New York Times
May 20, 2005
KARASU, Kyrgyzstan, May 19 - The government of Uzbekistan restored authority on Thursday to the small swath of eastern territory from which its police forces withdrew last weekend, ending a short-lived and bloodily suppressed revolt against the authoritarian government.
The return of order came without evident violence. Witnesses said Uzbek military and police units appeared early in the morning, swiftly arrested three men and established a border checkpoint and foot patrols to show their presence on the street.
Among those arrested was Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, who on Wednesday told an Associated Press reporter that the Uzbek side of Karasu, a border town, was in the hands of the people, who wanted to establish an Islamic state.
A quiet but foreboding day ensued, said Karasu residents, who crossed a roughly 100-foot-long footbridge over the Sharkhansai River to the Kyrgyz side here.
Karasu slipped from Uzbek control last Saturday, the day after a prison break and a large antigovernment demonstration nearby in Andijon was dispersed by gunfire from the Uzbek authorities. Survivors have said hundreds died; the Uzbek government put the death toll at 169.
In contrast to what occurred at Andijon, Karasu's revolt was milder, although it lasted days, not hours.
As a popular uprising began to crowd the city's streets on Saturday, witnesses and participants said, the Uzbek police units collected their weapons and withdrew without firing. Crowds then looted police buildings and set them on fire.
With the authorities gone, local residents quickly restored a metal footbridge to the Kyrgyz side, opening the border for free passage between the nations. Residents said the bridge had been destroyed by the Uzbeks two years ago, restricting commerce and travel in a city that straddles two nations.
Reporters for The New York Times crossed the bridge into Uzbekistan this week, entering an atypically unsupervised region in a highly restrictive state.
At least three police stations had been abandoned and burned, although none of them bore signs of a fight: no spent shell casings, no bullet or shrapnel marks on the ruined buildings, no blood.
With no police officers or security services officers in sight, residents clustered around visitors and complained bitterly of Uzbekistan's endemic poverty, corruption, joblessness and official brutality. Their disgust with the government was open and complete, a rare public acknowledgment in Uzbekistan, where dissent can invite imprisonment.
Still, even amid the outpouring of resentment toward Islam A. Karimov, the Uzbek president, small signs of the government's presence remained. Workers at the city administration building arrived at their jobs and milled about, evidently unsure of what to do.
And state discipline was evident at the main hospital, where Alkhan Doblotov, the chief doctor, who serves at the pleasure of the government, presided over workers planting flowers. Dr. Doblotov insisted that the authorities had not lost control. "Everything is quiet and normal," he said.
Away from this pocket of loyalty to the state, however, people said they longed to overthrow Mr. Karimov, whose government has been roundly criticized for years in the West for its use of torture, repression of freedoms and rigging of elections.
"We simply want to change the government," said Timur, 34, a trader, who said he would only give his first name because he was afraid. "Everybody is dissatisfied."
Throughout the city, people said they feared the retaliation they expected when the authorities inevitably moved to reclaim Karasu. "I am not a coward," said Amanulla Alimdzhanov, 68, adding that he expected the troops to return in force. "But I am afraid."
That moment came Thursday, and the initial hours proved entirely unlike what had occurred in Andijon. The police arrived quietly and took up posts. Business at the bazaar, which is visible from the Kyrgyz side, went on around them.
By Uzbek standards, the visible police presence was light. Officers in control of the bridge did not appear to carry weapons, although six soldiers with rifles and machine guns stood nearby with their weapons now and then showing under their parkas.
Residents of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan gathered on the Kyrgyz side to see what would occur. Away from the police, they said that Mr. Karimov had wrongly characterized the uprising as the work of Islamic militants.
The people played down the role and influence of Mr. Rakhimov, whom they described as a wealthy farm owner who on Wednesday said he would fight and create a Muslim state, and the next morning was arrested as the police returned.
The Fergana Valley, which straddles Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is the heart of the Muslim resurgence in Central Asia, but its people, many in the crowds said, are angry because of underdevelopment and state brutality, not because they are part of an extremist movement.
One man, Abdulla Abdullaugli, 28, asked to take a reporter's notebook and then wrote a statement in Russian. "This is not radical Islam," he wrote, "simply people who want to live like the rest of the world."