[Trigger Warning for sexual assault.]
Over the past few days, I've been reading about the worsening situation in southern Kyrgyzstan, where hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks have been displaced. The situation for them is dire, and the UN today issued a report that more than a million people have been caught up in the Kyrgyz violence.
A bit of background: Kyrgyzstan is a relatively small, mountainous Central Asian nation located between China, Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, and Tajikistan. In April, Kyrgyzstan's president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was ousted by a collation of opposition leaders, demanding more transparency in the corrupt government. Violence and rioting spread across the country, but the violence quieted down on April 15th when Bakiyev resigned and left the country (he is now in Belarus).
(Of note: Bakiyev himself took power after the "mostly peaceful" Tulip Revolution of 2005 after the Kyrgyz believed elections had been rigged in favor of Askar Akayev.)
Violence escalated again earlier this month in the southern part of the country, near the cities of Osh and Jalalabad, long home to a significant minority population of ethnic Uzbeks and home to Bakiyev's strongest supporters. The source of the conflict along ethnic lines is incredibly complicated and too nuanced to go into completely (even articles that purport to boil the situation down, such as this one, are deeply flawed). Both countries are former Soviet countries and as such, many Uzbeks were forcibly moved from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan during the Soviet period. The Uzbeks of the region were, very generally speaking, more prosperous and owned more land than the Kyrgyz and tensions between the two groups in the region have been set off before, most notably during the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-1991.
The current violence in Osh has specifically targeted the ethnic Uzbek minority, and there are some reports that the violence was sparked by supporters of Bakiev, or even possibly by Bakiev himself, in order to disrupt the planned referendum on June 27th on a new constitution. Chaos means the country would be unable to move forward and make steps toward representative government and democracy, something the Kyrgyz people have long fought for.
Currently, ethnic Uzbeks are being shot at and forced from their homes by soldiers in the south of the country. Many have said they thought the soldiers were coming to protect them, and instead found themselves being shot at and their homes burned.
More disturbingly, there are many reports of rape perpetrated by these soldiers on Uzbek women and girls in yet another instance of rape used as a weapon against an ethnic minority.
Uzbeks interviewed by Associated Press journalists in Osh, the country's second-largest city, said that on one street alone, ethnic Kyrgyz men sexually assaulted and beat more than 10 Uzbek women and girls, including some pregnant women and children as young as 12.The interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, has asked Moscow for military help in quieting the riots, but Russia will only send humanitarian aid. Human Rights Watched has called on the UN Security Council to act, saying protection is "urgently" needed.
Matlyuba Akramova showed journalists a 16-year-old relative who appeared to be in a state of shock, and said she had been hiding in the attic as Kyrgyz mobs beat her father in their home in the Cheryomushki neighborhood.
Akramova said that when the girl came downstairs to bandage her father's head, another group of attackers sexually assaulted her in front of him.
The UN itself is calling the situation for the refugees in camps near the Uzbek border "dire," and, while Uzbekistan has responded and supplies are being air-lifted, both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are very poor countries with an infrastructure not set up to handle hundreds of thousands of refugees (at last report, the UN is estimating there are 400,000 people currently without the ability to return to their homes).
These refugees need aid and they need it now. The UN High Council on Refugees has set up an emergency fund for Kyrgyz refugees that provides shelter and medical aid for the injured and assaulted. You can donate directly to this fund here.
Another way to donate to relief efforts in Kyrgyzstan that is being recommended by my contacts in Osh is through the April Fund set up in conjunction with the Kyrgyz Club of New York.
All of us with an interest in the region are hoping the planned referendum will end the active violence, but recovery for the country may take years.
[Note from Liss: This situation is reminiscent of the unrest in Guinea last year, in which Secretary Clinton's immediate involvement was great. She has reportedly told Uzbek President Islam Karimov that "the current unrest in Kyrgyzstan and the humanitarian problems of refugees and the population of the country's stricken regions remain high on the U.S. agenda." All the same, it never hurts to make your voice heard and let the State Department know that you urge their continued attention on this situation, with additional support to survivors of sexual violence.]