Ivar Dale: Denial’s bloody anniversary
Wednesday 13 May marks ten years since the massacre in Andizhan. Uzbek authorities claim that this is “a closed topic”. Totalitarian regimes decide a lot, but not this. The case is not closed until the victims’ families say so.
Ten years have passed since an otherwise pleasant spring day in 2005. Those who have visited the Ferghana Valley around this time of year know exactly what sort of time it is – the thermometer has barely tipped 30, the markets are being filled up with fruits and vegs from the fields and even the smallest towns are abuzz with activity before sunrise.
On such a day ten years ago, Uzbek police forces and military surrounded several thousand demonstrators in Andizhan, in the very east of the most populous country in Central Asia – and opened fire. Several hundred men, women and children died. Some say more than a thousand. Witness accounts from survivors who made it across the border to neighboring Kyrgyzstan had journalists and aid workers disturbed to the bone. Across the entire region, this 13 May remains a symbol of how badly things can go when one man gradually takes control of more than 30 million people and chooses to murder those who will not do or think as he pleases.
The protests from the great crowds that gathered in downtown Andizhan on this day were about abuse of power, poverty, unemployment and oppression. Certainly, what set it off was unrest surrounding the local prison, where armed men had freed a group of businessmen awaiting their verdict in a corruption trial the night before. Authorities have later drawn a picture of the events as connected to religious extremism, “Akramia” – rather a made-up movement than a real threat in a largely secular society. To Uzbek security services, however, religious extremism has become the default excuse to get rid of opposition, something they have used to the full in the years after Andizhan.
The frustration expressed by ordinary people on Babour Square had nothing to do with religion. It had built up over years of mismanagement under President Islam Karimov. Hundreds grew to thousands as more people braved their own anxieties.
«Karimov is coming to listen to us», was the rumor that had just started spreading in the crowd when the first shot sounded, without warning. One after another fell dead to the ground. As panic spread, government forces started firing indiscriminately into the crowd, including at women and children. Dead bodies lay everywhere in the city streets. One survivor later gave a striking description to Human Rights Watch – “bullets were falling like rain”.
Exactly how many were killed, we simply do not know. Uzbek authorities alone have those figures. A regime that is obsessed with control also keeps statistics of those they place in mass graves. In the days after the massacre, traumatized witnesses described a bloodbath with hundreds of dead. In my own travels in Uzbekistan, I have seen fear in the eyes of fellow passengers at the mere whisper of a question about 13 May 2005.
The Andizhan massacre marked a worsening in Uzbekistan’s human rights record from very bad to among the worst in the world. The country was oppressive also before 2005 – indeed, this was the reason for the demonstrations. But in the time since, authorities did everything they could to conceal what they had done, and to deny to the outside world that a massacre had even taken place. Suriviving witnesses who had yet to make it across the borders were tracked down, and "disappeared". Foreign journalists were thrown out of the country, all western news agencies and international organizations were closed down. Ten years on, Uzbekistan is practically off-limits to human rights organizations and independent journalists.
Central Asia has had its share of tragedies in recent years. In June 2010, about 400 people died in clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstan. In December 2011, Kazakh security services shot and killed at least 12 people in Zhanaozen after a long-lasting strike among oil workers. However, the events in Andizhan in 2005 remain the worst example of mass murder carried out by the government, on purpose. Forget about it, says Karimov. Remember this, we say.
It can be hard to see the relevance of harping on about a ten year old massacre in Central Asia while tragedies are taking place on a larger scale here and now, for example in Syria. This is exactly how Uzbek authorities hope that the international community will learn to view Andizhan. Innumerous requests to permit an independent investigation of what really happened on this day have been turned down. During an important hearing on human rights at the UN two years ago, the Uzbek head of delegation hammered his finger on the table, claiming that «Andizhan is a closed topic». If we agree with him on this, we have also written the rule book for future dictators. The price to pay for mass murder of your own population is ten years of sideways glances in the UN cafeteria. It just can’t be that easy.
In the time that has passed since the Andizhan massacre, the Uzbek government has denied access to a record-breaking number of UN Special Rapporteurs. As such, they have confirmed that they have much to hide in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and the systematic use of torture in the country. The denial of Andizhan is only one of the regime’s many lies, but in Central Asia it still looms as the greatest of them all.
As an international community, we can do more. We can push for a Special Rapporteur on Uzbekistan in the UN, which would ensure that Uzbekistan’s gross ongoing human rights violations are given the time of day. Today, Uzbek refugees across Europe and the US are remembering Andizhan. If you see them, stop and have a chat.
Ivar Dale, Senior Adviser, Norwegian Helsinki Committee