Death in Bobur Square

In a remarkable dispatch, Ed Vulliamy pieces together for the first time the full story of the Uzbek massacre that the world forgot

From The Guardian

Enough bricks had finally arrived to build a bread oven, and they finished it within hours: a splendid creation with a dome of clay, wood smoke rising into the late afternoon sun as it baked some lepeshka bread, deliciously special to Uzbekistan. It was yet another day’s hard work by those trying to make this place home. These are Uzbeks, but this is not Uzbekistan; this is a refugee camp on the outskirts of the Romanian town of Timisoara, where huge efforts have gone into making a temporary staging post, before this tightknit group is scattered across the globe to whichever countries may take them.

These are not ordinary refugees, outcast and dispossessed, like so many millions are, as the human side-effect of war. These 439 people are eyewitnesses to and, remarkably, survivors of one of the worst atrocities of recent times, a massacre which the perpetrators have tried to keep secret, and with whom the international diplomatic community cooperates through a conspiracy of silence.

The May 13 massacre of hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocent civilians at Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan was carried out by soldiers and paramilitary units dispatched to kill by the regime of President Islam Karimov – protege of Vladimir Putin and, until recently, a crucial ally to Britain and America in the “war on terror”. The dead were among thousands who had gathered to protest for democratic and economic reforms, and in support of businessmen arrested and held on trumped-up charges. To date, there has been no official tally of how many perished, nor an official acknowledgement of the atrocity by the authorities, who have refused an international investigation.

And when these refugees disperse, so too will the only available testimony to what happened that terrible day, in what has been called central Asia’s Tiananmen Square. Despite their wish to remain together, no single country has agreed to take all 439, and these people will therefore scatter across the globe, along with their account of the carnage. Meanwhile, the Karimov regime is harassing, arresting and torturing the refugees’ families to the point that the refugees prefer not to endanger them with further contact.

For this article, their names have been changed and faces cannot be shown, for fear of what might happen to their loved ones back home. Karimov has refused an international inquiry into the bloodletting and closed his borders to human rights organisations and journalists wanting to investigate the massacre. Instead, a series of trials will reportedly begin next week of those charged with “fomenting” the violence of May 13. Perversely, it is not Karimov’s troops who will stand accused, but those who organised and participated in the demonstration.

Most of the refugees manage to hold on to the odd photograph or memento from home. But these people at Timisoara have nothing. They left for the demonstration that morning, only to find themselves lucky to be alive, and to be here. Most of the women left their children at home that day and have not seen them since. These are families torn asunder. But their eyes are defiant and alive; there is a curious strength amid the wretchedness. “There is light in our eyes,” says one woman, Zarnigor. “Do not think we are weak people. We are not.”

Armed jailbreak

Karimov came to power in Uzbekistan in 1991, shortly after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. US and European officials declined to send observers to the country’s most recent elections in 2000, saying there was no possibility that it could be fair; Karimov has since changed the constitution to extend his presidential term. His regime has persecuted the democratic opposition and representatives of what human rights organisations call “independent Islam”, accusing anyone who dares criticise him of fundamentalism or terrorism. After the September 2001 attacks on the US, Uzbekistan, thanks to its Afghan border, became a crucial strategic ally to the Anglo-American axis; after Britain’s ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray, questioned Tony Blair’s support of such a regime in October 2002 he faced disciplinary proceedings. In 2003, the UN special rapporteur for torture, Theo van Boven, called the use of such practice “systematic” in Uzbekistan. There were and are small, militant and violent ‘ ‘ Islamic factions in Uzbekistan, but they have never propelled the democratic movement and had nothing to do with the events of May 13.

Andijan was a focal point for opposition, lying in the densely populated but desperately poor Fergana valley. It was here that 23 businessmen, who provided work independent of the state, were arrested in June 2004; they were tried eight months later in February 2005 on trumped-up charges of “religious extremism”, and imprisoned. On the night of May 12, relatives and supporters of the men reportedly seized weapons from a police station and barracks, mounted an armed jailbreak and released the 23. Some of those dealing with the refugees suspect a set-up by agents provocateurs, but whatever the truth, the dramatic breakout sparked spirits and set the scene for an opposition rally planned for the next day.

Unfortunately for the regime, a correspondent for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Galima Bukharbaeva, was present in Bobur Square as the state militia descended on a crowd of 10,000-30,000 demonstrators and began to shoot indiscriminately. Otherwise, news of the ensuing massacre might never have reached the west. Bukharbaeva’s notebook and press card now carry a bullet hole as a souvenir from the day.

Even more inconveniently for those who would wish the massacre forgotten, hundreds of demonstrators escaped to Kyrgyzstan where they were given shelter by the UN High Commission for Refugees. Four refugees have been deported back to Uzbekistan and an unknown fate, but at the end of July UNHCR secured the transfer of the remaining 439 to Romania, pending asylum in other countries. In June, Human Rights Watch published an account of the slaughter pieced together from interviews with refugees. Amnesty International also interviewed the survivors, and reported similarly. And yet the diplomatic and political silence has been deafening. Initial demands for an international inquiry have tapered into nothing. When Jack Straw hosted the EU foreign ministers’ summit earlier this month, he could have included the massacre on its agenda, but did not. The EU’s “Partnership and Co-operation” scheme with the Karimov regime remains intact. The Foreign Office, like the EU, is not discussing sanctions of any kind.

After being squeezed into cramped tents in Kyrgyzstan, the refugees’ Romanian camp is well run and tidy. Women work on bright-coloured textiles while men play football. There is a school with lessons in English, Russian and Uzbek, for adults and children alike. One man is learning phrases from his exercise book. “Where is your family?” it reads. “Why are you here?”

They ask to tell their story in two groups, men first, then women. “We went on the demonstration because there was no work,” says Pulat, a mason. “I couldn’t find a job,” agrees Timur, also a mason. Both were laid off when the businessmen were arrested. “I couldn’t feed my children,” says Yuldash, who owned a bakery and hairdressers in Andijan, and who shows me a bullethole in his hat. “We hoped the local government would come to hear our grievances. People said even Karimov himself would come,” says Dolim. “We went because of unemployment, low salaries not paid, pensions not received.” Questions about religious fundamentalism receive a hollow laugh.

Crowds began to gather in Bobur Square from 7am on May 13. There were some armed oppositionists around a local government building at one end, say the refugees and international organisations that have investigated the massacre, but not among the 10,000 demonstrators in the square, who included large numbers of women and children. The first shooting began at 8am, says Hakim, as government militiamen drove up, opened fire and left, during which time he saw a woman and child killed. The car was followed by a military jeep, spraying the crowd with gunfire. Then “it came from all sides,” says Dolim. “We had gone expecting speeches, not bullets.”

Why did they stay in the square? “Because,” says Hakim, “if you tried to leave by side streets, they were blocked by armoured cars. I saw people trying to escape being killed up those streets.” Anyway, says Nizomidin, “we were expecting people from the government to arrive and stop it, to save us. Someone said Karimov was on his way, and people started cheering.”

Instead, at about 10am, a group of armoured cars entered the square, criss-crossing its edges and firing indiscriminately. In no way, say the witnesses, were they targeting the armed men at the other end. The shooting continued sporadically until 5pm, when two columns of armed personnel carriers arrived. “The second [column] opened fire directly at us,” says Yuldash. “I saw people falling around me, women and children too; screaming and blood everywhere. I saw at least five small children killed.”

By the end, says Pulat, “there was one road open, along which we could get away”. It led to a junction, blocked by APCs, but for a left turn, and along this route, the bedraggled procession proceeded. “We formed a group – I’d say about 3,000-strong,” recalls Nizomidin. “We put men on the edges, to protect women and children.”

As they advanced, some members of the crowd took six policemen hostage to use as human shields. Even so, the column was ambushed by snipers positioned in four-storey buildings along the route. “You could tell they were marksmen, because those around me were being hit in the head or heart,” says Timur. “A boy of about 16 in front of me was hit and his head smashed away. Another was shot between the eyes.”

Further along, a military unit was lined up in battle formation, as though facing an advancing army, not an unarmed crowd. Soldiers were lying behind sandbags; behind them were APCs. As the fleeing people approached, they were assailed by gunfire. The slaughter lasted 90 minutes. “The dead were lying in front of me piled three-thick,” says Nizomidin. “At one point, I passed out. When I regained consciousness, it was raining – on the ground, I could see water running with blood.”

There was one street open, “one way out”, says Pulat. Turning right here, a few survivors made their escape. “To get to that street,” says Nizomidin, “I had to climb over the bodies. There were dead women and children; I saw one woman lying dead with a small baby in her arms.”

Not everyone took that escape route immediately. Nafruz, 34, lay on the ground, realising that “whoever raised their head would be shot. I was surrounded from all sides by shooting.” It seems likely, from the size of ordnance described by the survivors, and the fact that bodies were reportedly being flung back a metre and a half when hit, that anti-aircraft weaponry was being used against the unarmed crowd. “My clothes were covered in brains and blood,” says Nafruz. “I stayed two hours after the shooting stopped, then crawled over the bodies to the college.”

‘A scene from hell’

Nafruz’s 38-year-old cousin Baltabai had gone on the march, he says, “because I was unemployed and wanted to demand my rights. I tried to carry a wounded boy, but the man helping me was shot in the head, so we dropped him. People were shouting, ‘Don’t stand up!’ but a woman rose when her child was killed to hold the body, crying, and a sniper shot her through the head too.”

Like his cousin, Baltabai hid under piles of corpses until after the shooting stopped, he thinks at about 8pm – 10 hours after the gunfire began. “Then I crawled behind a tree and stood, looking at what I saw. Dead people everywhere, and some alive, just moving. I felt sick, because of all the things splattered on my clothes. I went into the college and saw the APCs moving over the bodies. They wanted to kill anyone who was wounded. Soldiers walked down the sidewalk, firing single shots at anyone moving. It was a scene from hell, but I saw it, just a hundred days ago.”

The crowd which had taken the side street wound its way by night towards the Kyrgyz border, a 50km road along which the refugees were periodically ambushed. “We had to leave the wounded by the wayside,” recalls Pulat. “There was nothing we could do for them.”

“A lot of women turned back at the border town of Teshiktash because they had left their babies at home,” says Timur. “Most were killed as they walked back.” Some did make it to the border, however, their clothes caked in blood and mud. “We carried white flags to show we were not armed,” says Hakim. “The border guards searched us, five by five.”

Even though they had got to Kyrgyzstan, though, the Uzbek authorities did not relent in ‘ ‘ their pursuit. Family members of those who had fled were rounded up and escorted across the border to plead with them to return, apparently with full Kyrgyz cooperation. “My wife was sent to tell me my son was going to be arrested if I didn’t return,” says Yuldash. Hakim’s father was also sent to tell him that soldiers and the neighbourhood committee had raided their house. “He said: ‘Don’t come back, son, you’ll be arrested. Try to run!’, but when we came outside again with the Uzbek guards watching, we had to go through this stupid performance of him pulling me and me pushing him away, for his own safety.”

At least in Kyrgyzstan, however, the refugees heard news of family members and of and those who elected to go back (in Romania, they are almost entirely isolated). “One man’s son decided to go,” says Yuldash, “and they broke his arms and legs at the border. It was clear what was waiting for anyone who went back: prison and torture.” “Our families told us that ever since we left they were being watched and raided,” says Pulat. “One man who went back had been taken for interrogation with needles in his nails. Later, they killed him, took the body to his parents and said: ‘Here is your child. Let that be an example.'”

“Someone gave the order to kill all of us,” says Yuldash. He looks at me. “But can you tell us, sir: why this silence over what happened in Andijan?”

‘If you can, just run’

We conclude, exhausted, for the women are waiting to talk. There are more of them, in brilliantly coloured headscarves. Mutabar was expecting a peaceful march, and took three of her children; likewise Yulduzhon, who took her son, “but we left our babies. We thought we were going home after the demonstration.” Their account of what happened accords with that of the men. “When they were shooting, we lay on top of our children to protect them,” says one woman, Gulchera. “The dead were spread all over the street, there was blood in the rain, running like rivers. Everywhere was the smell of blood.” “My son was shot in the head,” cries another. “I saw my own son shot in the head. You could see women and children’s shoes all over the street.”

Then one new, horrific detail emerges about the border crossing into Kyrgyzstan. “When we reached a crossroads, near Teshiktash,” says Zarnigor, “some men said, ‘Let’s go this way, over the hills,’ but a group of mostly women and children sat down to rest. When we got up and were walking over the crossroads, a ring of soldiers opened fire, even though we were waving white shawls and shouting ‘Don’t shoot!'”

“We were mostly women in that group,” says Naziba, “about to join the main column. I saw three women and children die next to me – women killed by soldiers.” “There was one woman next to me,” adds Barchinoi, “who said, ‘You go, you go,’ and I answered, ‘What about you?’ Then I saw that the bullets had torn away the other half of her body.”

“The men shouted: ‘If you can, just run,'” says Zarnigor. “They said that we would have to leave the dead and wounded. When we crossed the border, the guards told us, ‘Just be quiet – don’t talk about it.'”

Of 13 women round the table, 11 have left children at home. “I have left six sons,” says one. “I miss them, and I wonder . . .” Another, Barchinoi, says, “I was still breastfeeding one of the babies I left behind. But I am scared to ask for news, because of what might happen.”

The Uzbek regime denies that military or internal security troops fired on demonstrators on May 13. President Karimov initially estimated a death toll of nine, although the official figure was increased to 169 by May 18. The Uzbek government insists that any firing was directed against armed insurgents, and that “only bandits” were killed. While UN demands for an international inquiry are denied, a series of programmes has been aired on Uzbek television showing what human rights organisations insist is a fabricated history of events.

Showing a determination conspicuously unmatched by international governments and the diplomatic community, Human Rights Watch and IWPR have tried to find out what is happening in Uzbekistan. IWPR reports that in the massacre’s wake, “security forces went round methodically finishing off the injured”. A policeman interviewed for the report expresses “the disquiet he felt after three days gathering corpses”. HRW has established that bodies were hastily removed from the square and surrounding streets. There are rumours that “some bodies were buried near Bogshamal cemetery”, says HRW, but that “this and other suspected burial places were off-limits for journalists and human rights workers”. Both organisations confirm the policy of harassing and detaining refugees’ relatives, and a further HRW report, due imminently, will detail the torture of massacre survivors, attempting to persuade them to confess to possession of weapons, membership of illegal organisations, attempting to portray a fictitious armed uprising. The new UN torture rapporteur, Manfred Novak, has accused Uzbekistan of torturing citizens in the aftermath of the massacre. But information is agonisingly scarce.

Meanwhile, the 439 are by no means the only refugees, nor the only ones at risk. Amnesty International estimates that as many as 1,000 Uzbeks could still be hiding in Kyrgyzstan, and that “the authorities in Kyrgyzstan are effectively not in a position to provide refugees physical protection from the Uzbekistani government forces they were fleeing.” There are reports of Uzbek security forces operating on Kyrgyz territory in pursuit of their quarry.

‘Disgraceful and dismaying’

Fifteen further survivors of the massacre remain in custody in Kyrgyzstan: UNHCR has established refugee status for 12 of them, and found destination countries for 11. The remaining three are of concern to UNHCR; their status is being assessed separately by both UNHCR and the Kyrgyz authorities. “We continue to appeal for the immediate release of the 15 who have now been in prison for some three months, after having gone through the terrible ordeal in Andijan,” says UNHCR’s Astrid van Genderen Stort, speaking from Geneva.

“It’s disgraceful and dismaying,” says the London director for Human Rights Watch, Steve Crawshaw, “that there is still no international attempt to address the horror of what took place. The facts are undeniable, and the response is foolish, cynical or both. We come across this notion among governments of Europe, including the British presidency of the EU, that there shouldn’t be too much pressure on Uzbekistan in case something worse happens; but what more does it take than a massacre? If the EU looks away after the foreign ministers meet again in October, that would be more than shameful.”

After we have finished talking in Romania, a young man comes forward, alone. His father was among the four deported back from Kyrgyzstan, and there is no information on whether he is alive or not. His sister-in-law visited him in Kyrgyzstan to tell him that on June 13 he became a father. “The boy is called Fathullo,” says the young man, “but I have no idea what he looks like, or whether I will ever see him.”

“We are ordinary people,” says Timur. “Shoemakers, traders, workers. And all we want is to go back, when it is safe. Wherever we go, we will work hard, but we believe that as night follows day, so day follows night; that this is night, and day must again dawn in Uzbekistan.”

Indeed, it is now morning. These conversations have lasted hours and hours, and a group of us is standing beside a pile of chopped and meticulously arranged kindling, in preparation for winter. “I’m not convinced about this dawn,” says a hitherto silent man at the back. He stares not at Timur, but at me. “We are free to speak here; if we went home we would be silenced. So we tell you about what happened – but words remain words, and nothing happens”.

State of fear … Uzbekistan

The regime

President Islam Abduganievich Karimov, 67, runs a dictatorship with electoral windowdressing: on any ballot, only approved candidates appear. The republic’s post- Soviet leadership stands accused of torture, show trials, disappearances – and butchery. On May 14, he warned potential protesters, “a bullet will not choose who it shoots”.

US links

The US pays $15m a year to the Karimov regime to site a military air base in southern Uzbekistan towards the Afghan border, in pursuit of its battle against the Taliban and al-Qaida. But Karimov recently gave it notice to quit by January 2006 – whether due to criticism from Islamists or because of US noises about human rights is unclear.

British links

The Foreign Office says Britain “bilaterally and with EU partners, regularly and repeatedly draws its concern about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan to senior-level attention within the Uzbek government”. When a British ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray, asked in 2002 why the UK continued to support such a regime, he faced disciplinary proceedings. Britain remains a significant buyer of Uzbek cotton and metals, but corruption and instability are causing western investors to back away.