News / Asia

Ethnic Unrest Grips Southern Kyrgyzstan

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Hundreds are dead and hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes following a week of ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan.  The victims have been ordinary people, including women and children.

Rape, pillage and plunder.  The phrase is associated with pirates and barbarians of old.  But such madness is widespread today in southern Kyrgyzstan, where an ethnic Kyrgyz majority has perpetrated a furious attack on the local Uzbek minority.

The official death toll after eight days of violence is around 200, but interim Kyrgyz leader Roza Otunbayeva says the actual figure may be higher; an exact count lost in the chaos.  Businesses have been looted and burned.  Homes have also been set ablaze. The United Nations estimates as many as 400,000 people have been driven from the area.  There are also numerous reports of young girls being raped.

In the city of Osh, Matlyuba Akramova says her 16-year-old relative was raped when she came out of hiding to bandage her father's head following an attack.

Akramova says a crowd saw the girl and immediately assaulted her in front of her father. She says what was done to the girl is not even done by animals.

An Uzbek doctor in Osh told reporters many victims are reluctant to speak about their experience.  And a researcher with Human Rights Watch, Anna Neistat, says the number of victims is difficult to determine.

"I just documented at least one case where I spoke to the woman who was raped and it is clear that this is not the only case. There are several other women here in the very same location, so I think by now I can say with confidence that cases like this did happen. The question is the scale," said Neistat.

Alisher Khamidov, a Central Asian researcher with Johns Hopkins University, says that kidnapping by criminal gangs is another crime being committed.

"They're taking hostages of rich ethnic citizens, and they're demanding ransom for their release.  So the state government structures are unable to restore order, totally," said Khamidov.

The United Nations, the United States, Russia and others are providing humanitarian assistance to refugees.  As many as 100,000 refugees may have crossed into Uzbekistan.  Others are huddled on the Kyrgyz side of the border.  

Already traumatized by the recent violence, many refugees face more difficulties ahead.  Calvin White is a mental health specialist with Doctors without Borders in one of the refugee camps.

"As each day passes they are going to be more and more wondering about their futures. And there's going to have to be some answers. And that's when the real stress is going to begin. It's when they get to that position when they are going to say, 'Now what? What's going to happen to us?'" said White.

Another question is what will happen to the perpetrators.  Alisher Khamidov suggests, perhaps, nothing.

"Several thousand young men have participated in the clashes that have taken place in the past few days.  And the problem is that it is very hard to identify those young men, because as soon as the conflict subsided, most of those young men quickly changed their hats.  Now they are civilian population," said Khamidov.

In a sign the violence is subsiding, interim Kyrgyzstan leader Roza Otunbayeva finally arrived in Osh.  Security concerns prevented an earlier visit.  She promised to rebuild the city and allow refugees to return.  And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake visited refugee camps in Uzbekistan ahead of meetings with interim officials in Kyrgyzstan.

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