Tolerance amid the ruins of revolution
April 7, 2015
I am standing in the main art gallery in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, mesmerized by a news photo taken by Vyacheslav Oseledko that was one of many carried around the world five years ago. The lens of Oseledko’s camera is peering into the gun of a member of the riot police as a protester hurls a projectile at him. The photo is one of several in an exhibit depicting the April 7, 2010 riots ignited by ethnic clashes and anti-government protests. It was the former Soviet republic’s second revolution following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
On this, the fifth anniversary of the conflict, our guide avoids the crowded main square as we tour the city. The previous day I watched preparations to commemorate the event, and would later walk by the spot where dozens of people were killed, looking at wreaths laid in their honour.
The nepotism and corruption that gave rise to the 2010 uprising and its predecessor, the Tulip Revolution of 2005, have somewhat abated due to aggressive government anti-corruption campaigns. According to Foreign Policy magazine, however, tense ethnic relations between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan remain “an open wound.” Discrimination against the Uzbek community is still ongoing, according to activists quoted by FP. Last month, an American journalist was deported from Kyrgyzstan for trying to investigate the Uzbek-Kyrgyz clashes of 2010.
I am in Kyrgyzstan with a group of Canadian donors who have raised funds to support an education initiative by the Aga Khan Development Network. Although the group from Calgary is involved with an Aga Khan project in East Africa, its members regularly visit Aga Khan projects in the developing world. Among the cities they visited in Kyrgyzstan was Osh, which is 30 per cent Uzbek and where ethnic conflicts were among the most violent in 2010.
If ethnic tensions persist in Osh, they were not evident among the 500 students of mixed ethnicity at the local Aga Khan school, which opened in 2002. It is one of 250 schools run by the Aga Khan Education Services, which teaches tolerance and diversity alongside standard core subjects. At a program put on for the visiting Canadians, Kyrgz and Uzbek children sang and danced side-by-side, oblivious to the adult world of discrimination and bias.
I asked the school’s director, Salamat Ashimbraeva, how significant it is for children of diverse backgrounds to come together, given the events of five years ago.
“It doesn’t matter for us,” she said through an interpreter. “It is just our work. We are are common Uzbek and Kygyz people. We are not politicians.”
The Calgary group was founded by four business leaders — Jim Gray, Sherali Saju, Brian Felesky and Chris Robb — to raise funds for a teacher training institute in East Africa.
They organized after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center motivated them to become involved in international development. The group, which adopted the name Awali — a Swahili word for “the beginning” — chose to partner with the Aga Khan Development Network after determining it was the best organization to promote education, health and economic growth in the developing world, and in turn preventing the rise of radical extremism.
Impressed by the Aga Khan’s commitment to pluralism and tolerance, members of the Awali have to date toured Aga Khan projects in Paksitan, India, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania, Kenya, Zanzibar and Uganda.