Often called the Switzerland of Central Asia, mountainous and ethnically diverse Kyrgyzstan was once touted as a success case for peaceful coexistence. Now, following violent clashes in June between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, ethnic tension is threatening to topple the stability of the entire region. But, a well-organized and thriving women's movement could pull Kyrgzstan back from the brink.
It was July, just weeks after violence had erupted in our country, killing hundreds of people and displacing hundreds of thousands. We were gathered in a room, looking out at buildings that had been burned to the ground: Kyrgyz and Uzbek women, meeting face to face for the first time since the conflict erupted and pitted us against each other.
Some of us had lost our houses; others had lost family members. We had witnessed violence; we had been the victims of violence. We were angry. Before June, we had been neighbors. Now, many of us were shouting at each other.
When the violence happened, I felt how deeply women had been affected. As the president of the Forum of Women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, I also knew that women could take on a critical peacebuilding role after conflict. As women leaders from different ethnic groups, I knew we needed to meet each other to begin peace talks. But I was nervous. Our country had never before been through a conflict on this scale, and I had no experience in organizing peace and mediation talks.
Growing up, I lived amongst Kyrgyz, Germans, Russians, Roma, Uyghur, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, and many other ethnic groups. In Kyrgyzstan, there are over 100 ethnic groups who have lived together, mostly peacefully, for centuries. But we're not strangers to ethnic violence—we had ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan ten years ago. Still, I never imagined that violence on the scale of what we saw in June would take place in my country.
The violence of June 10th presented itself as ethnic violence, but tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic groups was not the only cause. Political turmoil, unemployment, growing migration, criminal activity, and the rising influence of fundamentalist Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir are other likely factors. Under these conditions, simmering ethnic tensions were easily ignited and the conflict was fueled by disinformation and rumors.
I first visited Osh less than two weeks after the violence began and the city was shut down. Police were enforcing a curfew. Markets and businesses were closed, and public transportation wasn't running. There was still sporadic fighting in parts of the country. My Kyrgyz taxi driver was afraid to take me into Uzbek neighborhoods because he had heard about ethnic Kyrgyz who had been shot there. Before I left, I called my family to speak with them—just in case anything happened to me.
Now, over a month later, curfews were still in place, rumors were still swirling, and Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were still blaming each other for what happened. There were some NGOs talking to each other, but on the community level there was a kind of silence. By starting a process of face to face meetings in the affected regions, we hoped to break the silence.
Our first meeting began in anger, but as the women took turns speaking out and expressing their pain, we found ourselves crying together. Slowly we began to talk, and by the end of the meeting we had made the decision to go forward and continue peace talks.
We discovered that we needed to let our anger out while we were in one room, looking at each others' faces. Only then were we able to cry together about what we have lost. Meeting with these women was an emotional experience that reminded us that pain has no ethnicity.
This conflict has been a complete nightmare—especially for women. I have heard so many stories of women and girls from both ethnic groups who have been raped, beaten, disappeared, taken hostage, forced to flee their homes, wounded, and killed. During my first visit to Osh, I saw crowds of family members holding pictures of relatives who had disappeared. By now many of the people in these pictures have been found dead.
Part of the healing process is to document the violations that have happened during the conflict. When I first visited Osh, I found that there was no data on or attention to women's rights violations. There was no state unit responsible for women's security. We decided to form such a group ourselves. We are now collecting data: the number of criminal investigation cases of violence against women filed by police, the number of women who have disappeared, the number of women in hospitals. We are attempting to count the women who have been raped and killed.
There are areas of the country where it is still very difficult to enter and investigate because of continuing tensions. We are doing our best to track the cases, knowing that for every girl or woman who comes forward to report rape and brutality against her, there are others who are afraid to report it. Documenting the violence is an enormous task, but if these cases aren't addressed, the escalation of violence will continue. The violators must be brought to answer for these crimes.
It will take time to rebuild trust and peace. Our talks must continue in order to be effective. In each region, we've found we need to have at least three meetings. The first time we speak out to take away the anger and we cry together. The second time we look to the causes of violence. And maybe the third time we have a conversation and begin to plan and network together. I hope we can eventually work together to create joint security measures. I would like to see us set up solidarity networks and a system to inform each other when something is going wrong so that together we can address any issues.
The state and other actors have not been able to maintain peace in our country; as women, it is time for us to step in. In Kyrgyzstan, women's groups are very active. Due to our campaigning, we have seen political leadership rise. Women's representation in parliament has grown from 0% to 25%.
I know from what I have experienced during these first meetings between Kyrgyz and Uzbek women community leaders that the women of Kyrgyzstan are ready. We are ready to talk even when the country as a whole may not be ready. Most of us are mothers, sisters, and wives. We are deeply affected by the violence and we feel responsible for the security of our families. I myself am a mother of two children and I simply am not willing to see my children go to war.
It is time that we, as women, step forward and take charge to maintain peace and security in Kyrgyzstan. If we don't take responsibility, there is no one who will do it for us.