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Ravaged Kyrgyz Village Shows Hard Road to Recovery

The Dursunovs, a family of ethnic Turks, making do in the burned-out shell of their home in the Kyrgyz village of Mayevka, near the capital, Bishkek. Dalton Bennett

MAYEVKA, Kyrgyzstan — In this ethnically splintered village, many residents were appalled last week when Kyrgyz men appeared with wheelbarrows and bags of cement to help rebuild one of their homes.

It had been the Kyrgyz, after all, who had looted and burned every Turkish house they came across three months ago.

But for the Kyrgyz government, Mayevka offers a bit of hope for its effort to move past the ethnic violence that swept the south of Kyrgyzstan last month, as well as a stark reminder of how painful the recovery will be.

In April, just days after an uprising brought the brittle new government to power, gangs of Kyrgyz men from outside the village tore through the unpaved streets of Mayevka, looting and burning the homes of Meskhetian Turks, a tiny ethnic minority.

The rampage in the village of 10,000 near the capital, Bishkek, was at first passed off by the government as an isolated incident, a random bloodletting at a time of political chaos. But two months later ethnic strife in Kyrgyzstan erupted on a far larger scale.

Starting the night of June 10, groups of Kyrgyz men attacked Uzbeks in the south, killing hundreds of them, raping women and girls, and forcing as many as 400,000 people to flee.

In many ways, Mayevka foretold on a much smaller scale the events in the south. Its peculiar social fabric — a patchwork of ethnicities vying for arable soil and wealth in a place that has far too little of either — also looks like a miniature of Central Asia as a whole.

More than two dozen distinct ethnicities live in Mayevka, including Azeris and Armenians, Turks and Kurds, Russians, Chinese and a community of Koreans that is internally divided into believers and nonbelievers in the Church of Scientology.

The small wonder of its social cohesion derived throughout most of the 20th century from Moscow’s iron rule. But after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Kyrgyz majority took control, ethnic tensions in this village began to rise, just as they did in the south, and they culminated in April with the attacks against the Turks.

Their community of about 500 was singled out for some of the same reasons as the Uzbeks in the south. At a time of growing poverty, the Muslim Turks were a relatively wealthy merchant class — known to the locals as “the Jews of Mayevka.”

Scattered among the maze of rutted roads, rivulets and patches of wild hemp in Mayevka, the Turkish homes look like mansions compared to the huts that surround them, with more than a few Mercedes parked at their gates.

But their prosperity is fairly recent. Near the end of World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin accused all of the Meskhetian Turks of being Nazi collaborators and expelled them from their native Georgia.

Their exile scattered them throughout Central Asia, where they were often surrounded by hostile cultures, but over the years they established themselves as talented merchants, farmers and breeders of livestock — a tenacious presence in the region’s bazaars.

“There is white jealousy, and there is black jealousy,” said Ben-Ali Suleimanov, a 42-year-old Turk in Mayevka. “And when the government was weakened in April, what we got is the black sort, the bloody, roiling sort.”

Starting in the late afternoon of April 19, several thousand men, mostly young Kyrgyz from other towns and villages, made their way methodically through the village, with a few moving ahead of the mob to spray paint houses with the names of the ethnic groups inhabiting them.

In the confusion, many of the houses were mislabeled and the families who own them spared. But by the time police chased away the marauders four hours later, 18 of about 80 Turkish homes in the village had been looted, torched or both.

Dozens of Turks were brutally beaten, and one member of their community, Kaptan Karimov, 40, was murdered, his eyes gouged out and gold teeth pulled from his mouth, said his widow, Kskhana, 38.

“When word came that they were coming for the Turks, I took the children and ran,” she said, staring down the road at the gutted home her husband had stayed to protect.

“Our sons saw his body. They saw who did this to him. How can I raise them here after this?”

Yet she has stayed put, and despite the violence, so have virtually all of the Turks in her village. Those whose homes were destroyed live in the husks of their old abodes, usually under makeshift roofs or in the open air — just as many Uzbek victims are living in the south.

But hatred and fear of the Kyrgyz majority are still widespread in this village, and shared by many of the grieving Uzbeks hundreds of kilometers away in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Since the violence there, many of the Uzbeks have refused to be treated by Kyrgyz doctors or to shop at Kyrgyz stores, let alone wander into Kyrgyz neighborhoods.

But in Mayevka, the first signs of reconciliation have begun to show.

Ben-Ali Dursunov, a Turkish member of the village council, became the first last week to allow Kyrgyz workers to help rebuild his home, beneath whose blackened rafters his family of 10 has been sleeping for almost three months.

Last Thursday, his 4-year-old grandson, Anvar, surveyed their efforts from his little blue go-kart, smiling and forever getting in the way.

“We have to start moving forward somehow, little by little,” said the elder Dursunov. “We can’t let the kids live in all this bitterness.”

Starting this week, the work of the United Nations in Kyrgyzstan will shift in a similar direction. The UN Development Program sent a team of experts on Tuesday to train teachers in the methods of reconciliation, and starting July 15, it will start opening around 20 “safe zones” in the south for children of all ethnicities to interact.

The first wave of teachers trained by the UN will help 1,500 children in the south, but this is a “drop in the ocean” compared to the 50,000 who must again be taught “how to have faith in the goodness of people,” said Olga Gribennikova of the UNDP in Kyrgyzstan.

A later phase of this effort, which is expected to take years, will also create platforms for adults to overcome hostilities.

Here too, Mayevka can offer guidance. Meetings of the village council have started to feel like impromptu therapy sessions, allowing its members to work through the problems of reconstruction and find common ground again, said its deputy chairman, Konstantin Kucherov.

“At first I thought people were going to slit each other's throats at the meetings. The anger was like poison in the air,” he said. “But then we focused on the problems at hand. In private, the Kyrgyz explained how sorry they were, how the people who did this were not Mayevka Kyrgyz but beasts from other villages.”

Last week, the neighbors helped each other clear the rubble and began to rebuild. But that does not mean the Turks of Mayevka have overcome what they lived through in April.

Dursovnov’s 19-year-old daughter, Zamira, said she still hears the gangs of Kyrgyz men who ransacked and burned her home. “Almost every night they come screaming and throwing stones,” she said.

But once she is out of earshot, her father explains that these are only her nightmares, the symptoms of a trauma that he fears will haunt her for many years to come.

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