A small pocket of Asian exotica recovering from ethnic violence

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August 12th 2010
Published: September 9th 2010
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After the June's Uzbek / Kyrgyz ethnic clashes that may have left over 2,000 dead I was somewhat wary of visiting the city of Osh. Stories of burnings, torture, rape and indescribably gruesome killings abounded throughout the rest of Kyrgyzstan where many people believed the war in Osh to be still continuing. But, reading and listening to the news, the actual situation seemed to be back to normal: there had been no disturbances in two months, the city was gradually being rebuilt and the extra armed forces that had been put in place to get the situation under control had finally been moved out. Osh being the only way I could continue south into Tajikistan, I made an informed decision to go there and leave on the first southbound transport available.

"Where's the bazaar?" I ask someone while waiting for that southbound car. Osh's bazaar was known as Soviet Central Asia's biggest and most exotic.

"The whole thing was burned down in June," he replies. "But there's lots of people selling stuff on the streets outside where it used to be."

I spend a few hours wandering those streets and, for the first time in a Kyrgyz town, taking in the sounds, sights and smells of Asia. For a while, amid the brightly-coloured women, the felt-hatted men, the piles of fruit and veg, the boxes of chickens packed so tightly they cannot move, the crates of produce weaving their way in between the shouting, arguing, bartering sellers and buyers, I can imagine what Kyrgyzstan might have been like without the grey Soviet blocks that stretched for miles in all directions away from this little bubble of the East. At the same time evidence of the violence is everywhere: burned-out buildings, walls strewn with bullet holes, restoration work underway on every other house and shop.

The smell of barbequing meat fills my nostrils and I follow it down a flight of uneven steps to a little maze of covered alleyways completely invisible from the main street. I sit down in one of the many cafes from whose doors smoke billows out into the narrow alleys and order three lyulya kebabs for under a dollar from an Uzbek man in a skull cap. He brings it to my table along with a pot of green tea and the other Uzbeks in the cafe watch interestedly as I eat by far the tastiest meal I have had in Kyrgyzstan and the one that will, in a few hours' time, upset my stomach more than anything else I have eaten in the country.

Tension between Osh's Uzbeks and Kyrgyz is what caused June's ethnic violence. Though it was said to have been deliberately sparked off by Kyrgyzstan's ex-President who had been ousted in April's revolution, the roots of the tension go way further back. None of these countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or Turkmenistan ever existed until Stalin drew them onto the map. The Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Turkmen existed as language groups but there was never any sense of nationhood. Stalin created these countries and drew their borders himself, deliberately making sure that each contained sizeable pockets of the other nationalities under his divide and rule policy, the effects of which are still being felt today in Osh. The Tajiks, who never existed as a people or a country, were even harder hit by ethnic violence: Stalin drew a border that created a country uniting dozens of different tribes, clans and language groups and terming them all Tajiks. After the breakup of the Soviet Union ethnic violence erupted, claiming 50,000 lives.

After a few hours there are enough passengers for my car to head south into the Pamir Alay mountains on the border with Tajikistan. We bounce down a road that leads to southern Tajikistan and has been given the gross misnomer of "The Pamir Highway". In reality, "Pamir dirt track", "Pamir wheel ruts", "Pamir ex-track now washed away by water", and "Pamir nothing" would all, at various different points along its length, be more appropriate names.

Suddenly the road becomes tarmac and, to my disbelief, a white dotted line even appears down its centre. But this new phase is short-lived and within five minutes she has changed back to her old self and once again we are being thrown around as we bump and grind our way through the brown, mountainous vastness of the Pamir.

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