Remembering the Untold Tragedy: The Andijan Massacre

  • Bakhti Nishanov

Eleven years ago today, the Uzbek government shot and killed – by its own admission – 187 people at a rally in the eastern city of Andijan.

According to the witnesses I spoke with two weeks after what became known as the “Andijan massacre,” the actual number of killed might have been closer to 800.

Much has been written about the tragedy, but much remains unknown about the horrible chain of events that led to the massacre as it preceded the era of ubiquitous smart phones and accompanying videos, but what I heard from those who lost loved ones that day is disturbing enough that it warrants an independent investigation into the killings.  The government claimed terrorists had taken over the city and in shooting them on sight it was simply doing its job. President Karimov – who at that point had been running the country for 17 years – raged that day in a televised press-conference, proclaiming he fought off an existential threat to the country.  The fact that the government had been using the “terrorist” excuse to annihilate the political opposition in the country made the claim – to put it politely – so much less believable.

I went to Andijan two weeks after the killings and what I heard the witnesses say was very different from the government version of what had transpired. One human rights activist who was able to escape from the square before the soldiers started indiscriminately shooting people gathered there, told me the vast majority of those who had been at the rally were local women and pensioners.  Younger men had left the square long before the shooting, fearing the government would see them as a threat and start shooting innocent bystanders. In fact, if you perform a quick Google search for “Andijan Massacre,” the few photos from the square do mostly depict women peacefully sitting in neat rows.  A lawyer told me that when he went out the following day to document the killings, he mostly saw children and women’s shoes lining the streets leading up to the square. Another local resident told our inquiry team he saw trucks carrying what appeared to be human bodies to an unknown location in the outskirts of the city.  If those were indeed human bodies their number would certainly exceed the officially-stated 187 dead. In Andijan, I also saw thousands of lives uprooted as peaceful protestors fleeing the shooting crossed over to the neighboring Kyrgyzstan and will never be able to return home again. Those are just a few examples of things I heard and saw in Andijan.

So what’s the point of writing this so many years since the tragedy? Actually, two points: first, to remind those who have lost loved ones and those whose lives have been irrevocably changed in the aftermath of tragedy that their stories have not been lost and there are many people who share the burden of their pain. Second – fully recognizing that this is a very long shot – to call upon the government of Uzbekistan to allow a truly independent investigation into what happened in Andijan (who knows, maybe the government version of the events has some truth to it?) and release the names of those who had perished on that terrible day 11 years ago.  The people of Uzbekistan deserve to know the truth.

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