Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Curing a Blind Eye
America's Redemption in Uzbekistan

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 2, 2005 --  

The pretty, tree-lined roads of the Fergana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan give visitors a beautiful picture that masks the tension felt by the people of the region. The cotton fields, orchards and farming towns visible behind the poplar trees give the area a similar atmosphere to California's San Joaquin Valley. Both regions are densely populated agricultural centers feeding people living over mountain ridges in more powerful cities.

But while the highway leading north toward the Kyrgyz border may look like any road leading out of Fresno, the Uzbek highway has a much darker context. That road recently served as an escape route for victims of the worst political massacre since Tiananmen Square. It was on that road, on May 13, that hundreds of panicked demonstrators pushed aside a government blockade of busses to flee a gauntlet of death in the center of the city of Andijan. Several hundred demonstrators and several armed rebels were killed in the city center when Uzbek security forces indiscriminately opened fire on a protest in the main square -- and continued to fire as the people fled.1

Fortunately for the refugees, the nearby border with Kyrgyzstan is still fairly porous. The arbitrary boundary between the two countries snakes around Andijan on eastern end of the valley. Makeshift border posts, absent until the mid-1990s, became a necessity when drug smugglers and infiltrators of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- based in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan -- began to plague the region.

But the Soviet-era roads don't respect these borders. The main highway between Kyrgyzstan largest southern cities, Osh and Jalalabad, has been severed for a decade because it passes through a few of Uzbekistan's cotton fields on the opposite side of the border. It was through such fields that the refugees of the massacre had to pass on their way to Kyrgyzstan. Fortunately, despite an ambush by soldiers on the border, over four hundred survivors made it through.

Like the road network, Uzbekistan's despotic leader is a holdover from the Soviet era. Islam Karimov has ruled the country since it was still a Soviet republic in 1990. Clearly, Karimov is not used to defiance, as confirmed by the brutal behavior of his security forces in Andijan.

For months, he had demanded that Kyrgyzstan return the survivors of the massacre to face what would certainly have been a brutal homecoming. The Kyrgyz government, worried about domestic political instability -- especially from their own Uzbek minority -- had no desire to see them remain forever. Kyrgyz officials had placed 15 of the refugees in jails on suspicion of having committed serious crimes,2 while the rest were guarded in refugee camps.

When American diplomats tentatively came to the refugees' defense, Karimov decided to put on the squeeze. He began to make noise about closing America's Karshi-Khanabad air base on the barren plains of southern Uzbekistan, a modern and well-connected facility conveniently near the border with Afghanistan. For weeks of the diplomatic standoff, the refugees' lives remained in the balance. Would the Americans choose their base at the cost of the lives of the Uzbek refugees?

Thankfully, no. On Friday morning, a United Nations chartered Thai Airways3 jet flew 4394 refugees to safety in Romania. Enraged at this defiance, the dictator quickly demanded American forces to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base within six months.

While the 15 refugees jailed in Kyrgyzstan remain in limbo, the survivors that reached Romania include many of the very people that inspired the protests -- a group of 23 Uzbek businessmen imprisoned for their supposed membership in a government-banned Islamic organization. It was a rebellion by relatives and other supporters of the businessmen that led to the storming of the prison that gave them their freedom, and inspired the large-scale protests on May 13.5

Remarkably, this is the first high-profile case where the United States government has refused to side with repression carried out in the name of the fight against terrorism. China and Russia, two of the worst offenders at repressing people under the guise of the anti-terrorist fight, sided with Uzbekistan in the struggle over the refugees. Such a position is unsurprising from the Chinese government, which massacred its own people at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the Russian government, which engages in extra judicial killings in its restive province of Chechenya with great regularity.

And while the United States government has a far greater human rights record, it has a sad history of turning a blind eye to repression by its wartime allies. That it refused to do so in this egregious case is commendable -- especially since it was willing to put a military base on the line in the process. While Uzbekistan's cowed citizens are in no position to express gratitude for America's support today, its assistance will most certainly be remembered after the dictator falls.

David G. Young traveled through Uzbekistan, including Andijan and the Fergana valley in September 2002.

Related Web Columns:

Fighting Terrorists, Like America, October 2, 2001


1. Human Rights Watch, "'Bullets Were Falling Like Rain,' The Andijan Massacre, May 13, 2005," June 2005

2. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, UN Tells Kyrgyzstan Not To Send Uzbek Refugees Home, August 2, 2005

3. BBC News, Uzbek Refugees Flown to Romania, July 29, 2005

4. Moscow Times, Tashkent Denounces Evacuation of 439 Refugees, August 2, 2005

5. Human Rights Watch, Ibid.