Witnessing the Revolution
By Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare
My revolution began with two air force pilots and a mining engineer in a bar. It sounds like the start of a bad joke. Two empty bottles of Kyrgyz cognac lay discarded on the table and, as 4 am dawned, the engineer rose shakily to his feet and announced confidently to us all:
“There will be no revolution. The people aren’t hungry enough.” In a matter of hours, he’d be forced to eat his words.
I arrived in Bishkek, the capital of the Central Asian Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan), back in the fall of 2008. Winter had come early, and the city was already cloaked under feet of snow and ice. The corruption was endemic and the economy limping, but Kyrgyzstan’s strategic importance as a supply route for Afghanistan, high levels of foreign investment and aid, and the relative political stability gave us cause for optimism.
By the middle of 2009, however, Kyrgyzstan’s future was looking rather less secure. President Bakiyev had stopped trying to balance the interests of Moscow and Washington and instead taken to playing the two powers off against each other, taking aid and loans with one hand, and breaking promises with the other. The Kremlin was seething, and the writing was on the wall for Bakiyev and his ministers.
Thanks to the late night and toxic cognac, I rose with a bleary head. Cloud the cat had chosen today of all days to pull out her stitches and open up the wound of a recent operation. I threw her into a wicker picnic basket (the closest thing to a pet carrier in a country that doesn’t really do pets) and drove off to see the appropriately-named Dr. Zoo.
Approaching the central crossroads between Chui Prospekt and Sovietskaya in downtown Bishkek, a car in front of me ran the red light (hardly an unusual occurrence), and a BMW shunted an elderly Lada. I edged forward in my F250 pick-up, and glanced left as I drove through the intersection. Adrenalin hit me like a brick.
Crawling towards me along Chui – a street of museums and government offices – was a colossal armoured personnel carrier with a Kyrgyz flag stretched over one flank. A man in a Soviet-era gas mask walked ahead of it like some post-apocalyptic figure, and behind him, as far as the eye could see, were row after row of people.
The crowd was already 2000-3000 strong. Rounded up from the villages, promised a share of their country’s wealth, and fueled on free vodka and narcotics, they were spoiling for a fight. The revolution had begun.
I knew I had to move quickly. Fuel for the truck was my first priority, in case I had to leave to neighbouring Kazakhstan, followed by food. Bishkek’s supermarkets have an erratic supply chain at the best of times, so I wasn’t in the least surprised at the eclectic contents of my shopping basket: 32 Snickers bars, a bag of flour, two bottles of Fanta, and a bag of tomatoes. It wasn’t exactly a gourmet feast, but it’d keep the wolf from the door.
My Ford pick-up is the only one of its kind in Kyrgyzstan, and it cuts an overly distinctive figure among the Ladas and Japanese imports. I dropped it off at home, picked up a camera, and proceeded on foot to Ala Too Square, the traditional gathering place opposite the Whitehouse (the Presidential administration building).
I approached from the rear, watching as the snipers on the Whitehouse roof fired sporadic volleys of live ammunition into the crowd amassing below.
For the time being, the Kyrgyz flag was fluttering atop its flag pole, two soldiers in dress uniform standing to attention at its base. Late in the day the mood of the crowd would shift and the soldiers – unlucky representatives of the state – would be attacked and forced to flee.
I started down the road towards Beta Stores, a supermarket popular among expats, but quickly stopped as I encountered two angry mobs shooting erratically at one another. With the police and military focused around Ala Too square, the looting and torching of shops and offices began.
Shards of glass surrounded Bishkek’s supermarkets and malls, with the exception of Tsum, whose forward-thinking management had paid imams from the local mosque to stand outside and pray.
The tax office was on fire (no sympathy there) and, for some reason, so was the patent building.
As I came back into Ala Too Square, I witnessed a situation in free-fall.
Mad with grief at the shooting of his son a few hours earlier, a father drove his truck into the Whitehouse railings. A sniper’s bullet put pay to his ram-raiding even before the truck burst into flames.
In front of me, a barely shrouded body was carted away on a stretcher. As I lay down to take a photo of the deceased’s abandoned shoes and the burning truck behind, rainwater and blood mingled in the puddles and soaked up into my clothes. Even now I haven’t been able to bring myself to wash away that last vestige of a stranger’s wasted life.
A line of China Aid buses drew up alongside the Whitehouse. I went to investigate. As I drew closer, I became aware of the snipers on the roof watching me, tracking my movement as I walked. I knew one journalist had already been shot, mistakenly or otherwise, and my 70-200mm lens was hardly discrete.
In a bid for self-preservation, I raised one hand, touched it to my chest in a gesture of respect, and held eye contact for a few seconds with a sniper. He dropped his gaze, and I walked on.
The men spilling from the buses were riot police, but they had come unprepared. It was only after they disembarked that they put on their new riot gear – a recent gift from Washington. Once properly attired, the battalion leader walked the length of his row of troops, shaking each hand in turn. They knew as well as I did that they wouldn’t all last the day.
Until this point, all the troops I had seen had been Kyrgyz. They were inexperienced and scared. As I watched the riot police, however, a team of Kazakh Special Forces arrived. The level of control and professionalism stepped up several gears.
Their presence at the Whitehouse has been mentioned in no subsequent reports: they were there entirely off-record. Unofficial intelligence suggests they were responsible for removing the President safely from the building later that night and ensuring he escaped first to the south of the country (his traditional stronghold) and then to Kazakhstan.
I went to take another photo but was stopped in a moment. I knew it was time to leave.
I walked back across the square, knowing full well that the 6 pm curfew was imminent. The mood in the crowd had shifted to violent intent and anarchy. Groups of disaffected youths hurled rocks and abuse.
As I paused to take a photograph of the flag being lowered, a rock hit me hard on the back of the shoulder. I’d have the bruise for several days to come. Far more so than with the snipers, I felt decidedly vulnerable; attackers and targets were seemingly interchangeable, and I didn’t trust the mob.
Passing the pillars on the square, a commotion broke out behind me. I quickened my step. A number of AK47s (the weapons of the police) opened fire from the roof. Ten feet to my right, a man flew. It was like something out of a cartoon. He didn’t crumple, there was no blood, and no drama. He simply flew. I turned my head and began to run along the colonnade. A young man, maybe 15 years old, sat in the middle of the paving, a stolen riot shield in front of him. He was in shock, unable to move away.
I ran with the uncanny feeling I was being herded. Going with this instinct, I ducked under the steps and waited as the crowd charged past. The man already hiding there offered me a cigarette, and I took his picture.
When we stepped out together 10 minutes later, there were bodies lying on the road. The ambulances sent to retrieve them were not the brand new fleet delivered with pomp and circumstance a few weeks before, but out-dated vehicles unfit for the job.
Passing back through the square wasn’t an option, and the side roads were chaotic. I crossed the road diagonally towards the remnants of the group that had fled Ala Too and, as I approached, watched as one of them fired a handgun into the similarly aggressive, ragged crowd opposite.
A man dropped to his knees and then to the ground, the people around him seemingly absorbing the impact. No one looked down. It was as if they hadn’t noticed it.
I kept moving, watching the roofs. The echo of gunfire was sporadic; by nightfall it would sound like hailstones. I was heading for home, but a man with his son stopped me on the street. He apologized for what I had seen in his country. We exchanged hope for a better future and for lessons learned from turmoil. Another round of shooting began, and we went our separate ways.
Back at the flat I fed the cat, who sat surprisingly calmly as rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the corner of the street. Waves of groups, each 80 or 100 strong, attacked the police station next door, first with rocks and hand guns and then with AK47s.
Word on the street was that the President’s brother was sheltering in the police station and, whether it was true or not, it fueled the fury. Cars along the street were torched and their gas tanks exploded as the flames enveloped them.
The contents of the city armories, looted during the day, were put to use. I watched from the kitchen window as half a dozen men ran up the road, firing their AK47s randomly into the air, then stopped, squatted and lit up their cigarettes. The gunfire was continuing around them: it made no sense at all.
Morning came and the city was quiet. People walked the streets nervously in twos and threes, trying to sense the mood. I walked the streets among them. Already a number of the small shops and kiosks had been burned out, and I was getting reports of friends with Presidential connections fleeing to Kazakhstan and Dubai.
The police, in evidence the previous day, had largely disappeared from view: they would come on national television a week later, pondering why the public had no respect for them.
Early afternoon I dropped into the Hyatt hotel to check on some friends and to see who was in town: the hotel is the usual gathering place for foreign diplomats and military, NGO workers and government officials. The curtains were pulled and a dozen or so security guards were lined up outside reception.
I encountered Benjamin, a rather loud, south London Jew (his self-description, not mine), who announced he had been in Tajikistan following the yeti, and was now living in the foyer of the hotel as his credit card wouldn’t work.
Having talked with the hotel management, I knew there were two possible things on the cards: either the hotel would be attacked that night, or talks would go ahead for the as yet unannounced interim government.
The British Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, David Moran, was already in residence, as were staff from OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). The UN was officially not present, as they were yet to be invited, and the US military and diplomats, normally in abundance in the bar and restaurant, were conspicuous by their absence.
I took a pile of photocopied maps from reception and marked on to them which mobs were moving where, which roads were closed, and which buildings had been taken out, updating the picture with every phone call I received.
The Ambassador floated passed, asked what I was doing here, and smiled when I explained I either wanted photos of the Hyatt being stormed, or an interview with the king-makers negotiating upstairs. I think he was a little surprised.
Three thousand people were advancing up Sovietskaya towards the hotel, and they merged with another mob that had just taken over the radio station. A third crowd was on its way from sacking the Chinese market, and I got more calls saying people had been killed in the Vefa shopping centre further up the street.
In the foyer, I heard one of the American NGO staff, usually the most liberal of the expats, say desperately to her colleague, “They won’t let them in, will they? The only thing you can do with a mob is shoot them.” Her hypocrisy disgusted me.
Until this point, the militia had supported the army, and the police supported the President. The police realized they were fighting for a lost cause.
The militia took an armed personnel carrier with roof-mounted heavy machine gun and drove it around the city, three coach loads of troops behind. Whenever they encountered a group of more than five people, they opened fire. Those who did not move out of their way were machine-gunned.
Additional security arrived at the Hyatt, but it was the militia who dispersed the crowds on Sovietskaya.
The revolution was over, but its end did not bring peace. Even as mourners flocked to Ala Too Square and the fire trucks washed the blood down from the streets, reprisal killings began.
The sight of black, number plate-less Mercedes rushing by with a screech became all too familiar: within half an hour there’d be a phone call saying yet another person had been shot. There was a vacuum of power, and people were taking the opportunity to settle old scores.
Postscript – October 2010
The year 2010 will go down as perhaps the darkest year since Kyrgyzstan’s independence. Simmering resentment after the revolution broke out into full-scale rioting in June: 400,000 people were displaced and well over 2,000 died.
In a country with a population of just five million, this was a huge upheaval. Political factions and the drug-running mafia paid rural laborers $50 a day to go into the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-abad and kill whomever they found: the media described it as “ethnic-violence” and Kyrgyz and Uzbeks turned on each other.
Kyrgyzstan has a new constitution, and October 10th will see parliamentary elections. Twenty-nine political parties are contesting the seats, many of them with first-time candidates, and electioneering is big business: the faces of would-be ministers are grinning down from every billboard and lamp post, and fireworks and pop concerts blare out night after night at hugely expensive rallies.
The parties are playing the democracy game, publicizing their policies loudly, but the feeling among the people is one of resignation: I’ve yet to meet someone who plans to vote, and people do not hope for change. Instead, they shrug their shoulders, and continue with their day.
A graduate in Oriental Languages, Sophie Ibbotson lives and works in Central Asia and writes about history, culture and politics in the region.
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