It has been a very difficult few days indeed watching the tragic events in southern Kyrgyzstan unfold, making frantic calls and worrying about the safety of all our dear friends and my previous colleagues there.
The little direct news I have received is chilling. One colleague has two confirmed deaths in his family and a whole family unit is still unaccounted for (it is hoped they have fled as refugees to Uzbekistan). Others we know are apparently barricaded in their homes or apartments desperately waiting for relief and badly needed food and supplies. We’ve watched online images of familiar buildings in our old Osh neighborhood being burned to the ground. And we’ve heard firsthand accounts of the chaos and tension in the streets.
I went to Osh in the fall of 2008 to manage Mercy Corps’ Collaborative Development Initiative (CDI) for its fourth and final year. The staff included Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tartars, Russians, Ukrainians, Koreans and me, a strange Canadian/American. It was a real melting pot and the staff was proud of our diversity, camaraderie and unity. I wish you could witness the gaiety of one of our impromptu staff birthday parties or the celebration of International Women’s Day – these images are so far from what you have been seeing on the TV over the last few days.
I will not sugarcoat the formidable problems of southern Kyrgyzstan, including insidious longstanding ethnic tensions and patterns of discrimination. They are deeply rooted and complex, but that doesn’t mean the country is a lost cause. The key is supporting sustainable economic opportunities for all Kyrgyz, of all ethnicities.
I am very concerned that in reaction to these alarming events and the widespread international press coverage, the world will get a skewed, overly negative image of the region and the character of its people. Yes, this has been horrific but the vast majority of Kyrgyz of all ethnic backgrounds are victims here, not perpetrators of violence or hatred.
After emergency relief efforts are undertaken, I sincerely hope that donor countries and organizations will not retract, but will redouble their investments and efforts in Kyrgyzstan to help establish a viable, sustainable and fair economy. That is what will bring peace and stability. Then hopefully, in the long process of growing and maturing as an emerging democracy and diverse pluralistic society, the serious, deeply rooted issues of ethnic mistrust and suspicion will be dealt with.