View a slideshow of the chaos in Kyrgyzstan
Every man knew his place in Kurmanbek Bakiyev's Bishkek. The street sweeper never looked into the eyes of the businessman with a gold watch. If you drove a clapped-out Soviet car, you always let those in shiny SUVs overtake you. The shopkeepers turned their noses up at farmers hawking what they can and everybody pulled back when the Bakiyev clan grabbed what it wanted. Ordinary Kyrgyz were reserved and powerless, not knowing their own strength. This was Bishkek early on Wednesday morning. As people worked and criss-crossed though quiet leafy avenues, nobody knew that Bakiyev's rule might be in its final hours. Nobody would have believed that, for two blood-soaked days and two nights alive with gunfire, they would see society itself eclipsed in the darkness of revolutionary anarchy.
"Freedom or Death!"
A roar of banging metal, screams and shouting is approaching. Passersby stop in their tracks. People had heard rumors of riots in the provinces but their eyes swell with shock as they see what is marching forwards. Hundreds of men are on the move. Their eyes have turned to glares. Men enter this mob as shopkeepers, drivers or factory workers -- only to lose themselves in the surge. They are moving as one body, copying each other as they pick up the rhythmic chants and grab rocks to hurl at police. A man in a gas mask is waving an AK-47. All work has stopped. Shop fronts are being boarded up.
Society is dissolving. The grief of a people who have seen their quality of life slide continuously since the fall of the Soviet Union is turning into a frenzy born of despair.
A middle-aged man grabs me. His hair is grey and his eyes are brown. He wants me to understand. "We are living like Africans now ... we are not blacks ... When this was the USSR there were factories, good factories ... there were sports centers ... good schools."
"There has been nothing since then," he continues. "Only dictators and criminals."
Men in their twenties without any memory of Communism nod in approval. The mob swells and men mimic each other in posture and snarl. At the front are lads that have been bussed in from the countryside. Dressed in drab, heavy clothing, their skin looks sculpted by different forces than the normal Bishkek urbanites. These are destitute peasants that have been offered drink and a free ride, some say, in exchange for violent services by a coalition of opposition factions.
Three commandeered armoured vehicles are being driven toward the seat of power, an imposing Soviet-era edifice known as the White House. Onboard, shrieking men are banging against the green armor in excitement. Traffic has vanished. The main thoroughfare belongs to the rioters. These vehicles have been ripped from Bakiyev's riot police that was sent to quell the rebels as they gathered on the outskirts of town. They mean everything to the mob. The crowd feels their armor on their skin. The tipping point has long been passed. The people have stopped being afraid of the state.
"Today is Revolution!"
Thousands are pouring in to the main square to stand in line. Some cheer but mostly they gawp. Those watching seem confused. "The Russian are behind this," one rumor goes. But "what is going on?" is the most common refrain.