Uzbekistan: Andijan under occupation

The blood has been washed away, but memories of the violence have not faded.

By Dilya Usmanova for IWPR in Andijan (RCA No. 385, 08-Jun-05)

Nearly a month after the massacre, Andijan still has the feel of a city under occupation, with armed troops dominating the streets and residents too cowed to talk.

On the outskirts of the city, life is more or less back to normal and the markets are open.

But central Andijan retains the unnatural calm of a recent killing field.

There is a strong collective memory -- almost palpable in the air - of the events of May 13, when government troops opened fire on a crowd of thousands of demonstrators in the city centre.

The numerous checkpoints manned by armed soldiers, the armoured personnel carriers, APCs, parked outside government institutions, and talk of new waves of arrests all add to the mood of intimidation.

The main streets are still blocked off, and the only vehicles on the move belong to the army or police. No traffic has moved on Navoi Avenue since the APCs rolled down it in convoy, on their way to train their guns on protesters on Babur Square.

Civilian vehicles are only allowed on some narrow side-streets.

A clean-up which began after the violence is still going on, with municipal roadsweepers clearing away debris and other workers repairing damaged buildings -- their first job being to plaster over exterior walls scarred by bullets.

The regional government building, the hub of the protest, is still in disarray -- the only cleaning up done here was to wash away the blood that covered the floors. Nearby on Babur Square stand Andijan's main theatre and cinema, set on fire during the violence.

Many city residents are too scared to discuss their experiences with a stranger, fearing - with some justification -- that they could end up in jail just for talking to representatives from international organisations.

But once they gain confidence, virtually all of them tell the same story of how troops opened fire on civilian protesters without warning, on what's come to be known as "Bloody Friday".

There are still no precise figures on the number killed that day. At a press briefing on May 18, Uzbek officials cited a figure of 169.

At the briefing, President Islam Karimov said "only bandits" were killed, and that in every single case, a weapon was found beside the body

Eyewitnesses living in the city, meanwhile, insist these figures are a lie and that several hundred people were mown down in the course of a few hours.

"About 200 people were killed before my very eyes," said a local human rights activist. "The soldiers fired from the APCs, and did not spare the injured."

The uniformed units and secret police omnipresent in the city continue to quash such stories by arresting more people and intimidating others.

One journalist told IWPR that a man who helped him investigate reports of mass graves after the killings was murdered on May 28.

"He helped me, he got the gravediggers to admit that there were two bodies buried in each grave in the Bagishamol district. Now I have to hide myself," said the journalist.

Human rights activists are being arrested, and several have had office equipment seized by the authorities.

Leading human rights activist Saidjahon Zainabitdinov has been imprisoned since May 21. He may have been targeted because his eyewitness account and evidence were particularly damaging.

Zainabutdinov not only witnessed the scenes of shooting, but also observed corpses being taken away in trucks the following day.

Before his arrest, he showed IWPR the material evidence he had gathered indicating that women and children had been killed -- bloody women's and children's shoes.

Zainabittinov had also gathered the casings of large-calibre shells, as evidence that the heavy machine guns mounted on APCS, a devastating form of weapon, were deployed against the crowd.

The authorities have suggested that the numerous lighter bullets from Kalashnikov rifles prove that most of the shooting came not from the troops (although these too were equipped with the weapon) but from rebels who had seized weapons the previous evening.

In a bid to discredit information reaching the rest of Uzbekistan, the authorities are deploying the state media in a mass attack on independent and foreign media which have reported on Andijan. Abusive articles referring to journalists are published in the press every day, with newspapers such as Narodnoe Slovo, Uzbekistan Ovozi and Pravda Vostoka making some wild accusations about the BBC, Reuters, Associated Press as well as IWPR.

The authorities appear to be trying the carrot as well as the stick to hold down the population of Andijan and the rest of the Fergana Valley. After the violence, people started to be paid long overdue wages, pensions and benefits all of a sudden.

"We used to have problems getting our money, but now we're receiving it on time," said one bemused Andijan pensioner.

Local government officials insist the pay-out is purely coincidental.

But people interviewed by IWPR said these small indulgences offered by the state would not be enough to make them forget what happened in their city.

"The only thing we're sure of now that if the survivors try to protest again, the authorities will drown them in blood," said one Andijan resident.

Dilya Usmanova is the pseudonym of an IWPR correspondent in Uzbekistan. Names of interviewees have been withheld to protect them from harassment.