What I saw in Bishkek

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What I saw in Bishkek

An eye witness to the violence during last week’s Kyrgyz uprising shares what he saw with photojournalist Hugh Bohane.

Patrick Barrow is an Australian writer, English teacher and tour guide who lives in Kyrgyzstan. He was on the ground when the violence in Bishkek first erupted.

‘I was in the main Square during the fighting on Wednesday, in the crowds and on the periphery. There was a lot of gun fire and people would duck and run in swarms, unsure of what was fully going on.

It was hard for us to follow what was happening, because everyone was talking in Kyrgyz. In the evening after going home to eat we returned to the Square. There were less people, but still a few thousand people around and the fighting continued. There was some very heavy gun fire. The presidential White House gates appeared as though they had been rammed by commandeered trucks, which were set alight and by morning had burnt out. Snipers took pot shots from the roof of the official government building. The army were inside the gates, firing on people.

The morning after the fight, we went back to the White House, just before 9am. There were maybe a thousand people scattered about, but they had taken over the Parliament. The gates were all busted open, all the cars inside the grounds were burnt out and the building was ransacked. People were swarming though the front door but couldn’t get in. Around the back, there were a few broken windows and people climbed in.

The mood inside at the time felt safe, but also just one of complete awe and bewilderment. There were a couple of hundred ‘riot tourists,’ just wandering through, but I’d say we were the only foreigners actually inside the White House. Every room was ransacked and pillaged and people were collecting anything they could. Computers, keyboards, electrical cables, books, blank sheets of paper etc.

I even saw one man polish his shoes with boot polish he found. You know it’s a ‘poor man’s revolution,’ when people are polishing their shoes with boot polish they find in the Parliament House.

People seemed happy and excited. Not everyone was taking things—a lot of people were just looking. Some rooms were burnt out and floors were wet from the sprinkler systems, doors were smashed off their hinges and offices were completely overturned. There were people walking around, draped in Kyrgyz flags and their traditional ‘kalpak’ hats.

It was interesting to see the little things that people did…things which meant something to them, such as putting the picture back, or smashing something they didn’t like, or taking some government books that they felt belonged to them.

We made our way into a Parliament room. There were some minster’s chairs up the front and a large official chair behind them, all facing the seats in the auditorium. A teenager was sitting in the head chair and his companion, maybe about 20 years-old, was sitting on the pulpit, pretending to make a speech. Everyone was laughing and taking pictures with their mobile phones.

During all this, people were slowly gathering outside the White House and were trying to organise speeches.

When we got to the top two floors, there were two men, one with a wooden pole, another with a metal pole, blocking the entrance off the stairwell. They said there were too many people there already and that we couldn’t come in. But it looked more like they were just saving the best looting for themselves and their counterparts.

We made our way back to the ground floor and then some older Kyrgyz men started shouting at everyone to get out, asking people to stop looting, so at this point we also left. Soon after, everyone except a core of opposition supporters were kicked out of the grounds and the area remained sealed off and protected. Some rooms were still burning and things like chairs, desks and computers were chucked out of the windows.

The next day, speeches were occasionally held in the main square, but again only in Kyrgyz.

Thursday [didn’t] seem so bad, but as the evening came, the mood changed. Many shops were looted. I saw a lot of this….just senseless destruction. People say most of the looters came from out of town. Bishkek locals were standing on corners during the night, near their shops with baseball bats and poles and whatever they could find to fight off the looters if they came in. On Thursday, there were two main vigilante groups I saw; one with white arm bands, meaning peace, and the other one with blue; meaning security.

On Thursday evening, there was still gun fire and periodic gun battles could be heard. I heard it from my flat, from a region called ‘Alamadinsky.’ This region is about one kilometre from my home. I got home at dusk and was warned by a few people to get off the streets as it would become dangerous.

From Wednesday, it felt like there was no law and order, and things felt very uncertain and unpredictable. I was thinking ‘when the looters go home to their villages, everything will be better.’ By Friday most shops were closed, though public transport ran randomly and occasionally police were on the streets, as were groups of people.

Parliament had been secured by security guards, who looked as though they were just teenagers. Friday was a National Day of mourning for those killed in the demonstrations. Friday night was calmer.

It’s a limbo period now, while everyone waits to see what the Opposition will do. It’s been announced that schools would open again on Monday, so it appeared normality would resume to some degree after the weekend, although some people went back to work on Friday.

On the day of mourning, everyone was praying in the main Square, flowers were placed over the blood stains on the streets and photos of the dead were placed on the burnt gates of the White House.

The opposition set up a security office in the sports stadium and people could sign up to become part of ‘controlled security groups,’ made up of men patrolling the street so as to fight off looters. The opposition at this point seem to be doing what’s necessary to restore order.

There were people on TV on Friday night, urging people to get on with their lives and vowing to unite and protect their towns and cities against looters. The opposition declared it would give one million Som ($22,000) to each family who lost someone during the fighting. There were funerals countrywide on Saturday, with one joint funeral for 15 victims. Kyrgyz flags were draped over their coffins and there were other private funerals.

The new leader of the interim government is a woman. In a Muslim country, where men are traditionally shepherds and women do most of the work in the home, this feels like a positive change.’