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“We are one country, one religion…why is this happening now?” asked a man sitting in his half-ruined house in Jalal-Abad. I should be tending to my crops, repairing my house, but I cannot…. I have sent my children away … it is not safe here …Will it happen again?”
Kyrgyzstan, a country of 5.3 million people, just approved a new constitution, setting up Central Asia’s first parliamentary democracy with elections planned for October 10. But this young country is now reeling from inter-ethnic violence that destroyed 3,000 buildings, forcing an estimated 300,000 people from their homes. One hundred thousand people – mostly women, children, the elderly, disabled and wounded – received brief refuge and aid in neighboring Uzbekistan.
The country’s President Roza Otunbayeva established 40 days of mourning for the more than 300 known dead and scores of missing persons that resulted from the violence. The government has estimated property damage at more than $450 million. Residents and international observers agree that violence could erupt again at any moment given continued tensions in the South.
The new interim government has focused on obtaining estimates of property damage, reconstruction plans and needed re-documentation of affected citizens, but it has failed to reign in harassment, arbitrary detention, arrests and threats to its citizens and particularly to both Kyrgyz and Uzbek human rights advocates.
To maintain its place among democratizing nations, President Otunbayeva and her government need to work to end impunity for criminal actions and support an impartial international investigation into the June 10-14 attacks. Following the investigation, the government needs to bring to justice those who perpetrated such crimes.
Despite widespread reports of collusion by local officials, security elements and criminal gangs in the June attacks on local residents, Uzbek victims whose homes and businesses were destroyed now find themselves facing interrogations, arbitrary detentions and arrests as “organizers of violence.” NGOs report Uzbeks face increasing demands for payments of bribes to avoid arrest or to bring about relatives’ release from detention. Other Uzbek families face ransom demands for kidnapped or missing family members. Those trying to leave the region face a gauntlet of obstacles including demands for bribes and restrictive check-points.
Kyrgyzstan, a multiethnic nation, must prioritize the return of security and peaceful relations between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. It must assert its authority to end arbitrary detentions and arrests and restore the rule of law for all of its citizens in the South. The government should work with the international community and support measures such as the OSCE proposal for the presence of 50 international police advisors to reassure now-tense communities they will receive even- handed treatment and respect for their rights.
People whose homes were destroyed live in fear of being forced from their communities or having to face the harsh winter in tents or homes open to the elements. The government should consult with these citizens and then quickly reach agreement with international donors and the United Nations on programs for reconstruction of private homes. This will allow international humanitarian aid to be more quickly and effectively used by Kyrgyzstan’s citizens and NGOs to restore adequate shelter before winter, thereby easing tensions.
Prompt and decisive action by President Otunbayeva and her government can ease inter-community tensions and aid in the rebuilding of social and economic ties between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Survival of this fledgling democracy and the security of its citizens depend on it.
Dawn Calabia is senior adviser and Maureen Lynch is senior advocate for Statelessness at Refugees International. They just returned from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.