Blood in the Streets of Bishkek

My two days running with the mob in Kyrgyzstan.

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.

"Is there going to be fighting?" A wrinkled woman clutches her handbag.

I am walking forward in this mob. When you are in a mob nothing else matters but the crowd. Life shrinks to its surge and angry electricity gets under your skin, pulling you in. The isolation of the ordinary seems so far away you can barely remember it. Everyone is a follower of its magnetic living force.

"Freedom or Death!"

The armored trucks are smashing through the ornate railings that surround the president's White House. Twenty meters away, security forces stand to attention. A wall of shields and shining helmets. Their guns catch the glint of the sun. One thought races through my mind -- how much the scene in front of my eyes looks like the Soviet propaganda films of the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917. How are those buried memories of a Leninist education playing in the subconscious of the adults in this crowd?

Explosions. The star-like flash of stun guns. Clouds of tear gas. But I haven't got enough time to be tear-gassed. I am being shot at. The gas burns eyes and chokes. Cracking bangs of bullets. Are those live rounds or blanks? I do not know but I am running away, throwing myself into a rose bush. I am running because everyone else is running. We are running because the mob is running. Others are dashing forward, some hurtling back. What one man does, dozens blindly follow.

"They are shooting...!"

I am one of those thoughtlessly running. Feeling nothing but the act of running itself. Not even fear. You can no longer hear the slogans. Just whistling, cries, and growls as though the crowd has turned into a vast and hideous beast. Ricochets. Debris flying from impact. A stampede rushes back, pushing for shelter like in a disaster movie. Rioters are raging forward into the shower of bullets. There is animal rage.

"There are snipers...!"

A deadly human tide ebbs and flows. There is blood on the streets. The wounded are being dragged away and pushed into cars and ambulances. The insurrection has passed a point of no return. Rioters have now armed themselves. The bullets have ceased to scare them. They are covering their mouths with their shirts so as not to breathe in any of the stinging gas. If they turn and run they will find no safety -- just arrests or summary execution. They have no other choice but to storm on. More than 5,000 people are now in the square and along the main thoroughfare. Gunshots die down. Opposition leader Timur Sariyev has arrived in the square and waves at the crowds. He is met with little adulation -- they are waiting orders.

Even within the crowd people seem jaded. "I don't know if this is a good thing," mutters one young man. "We'll just have to wait and see," chips in his friend. "I don't expect things to really change," mutters a rioter, "but today is a revolution." There is no jubilation and frenzied utopian plans. The crowd has no idea what the opposition stands for. Instead, it watches unenthusiastically and shouts as if participating in something rather like a deadly election.

Volleys of bullets whistle through the crowd but rebels continue the siege. Hundreds are now marching toward the headquarters of the security services as night falls. Darkness hisses with the shots and cat-calling crowds. Police have vanished and the city has turned into a wild free-trade zone for looters, criminals, and other bandits. Armed men rove the street as buses continue to arrive from the countryside. The chattering sound of machine guns tears threw the night. Then a roar from the crowd around the White House, cars, and honking and megaphones can be heard. They have captured the castle.

Light falls on a different city. The police have melted away and the army is nowhere to be seen. Gangs of looters rip apart homes and establishments believed to belong to the president's family. A casino has been set aflame, spewing singed playing cards into the streets. I make my way to the home of the president's hated son, Maxim. The streets are a jigsaw puzzle of calm and chaos. One corner might be dominated by looting crowds -- another perfectly calm.

"Lenin ... now that was a revolutionary," mutters an elderly devout Muslim man, "he robbed from the rich and gave to the people. ... Today the rich fight each other using the people." He is gazing at a Communist statue as revolutionary vigilantes march past.

A few districts stand deserted and boarded. Yet along some avenues women and children can be seen in the streets. Each zone has its own flavor of fear and rumours. The road on which Maxim had lived is in anarchy. Hundreds of looters are ripping apart everything they can from his former home. Men dig up the plants in his garden, rip out circuit boards and even grab the floorboards. Some have come just to stare.

Toward the dark of night, the whistles of mobs grow louder. The anger -- or maybe the grief -- let out during the storming of the White House has turned cannibal. It's almost as if these gangs are trying to wreck any part of a country they feel has failed them and in which they see no future. Sirens howl as the self-declared Government of People's Trust scrambles to take control of the anarchy. Gangs ram a tractor into a police station. What has begun as a two-sided struggle seems to have now degenerated into clashes between looting mobs. A thin police presence loyal to the opposition begins to fire on them. Shotguns crack until the hour before dawn. At first light I venture out.

It is Thursday.

"The revolution is over. ... We have won ... we are in control here." The rebel is crouching atop an armoured personal carrier punctured by bullets. This is a rasping, hoarse voice. "We are the security." He is in his 20s and draped in the blood-red flag of Kyrgyzstan, whose golden emblem falls over his hunched back as he stares down from this wreck of a vehicle. "Everything is now... calm here." His eyes are glazed, sleep-deprived. Wild. Around us, dawn is creeping over Bishkek and smells of gunpowder. Plumes of smoke are slowly rising from smouldering ruins. The last crackling of AK-47s fell silent only hours before.

"The people have acted. ... Bakiyev is no longer the power in Kyrgyzstan."

He is surrounded by 10 other exhausted faces, shattered glass from stormed government buildings crunching under their feet. They are hostile and loiter in a pack in the blueish light. The night was filled by the ricochets of live rounds, the crack of shotguns, and the sporadic, clattering drone of machine guns. Above us is a ripped-apart concrete edifice that three days ago was the bureau of the president's feared prosecutors. Inside, ceilings have partially fallen in and the floor is awash with debris. This is destruction made of piles of stamped paper, gnarled metal beams, bashed tables, overturned cabinets, and cracked tiles, blended into chaos.

"The snipers fired at us. ... They fired through this truck ... They hit a woman...!"

The older man in charge bangs his hand on the punctured tires. He is wearing a traditional, elf-like Kyrgyz hat. Eyes are reddened. Then he gestures to our right past the empty beer bottle perched on the metal armour of the dead APC.

"They were shooting from up there. "

The finger points at the ruined White House. All windows have been shattered and blackened burn marks mar the facade. It is now a gutted, looted ruin. The corpse of power itself. Toughs wrapped in the flag have pieced together the ornate railings that were ripped apart when insurrection struck and mobs stormed the building.

A placard hangs in a prominent spot on the building. Black-painted words, in Russian so that foreigners like me can read them. "Dirty Jews and all those like Maxim Bakiyev have no place in Kyrgyzstan."

"We captured the building ... Lots of people died, but now we are in control." The older man waves his laminated membership card of an opposition party in my face and grins at the placard.

"The Jews are Kaput. ... The Jews are already gone."

A smoker chides in from the left. "The Jews were around the president and his gangster son Maxim. They were taking over our economy, with banks and capital. They have fled." A twisted and torched car hulks on the pavement. Incinerated skeletons of the armoured trucks rioters used to smash down the railing of the White House are still beached where they torched.

"Bakiyev was selling is out to China and to Kazakhstan," complains a voice in the crowd. "They were greedy criminals." The flags they are wear are the makeshift uniforms of opposition vigilantes.

Bishkek spreads from the center through grid streets studded with the carcasses of destroyed buildings -- establishments and homes of Bakiyev's family and those of the unlucky -- that mobs and opposition supporters have been ransacking since the insurrection struck. A charred casino, cards fluttering in the wind, is now a pile of smashed boards and unidentifiable, smouldering embers. Supermarkets have been gutted, leaving empty white-walled spaces and overturned freezers, dangling ripped-out wiring and defaced walls. Looters have been making off with anything they can carry.

"We are with the people" has been daubed on the grilled or barricaded shop fronts by those hoping words will keep rioters away. Petrol stations have been smashed to pieces. A few thieves are still ruffling in the wreckage. Everywhere the malevolent glints of broken glass and the swirl of rumors.

"Bakiyev is in the south and is massing a force to retake Bishkek."

"The Russians are behind the revolution."

"There might be a civil war between the new government in the north and Bakiyev in the south."

Nobody knows what is going on.

There is brightening as street sweepers nervously begin to clear debris.

"The new government has told us to go out...we are frightened but we hope it is all over."

Police cars begin to circle and empty trolley buses start to drive through the thoroughfares. There have been orders from the "Temporary Government of People's Trust" that these emblems of normality must return. I spot the tense face of a bus driver on almost desolate streets, the furtive glances of the streets cleaners, and the anxious glares of the first policemen on patrol. The morning rolls on. Calm continues. The breakdown of the rules and conventions of ordinary life are pieced back together as the city phones itself, sharing the news that the streets are safe.

Small groups of men begin to gather at bus stops to take them back to work. They arrive and furtively at the shop keepers return to their tills. The masses melting back out of one baying mob and an ocean of fear into the honeycomb of intricate complexity of fragile human threads that we call society. People stroll through the parks. Abruptly a megaphone is turned to full volume. Arabic echoes through Bishkek.

The imans are singing for the dead.

A thin police presence maintains a semblance of normality but the occasional round of gunfire rings out. There are fears of provocations and clashes with forces still loyal to Bakiyev -- and rumors swirl that the Russians are coming. Nothing is certain. Opposition leaders announce that Moscow might restore order if the situation spins out of control. There are suspicions in Bishkek that the 150 Russian paratroopers dispatched to reinforce the Kremlin's base outside the city may in fact be heading for the capital if violence returns.

Bishkek dreads the night and the streets are emptying in the dusk. I just heard gunshots outside. Sirens are wailing.



Karzai Unhinged?

The concerns about Afghanistan's volatile president are legitimate, but allies shouldn't lose sight of the big picture.

During my recent visit to Afghanistan, I got the chance to meet with military officers, mullahs, and senior government ministers, as well as journalists, NGO activists, parliamentarians, provincial governors, tribal leaders, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai himself. The figures represented a wide range of views, but there's one thing virtually all agreed on: The sudden deterioration of relations between the United States and Karzai could not have come at a worse time.

Right now, the Afghan government is having trouble, simply put, governing. Nothing illustrates this more than the government's inability to control the violence that has rocked the capital, especially over the last nine months. The economy is shaky as well. Prices have been skyrocketing in Kabul. According to local real estate agents, home prices in some parts of the city have risen 75 percent in the past year.

Wealthy Afghans, including warlords and those earning money from defense contractors and construction and security firms, have prospered. Nearly everyone else seems to live in abject poverty. "Welcome to Afghanistan," one imam with very moderate social views told me. "Welcome to the poorest, most oppressed country in the world."

Which quickly gets us to the "c-word" and Karzai. According to Transparency International, the country is one of the most corrupt places on the planet, in a league with Somalia and worse than Haiti. The inability to make progress on the issue is the ostensible reason why the exchange between Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama in Kabul at the end of March was so tense: 25 minutes, no photos, no news conference. Karzai's allies remain convinced that Washington wants regime change in Kabul and that the corruption issue is being used to delegitimize the current government.

Meanwhile, one opposition parliamentarian who attended a meeting with Karzai this week told me the president has "gone crazy." Karzai's recent accusations that the United States and the international community are to blame for fraud in last year's election stunned most people here. His comments that his government is on the verge of being seen as a "puppet government" and that the Taliban might even soon be seen as legitimate "national resistance" have been widely derided. His rival in the last election, Abdullah Abdullah, has accused him of "national treason." But scratch the surface, and you quickly encounter stark differences in narratives between the U.S. and Afghan sides.

Yes, corruption is an issue for Afghans. It damages the credibility of the government in the eyes of its own people. Some argue that it plays into the hands of Taliban leaders who tell people, "Support us and we'll give what Afghanistan's Western-backed government cannot provide: justice and security." But there's also concern here that Afghan corruption has become an unhealthy obsession in Western capitals, accompanied by unrealistic expectations that distract from the most immediate concern: defeating the insurgents. Most Afghans continue to believe, what's more, that the insurgency is in large measure financed, trained, and directed from Pakistan. It's popular to talk about a proxy war between Pakistan and its rival India on Afghan soil.

One senior official, noting the recent arrest of a Pakistani military officer inside Afghanistan, told me it's hard to believe that this fellow and his masters from Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency -- which has supported the Taliban in the past -- are motivated by concerns over poverty and corruption in Afghanistan. One tribal leader laughed when I asked about the Taliban winning hearts and minds. "They cut off hands and limbs and used to execute women in soccer stadiums," he said.

Everyone concedes that no one -- save the Taliban, sadly -- profits from a spiraling blame game. And the game continues. Yasin Osmani, a senior Karzai official, told the Afghan senate this week that foreigners are involved in 80 percent of the corruption associated with international economic assistance and reconstruction work. One well-connected observer told me Karzai was simply fed up with being lectured, not just by the United States, but by each and every U.N. official and European parliamentarian who turns up in Kabul.

This leads to the question of how to manage the relationship psychologically. Karzai discussed this very issue during our meeting. "A country with centuries of history, of cultural complexity, and a downtrodden economy that has been ravaged by war wants to feel respected," he told me. This may seem like misdirection to his critics, but it strikes a chord with many Afghans. I've heard repeatedly that the United States was over-the-top arrogant to inform Karzai of Obama's visit just before the U.S. president landed in Kabul. The problem is, it's not true. The Afghan side was informed several days in advance. But the larger point is clear: Trust on both sides is badly damaged.

Given what the country has gone through over the last 30 years, it's a miracle that everyone I've met here still wants foreign troops -- led by the United States and its allies -- to stay. Even if some tribal leaders have their suspicions, there's widespread acknowledgment in Kabul that premature withdrawal will collapse the progress that has been made and facilitate the Taliban's return to power. One religious leader old me, "Pursue your interests; I only ask that Americans are honest and care for the Afghan people, too."

There's also the danger of losing perspective. "It's amazing what has been accomplished since 2001," Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul told me. "Nine years ago there was nothing here. Allies should listen to us, see what we've built."

Interior Minister Hanif Atmar agreed. "Our political world has been transformed," he said. "The Afghan people are being empowered to make decisions."

Human rights activist Sima Samar, said to have been runner-up for last year's Nobel Peace Prize, pointed out that while Afghans today debate police corruption, there were no functioning police in the country before the U.S. invasion. The quality of education you can dispute, she told me, "but girls go to school now. It's an enormous step forward."

At Kabul University I came across a group of young students, male and female, sitting together and conversing on a lawn that was a minefield until a few years ago. The young women come from Ghor province in the northwest. It was the first time women from their village had come to Kabul for university education. Before I arrived, the men had been trying to help the women find suitable housing. A far cry from Taliban times.

Yes, Karzai is volatile. His recent outbursts are reckless. There's frustration with him on the Afghan side, too. But maybe it's time for allies to take a breath. One tribal leader told me he couldn't care less about all the chatter about Karzai. "We understand why the United States came here." It would be "a global shame if the Americans lost the big picture and left before finishing what they set out to accomplish."

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