In the center of Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan near the Uzbek border, children rollerblade around the fountain in the park, students from the nearby university sit at open air cafes, chatting and drinking tea. To the west towers Sulayman mountain, which local people climb to gaze out over their city.
The view from the top is very different from that of a year ago. Over three days last June violent tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who each make up around half of the population and had lived largely in harmony for generations, left 470 people dead, many hundreds injured and entire swathes of the suburbs reduced to piles of smoldering rubble.
For one resident the nightmare began at 3am on 11 June. Zufia, 47, a Kyrgyz woman living in the suburbs, was woken by the phone.
“It was my sister, in a panic, saying her student dormitory in the center of town was on fire and she was scared she might die,” said Zufia over tea and bread in a recently rebuilt part of her extensively damaged house. She and her husband jumped into their car and headed towards the city center but were stopped by crowds of Uzbeks blocking the road. “We saw them overturn a car of Kyrgyz people, pull them out, dowse them in petrol and set them on fire. I was dressed like an Uzbek and speak the language. I convinced the crowd I was Uzbek and we were allowed to turn back.” Her sister was later rescued by the army and now lives in the capital, Bishkek.
At the time, it was widely reported that ethnic Uzbeks, many of whose families had lived in the region for generations, were overwhelmingly the victims. An official report into the events in Osh and nearby Jalalabad, which was also caught up in the violence, concluded that although there was a disproportionate number of Uzbek victims — in addition to the deaths and injuries, 111,000 fled across the border and 300,000 were forced to leave their homes — atrocities were committed on both sides.
What triggered the violence, which caught residents of the city by surprise, is not entirely clear. A Kyrgyz was shot outside a casino by an Uzbek, which many cite as the primary cause. However, there were rumors (unfounded, according to the official report) of a rape on the university campus that, in turn, triggered the casino shooting.
It is also widely believed that local politicians were keen to fan the violence for their own political ends. Where blame lay for igniting the conflict was academic for Zufia on June 11, however.
She and her extended family, including six grandchildren, remained in her house, hiding in the basement. With no electricity, there was no way of getting news about what was going on. In the evening, a large crowd of Uzbeks gathered at the house, intent on burning it down.
“My Uzbek neighbor dissuaded them, saying that the fire might spread to his house,” said Zufia. The family moved to an apartment they owned in the center of town early the next day, but returned to secure the release of an Uzbek neighbor who had been kidnapped and held by a crowd of Kyrgyz people as part of a proposed hostage exchange. She then returned to the apartment but her husband stayed at the house with other Kyrgyz men.
At some point over the following hours he was killed, his body mutilated and left sprawled in the street. Carved into his back were the words: “Here is a Kyrgyz mattress.” She later saw his body in the morgue.