Civilian Massacre by Uzbek Forces in Andijan
LE MONDE | 23.05.05 | 15h46
On the morning of Friday 13 May in Andijan, a city of 300,000 in the Ferghana Valley, a vast oasis of rice paddies, cotton fields and fruit orchards along Central Asia’s ancient Silk Road, a crowd assembled, seized with fear and excitement. The night before, at midnight, armed insurgents took control of an armory and broke down the gates of the prison, freeing hundreds of prisoners, including 23 local businessmen.
They next entered city hall. In Babour Square, thousands of residents, venting their exasperation with the regime of Uzbek President Karimov, in power since 1989, began to assemble.
The fate of the 23 businessmen is the key element which set off the revolt. The trial of these men, accused of religious extremism, had be going on in Andijan since February. A crowd of supporters and relatives watched the proceedings; the verdict was to be read on 12 May. The day before, however, the authorities announced the suspension of the trial and a change of venue to a faraway province on the Aral Sea. The decision sent a wave of anger through the populace.
Among the accused were two brothers of Khassan Sharikov, a frail young man of 27 in exile in Kyrgyzstan in an encampment of military-issue tents along the Kara Daria river, which demarks the Uzbek frontier. Next to some 500 other refugees demanding political asylum in Kyrgyzstan, Khassan narrates the events of the days which led to the massacre of hundreds of men, women and children by the Uzbek army on the afternoon of 13 May.
My brothers Shakir and Shavkiat ran a garment shop which employed forty or so workers. Starting in June of 2004 the SNB –the Uzbek secret police- began a shakedown operation targeting them and other entrepreneurs in the city, threatening tax audits and closures. My brothers were part of a group of entrepreneurs, furniture manufacturers, toolmakers and tradesmen providing mutual assistance. They became very popular among the populace because they gave people jobs. Their employees received health care and free meals. In the mahallas (traditional Uzbek neighborhoods) they organized celebrations, prepared lamb and distributed gifts. My brothers contributed to the orphanage. Everything was founded on a certain ethic.In Babour Square that 13th of May, people spoke up, one by one, using a loudspeaker taken from city hall, including the city prosecutor. Men complained of economic hardship. Women protested the wave of arrests sweeping the region over the last few months. The crowd grew. Khassan Sharikov says there were 30,000 demonstrators. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in Tashkent says there were between 5000 and 10,000 people. No Islamist slogans were used, only calls for justice and freedom.
Around 10 a.m., an armored military vehicle belonging to the forces which had concentrated themselves in the side streets, entered Babour Square and opened fire on the demonstrators. Combat helicopters appeared overhead. The crowd, which had heard on the radio that President Karimov was heading for Andijan, believed for a moment that he had arrived and that there would be negotiations.
Around noon, other shots where heard, coming from a second armored vehicle racing down Navoï Avenue, equipped with a machine gun and following by trucks filled with soldiers. The wounded and the dead (between ten and twenty corpses) were carried towards city hall. Inside the building, young Khassan began to send e-mails on a city computer to journalists and press agencies who knew us, because they had been covering the trial of the Twenty-Three.
According to information gathered by Western diplomats in Tashkent, negotiations by telephone took place between the insurgents and Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov. The demands of the protesters were the release from prison of the twenty-three defendants; this was judged unacceptable by President Karimov.
Around 5 pm, the shooting from the military grew more intense and a portion of the crowd left the square heading down Shoulpon Avenue, the only remaining exit after the military had encircled the square. Soldiers, hidden behind the trees lining the boulevard, opened fire. People fell dead. Armed insurgents deployed themselves between the military and the departing crowd in order to protect them against the soldiers, relates Khassan Sharikov. Women and children to the middle!, shouted the insurgents, who had placed local officials taken hostage in front of them as human shields.
When they got to the Shoulpon Cinema they discovered that the avenue was blocked by armored vehicles and surrounded by army snipers on the rooftops. This is where the largest number of killings took place. The troops took aim at the crowd with heavy machine guns. There were many, many dead, says Khassan Sharikov. We were flat on the ground. It lasted 15 minutes. I lifted my head to see women and children covered in blood, exploded limbs due to the impact of the bullets and fractured skulls. The ground was covered with pools of blood and rain. The men protecting us were all dead.
A group of residents managed to escape down an alley and began the long, all-night trek towards the Kyrgyz frontier where other soldiers opened fire on them as they walked along a narrow path, killing eight of them. My wife fell, stricken by a hail of bullets which pierced her kidneys, recounts Akram Zahidov, under a tent in Kara Daria.
According to the Red Cross Committee in Uzbekistan, its was possible to ascertain from bullet wounds fired at point blank range at forty corpses that the Army had finished off the wounded following the Andijan fusillade. Other dead were carried away by trucks. Access to hospitals, morgues and School No. 15, where bodies were collected, remains forbidden to NGOs and the Red Cross.
OCSE and the Red Cross officials say hundreds of people (between 300 and 500) –but not thousands as other sources reported- were killed during the disturbances. OCSE underscores that no warning was issued to the crowd, which was peaceful and unarmed and that insurgents did not fire on the military before the assault on the crowd. This refutes President Karimov’s version of events, according to which no unarmed civilian was shot.