Essay

A LAND OF LITTLE HOPE

In the wake of the recent violence, MICHAEL PETROU reflects on Uzbekistan

June 6 2005
Essay

A LAND OF LITTLE HOPE

In the wake of the recent violence, MICHAEL PETROU reflects on Uzbekistan

June 6 2005

A LAND OF LITTLE HOPE

Essay

In the wake of the recent violence, MICHAEL PETROU reflects on Uzbekistan

I FIRST SERIOUSLY considered visiting Uzbekistan five years ago, while sitting on the balcony of a teahouse in the remote western Chinese city of Kashi. A friend and I had spent several weeks retracing the ancient Silk Road thousands of kilometres across northern China. Below us, the dusty streets teemed with people from the many clans and tribes of Central Asia. Uighur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz nomads and traders had all come into the city for a weekly market day, and their tents, flocks of sheep and camel caravans sprawled for miles outside of town. The only Chinese faces were soldiers and police.

We had arrived at a crossroads. In Kashi, the old Silk Road trading route that for centuries linked Europe with Asia split in two directions. One branch turned south and traversed the roof of the world across the Pamir and Karakoram mountains to reach the lush and profitable Indian subcontinent. Westward, across another mountain range, lay Uzbekistan and its mythical cities of Bukhoro and Samarkand. Samarkand humbled Alexander the Great with its beauty more than 2,000 years ago, and later flourished as a centre of Islamic scholarship and trade during the heyday of the Silk Road. Bukhoro once boasted so many schools and mosques that an old proverb claimed: “The sun does not shine on Bukhoro. It is Bukhoro that shines on the sun.” In recent centuries, following the Silk Road’s decline, slave traders and bandits struck north from Bukhoro to capture and sell Russian peasants.

Few from outside Central Asia had seen these cities, and for me Uzbekistan was a landscape of dreams. But getting there seemed impossible. Sitting on the teahouse balcony, I put away my maps. The next day we caught a bus heading south to Pakistan. But I couldn’t help straining my eyes at the jagged mountains looming to the west and feeling a sharp pang of regret.

A YEAR LATER, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, I tumbled off a plane in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Terrorists had flown hijacked

aircraft into the World Trade Center, and the United States and its allies were at war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I was now a reporter for a Canadian newspaper dispatched to cover the conflict. Tashkent was as close to Afghanistan as I could initially get.

The Uzbek capital was nothing like I had imagined. Grey and dreary Soviet-style apartment blocks pierced the dusty skyline. Propaganda posters depicted Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, often near stat-

ues and images of the newly rehabilitated medieval tyrant Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane. Tamerlane conquered much of Central Asia in the 14th and 15th centuries and murdered several hundred thousand people along the way. After capturing a city, he is said to have enjoyed building massive pyramids made of his victims’ skulls.

Tamerlane and Karimov are not an unlikely couple. Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since the breakup of the Soviet Union. He tolerates no dissent, and is quick to brand any opposition to his rule as Islamic terrorism. His regime regularly

tortures dissidents and has reportedly boiled prisoners alive. Karimov himself has declared: “I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic. If my child chose such a path, I would rip off his head myself.”

Not surprisingly, when I interviewed Uzbeks in 2001 about their government, their answers were clipped, wooden and invariably praised Karimov. “They’re afraid

to say anything critical,” my translator told me, but this was already apparent. Fear permeates Uzbekistan, weighing on its people like a bad hangover.

Karimov is partially right about one thing, however. There is a growing Islamist movement in Uzbekistan. But the dictator is as much to blame as anyone for its emergence. Traditional Islam in Central Asia is influenced by Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism that urges tolerance of other religions and direct communication with God, without the intervention of mullahs or scholars. But when the Soviet Union broke up, outsiders from across the Muslim world, especially Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Pakistan, poured into Central Asia, bringing with them money, Islamic literature and a radical version of Islam.

Instead of supporting Uzbekistan’s indigenous Islamic revival, Karimov arrested hundreds of ordinary Muslims, closed mosques and religious schools, and labelled all pious Muslims opposed to his regime “Wahhabis,” the name of the extremist Islamic movement originating in Saudi Arabia. “The result of these repressive policies has been the growth of exactly what Karimov feared: extremist Islamic militancy,” Ahmed Rashid wrote in his 2002 book Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. Rashid, who has studied and reported from Central Asia for almost 20 years, added: “The rise of the [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan],

the most powerful militant Islamic group operating in Central Asia today, can be directly linked to Karimov’s refusal to allow Muslims to practise their religion and his extreme attitude to all religious expression or political dissent.”

On May 13, it appears this suppressed dissent finally boiled over. About 30 men in the eastern city of Andijon seized a police station and military garrison, before assaulting a local prison where they freed scores of inmates, including 23 local businessmen accused of Islamic extremism. The insurgents, who had taken hostages, were joined

by crowds of unarmed men, women and children. They made speeches and loudly shouted their protests against government corruption and the poverty in which they live. A standoff with Uzbek security forces ensued for several hours, but late in the afternoon the army opened fire with assault rifles and heavy machine guns. Hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters were massacred, some shouting “Freedom!” as they died. One human rights group puts the death toll over 1,000. Some of the dead had been killed with a shot to the head.

Similar but much smaller protests erupted elsewhere in Uzbekistan, but the regime’s security forces crushed these mini-uprisings as well. In Andijon, it took industrial-strength hoses to cleanse the streets of blood, but witnesses say bits of hair and flesh still cling to the town’s bullet-scarred walls.

Karimov predictably blamed the violence on Islamic extremists. He is a staunch U.S. ally. President George W. Bush makes a lot of noise about spreading democracy around the world. But democracy isn’t coming to Uzbekistan any time soon.

IN 2001,1 left Tashkent after only a couple of days and made my way overland across Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and into Afghanistan. After a month, I retraced my route back to Uzbekistan—25 lb. lighter due to a severe case of amoebic dysentery and badly shaken up after three of my journal-

ist colleagues were shot and killed in a Taliban ambush. I still dreamed of finding remnants of Uzbekistan’s ancient splendour, and in Tashkent I extended my visa and hired a car to take me across the desert to Samarkand and Bukhoro.

The cities are still breathtaking. In Samarkand, centuries-old mosques and madrasas (religious schools), covered in luminous azure-coloured tiles, soar above the sun-baked earth, evoking a civilization that once dominated much of Central Asia. But the people who live there are visibly crushed. Ethnic Russians, whose forefathers were forcibly resettled by Joseph Stalin, now feel stranded and want to leave. Many ethnic Uzbeks are just as depressed but have nowhere to go.

On my last day in Samarkand, I met Ikram, a young builder of about 18 who refurbished

the tile work on Samarkand’s ancient buildings. He was full of good humour, and encouraged me to walk three times around a small monument—a gesture he promised would ensure I had children. Before I left, Ikram pressed several gifts into my hands, but because he was as poor as almost all Uzbeks, these were mostly chips of modern tile and glass he was preparing to affix to the crumbling walls of ancient mosques.

Ikram made me promise not to forget him. I haven’t. But I wonder what will become of him in a country that offers so little hope.