Author: Muzaffar Suleymanov
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 03/15/2006
Category: Special Report
Notes from the conference on Andijan
They were screaming “do not shoot at us, please,” but as Human Rights Watch put it, “bullets were falling like rain.” Almost a year after the May 13, 2005 events, the eye-witnesses of the civilian massacre, together with representatives of Human Rights Watch and the Columbia University-based Harriman Institute, organized a conference called Uzbekistan and the Andijan Massacre One Year Later.
Galima Buharbaeva – the Uzbek journalist who survived the massacre and safely made her way to Columbia University to pursue Master’s degree in journalism – presented the public with the tape-recorded report she was making from the Andijan Bobur Square at the time of the massacre. The audience listened quietly, trying to grasp every word – the voice of the reporter intermingled with the voices of the people who came to the Square believing that President Karimov was on his way to Andijan. At first, the conference participants could hear claims and demands – mostly of economic and social character – made by the Andijan protesters. Then, however, came the sounds of arriving APCs, helicopter, shotguns, and screams. There were cries of “Otmanglar” – “don’t shoot” – but in response you could hear intensifying gunfire and more screams. That voice from the tape hung in the air throughout the conference; it had touched all the participants, provoking different thoughts and emotions.
While listening to the tape I recalled my days in Costa Rica, when having heard of the massacre I tried to find as much information as possible, to find out what had happened, at times getting angry with the fact that CNN was spending more airtime on the so-called “runaway bride” than on the Uzbek Tiananmen.
Other conference speakers were making their own no-less-important presentations. Peter Sinnott of Columbia University talked to the audience about that historical precedent known as the Andijan uprising, which took place at the turn of the last century in the same city. He also mentioned the Kyrgyz revolution, which started a few months before the Andijan events in a city of Osh, some 100 km away from Andijan. Linking the events, he shared his opinion on the policies implemented by president Karimov’s regime before and after Andijan, laying special emphasis on the intensifying repressions and the heroism of an Uzbek woman – Mahbuba Zokirova – who, surviving the massacre and participating in the state-orchestrated trials as a witness, made the prosecutor regret interrogating her. Instead of supporting the state version of the events, as did all of the other trial participants including the defendants, that small woman told what she considered to be the true version of events. Reporting on Zokirova’s shocking testimony, Human Rights Watch writes:
On October 14, a woman from a village near Andijan stunned the court with a very different version of events. Mahbubahon Zokirova, a wife and mother of four who herself completed only eight grades of school, bravely told what she witnessed on May 13. Her testimony painted a harrowing picture of government aggression in Andijan never mentioned in the rest of the trial. She pointedly questioned the credibility of witnesses who denied that soldiers shot civilians, and vividly detailed the gruesome scene of soldiers firing on fleeing demonstrators. She recounted that “blood ran down the street” as soldiers attacked demonstrators from vehicles, windows of the surrounding buildings and trees. Soldiers shot at the backs of retreating women and children, and continued shooting as they waved their headscarves in surrender.(1)
What happened in May might have been prevented had the Uzbek judicial machine followed the law and not subjectively imprisoned 23 businessmen from Andijan, whom the state accused of membership in the so-called Akromiya movement. Alisher Ilkhamov – the former head of the Open Society Institute Uzbekistan office and a current research associate at the University of London School of African and Oriental Studies – inquired into the origins and characteristics of the Akromiya movement. Juxtaposing opinions of different Uzbek scholars, he prompted the public to question the state-sponsored idea of the extremist nature of the movement, which does not have an organizational structure, whose leader has been jailed for 17-years term since 1999, and whose supposed 23 members have most probably angered the state by fulfilling some of the group’s social responsibilities, such as health care provision and support for the needy. The latter fact has spurred the parallel between the Akromiya movement (given its existence) and other religion-based social movements that exist elsewhere in the world, Turkey and the Middle East especially. Although it is as yet unknown whether followers of Akrom Yuldoshev – the supposed imprisoned leader of the movement –made any attempt to create an Islamic state in the Ferghana valley or were simply trying to live a life of a pious Muslim businessmen, the fact that their trial was rather subjective and ended in sentences up to 20 years in prison brought mass anger and discontent.
Speaking in Uzbek, Lutfullo Shamsuddionov – chairman of the Andijan branch of the Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan – gave his own account of the trial of the businessmen and the resulting public protests and massacre, which he witnessed and survived. He described the young businessmen providing work to the unemployed, supporting those in need, at times contrasting it with the inability of the state to fulfill its social responsibility. He spoke of the public support of the businessmen, which did not cease with the state interference and arrest of the 23 young men. In respect and return for their deeds, people had been coming to the courtroom patiently waiting for the verdict and hoping for justice. However, there seems to have been none, since the judges who were supposed to be impartial took the side of the state and even silenced those witnesses who testified in support of the defendants. Then he spoke of the verdict being secretly announced at the Andijan prison a day before it was supposed to be made public in the courtroom. Along with the recent expropriation of the businessmen’s property, this provoked anger among friends, relatives, and supporters, who stormed a military unit and, acquiring weapons, released the prisoners. On May 13, Shamsuddinov made his way to the Bobur Square, where the released prisoners held public meeting in front of the Governor’s office that they occupied. His description echoed the recording of the first conference speaker – public demands, calls to presidents Karimov and Putin, helicopters, APCs, shots, screaming, attempt to escape and civilian deaths. Shocking details: a wounded child; a stunned mother; people screaming “otmanglar”; men encircling their women and children – protective shield and more blood. Then the attempts to escape, ambushes, blood, rain, Kyrgyz border, women waving their white scarves so as not to get shot by the Uzbek border guards, ambushes, blood, refugees, and a grim silence in the conference hall.
Acacia Shields, from Human Rights Watch, continued the conference, telling how the Uzbek regime has tried to wash the stain from its modern history. The city was sealed off, blood was washed from asphalt, buildings repaired, bodies piled on trucks and taken away, survivors scared to death, information blockaded, Potemkin village tours offered to foreign diplomats. There was even a show-trial of the Andijan “terrorists.” Then finally international reaction came from the European Union, though it was not at first supported by the US – a visa ban on those responsible for the civilian massacre and a prohibition on the sale of weapons to Uzbekistan. Despite the first measure, General Almatov – now former head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs who was literally responsible for the massacre – has been secretly allowed to receive hospital treatment in Germany. Betrayal? Cold-blooded attempt to keep its air-base in Uzbek territory in exchange for hospitalization on a humanitarian basis? These seem to be rhetorical questions. But there were many other questions, like how many got killed and who should be punished, what to do next and how to live in the aftermath of Andijan, how to prevent future crisis and who should participate in the recovery process given that the Uzbek regime expels foreign NGOs and suppresses local non-governmental activities (including the bee-keepers society, etc.), who is representing the Uzbek Embassy at the conference and what is their reaction , and many more.
Provoking the public to a discussion, Sergey Kalamytsau – Central Asian Program researcher from the International League of Human Rights Discussant – made an attempt to answer some of these questions. He stressed the importance of sanctions – although questionable in terms of practical effectiveness, these are important at least as a symbol of international involvement and as a sign of punishment. In addition, by targeting financial transactions of those responsible for humanitarian crisis, international community might obtain some sort of leverage and eventually have the perpetrators accountable. However, this is an ideal picture and there are still many questions on the fate of an Uzbekistan which today does not seem to be promising much…
One might notice from the description of this event that nothing fresh has been told, nothing new has happened, yet the importance of the event is found in the fact that it signified public interest in the Uzbek bloody Friday, in the fate of its survivors, refugees, in the memory of the innocent women and children who have lost their lives naively hoping to see President Karimov and believing that he would come to bring justice and improve their lives. In Uzbekistan, if you find that there is literally no traffic in the streets and policemen are standing on every corner wearing helmets, body armor, and holding AK-47s (in the capital especially) you should not worry – since mid 1990’s it was a sign of President Karimov’s arrival to the city, a sign that misled many in the city of Andijan.
(1) Human Rights Watch, Witness in Andijan Trial Describes Soldiers Shooting Civilians, report also available online at http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/11/01/uzbeki11950.htm
(2) Although the question was quite serious nobody identified him/herself as an Uzbek diplomat, and most probably this has prevented most of the representatives of the Uzbek diaspora from engaging in discussion.
Bio: Muzaffar Suleymanov holds a Master of Arts in International Peace Studies from the University for Peace.