One month after the outbreak of violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, the full extent of the resulting humanitarian crisis is coming into focus.
From June 10 to 14, deadly clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in and around the southern city of Osh triggered widespread incidents of killing, looting and rape. The cause of the conflict remains less than clear. David Trilling, reporting for The Nation, cites “a mafia power struggle gone horribly wrong” as the most likely explanation. Ethnic Uzbeks, however, who comprise the majority of the victims, have attributed the attacks to Kyrgyz military and police forces. Meanwhile, the interim government, which replaced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev after he was ousted in an April 7 coup, has alleged the complicity of the former president in inciting internecine conflict.
If the origins of the violence are ambiguous, the human suffering it has spawned is anything but. Around 2,000 people were killed and around 400,000 displaced, many of whom fled to neighboring Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch (HRW) observers have documented numerous atrocities perpetuated by both Uzbek and Kyrgyz mobs, including the following, described in an HRW report:
At about 1 p.m. on June 11, 14 armed men with guns stormed into the house of 60-year old “Nigora” in the Shait-Tube neighborhood in Osh city. The men beat Nigora on her legs with a baton and burned her skin with a loofah sponge, which they set on fire, in an attempt to force her to tell them where her son was. The bruises and burn marks were still visible more than a week after the attack. Nigora said:
“Some of the men wanted to kill me, but the oldest of them, who was about 30 years old, stopped them. I told them that there was nobody else at home, but they didn’t believe me. They went to the building in our courtyard where my son was staying. When they came out, they set fire to the house while my son was still there. They laughed and forced me to watch as the house burned down with my son inside. I don’t know why he did not run out. Maybe they killed him when they went in.
“Eventually they dragged me out on the street. I was crying and screaming. I watched as they cut the throat of my 56-year old neighbor, set fire to his house, and threw his body into the burning house. I also saw the dead body of our 14-year old neighbor on the street.”
Tensions have calmed significantly since the initial spate of violence, and tens of thousands of refugees have returned home in the past two weeks. A recent referendum legitimizing the interim government passed overwhelmingly, with 69 percent turnout and no major incidents. Still, the situation remains critical. Thousands of refugees have returned to houses either destroyed or in ruins, and food and basic provisions are running low.
Aid organizations are working furiously to respond to the desperate need for tents, food and other critical supplies. The UN Refugee Agency is coordinating relief airlifts into southern Kyrgyzstan, which you can support by visiting their website.
Mercy Corps also has a team on the ground to deliver items like jarred and ready made baby food, soap and bedding to displacement camps outside of Osh. Over the weekend, they distributed 17,000 dollars-worth in aid at two sites in southern Kyrgyzstan. To donate to Mercy Corps’ efforts, visit their website here, and help stop a political crisis from spiraling into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.