Sun, May 15, 2005 - Page 5 News List

In Uzbekistan, guns, blood and tears

`HAIL OF BULLETS' Despite a media blackout, a grim picture slowly emerged of the uprising in Andizhan and of the subsequent crackdown on a crowd of protesters


The crowd in the city square was listening to speaker after speaker complain about living conditions and government policies. Seconds later, screaming men, women and children were cowering on the ground as a hail of bullets tore through.

An armored personnel carrier followed by a truck loaded with soldiers wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, Kalashnikov rifles across their chests, had sped past the crowd. When a second truck with troops drove by, protesters hurled stones their way -- and the troops opened fire.

I was on the ground next to a building across the square from the soldiers. When I raised my head, I saw the body of a teenage boy a few yards away, face down, a wound in his temple.

I ran to a safer place, inside a closed school courtyard, and from then on I could only picture the ensuing carnage from the sound of heavy gunfire and the screams of wounded and petrified protesters. Helicopters were clattering overhead, perhaps telling troops on the ground which way the protesters were moving.

Several men carried an elderly man from the square and laid him near me. The old man had a wound in his left side and was moaning.

Protest organizers knew what price they were likely to pay for their show of defiance, something that was unthinkable here just a few years ago. But in recent years, the extent of public frustration and anger has visibly been growing with sporadic protests here and there across the country.

"Let us be killed instead of living like this," Kabuljon Parpiyev, the protest leader, told me. "I don't want to live in Uzbekistan."

The protesters had weapons, took hostages and were preparing Molotov cocktails inside the governor's compound, which they had seized. One area inside the compound was cordoned off with pieces of white cloth tied around a rope. Two handwritten signs said "Mines."

I asked one of the guards at the gate if they'd really mined the area. He replied only: "Maybe."

At the city square, speaker after speaker took the podium under a monument to Babur, an Uzbek prince -- their first public forum in many years.

"You have a chance now to say what you've wanted to speak openly about all these years," a thin man wearing a white Muslim cap urged the crowd. "Come on and talk."

Many speakers cried. Some said they were just happy to speak out for once in their lives.

"We want our sons and husbands to come back from Russia and other places where they are slaving to be able to send some money home," one woman told the crowd.

"Factories are standing still, there are no jobs for anybody," said another.

None of the speakers at the podium demanded that President Islam Karimov or his government go.

But in the crowd, Guoasar Madaminova, 45, blamed the protesters' hardships on Karimov.

"He must go," she said. "We've forgotten the taste of meat and butter under him."

The unrest began in the dead of night when protesters freed up to 2,000 prisoners, including the 23 members of the Akramia Islamic group whose trial sparked the demonstrations.

From there, protesters moved to a nearby military unit, where they seized more weapons. But they failed to take the security service building, where 13 more members of the Akramia group are allegedly being held.

At about 1am Friday, they took the regional administration building -- though authorities said security forces later regained control of the structure. All the way, the demonstrators were fighting security service officers and police.

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