The Volatile Fergana Valley

By Bob Kaiser and Lois Raimondo, The Washington Post, Monday 15 July 2002; 12:33 PM

[Publisher's note: I have here combined the two articles from the series that focus on the Fergana Valley.]

Once Threatened by Islamic Insurgency, Region Now Confronts Unemployment

Q. In his book Jihad, journalist Ahmed Rashid describes the Fergana Valley as the heart of Central Asia. What have you seen of this region? Why is it important politically?

A. [Bob Kaiser and Lois Raimondo]: The Fergana Valley, long, narrow and flat, contains important sections of three countries: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It's relatively small: about 180 miles long, and 40 miles wide at its widest point.

The population is an ancient hodge-podge of nationalities who have lived together for centuries, probably millennia, intermarrying but also retaining distinct languages, predominantly Uzbek (a Turkic tongue) and Tajik (very close to Persian). Until these countries became independent in 1991, the valley was a cohesive economic space: one market, one society in most respects. It was however divided among three Soviet republics by bizarrely drawn borders that make no sense to the eye, or on the ground. Pieces of the three countries are linked into each other like the fans on a pinwheel.

Suddenly these borders became important after 1991, when they had the status of legal boundaries between sovereign states—something few if any residents of the valley had ever anticipated. The results have not been pretty. Traditional patterns of economic life have been disrupted. Families have been separated. The Uzbeks have mined parts of their border in the valley, and at least 60 peasants have died as a result. Locals say the farmers have no idea where the border is.

The valley is crowded. It represents just 4.3 percent of Uzbekistan's territory, but contains more than a quarter of its population, or more than five million people. It is home to 32 percent of all Tajiks, and half of all Kyrgyz. Altogether more than 10 million live in the Fergana Valley.

In the late '80s and early '90s there were several ugly outbreaks of ethnic violence in the cities of the foregone, which scared the daylights out of all three governments and shocked the residents, too. Everyone we spoke to, virtually, expressed pleasure that peace prevails in the valley today.

In Soviet times the valley cities of all three republics dominated the political lives of those republics. Now, interestingly, power has passed to other factions in all three, so the Fergana peoples feel marginalized in their own countries. Altogether, it's a very complicated and fascinating situation.

Q. How did the valley come to be divided between three countries?

[Map of the Fergana Valley]

A. Uncle Joe Stalin gets the credit. After the Bolsheviks defeated the last of the Central Asian rebels, more than a decade after their 1917 revolution, they decided to organize Central Asia into five republics. Stalin helped draw the borders. They were apparently intended to discourage any idea that these jurisdictions could ever be independent countries. They included enclaves of Uzbeks, for example, surrounded by Kyrgyz territory. The boundaries were drawn away from natural lines created by rivers and mountain ranges. There was no ethnic or linguistic consistency in many of the decisions about where to put the lines. Stalin would have been amazed to discover that four decades after his death, these rump republics had become sovereign nations, members of the U.N. and so on.

Q. Anthony Lake, former national security adviser, has described the Fergana Valley as one of the world's three hottest danger zones because of the clash between repressive governments and growing Islamic fundamentalist movements. What do people there say about such conflict?

A. We saw absolutely no evidence that would confirm this judgement—which, to be fair to Lake, was made before last year's war in Afghanistan. We spent only about five days in the valley, so are hardly experts, but we did talk to a lot of local people of many kinds, and no one we found is anticipating big trouble. The real crisis in the valley is not the result of Islamic fundamentalism, but of unemployment. In all three countries, residents report there are simply no jobs, though the population is growing briskly.

We were in four interesting cities: Namangan and Andijan in Uzbekistan, Khujand in Tajikistan and Osh in Kyrgyzstan. The first two looked the most prosperous, not surprising since Uzbekistan is markedly better off than the two basket-cases of Central Asia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan .

Khujand had a surprisingly liberal atmosphere. Twelve independent television and newspaper groups are operating there, with less government pressure than most media face in the capital cities. Khujand's Asia 1 TV hosts a live weekly call-in program whose host—the station director—interviews local and regional leaders, who can face serious criticism from callers.

The night Lois visited the station, staffed by eight enthusiastic young journalists—aged 16-28—the city's director of utilities was the featured guest. It was a hot night for him. Khujand had been suffering from water shortages, even stoppages, and electricity brown-outs. Callers were demanding answers. The utilities director said he was ready to take all questions because it was part of his job as a public official.

Q. One of the groups that has caused alarm in the valley is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, allied with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. What is the IMU's status?

A. For Central Asia, perhaps the most important short-term consequence of the war in Afghanistan has been the neutralization, if not elimination, of the IMU. The group's charismatic leader, Juma Namangani, was apparently killed by allied bombing, and many of his followers were killed. There are conflicting reports now as to whether any armed bands of IMU still exist; if they do, they are tiny. Most important, they have lost their base area—Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In interviews with The Post, the presidents of all three countries expressed relief that the threat had diminished, and confidence that it could now be contained.

The Fergana Valley was Namangani's apparent target. The valley is home to more religious Muslims than any other part of Central Asia. In the early '90s, especially in Uzbek territory, it was the scene of an Islamic revival of sorts. Scores of mosques and madrassas—schools for future imams—were built, many with Saudi and other foreign money. But they've nearly all been closed now in a severe crackdown by the Uzbek government, which began in 1999, when six still-unexplained car bombs went off in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, and Namangani led an armed incursion of his rebels into Kyrgyzstan's mountains. His move took the Kyrgyz army by surprise, and was dismayingly effective. He led a second such expedition in 2000, again terrorizing the region. But he never got to the Fergana Valley, and after the events of late 2001, the governments are confident now that they can keep the peace.

Of course, their ability to do so will depend on conditions in these crowded areas. In Uzbekistan Islam is again under careful state control, and the number of mosques has tumbled. But Islamic fundamentalist sentiment is still present, many residents told us, and some think the crackdown has only created new militants who will make trouble in the future. It was very hard for us, as outsiders, to sense how strong Islamic fundamentalism might be in the area today.

Q. How were you received as Americans in the valley? Any differently than in other places in Central Asia?

A. We have been received as curiosities, always warmly. These peoples are justly proud of their hospitality, which has always been generous. The capital cities of Central Asia are more used to foreigners than the towns and cities of the Fergana Valley, but we ran into no hostility at all. We were told, though, that a lot of people in the valley were more sympathetic to the Taliban than to the United States.

Q. Are there other ways in which Fergana towns differed from the big cities?

A. Oh, yes. It was interesting to note the changes in peoples' dress when we drove down from the mountains that separate Tashkent from the Uzbek part of the valley. Immediately we started to see women in traditional dress, covering their heads with scarves—something you don't see often (though can find in some neighborhoods) in Tashkent. Russian is much less commonly heard in the valley than in the big cities—and ethnic Russians are now very rare.

Traditional dress was less common in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and Kujand, Tajikistan. Both were big industrial centers under Soviet rule. Now, the factories are virtually all closed.

Q. Is the Fergana Valley a good place for tourists to visit?

A. Only the most adventurous should consider it. There are no modern hotels, and getting into the valley isn't easy. But it's an interesting area to visit, especially if you can make a local contact who can show you around. We were lucky to have helpful hosts everywhere we went.

Wednesday, July 24, 2002; 11:21 AM

Robert Kaiser and Lois Raimondo have returned from Central Asia, but the Central Asia Diary is not yet complete. They will continue to file stories and photos about the region over the coming weeks, as well as respond to reader questions and comments.

KAISER: A reader earlier asked us about a political prisoner in Turkmenistan named Shageldy Atakov, a Baptist pastor who was imprisoned for not being part of the officially sanctioned Russian Orthodox Church. We answered that we hadn't hear anything about him. We've now received word from diplomats in Ashkabat that Mr. Atakov was released from prison after U.S. and European diplomats pressed for his release. He is said to be living quietly at home in the Turkmen town of Kaka.

Question: Alexandria VA: The Fergana valley has beautiful pottery. The rest of Uzbekistan has a history of beautiful rugs, embroidery, and jewelry making, particularly in silver. There is a small but growing effort to revive these old skills and a need to be able to export the products. Did you see any indication of growth in this effort?

KAISER: We saw wonderful local crafts around Uzbekistan, but did not see any sign of sensible exploitation of them for export. On the contrary, corruption and over-regulation seems to get in the way. This could be a great business, if someone knew how to organize it.

Q. Chicago IL: Fascinating to read about the Fergana! Reading your dispatches is like an oasis of information for the parched. It leaves me quenched but always wanting more.

What about the geography of the Fergana? You make great mention of Stalin-mandering in the 1930s as a tool for disrupting and dividing the Basmachis, but what of the Kyrgyz control of water resources and Tajik control of the valley's entrance? Did you see any evidence of the blue gas war that Uzbekistan often plays with its neighbors, stopping the flow arbitrarily and demanding world prices? Or what about the border checks by Uzbek customs that far outstrips the severity of the Tajik and Kyrgyz posts? And did you get to Uzgen, where Uzbeks and Kyrgyz staged a small but severe war in the early 90s?

KAISER: Now this is a knowledgeable reader! We did not get to Uzgen, but were in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, where violence also erupted in the early 1990s, and in Namangan, Uzbekistan, which also experienced violent riots then. The locals now express the hope that those outbursts are things of the past, but no one can be certain.

The valley is mostly flat, as a valley should be. Much of the land is very fertile, but not all. We visited Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz areas of the valley, but came to each from the capital of each of those countries. We did not make a tour of all three national sections of the valley. It would be interesting to do so. So we did not experience all the border crossings that you ask about, but we saw enough to confirm that the Uzbeks are by far the most rigorous. Indeed, as I think we reported originally, they have mined some areas of the border in the valley, to the distress of the other governments.

The struggles over resources, particularly gas and water, continue. The Kyrgyz and Tajiks have the sources of most of the drinking water in the region; the Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Turkmen have the gas. Regional cooperation has failed in almost all respects during the first 11 years of independence of these countries, and this area is no exception. There is vast room for more cooperation.

Q. Washington, DC: From my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan, I found a persistant climate of fear, total abuse of power by local KNB and police, and the frequent harassment of foreigners. An extended stay there leaves one feeling oppressed and suffocated. Kaiser implies that people did not seem to care too much about the president and were too busy trying to scratch out a living to worry. Two years of living there taught me that this silence is totally fear driven, and driven by the fact that the KNB is huge; anyone could be an agent, and anyone could be an informant. This fact did not come out in his article- my question is, why? Was the author trying to give a more journalistic, objective appraisal of the country, or was that climate of fear simply not noticed? I don't discount that an extended stay is sometimes necessary to recognize such issues, but I found it curious that such a prevailing characteristic of the country was hardly even touched upon.

KAISER: First, we should acknowledge that a Peace Corps volunteer who lived for two years in Turkmenistan got a lot deeper into the culture there than we did in five or six days. Nothing you write is inconsistent with what we saw, but we didn't see as much as you did.

My article said people were indifferent to the cult of personality in Turkmenistan, not that people weren't afraid. It was obvious to us that people were afraid. I thought I had conveyed this; obviously not to your satisfaction. Anyhow, thanks for the interesting comment.

Q. Vancouver, WA: Dear Mr. Kaiser,

While I was reading your diary and viewing you gallery, didn't really like those dark pictures of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Frankly, if it wasn't my country, I would think that it's some kind of messy, dirty place, and wouldn't have any desire to read about it and wouldn't have any interest to go there. Which is not true at all. Of course, it is not the perfect place at all, there are still many improvements to be made, but I don't think that it's that bad...

Tashkent is a very beautiful place, as well as Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva. It seems like you want to outline the darkest sides of the Uzbekistan. There are some pictures of Turkmenistan in your gallery, and they look much brighter and more progressive, but knowing the situation there I can assure you that Turkmenistan is not a bit in a better situation than Uzbekistan...

Regards, Samira

KAISER. Thanks for your comment, Samira. I'm sorry you thought Lois's pictures portrayed a dark Uzbekistan. We certainly so lots of happy people there, and I agree with you that Tashkent is a good-looking city. We did go to Bukhara, but Lois shot only film there?she forgot to use the digital camera. All the photos posted on the site so far are digitally shot. But she will process film and put up more photos in the future.

Washington, DC: This is not question, rather a comment. First, the Turkmen language uses more a , whereas our neighbours uzbeks and tajiks use more o. So do the Turkmen names—Ata instead of Otta etc.

Second, since October 1993, Turkmenistan has currency of its own—manat, instead of soum, which is the name of the Uzbek & Kyrgyz currencies. And finally, those wonderful red striped material is made of pure silk called keteni instead of cotton.

Thank you, Regards Parakhat Durdyev, Embassy of Turkmenistan.

Q. Shanghai, China: Dear Lois Raimondo:

Do you find any reluctance or hostility to being photographed among the people of Central Asia, relative to people of other countries you've photographed? I would like to know if the importance of Central Asia for US military operations as well as cultural factors such as the dislike of the image (idolatry) in Islam present any problems for you. In places where there is higher level of mistrust, how do you go about getting good pictures?

RAIMONDO: This question raises important issues about doing documentary photography and can be answered in different ways, some more direct than others.

Specifically, I can say I was quite surprised that I encountered almost no resistance from anyone on pictures while working in Central Asia. Notable exceptions were people--in each of the five countries--who feared repercussions and punitive backlash from speaking out against each of their respective governments. In each of those instances I, of course, respected their wishes and did not make those pictures. At the same time, you have to remember that travelling as quickly as we did through so many different places, it was nearly impossible to reach any real depth photographically.

Resistance will always come, at some point with some people, when you get to tough emotional places in a person/family's life. Some people are more private than others; this is when your skill as a listener lets you move to making the more subtle and sensitive pictures. Knowing when not to press the shutter and when you must.

In regards to Islam, my experience is that responses to photographic images are as wide-ranging as Islamic practice is itself across the world. For example, ninety percent of the women I met while working two and a half months in remote regions of Afghanistan said they did not want to have their photographs made and shied or ran away from the camera. However, the assumption drawn from this initial reaction must be qualified by the fact that some of these same women pleaded to be photographed when their husbands, brothers, or other male relatives were not looking. Additionally, there were times when I ended up spending extended time in the women's quarters, in one instance sleeping, eating and working there for one week, and then I was free--in time--to photograph anything I wanted, with the provision that the pictures never be shown to men outside their immediate family. So I made those pictures but they are just for my eyes and will not ever be published.

These examples are just small pieces of the complicated process that takes place when trying to do documentary photography in a foreign culture. My personal feeling about doing documentary work is that every time I make a picture--no matter where it is or who the subject might be--the culture in front of me is foreign because it is not my own. This includes working pictures in America. Truth is, after living for 12 years full-time in Asia, some parts of Asia are far less foreign to me than parts of America. I believe documenting people's daily lives should allow us to not just see and respect the foreign, but also to recognize the very familiar in what at first appears foreign.

Q. New York, NY: The general area you are travelling through served as a destination point for people arrested and sent into exile by the Soviets. During 1940-41, shortly after the invasion of Poland by the Soviets and shortly after the end of WWII many Polish citizens were sent into this area. How much has this been discussed by your hosts both specifically as it relates to Polish nationals and other groups?

KAISER: Kazakhstan was the destination for most such people. When I interviewed President Nazarbayev he talked at length about the many people sentenced or exiled to Kazakhstan under Stalin. This was an important contribution to the diversity of the population. But lately, most of these people, and their descendants, have left Central Asia. Many Poles returned to Poland; many Germans to Germany.

Q. Atyrau, Kazakstan: Dear Bob and Lois, I am reading your stories with great interest, as I have never been to the region you are describing. Thank you!

Here is the question. There is a common view of the post-Soviet Central Asia that it is predominantly Muslim area with people that have traditional way of life similar to that of the Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia. Have you been to any Muslim country before? How is post-Soviet Central Asia different, if any (for example from Afghanistan, that some of these countries border)? What do you think of the people's religious/traditional views in the ex-Soviet countries? Do you think that over 70 years of Soviet atheistic rule in the area has had no effect? As far as I know, the USSR borders with outside world were closed, with most influence coming from Moscow rather than from Islamabad and El-Rhiad.

Thank you in advance! Zhanibek Suleimenov

KAISER. This is a good question. All five countries in the region can fairly be called Islamic or Muslim, but this does NOT mean they look like Afghanistan or the Arab countries of the Middle East. Seventy-plus years of Soviet domination took their toll on religious practice in Central Asia, as elsewhere in the Soviet empire. These societies were all secularized. The big cities seem especially secular now. As many Central Asians told us, however, Islamic values and traditions are still an important part of everyday life. People who do not go to the mosque, or do not pray five times a day, nevertheless call themselves Muslims, recognize many Muslim traditions, and often say they would like their countries to reflect more of Muslim culture and history than they do now.

Q. Placitas, New Mexico: This is for Lois Raimondo.

I would like to know about your photography. Some of your photos appear to be in 35mm format while others appear closer to 4x5. What equipment are you using?

Are you using film or digital media? If film, how and where is it processed and sent to the Post? If digital, how does it get to the Post?

RAIMONDO: The pictures that have been appearing on the Web site were all shot on a Canon digital camera, the D30 with a variety of lenses. I shoot primarily with four fixed lenses: 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 200mm. The squared-off picture that you occasionally see would be cropped down from a 35mm.

Filing while on the road can be very easy or very complicated depending upon the quality of local water and communications systems. Anticipating problems with both on this trip, I decided to carry both film and digital cameras. The film I shot will be processed and added to upcoming Web stories from the region. The digital images will continue to be added. Digital images were burned onto disc and then sent via Internet cafes in each city we visited. When the Internet was not working, I have transmitted to the paper directly through a satellite phone that I brought along for that purpose.