Destroyed livelihoods and lost hope in Osh’s bazaar
Business and Economics, Kyrgyzstan, Photoblog9 Comments
Editor’s note: Osh’s bazaar, located on the left bank of the Ak-Bura river, has changed dramatically over the decades, but never so much as when violence swept through the city this past June, destroying almost all the infrastructure of the bazaar. Guest blogger Mary Pole reports, writing, “A former thriving hub of commerce is now a shell of destroyed livelihoods and lost hope,” with heartbreaking photos at the end of the post.
Firoza smiles at me revealing her gold teeth so characteristic of Central Asia. A seventy- five year old ethnic Tajik, she has worked in Osh Bazaar since she was twelve years old. At the front of an abandoned section of the bazaar Firoza arranges her selection of black mashi, a unique type of boot, on the wooden slats of her stall. As she holds them out to me with her henna painted fingernails, her husband sits beside her, amused at our conversation and her attempts to sell a Central Asian necessity to a Westerner.
Osh Bazaar, located on the left bank of the Ak-Bura river, has changed dramatically during the sixty-three years that Firoza has worked there. The violence that ravaged the city of Osh in June this year destroyed almost all the infrastructure of the bazaar — a former thriving hub of commerce is now a shell of destroyed livelihoods and lost hope.
Wandering off the main street of the bazaar into the side streets that once contained a flourishing meat market, a gold quarter, and hundreds of choixonas, the silence and destruction are at times overwhelming. Scraps of material flutter in the breeze while rubble, dust and bricks sit untouched, surrounding remnants of businesses and livelihoods destroyed in four short days. Naked meat hooks glisten in the sun.
The spray-painted ‘Kyrgyz’ and ‘Sart’ on the doors of containers served as a threat to the predominantly Uzbek business community, which has vanished, frightened into silence and submission. Occasional clues reveal information about the owners of the destroyed businesses amongst the charred remnants of livelihoods — a pair of old men’s trousers, a fake orange flower, charred flower pots. In most cases businesses are unidentifiable due to the looting and targeted destruction that took place. Signs for ‘meat’ and ‘eggs’, even ‘billiards’ and ‘plov’ can be found behind broken flame-licked glass.
Once vibrant, with goods imported and distributed from all over Central Asia, the now-subdued bazaar now hosts blackened containers with padlocks wrenched off and broken tandoors. There are few reconstruction efforts, and the memory of what once was seems to have vanished with the traders who used to work there.
The story of the bazaar is one of many stories untold from June’s conflict. The two thousand residential properties destroyed remain poignant reminders of suffering and of the ethnic dimension of conflict, yet the thousands of destroyed livelihoods represented in Osh Bazaar are less tangible.
I approached one of the remaining traders a few stalls along from Firoza — a woman selling toiletries arranged neatly in small lines in a cardboard display case. ‘I’ve worked in the bazaar for 10 years but couldn’t work for three months after the unrest. This is my fifth week back. Many horrible things happened here; many places are burnt.’
The emotion in her voice is clear, ‘All of my stock was destroyed. It was in a warehouse here that was looted and then burnt. We couldn’t come here in time to collect it. Not one thing was left.’ She lowers her voice and scans the area for Kyrgyz people before continuing, ‘I have applied for compensation, but they keep saying “later”. They will compensate for “their” people but not for us Uzbeks.’
This is a complaint heard regularly in the bazaar. Umida says, ‘I lost 19,000 som [just over $400] during the violence as all the shoes I owned were stolen or burnt. I filed a complaint with the police for compensation but have heard nothing.’ She still perseveres by trading new stock obtained from nearby Kara-Soo bazaar. The double tragedy is that Umida lives in Cheryomushkee, a neighbourhood that suffered severely during the violence with whole streets being destroyed and hundreds killed.
The destruction of Osh Bazaar has contributed to the changing dynamic of the city. As the main hub for commerce and a point of contact between those from all ethnicities who worked side by side in many cases, the trading areas that remain within the bazaar are now divided between Kyrgyz and Uzbek. Vibrancy and cooperation have been replaced by fear and mistrust.
In place of the languishing Osh Bazaar, several new bazaars have sprung up, in clearly ethnically demarcated neighbourhoods, including one in the Kyrgyz area of Zapudnee that threatens to replace Osh Bazaar entirely. Locals started trading outside their houses straight after the conflict, afraid to leave their neighbourhoods, a pattern that has continued. The destruction of the bazaar has caused further ghettoisation and has contributed to the dramatic change in the atmosphere and composition of the city.
As I walk around a part of the bazaar now completely empty, a man walks out from the shell of a former billiard hall and questions me. ‘They all knew,’ he said. ‘Everyone knew it was happening, but they didn’t do anything. They just watched.’