Natalia M. Wobst

Among the Uzbek and Kyrgyz people before the deadly unrest
Natalia M. Wobst, a June 2010 graduate of the Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies Program at the University of Washington, spent two months last summer in the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, which was at the heart of the recent unrest. Here Natalia was enrolled in the American Councils’ Eurasian Regional Language Program, lived within an Uzbek host family, received intensive Uzbek language instruction and conducted research for her Master’s Thesis – “Local Impact on Secondary Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.”

According to an AP report of June 17th, 2010, deadly riots led by ethnic Kyrgyz mobs from June 10th – 14th in southern Kyrgyzstan caused hundreds of thousands of native Uzbeks to flee their homes. As many as 100,000 (mostly women, children, and elderly people) escaped the country and set up makeshift camps across the border in Uzbekistan, while 300,000 people were and are being sheltered by family and schools, warehouses, and sport centers of host communities in Kyrgyzstan itself. The recent violence in Kyrgyzstan came only two months after President Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010) was ousted by mass protests in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, in April and a provisional government led by opposition leader Rosa Otunbaeva was set into place. Both eyewitnesses and experts testify that ethnic Kyrgyz citizens too were injured and slain in the the various conflicts that broke out in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad and surrounding villages, but reports confirm minority Uzbeks suffered most of all.

Uzbeks, who have in the past led a more sedentary life compared to the, formerly pastoral, nomadic Kyrgyz, command a significant monopoly on the economy in the South. The Uzbek and Kyrgyz languages are a related, but distinct, Turkic languages. Interim President Otunbaeva estimates the official toll of lives lost (several hundred) in the deadliest ethnic violence on post-Soviet space to be about ten times lower than it should be. Surprising international observers, most refugees who fled abroad – often returning to burnt edifices where their houses once stood – were back in the country by June 28th, due to strong encouragement to participate in a constitutional referendum, which would grant legitimacy to the new government and sanction a parliamentary system.

In considering what is next for Kyrgyzstan, the author takes a closer look at the Uzbek community’s values, language, and religious traditions. Through anecdotes from her experience in Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2009, she draws our attention to the fact that this is not a community predestined to civil war. The problem instead lies in the Uzbeks’ situation within a weak state with intricate borders dating back to the Soviet Union, which lacks the means to fully support and integrate its diverse populace. Such a situation can be easily manipulated by sub-national groups, reacting to what they perceive as their disregarded social, economic, and political needs. Only a year ago, things looked markedly different.

On July 1, 2009, when I wrote family and friends from my temporary home in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, I described a much more peaceful scene than is conjured when people try to visualize the city of the southern region, wrought by inter-ethnic riots only one year later. As the only student that summer who was enrolled in American Councils’ Eurasian Regional Language Program in Kyrgyzstan and the first American to study in Osh for a long time, I experienced real immersion. I learned to love these people and their ways, from one day, one lesson, and one challenge to the next in one of the hottest, but arguably most beautiful places I had ever been. Had I not been in a hot “internet cafe with warped screens and dirty keys,” and had I been more poetically inclined, I may have written something a little more like travel writer Sergei Dudashvili’s interpretation of the “land at the foot of the sun,” which I picked up at a local shop:

They are the waves of two great oceans of stone; hardened monuments of eternity creating mystical valleys between heaven and earth…they are the Tien-Shan and the Pamir. The great mountains of Kyrgyzstan are visible from no matter where you are. For the inhabitants of the Osh Valley, however, God has created one of his finest works: here the sun rises out of the giant ranges of the Pamir and sets far away behind the dusty horizon of the Fergana Valley [sic].

This faraway place where I arrived in early June last year was a land of stark contrasts: a place of unquestioning bucolic beauty, a metropolitan center [Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city] bustling with pre-election excitement, and, for me, a place of cultural wealth, foreign tongues, and never-before-seen warmth in hospitality, where I – the tall blonde among people who were mostly shorter and darker – was accepted as kin.

Included in my prearranged excursions were a visit to a Russian Orthodox Church and one of the local mosques; I found myself amidst a mosaic of different traditions and a tribrid (Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek speaking) people. Not everyone spoke every language and some seemed to speak a mix of all three.

The language I used most in class and at home was Uzbek, which is only natural, given this is what I had come there to do. The Russified Uzbek dialect that my host mother, younger brother and sister spoke, however, often had to be distilled in order to arrive at the version of the language I heard in the classroom. To confuse matters, I commanded very little of the spoken language when I arrived, so for the first week or so, we were speaking Russian. On the streets, I also stuck to Russian in the beginning, given what I had heard about the existing separation between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities. This had less to do with offending anyone, and more to do with the long explanation I would have to give for studying a non-national language. As I didn’t speak Kyrgyz, I saw Russian – still, in the post-Soviet period the lingua franca (see below) and understood by most – as a step in the right direction. Once I had a better feeling of whom I might meet where, I openly engaged with storekeepers and others I met on my half-hour walk home from school. They, on the contrary, were delighted to hear my feeble, but cheerful early attempts at conversational Uzbek.

There were a number of intricacies and a lot of code-switching depending on our company at any given time, as in any multicultural society. One of my family’s closest friends, I’ll call here Liudmila Alexandryevna, was a Russian lady who used to teach at one of the local Uzbek-language schools and was fluent in Uzbek. She could also never turn down one of my host mother’s steaming Uzbek samsa (meat-filled pastries). Liudmila, in turn, offered her own mehmondo’stlik (hospitality) and came over to have me try her own trademark samsa and jam on a regular basis, although her own health was quite frail. In other contexts, Kyrgyz and Uzbek were used interchangeably, which I – Russian scholar, not quite Turkologist – was the only one unable to follow. Towards the end of my stay, as I sat in a traditional Kyrgyz yurt and enjoyed fresh horse milk, nan bread , and the company of a Kyrgyz family that would live on the land for the summer, I found I too was following along. This moment of lucidity symbolized for me the intimate relationship between these two languages and people.

Kyrgyzstan is a multinational state known for its mountainous terrain, which covers more than 90% of the country. This terrain has played an important role in shaping the political history of the many ethnic groups that reside within the borders of present-day Kyrgyzstan. The largest of these are the Kyrgyz, at 66% of the population, followed by Uzbeks and Russians, who make up 13% and 10% of the population, respectively. While the Russians made up nearly 20% of the population at independence, shifting ethnic status and economic prospects sent them abroad, leaving the Uzbeks as the second largest sub-national group. This outmigration provided major incentive for first president of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akaev, to accept Russian, along with Kyrgyz as an official language in 2000 (in hopes that Russians would return and build a healthy multinational state).

Meanwhile in the South, where the population is nearly one-third Uzbek, the Uzbek language is widespread. This is above all the case in the Ferghana Valley, which shares national borders with and spills over into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The terrain that divides the Kyrgyz Republic’s North and South is thus said to play a socially divisive role as well, separating the cosmopolitan Russified North (where the capital city Bishkek is located) from the backwater (Uzbek) South. In Osh, Uzbeks make up a near majority: dominating businesses and having a visible presence in local schools. Conversely, the municipal and national administration has traditionally been mostly Kyrgyz. Representatives of the large population of Uzbeks living in Jalalabad and Osh provinces have often complained that they are treated like second-rate citizens by officials in Bishkek.

The Uzbek and Kyrgyz peoples of southern Kyrgyzstan are aware of their differences. Only twenty years ago, the cities of Osh and Uzgen (which is about 85% Uzbek), thirty four miles to the northeast, saw three nights of violent inter-ethnic riots due to disagreements over property, resulting in the deaths of at least 300 people (unofficial sources estimate 1000 people). As a result, ethnicity continues to play an influential role in politics. First president Akaev and his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, had to carefully articulate national identity in order to appease ethnic groups living in the Kyrgyzstan. The traditional depiction saw Akaev as protector of interethnic harmony and Bakiev, a Southerner, catering to the interests of Kyrgyz majority in the North and thus unwilling to steer a course which is overtly pro-Uzbek. In spite of an increasingly Kyrgyz (for the Kyrgyz) national and linguistic policy during the Bakiev era, Russian remained the lingua franca in most of Kyrgyzstan and laws, acts, and official meeting minutes had to be printed both in Russian and Kyrgyz.

In conducting research on local schools for my eventual thesis on Uzbek schools, I learned that there are many important influences on the Kyrgyz education system, of which the weak state in the post-independence period was only a minor player. That is, official routes went only so far to elucidate what was actually going on in Uzbek schools: lack of quality textbooks, high dropout rates, short-staffing, that is, similar problems to those faced by Kyrgyz schools, but to an attenuated degree. Here, I apply the same logic in consideration of what we are learning from mass media about the most recent events and what becomes clear when engaging with the people themselves. This, in a nutshell, is my story of that experience.

I have spent a lot of time going through old correspondence to measure where I was then, how I related to these people and how they interacted amongst each other, not as a scientist or a journalist (I have dabbled in both career paths), but as a fellow human being. Since the outbreak of the riots three weeks ago, this has consumed me ever more, especially as I wondered whether I would ever hear from these people again. The truth is, in spite of the messages my blond hair might have carried, what I wanted more than anything that summer was to fit in.

One of the occasions, which most challenged my worldliness, was a death in my host family. Up until I was greeted at the airport in Osh, I believed I would have a host father. I looked forward to conversations that me and this retired man, about whom I read in my pre-arrival packet, would share. Unfortunately, these would never transpire, as Habibulo, a name I learned to roll off my tongue, had passed two months prior to my arrival. From the sounds of it, the cause of his death was natural (stroke?), if early. Still, the healing process in my very close-knit family, with three daughters and only one son, was destined by tradition to be one that was long and drawn out.

One of my first outings with my host family was a trip down a long, bumpy dirt road – the first of many – to a nearby graveyard. There were six of us (three sisters, the eldest’s husband – our driver – and daughter, and myself) packed into a miniature white car. I don’t remember if there was much of a stone or a marker at the site where we got out, only a mound. I do remember the unbelievable grief of a loss so fresh, and especially the loud sobs of my eldest sister. I wrapped my arms around her little seven-year old girl and tried to keep her still.

A week later, my second week, we held a ritual feast at the house, which kept me home from class for several hours. There were at least a hundred guests, and in my mind very nearly as many unseen rooms of the house, blankets, cups, plates, and teapots unfurled exclusively for this occasion. That day, although steeped in ritual and broken intermittently by beautiful prayers and songs performed by incoming guests, I remember not for its calm and solace, but the air of anxiety as my family members rushed here and there to ensure that every mat and pillow was in place, equidistant from the incredible food spread being laid in front of my eyes. There was added tension on this particular occasion due to a misunderstanding over whether the male or the female guests would be arriving first.

Both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz traditionally mark the first forty days and the first year after a loved one’s loss. Anniversaries may be celebrated for years afterward, but the first year is the most important. This loss was particularly notably in that the traditional head of the family [the male, as dictated by Muslim culture] was no longer there. My host mother frequently had migraines, but was clearly the internal manager of the household. As a geography and history teacher, she helped fill in the blanks in my 13-year old sister’s homework assignments. She made sure the water for everyone’s shower was heated in the morning and that everyone rose to reach their deadlines. Then, she cooked, cleaned, and pressed shirts all day until finally perching at the side of the dinner table to converse with me after the late evening meal. She hardly ever took a seat, at least not until the children had gone to bed. My 21-year old host brother, the third child in the family, took over executive decisions for his family. This meant that the American Councils dealt with him directly with any necessary adjustments of earlier made housing, transportation, or food arrangements. In this way, he became an adult in front of our eyes.

Now, when I think back to all of the grieving and healing involved in the months following the passing of one family man, I find the sheer numbers of lives lost as a result of recent events in Kyrgyzstan to be staggering. Even on happier occasions this past summer there was a lingering grief. The youngest daughter had to fast forward through parts of her sister’s wedding video, whenever her father was shown. But, there was also the opportunity to be reborn, in that brilliant summer sitting in our uy hovli (courtyard house), eating fresh cherries and walnuts that grew in the garden, we discussed future plans: my marriage, her son’s, the new chickens they bought (in honor of my arrival?), and when we would see each other again. We even discussed more serious topics, imagining what a world free of natsii (nations) would look like.

And now, many of the streets I used to walk are the smoldering ruins of what some might call a civil war. Even thousands of miles away, I am devastated and homesick.

My Kyrgyz director was constantly invited to join for dinners with my Uzbek host family; she, in turn, complimented my host mother on her beautiful house and the children she’d raised. There was a lot of mutual respect there. Indeed, my host mother spoke proudly of her own and her three 20-year-old children’s university degrees (their musical and athletic abilities) and had me recite in detail my educational experience, the countries I’d seen, and the jobs I’d held. When I finally reached my host family a year later on their home phone two weeks after the Osh riots broke out, and we ascertained that everyone was in fact – by some miracle – safe and sound, the topic jumped once again to my host brother’s wedding, which was scheduled for June 19th, and would now have to be postponed until the fall.

Traditions are traditions, and we often face the challenge of how they are to be incorporated into the everyday: the sheer cost, individuals’ expectations, and other last minute stresses. However, sometimes traditions are clung to because they are familiar, and, perhaps, they are all we have left. We hope that somehow these will get us by. (I am not aware of how much annual income my family had, but my host mother and eldest host sister, full time teachers, both earned extra money selling gold jewelry at the market. There are definitely still huge economic challenges being faced everyday in Osh. On another occasion, I was asked to contribute to a lottery, going on between teachers at the local school. Neither my host mother nor I could afford the couple of hundred som – Kyrgyz currency worth approximately $2.00 – for that occasion. I could only trust I was doing this family a financially good deed by providing some extra cash to them at a time they probably needed it the most.)

I did not understand all of their traditions, nor come to fully understand the language, although I am an advanced Uzbek student now. My home-stay experience offered some conundrums that only my teachers (who were Uzbek), and not my director, might explain. For example, my family asked on several occasions whether I would stay home from class to participate in a family gathering and then acted hurt when I said that I really did not have a choice. Misunderstanding, however, in my case and my director’s is miles away from inevitable conflict.

What was clear to me then and more so now, as I reflect on this experience, are the deeply ingrained values of these people: family and home, first and foremost, their homeland of Kyrgyzstan, education, and religion (and finding the means to support these values in their everyday lives). I did not know yet, when I spoke with my host family, but it was my director, who actually suffered most directly – in the loss of her 29 year old niece who was shot – as a result of this unbelievable tragedy. I know that this would be heart-wrenching news for my host mother too. And, yet, just in time for the 4th of July, my director wrote me the usual cheery email, wishing me a “Happy Independence Day of the United States!”

I think even in the face of the recent tragedy, if we dig deep enough, we will find more in common between ourselves and the people in distant Central Asia, than not. With a poor economy and weak military, Kyrgyzstan will continue to depend on external support in the delivery of essential social services. One dire need, as I have learned over the course of my thesis project, is the systematic reform of the quality and accessibility of the education system. This has received low priority in the post-Soviet region in general; Kyrgyzstan too has dismal figures when it comes to basic mathematics aptitude and literacy among Kyrgyz school children. Finding and bridging connections through formal and informal education, rather than relying merely on mutual tolerance among the peoples of crisis-ridden Kyrgyzstan, is essential.

We must engage in these events not by accepting the easiest answer or the solution that seems to make sense according to international or state-lead sensibilities, but by involving ourselves in the perceptions and actions of the people on the ground.

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