The bullet holes and bloodstains are gone, but for Uzbeks life is even worse
By Nick Paton Walsh in Andijan writing for The Guardian
Repression on a huge scale follows massacre of at least 500 protesters
Plaster covers up the bullet holes in the walls of Andijan, a city whitewashed into denial. Builders clamber around buildings, hastily repairing blast damage. Residents talk in code on the phone; the less cautious sometimes disappear. Thick-set men in sunglasses band together on street corners, their silver saloons conspicuously tailing outsiders. The veneer of normality, here in the authoritarian state of Uzbekistan, is brittle. Ola picks at her ice cream in one of Andijan’s pristine parks and says: “Everyone here has amnesia. Didn’t you know?”
In the centre, the tranquil Bobur Square yields no suggestion that five months ago it was, in the words of witnesses, awash with blood. Here troops shot dead at least 500 people protesting in support of 23 local businessmen charged with “extremism” but freed in a jailbreak. The troops walked among the wounded, finishing them off with a single shot to the head, before hoarding their corpses in a nearby school.
But while locals say between 1,500 and 2,000 people died on the square, the regime of President Islam Karimov insists that only 187 criminals were killed. They have tried to recast the massacre as a measured response to a coup by Islamists, a version of events repeated daily in the Uzbek supreme court in the capital, Tashkent.
In the court, 15 of the 23 businessmen are on trial for terrorism and may be executed. They have said they opened fire first, that the US embassy helped finance their attack, and the foreign media, including the BBC, advised them. Officials have testified that the militants refused an offer of safe passage, battered their captives and began shooting each other. State TV has replayed confessions from similarly repentant “organisers”.
This Orwellian conceit lapsed only once when a woman said troops had shot at people waving white flags. Makhbuba Zakirova, 33, who was interrupted by the judge, said: “Even Hitler did not do it that way.”
The charade is shattered behind the closed doors of Andijan’s homes. Survivors and relatives told the Guardian, the first western newspaper to gain access to Andijan since the massacre, of months of repression, arrest, and torture. Hundreds of survivors have been forced into confessing their “military involvement” to bolster the state’s case.
Many are in jail, up to 200 awaiting trial; others have disappeared from hospital. One police officer said 300 people had been arrested in Andijan since the massacre; Human Rights Watch suggests up to 4,200 have at some point been detained in the surrounding region. Knock on doors in a street in Andijan and it is clear the repression that hit the town of 450,000 after May 13 may eclipse the horrors of the massacre itself.
Udgarbek, 16, sits on a bed in his mother’s courtyard. On May 13 he was shot twice in the back. The first cut just past his upper spinal cord. The second is lodged in his lower back. He walks stiffly as if his back and thighs were strapped to a plank; urine stains his trousers, his nerve endings still damaged.
That day, he was left for dead near Bobur Square. Soldiers dragged him into the grounds of a school where he lay among hundreds of corpses. He saw nine injured people die before they put him on a bus to hospital at dawn. There, the security services visited him. “They beat me on the legs and the soles of my feet to make me sign a confession saying I was sniper,” he said. “They yelled at me: ‘Where are your guns and your friends?’ But I refused, fearing what they would do to me if I confessed.”
After 26 days, he was discharged. But at home convalescing and unable to walk, he was still seen as a threat. “They came again in June and took me to the regional police station,” he said. “They did not beat me that time, but fingerprinted, photographed and filmed me.”
Many did not return home from hospital. Saidkhan Saidhojayev, 27, left home excitedly on the morning of May 13. The businessmen had been busted out of prison. The local government building had been taken over. The town’s life would start anew. The president was coming to negotiate and so Mr Saidhojayev dressed in his best white shirt and trousers. By 8pm, he was staggering home after being shot in the left arm. He did not enter his mother’s house, but lay outside on a pile of gravel until 11pm, when friends took him to hospital. There his infected arm was cut off. Three days later he was moved by the police and has not been seen again.
On the same day, Anvar Todjihanov,a father of four, was taken from hospital. His wife declined to be interviewed but told friends how her husband, 36, who was shot in the back on Bobur Square, had lost 10kg (22lb) in weight and is “on the borders of death” in jail. Plain-clothed security men, who last searched her flat 15 days ago, have told her to get a job as Mr Todjihanov won’t be returning.
The authorities’ reputation has heightened the anguish. The US state department says Uzbek police use “torture as a routine investigation technique”. Methods include crushing limbs, electric shocks, raping relatives before the accused, sexual abuse with a broken bottle, and in one case the boiling to death of a suspect. Others have been arrested by the National Security Service, as “hostages” to persuade relatives to give themselves up. Shurat Nuridinov, 24 and a student, was jailed for terrorism on May 26. His father Avas said the case was probably aimed at forcing his relative, one of the businessmen, Burkhoni Nuridinov, to return to Uzbekistan. Burkhoni is one of 400 Uzbeks who fled to Europe and gained asylum.
A human rights activist, Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, who spoke out about the death toll, was arrested on the Uzbek border after taking a wounded protester to Kyrgyzstan. He has been charged with criminal defamation and distributing leaflets that threaten national security. “We don’t know where he’s being held,” said his son, Ilhom. “I doubt they’ll release him. His lawyer says he’s already confessed and asked for the president’s forgiveness.” Ilhom was beaten up days after meeting the Guardian, a human rights worker said.
The crackdown has continued across Uzbekistan, as Mr Karimov hurries to ensure that any repeat of Andijan will not be as well publicised. Two weeks after the massacre, in the town of Jizzakh, a human rights worker was attacked at home by 70 people who gave him 24 hours to leave town. “They were all state employees,” Bakhtiyor Khamraev said. “They hit me over the head with a stick. For 50 minutes they screamed: ‘You are an American spy, a terrorist. You have sold yourself.'”
The next day they came back, but Mr Khamraev was with a US researcher from Human Rights Watch. The threat of publicity caused the crowd to flee, he said. Since then telephone calls have threatened his family, warning: “We will kill you. No foreigner can help you.”