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Calm belies ethnic tension in southern Kyrgyzstan

Associated Press - June 9, 2011

Peter Leonard, Osh, Kyrgyzstan Dance music blares from reopened discos. Outdoor markets throng with shoppers. The aromas of skewered lamb waft across crowded eateries.

One year after a wave of ethnic violence killed hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks here, there are signs Kyrgyzstan's second-biggest city is regaining its lively charm.

But scratch the surface and animosities simmer, with Uzbeks saying they're afraid to venture out at night and ethnic Kyrgyz fuming they're being demonized by the international community.

The peace that prevails in the southern city of 240,000 is fragile, and last June's events indicate how quickly order can be destroyed.

On the night of June 10, mass street clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks broke out, believed to have been sparked by a petty dispute. Over the next several days, violence in Osh and the nearby city of Jalal-Abad left at least 470 people dead and drove several hundred thousand people from their homes, mostly Uzbeks.

Entire neighborhoods were turned into smoking ruins; countless shops were gutted.

The Central Asian nation of 5.5 million people had only two months before been convulsed by nationwide riots that toppled president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Many of the Uzbeks have returned, and the city's scars are healing a bit.

On one street, a simple eatery has risen from the ashes with a new name that speaks of hope for a better future. Yntykmak Kyrgyz for "unity" opened in March after being rebuilt from the remains of a restaurant called Gulnoza, an Uzbek female name.

Aina Abytova, the head waitress, said the new name was given "so there will be peace between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks."

Even as she spoke, a young man joined in the exchange to denounce Uzbeks. "Every Uzbek had a gun because they were interested in seizing the south," he said angrily, giving his name only as Ernest.

The emboldened Kyrgyz community continues to ramp up efforts to stamp a more vividly Kyrgyz identity on what traditionally had been a mainly Uzbek city.

Osh's central Imam al-Bukhari Mosque, named after a religious leader who lived in what is now Uzbekistan, now finds the Kyrgyz word Alai attached to its name. The Alai mountain range is the historic homeland of many ethnic Kyrgyz; many young men from the area poured in to Osh to join in last June's ethnic violence.

Many Uzbeks seem glumly resigned, focusing on rebuilding their homes and trying not to get drawn into arguments over who was to blame for the violence.

Speaking in her partly reconstructed house in one of the worst-hit Uzbek neighborhoods, 57-year old Mokhidil Ganyzhanova says things have quieted down. But she despairs at how little she feels the government is doing to restore people's livelihoods.

"We hear these words every day on the television and on the radio, but we have seen no results," she said.

Hoping to defuse tensions, the Kyrgyz government acted quickly in commissioning an independent international investigation. The findings of the inquiry led by Finnish politician Kimmo Kiljunen were issued in April and dismayed the government, which is almost entirely ethnic Kyrgyz.

The inquiry concluded that security forces were complicit in the violence. One of the most explosive conclusions was that attacks by Kyrgyz mobs on Uzbek neighborhoods "if proven beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, would amount to crimes against humanity."

The government slammed the report as unfair and for what it felt was an insufficient account of Uzbek atrocities against Kyrgyz. Weeks after the report was published, parliament barred Kiljunen from the country, and President Roza Otunbayeva apologized for commissioning the inquiry.

In Osh, the response has been even more menacing.

One May morning, Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov bused hundreds of Uzbeks, mostly middle-aged men and women into a square behind city hall then had officials set copies of the commission's report on fire in front of the crowd.

They also destroyed copies of a book of unknown origin called "The Hour of the Jackal," which authorities say demonizes ethnic Kyrgyz and is aimed at sowing new tensions.

The Kyrgyz government continues to focus blame on Uzbeks.

Amnesty International noted in a recent report that Uzbeks accounted for 75 percent of the casualties and sustained 90 percent of property losses last June. Yet according to official figures, 230 of the 271 people who have been taken into custody over the June violence are ethnic Uzbek.

"Ethnic bias and corruption are behind the pervading impunity in Kyrgyzstan," said Nicola Duckworth, Europe and Central Asia program director for Amnesty. "The rule of law must be upheld in order to rebuild the trust between the ethnic groups and prevent future bloodshed."

Presidential elections are due to be held later this year, but seem unlikely to help reconciliation. Competition is expected to be fierce and any sign of weakness on ethnic issues will likely be punished by the ethnic Kyrgyz majority.

Otunbayeva, who has promised to step aside this year, has urged politicians to refrain from embracing nationalist messages, and in one taboo-breaking move, has urged a greater ethnic mix in the army.

Observers are skeptical that the conditions are right for such a major cultural shift.

"What our President Roza Otunbayeva is suggesting is fabulous, it's wonderful that a politician of that rank is voicing such ideas," said Dinara Oshurakhunova, who heads the For Democracy and Civil Society coalition.

"The question is how much support her views will find in parliament, government and among the people."

[Associated Press writer Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek contributed to this report.]

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