Videotape has surfaced in the West of the hours leading up to a reported massacre in the town of Andijon in Uzbekistan just over one year ago. Human rights groups have said the Uzbek government indiscriminately killed unarmed demonstrators. The government says it was putting down an armed uprising. The tape does little to clear up the mystery.
The 109-minute videotape is a small but fascinating window into the controversial Andijon incident, with seemingly contradictory images. But the key question about the Uzbek government's final response to the events last year in Andijon is not resolved because the tape ends before those final moments when hundreds of people were killed.
The tape was first obtained by Martha Brill Olcott, a researcher and Central Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She says the tape is a valuable but incomplete record of what happened in Andijon.
"It's a snapshot of what occurred then. It's as if you come back from a trip and have 350 pictures from a two-week vacation. You capture a lot of it, but a lot of it's not there," she said.
On May 13, 2005, armed men broke into a local prison to free 23 businessmen who had been accused of belonging to a banned Islamic militant group. By many accounts, the square then filled with thousands of people seeking to voice their dissatisfaction with the hardline government of President Islam Karimov. The government says it put down an armed insurrection by Islamic militants. Critics say troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators. The incident soured relations between Uzbekistan and the West.
The tape was made by two cameramen who were in the square that day. The version obtained by Martha Olcott is heavily edited as it was used by the government to prosecute participants in the uprising. But even allowing for the government editing and selective translation, it shows starkly contrasting pictures.
It contains images of people linking arms and making speeches, some of them rambling, in what appears to be a peaceful protest. Interspersed with speeches, crowds shout Allahu Akbar, or God Is Great.
But it also shows men strolling around with guns and making the gasoline bottle bombs popularly known as Molotov cocktails. A bus and the town opera house are set ablaze. At several points, gunfire can be heard nearby.
Olcott says that the Karimov government clearly faced some kind of threat that day.
"What the film tells me is that the Uzbek government was under a serious threat. It had a situation it had to deal with. This, to me, is not a peaceful demonstration. It was a majority of unarmed people, but this was a threat to the security of the state. You can't have people making Molotov cocktails in a park," she said.
Olcott and other analysts believe many innocent people came to the square out of curiosity, where they were caught up in a growing demonstration that was separate from the militants' actions. They were then caught when government moved in to clear the town square.
But Olcott says the key question about whether the government indiscriminately fired on peaceful demonstrators, as critics claim, is not answered by the tape.
"It is clear that the government response was incompetent. Many more people were killed than a competent government would have killed to break up that crowd. Whether it was malicious, we have no way to know that. Whether this was incompetent or simply deliberately designed to mow down a couple hundred people, this film tells us nothing about that," she said.
The Karimov government has continued to reject calls for an independent international inquiry into the events at Andijon.