Story Publication logo May 14, 2010

Land Grab



In early April, a violent uprising forced Kyrgyzstan’s beleaguered president to flee the capital...

Kyrgyzstan’s presidential palace, known as the White House, was the target of two revolutions in the space of five years.

It's been more than a month since the storming of the presidential palace in Bishkek. But the aftershocks of the uprising are still rattling Kyrgyzstan. Earlier this week, new clashes broke out over control of provincial administration buildings in the south of the country, where supporters of the ousted president have been restive ever since the revolution. Throughout Kyrgyzstan, the post-revolutionary chaos has sparked redistribution of property, power, and jobs -- sometimes by violent means.

A few days after the uprising, in a village on the edge of Bishkek , the beginnings of this new unrest were plain to see in a roadside standoff: black-helmeted riot police were holding off a crowd of protesters. An armored infantry vehicle sat at an intersection, a gunner lounging on its roof. Snow-covered mountains stood in the distance. They were tall and craggy, and dazzlingly white against an azure sky unblemished by a single cloud.

The protesters were demanding the release of 120 people who had been detained the day before. People had flooded onto a field, and they had started parceling out land for themselves, according to a master list someone had drawn up. There was one problem: that land already had owners. But the land-grabbers, most of them destitute laborers, saw an opportunity in the chaos of the revolution. Their logic was simple: In the capital, a group of politicians seized power, so why can't we seize land?

Behind the line of riot police, I met Bahyt, a short man with the tan, creased face of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors. A 41-year-old father of five, Bahyt spoke with emotion. "I'm penniless," he told me with a shriek. All seven of his family members live in a small rented room. "I just wanted a plot of land to build a house."

Like many of his countrymen seeking refuge from Kyrgyzstan's dismal economy, Bahyt used to work in Russia. These labor migrants man construction sites, work at outdoor markets and do other menial jobs, often facing contempt or indifference from local officials and residents. Sometimes, they fall prey to skinhead gangs. A Kyrgyz friend of mine told me his brother worked as a waiter at a Japanese-themed café in Moscow. The manager ordered him to keep his mouth shut around clients to bolster the illusion that he was Japanese. The Kyrgyz have Asian features.

In Moscow, Bahyt handled interior-finishing jobs in new office buildings. He shared a small trailer with four other workers, sending most of his earnings back home to his family. Then the financial crisis hit Moscow's seemingly bottomless construction market, and Bahyt lost his job. He moved to Tomsk, a town in Siberia where it gets so cold that "even a tomato can't ripen," as he put it, and took a job guarding a gas compressor. One day, as he was swinging a heavy hammer at the job site, his hold slipped, and the hammer shattered his foot. He couldn't work anymore, and the Siberian cold gnawed at the fracture. So he took a long train ride home to Kyrgyzstan. He recovered, and found occasional construction jobs. His latest employer was locked in a dispute with a contractor, the result of which was Bahyt hadn't been paid in months. Desperate, he went to plant watermelons near the border with Kazakhstan. When the revolution happened, and Bahyt saw a chance to finally score some land he couldn't otherwise afford.

Faced with the mob of such land-grabbers, the interim government fumbled for a response. The mayor of Bishkek addressed the protesters and told them they should have land. The protesters took that as an invitation to take it. Aida Kemelova, an epileptic single mother of three, showed me a piece of paper with a signature, which she said was permission to get land. A bread-seller at a bazaar, she told me she was on the verge of eviction from her rental apartment. Bahyt showed me a similar squiggle scrawled on the photocopy of his passport.

The mayor left, and the protesters got down to business with measuring tapes. This didn't sit well with the local landowners, and an argument ensued. Though what happened next isn't entirely clear, word spread through the crowd that a man with a double-barrel shotgun had opened fire. That man, Bahyt told me, was a Turk. The Turks, with their European features, are easily distinguishable from the Kyrgyz.

The Turks of Central Asia have a bitter history. They used to live in Southern Georgia, near the Turkish border. In 1944, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decreed that they be resettled to Central Asia. Stalin was paranoid about the emergence of a fifth column among some ethnicities of the Soviet Union. One way to punish them and stifle their national spirit was to toss them around in the massive Soviet salad bowl.

In the village of Mayevka, outside Bishkek, the descendants of these refugees settled on a big collective farm, alongside the Kyrgyz and the Russians. When the unrest began, the Turks sent their women and children away and waited, said Alik Aliyev, a Turk in his 50s, with a scruffy unshaved face and a mustache.

"Then we saw a crowd approaching from the direction of the fields. They had clubs and rocks and they were screaming wildly," Aliyev said. He was giving sworn testimony to a group of investigators from the State Security Service, and I was allowed to listen in. "We weren't evenly matched, so we retreated deep into the village." Eventually, the Turks grouped together and were able to hold the Kyrgyz mob at a distance for about two hours. "We were calling every emergency number we could find, asking for help. Our phones were getting overheated from all the use. The cops were waiting for an order, I heard."

No help was forthcoming, and the Kyrgyz crowd, having swollen in numbers, finally charged the Turks. They were specifically looking for Turkish homes, Aliyev testified. They would run up to the fence of a house, and if a Kyrgyz or a Russian face popped up, they would move on. On the gate to one house, I saw a line, scrawled in chalk, identifying it as Kyrgyz, probably to warn off the rioters.

There were bone-chilling screams, Aliyev recalled. "I don't even know how it is possible for humans to scream like this." The Turks scattered. Aliyev climbed over a fence and eventually hid in some bushes. When the cops finally arrived, Aliyev emerged from hiding and went to help his friends and relatives put out the fires. It was already dark, and a neighbor asked Aliyev to help identify a body, lying on its back in the street.

Under a flashlight, Aliyev recognized a good friend named Kaptan Karipov. Karipov, 40, was married to Aliyev's cousin and they had two kids. "His head was bashed in with rocks. There was a hole between his eyes, and there were stab wounds on his neck." Aliyev was speaking inside a smoldering wreck that was once Karipov's house. On the tiled floor I saw broken jars of tomato preserves, the tomatoes squished and bright red, trailing seeds; shattered tea bowls spilling out of wrapping paper; a high-heel boot, its black leather crumpled and dirty. In a burnt shed, the charred corpse of a young bull was still smoking. "What were the security forces waiting for?" Aliyev asked. "If they'd come in time, this wouldn't have happened."

Later, I posed that question to Keneshbek Dushebayev, the new director of the State Security Service. He said the Minister of Interior, who supervises the police, was replaced after the events in Mayevka, and assured me that the new leadership is "more decisive." In the evening after the murders -- there were five that day -- interim leader Roza Otunbayeva authorized a shoot-to-kill policy against those attacking the property or lives of others. The police rounded up 120 people who participated in the riots. The next day, protesters demanded their release, and they were all set free. The government later said six people were under criminal investigation for their role in the violence.

One afternoon, I got a phone call from Bahyt. He still had no land. When I asked him about the crowd's attack on the local Turks, he told me it was the Turks who started the fight.

In the corner of Mayevka, Aliyev's house survived the riots, but his car, an aging Mazda, had been stolen and was later found banged up beyond repair. As he gave testimony in the destroyed house of his dead friend, a big chunk of corrugated roofing material crashed down onto a blackened stove in Karipov's kitchen. Aliyev looked at it blankly, and didn't move from his bench. "I'm going to leave the village now," he said. "There's nothing here for me."

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues