Uzbek protesters ran gantlet of death - Chicago Tribune
- Uzbek protesters ran gantlet of death
By Alex Rodriguez
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published June 13, 2005
KARA DARYA, Kyrgyzstan -- By late afternoon May 13,
talks had stalled between Uzbekistan authorities and
armed demonstrators inside a government building in
Andijan. Speaking by phone to the gunmen, a top
law-enforcement official used an Uzbek proverb to
foretell the government's next move:
"Your eyes will soon see what befalls you."
Shortly afterward, gun-mounted armored personnel
carriers raced up to Babur Square outside the
building, where thousands more demonstrators were
rallying against the trial of 23 local businessmen on
Islamic extremism charges. Without warning, Uzbek
soldiers opened fire on the crowd, survivors said.
Every other street leading from the square already had
been blocked by military vehicles and soldiers. Uzbek
authorities left only one way out: Chulpon Prospekt,
Andijan's main thoroughfare.
Several thousand Uzbeks, almost all of them unarmed,
jammed into the broad, tree-lined street. Fifteen
minutes later, the ambush began. Uzbek soldiers on
rooftops, in apartment windows and treetops fired down
on protesters huddled together, many with arms linked.
"The bullets rained down," said Abdulsalam Karimov,
50. "There were soldiers everywhere with one aim--to
Survivors tell of carnage
Survivors of the ambush, interviewed recently at a
refugee camp in Kara Darya, a few hundred yards from
the Uzbek border, described the carnage. Row after row
of protesters toward the front collapsed in heaps.
Snipers picked off others who had scrambled over to
the wounded to drag them away. Among the piles of
bodies were women and children, many with bullet
wounds to the head.
On either side of Chulpon Prospekt, blood flowed
freely through the gutters, pushed along by the
evening's hard, steady rain.
The interviews corroborate estimates from human-rights
groups that put the death toll in the hundreds--far
more than the figure of 173 announced by the Uzbek
government. Moreover, accounts from survivors cast
strong doubt on the government's contention that most
of those killed were armed Islamic insurgents bent on
the overthrow of Uzbekistan's president, Islam
Instead, the accounts portray an Uzbek government that
resolved a tense standoff with one of the most brutal
displays of force against civilian demonstrators since
China's crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in
Though several dozen demonstrators roamed the edges of
the crowd with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their
shoulders, thousands of Uzbeks on the square that
morning and afternoon were unarmed. Many were
onlookers who cared little about the case against the
Moreover, there appears to be scant evidence to
support government claims of an attempt to overthrow
the regime. Speeches given on the square focused
solely on joblessness, corruption and other economic
troubles burdening Andijan, those interviewed said.
Human-rights activists who monitored the three-month
trial of the businessmen said the government's case
was based on the testimony of witnesses who had been
tortured or threatened to testify against the men.
Confess or else
Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for the New York-based
Human Rights Watch, interviewed several witnesses
about how investigators questioned them. "The
interrogation tactics were, `You're going to confess
that these businesses were engaged in extremist
activities . . . or we'll bring your wife down here,
and then you know what's going to happen.'"
The 23 businessmen went on trial in February on
charges of involvement in Akramiya, a group the
government alleges is an Islamic extremist
organization. The group's leader and namesake, Akram
Yuldashev, once belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an
organization that advocates a pan-Muslim caliphate
across Central Asia. Yuldashev has been in an Uzbek
jail since 1999 on charges of involvement in bombings
in Tashkent that same year.
Many of the businessmen had longstanding ties with
Yuldashev. Espousing his view that Muslims should give
back to their communities, the men set aside money for
youth sports and other charities.
"We became very popular in Andijan," said Shamsuddin
Atamatov, 29, a confectionery owner and one of the
businessmen charged. "And as we grew successful, we
became more aware of the political injustices in this
country and we were dissatisfied with this."
The unrest May 13 occurred as the trial neared a
verdict. In the early morning hours, more than 50
armed supporters of the 23 businessmen overtook a
small military post and later a police station,
amassing weapons from both locations, according to
The group moved on to Andijan's prison, where they
shot to death several prison guards and freed the
hundreds of inmates there, including the 23
businessmen. In a cell with 11 other inmates, Atamatov
awoke to the sound of gunfire and shouts. "They broke
down doors and freed all of us," Atamatov said. "It
was all over in a half-hour."
Its size bolstered by the freed inmates, the group
tried to seize the city's state intelligence agency
headquarters but failed, clashing with soldiers there
and ramming a firetruck into the front gate, said
Alexei Volosevich, a Russian journalist for the
Fergana.ru Web site. Volosevich reported from Andijan
from the night of May 12 through the next day.
Gunmen then moved on and seized the poorly guarded
city administration building. They quickly rounded up
hostages, including the city's prosecutor and tax
collector, a judge and several police officers.
Volosevich walked into the building and saw the
hostages seated on the floor, their hands bound. He
said two gunmen he spoke with described themselves as
Akramiya followers. "They said they were negotiating
with Interior Minister Zakir Almatov about gaining the
release of Yuldashev," Volosevich said.
Outside, thousands of Uzbeks had gathered on Babur
Square. The gunmen had posted several dozen guards
around the administration building and along the edge
of the square, Volosevich said. Near the building, he
saw other demonstrators readying Molotov cocktails.
Several times through the morning and afternoon, Uzbek
soldiers raced by the square and sprayed bursts of
gunfire at the gathering in attempts to disperse the
crowd. The brief attacks killed and wounded an unknown
number of unarmed demonstrators.
Bobir Mamayunusov, 20, was shot as he tried to dart
from under a car to a nearby ditch. One bullet tore
through his back and one went through his shoulder.
Another demonstrator drove him to a hospital.
As Mamayunusov ran into the hospital, Uzbek soldiers
surrounded the driver and punched and kicked him.
After X-rays showed that the bullets had not damaged
any vital organs, Mamayunusov leapt out of his bed,
clambered over a hospital fence and fled. "I was
worried they would kill me in the hospital," he said.
Setting the ambush
Despite the sporadic bursts of gunfire on the plaza,
protesters chose to stay. Several survivors said
rumors began swirling through the crowd that Karimov
was flying to Andijan. Believing he was coming to
listen to their grievances, they thought the
opportunity to confront him justified the risk.
Karimov did fly to Andijan, but only to oversee the
crisis. He never spoke to demonstrators.
"We were very much waiting for the president to come
to talk to us," Atamatov said. "Instead of the
president, we got special forces, who took his order
to kill people."
Around 4 p.m., it became clear Uzbek authorities would
not succumb to the gunmen's demands to free Yuldashev
and other inmates that the gunmen regarded as
political prisoners. Instead, authorities offered the
demonstrators safe passage to Kyrgyzstan.
Gunmen inside the administration building refused. "I
don't know why they were offering this--we had no
intention of going to another country," said Khasan
Shakirov, brother of one of the group's leaders who
was later killed, Sharifjon Shakirov. Khasan Shakirov
was in the room during negotiations.
About 5:30 p.m., a column of armored personnel
carriers sped by the square. Moments later, another
column drove up, stopped in front of the square and
Chaos ensued. Demonstrators dived to the pavement.
Inside the administration building, the gunmen
gathered everyone, put the hostages at the front of
the group, went outside and joined the throngs on the
plaza during a lull in the shooting, Shakirov said.
Leaders of the group quickly surmised that Chulpon
Prospekt had been left as their only escape route.
Four other streets spoked off from Babur Square, and
each was barricaded by a cordon of armored personnel
carriers and soldiers, survivors said. Numbering at
least 3,000 and separated into two groups, the
demonstrators and their hostages began marching down
Women and children were positioned in the center of
each group; men ringed the edges. For the first 500
yards, the demonstrators walked unhindered, drenched
by a steady rain. When they came upon the intersection
of Parkovaya Street, they encountered a row of buses
blocking their way.
The men pushed one of the buses far enough to create a
way through, and the demonstrators marched on,
survivors said. Once the group had crossed Parkovaya
Street, soldiers positioned on rooftops and inside
apartment buildings opened fire.
Most demonstrators threw themselves to the ground.
Those who tried to flee toward the sidewalk were
gunned down. Some threw themselves into the canals on
either side of the street that serve as storm water
drains. Mukhabat Rijabova, 36, simply froze.
"I just kept shutting tight my eyes--I was so afraid
of dying," Rijabova said. "When men in front fell,
more men in front took their place. One boy next to me
was shot in the forehead. His face was covered in
When the shooting subsided, the survivors rose to
their feet and continued walking. Muhammadjon Qodirov,
the father of one of the businessmen charged, said
demonstrators locked arms and chanted, "Liberty!" When
the shooting resumed, they dived to the ground again.
Another deadly barrage
As the crowd approached the Chulpon cinema,
demonstrators saw in front of them two gun-mounted
armored personnel carriers, and soldiers positioned
behind a line of sandbags. Without warning, the
soldiers opened fire. The barrage killed most of the
demonstrators in the lead group, survivors said.
Crouching by the ground, Rijabova saw survivors
darting toward Baynalminal Street, a side street that
led to a labyrinth of small apartment buildings.
Crawling on her hands and knees, she followed them.
So many victims covered the pavement that Gulnoza
Otobayeva, 25, had to step on bodies to make her
escape down Baynalminal Street. "When I looked around,
I saw so many dead people," Otobayeva said. "The
rainwater was washing away their blood."
It is unclear exactly how many survivors were left,
though after a 10-hour walk about 500 eventually set
up camp outside Kara Darya in Kyrgyzstan. Many
survivors stayed in Andijan or sought refuge elsewhere
before reaching the Kyrgyz border.
One more ambush lay in store, survivors said. At the
border, Uzbek soldiers in the village of Teshik-Tash
fired at the approaching crowd, said Umida
Kholmerzayeva, 46, a nurse and one of the Andijan
Eight people died in that attack. Kholmerzayeva
treated the wounded, including a woman who begged her
to remove the bullet from her back. When Kholmerzayeva
rolled her over, she saw that the gaping wound exposed
her heart and was too large for the woman to be able
"I was so surprised she could still speak,"
Kholmerzayeva said. "I had to tell her, `I'm sorry,
but I cannot help you.' I couldn't sleep for 10
days--I couldn't get her out of my mind."
Karimov's administration has insisted that Uzbek
soldiers fired only at armed demonstrators. His
government has effectively imposed an information
blackout on the unrest, keeping foreign journalists
from entering the country. He also has resisted calls
from the United States, the United Nations, NATO and
the European Union for an international investigation
into what happened.
"People came out for the first time to speak, and this
is what happened," said Rijabova, wiping a tear from
her cheek as she gazed over the sun-baked refugee
camp. "No one will rise up now. People are too
More news about Uzbekistan at:
More about Central Asia at:
Yahoo! Messenger - NEW crystal clear PC to PC calling worldwide with voicemail http://uk.messenger.yahoo.com