr.net>, May 5, 2005. For more background on Uzbekistan, please see <www.iwpr.net/index.pl?centasia_uzbekunrest.html>.
Uzbekistan is reeling from the biggest confrontation between the security forces and anti-government protesters since the country gained independence in 1991. The protests began early on May 13, 2005, in the eastern town of Andijan, when demonstrators stormed the prison of local activists who were on trial for alleged Islamic extremism.
Inmates from the prison in Andijan, set free, poured out into the streets. Some carried guns. Thousands of others joined them, chanting for justice and freedom. Ten to fifteen thousand protesters, of all ages, surrounded several government buildings in the city centre. The initial assault by security forces began when soldiers in a convoy of armored vehicles raked the crowd with gunfire -- without even stopping to take aim. People scattered in all directions in an attempt to flee, but continued to fall to the ground as high-velocity rounds hit them however far they ran. Once the crowd had dispersed, eyewitnesses say, the security forces went around finishing off the injured where they lay.
Uzbek president Islam Karimov says that only nine people were killed and 34 wounded in an operation to root out a dangerous group of Islamic radicals.
Yet, on the morning of May 14, journalists, together with residents who were uninjured in the previous day's violence, were able to view the full scale of the massacre. Andijan's city centre, especially Babur Square, was awash with the blood of men and women, young and old, who had come out, for the first time in many long years of oppression, to express their discontent with the regime's policies. The blood of children was spilled there, too.
Body parts, including brains and other internal organs, along with personal items and children's shoes, were strewn about within a two to three kilometer radius of the square where the shooting began. There were still 30 dead bodies visible in the square itself, and near the monument to Babur -- the local boy who invaded India and founded the Moghul dynasty -- lay ten more which people had collected together.
Men and women cried as they surveyed the scene. "To the government, we're just dirt. They don't regard us as human beings," said one of the women. Eyewitnesses claimed that more than 1,500 people were killed by government bullets.
Eyewitnesses report that government security forces carried out deliberate extrajudicial killings once the mass shooting was over. A middle-aged woman who gave her first name as Muqaddas told IWPR that at nine in the evening -- three and half hours after the gunfire began -- uniformed men were still shooting anyone who was moving. "I myself saw how before the assault, a truckload of vodka was delivered to the military servicemen," she said. "They got drunk, and in this condition they shot and killed the wounded. In my presence, they shot down a woman with two small children."
The following morning, witnesses say, the authorities carted off most of the bodies using three trucks and a bus. A secondary school, a technical college, and local parks were turned into impromptu morgues. Hundreds of Andijan residents searched with tears in their eyes for missing relatives, on Babur Square itself and later at these collection points. Reports have emerged that many bodies, especially of women and children, were taken away and concealed by the authorities.
A city pathologist said that on the night of May 15, she personally saw more than 500 bodies at School Number 15 in the old town district. Armed soldiers stood guard, but people were being allowed in to identify relatives. However, this school housed the bodies of men only. The remains of women and children were out of sight -- somewhere near the construction-industry college, local people said -- and, unlike those of the men, were not being released to relatives. An Andijan man called Sadirakhun said women's and children's bodies were trucked to the secret site early on May 14. He suspects they may already have been buried in a mass grave. "I smelled a strong putrid odor -- the smell of blood. They don't even bury dogs that way," said Sadirakhun.
In his May 14 press conference, President Karimov said, "We do not shoot at women and children." But those who witnessed the assault say the fire was so indiscriminate that this cannot have been the case. That is not the only discrepancy between President Karimov's account and what eyewitnesses actually saw. Karimov said "not a single shot" was fired until six in the evening, whereas reporters said the attack by armored vehicles began at 5:20 pm.
According to the President's account, at 7:30 pm helicopters started hovering above the regional government office held by the opposition, and forces moved to pursue them as they began leaving the building in three groups. In fact, by 7:30 that evening there were almost no people left alive and uninjured on the square outside the government building. He said the rebellion was organized by members of a branch of the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir group called Akramia, and that the rebels planned to establish an Islamic state with the help of the people of Andijan. "They wanted to repeat the Kyrgyz [March revolution] scenario in Uzbekistan. Their actions were managed from the territory of Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan," said Karimov.
But again, those who attended the rally dispute this version of events. "This rebellion has nothing to do with religion. I did not hear cries of Allahu Akbar, and none of the rebels inside the regional administration building mentioned anything about an Islamic state," said one western journalist who asked not to be named.
One of the protest leaders, Kabuljon Parpiev, told reporters shortly before the assault that they were not making political demands. "We only want freedom, justice, and protection of human rights. Also, we want the release of Akrom Yuldashev from prison," he said. Yuldashev is the man who the government says formed the Akramia movement of covert extremists, which was to figure prominently in the prosecution's case in the trial which sparked the protests. The 23 defendants insisted that they were not guilty of any crime and said Akramia existed only in the minds of prosecutors.
A clue to why the peaceful protests that accompanied the court hearings in the men's trial on May 10-11 escalated into a major protest -- including the storming of an Andijan jail to free the men -- may lie in a leaflet IWPR reporters found lying in a puddle of blood after the shooting was over.
The open letter, whose content suggests it was written by one of the 23 accused men, is addressed to Andijan residents and talks about the economic and employment crisis facing them. "We could tolerate it no longer," the letter says. "We are unjustly accused of membership of Akramia. We were tormented for almost a year, but they could not prove us guilty in court. Then they started persecuting our nearest and dearest."
"If we don't demand our rights, no one else will protect them for us. The problems that affect you trouble us as well. If you have a government job, your salary is not enough to live on. If you earn a living by yourself, they start envying you and putting obstacles in your way. If you talk about your pain, no one will listen. If you demand your rights, they will criminalize you."
The leaflet issued a call to action, "Dear Andijanis! Let us defend our rights. Let the region's governor come, and representatives of the president too, and hear our pain. When we make demands, the authorities should hear us. If we stick together, they will not do anything bad to us." The themes reflected in this document -- opposition to poverty and political oppression -- were repeated time and again at the May 13 rally.
The flow of information about the massacre was obstructed by the Uzbek authorities. An AFP reporter's camera, film taken by IWPR contributors, and the memory disk from the AP correspondent's camera were all confiscated. Many reporters found their mobile phones were blocked. Journalists from Russia's NTV channel filed a live report as they were driven away under guard to the city of Namangan.
On May 15, a journalist and a photo correspondent working for AP were detained and deported from Teshiktosh near the border with Kyrgyzstan. Ruslan Yarmolyk, reporting for the Inter Channel in Ukraine, said he was detained and strip-searched on May 15 by armed soldiers who appeared at his Andijan hotel and escorted him back to his room. "They undressed me, took off my shoes and confiscated all my video tapes. I've been in many hotspots, but my tapes have never been taken off me," he said.
Many people in Uzbekistan whom IWPR has spoken to would like an official mourning period for the dead. But since the authorities insist there were no mass killings, it follows logically that there is to be no grieving.
According to the New York Times (NYT) of May 1, 2005, the US has sent $500 million in "security" assistance to Uzbekistan since 2001, and has "rendered" dozens of "terrorism suspects" to the country in the last four years. US State Department reports acknowledge that the Uzbek government's use of torture is rampant.
A NYT article on June 9, 2005 (page A3) reported that six senators, led by Senator McCain (R-AZ) sent a letter to US Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice questioning US ties to the Uzbek dictatorship in light of the massacre.
A front-page NYT
article on June 18, 2005 reported that the US, as part of a State
Department program known as Anti-Terrorism Assistance, trained
several members of one of the units involved in the Andijan massacre.
The US trained 150 Uzbek officers in 2003 as part of this program
and maintains a US military air base in Uzbekistan. For more information
about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan and for action
alerts, see <http://hrw.org/doc/?t=europe&c=uzbeki>.