In June 2010, following an April uprising that changed the ruling elite in Kyrgyzstan, the country’s southern regions experienced a brief but violent conflict between the main ethnic groups, Kyrgyz and Uzbek. Over four hundred people died and hundreds more were wounded.
In the immediate aftermath, the Open Society foundation in Kyrgyzstan supported efforts to stabilize the situation and provide humanitarian and medical supplies. Assistance ranged from emergency psychological care to legal aid.
Education became an important area of focus. The foundation helped 40 students from southern Kyrgyzstan attend the summer camp Evergreenia, distributed guidelines on multicultural education to secondary schools, and purchased several thousand textbooks for two Uzbek-language schools in the conflict zone. In cooperation with UNICEF, about 200 teachers passed training on providing mental health services. While important, these initiatives were not a sufficient response to the immediate disaster—a more comprehensive and systemic response was needed.
The foundation’s Education Reform Program embarked on a survey to help develop new projects that would aid in the recovery and prevent future violence. The survey analyzed the status of inter-ethnic relations in Kyrgyzstan, the motives and causes of ethnic tension, the role of various actors, and the drivers behind the conflict. Ultimately the foundation hoped that the data collected would contribute to the development of new projects focused on reducing tensions in local communities.
As a rule, research and analysis tend to look at every type of problem that may give rise to inter-ethnic conflict: from geopolitical, demographic, and religious issues to land and water rights. It is important to remember that the existence of multiple problems does not mean that conflict is inevitable. Clashes can be avoided when people have the skills needed to resolve conflict. Many countries, for example, experience shortages of land, water, or other resources, but these problems do not always result in strife. With the proper allocation and the shared use of resources the probability of conflict can be minimized.
Here in Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks were not cultural or historical competitors. Indeed they lived together harmoniously. It was only as their traditional way of life began to recede that the two groups began to collide, mainly over economic and political issues. While many people consider the 2010 events as solely the result of inter-ethnic strife; it is important to note that violence did not break out between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks everywhere that they both lived.
But we cannot ignore that even now—long after the initial conflict—there is evidence of a deepening crisis. The survey found a lack of perspective and pessimism toward the future, growing dissociation within the community, decreased trust among people and toward the government, a breakdown in stable family relationships, and overall inactivity and passivity the result of emotional despair.
In such circumstances, it is crucial to engage young people. In an environment of growing disunity within the community, there is real need to restore communication between people. This is essential not just in multi-ethnic areas, but in mono-ethnic areas as a well or else we risk creating an environment rife with rumors and speculation.
The issue of language is of particular concern, especially for Uzbeks who have witnessed the rapid demise of their language in the press, schools, and other arenas. Interestingly enough, many people searching for a “neutral” language have tended toward Russian.
The communities face additional problems: school bullying; self-segregation; absent parents (many of whom have left to find jobs); criminal gangs; and a sense of victimization and hopelessness, particularly among those directly affected by the 2010 violence.
With this in mind, the foundation, together with the Education Initiatives Foundation, established a network of pilot schools to take part in the project “School is Center of Consolidation of Society.” The pilot schools focus not only on education but also on building partnership with local authorities and both formal and informal leaders. The project focuses on developing community solutions to community problems.
Schools have become places to teach young people the principles of being a good neighbor and the benefits of living in a multicultural society. They also provide young people with the opportunity to practice their new skills in a diverse setting. The project is an attempt to create conditions that will help prevent future ethnic conflict and to involve the younger generation in finding solutions for the problems their communities face. With these projects in place, we hope to never have a repeat of the events of June 2010.