OSH, Kyrgyzstan (BP)–Ethnic violence among Kyrgyz and Uzbek people in Central Asia has killed as many as 2,000 people and driven an estimated 400,000 from their homes.
Yet, despite the tensions, Kyrgyz believers have reached out to help Uzbek neighbors, putting their own lives at risk, a Christian worker in the region said.
Kyrgyzstan has been in political turmoil since President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was forced from power two months ago. Conflict now swirls around Osh, the country’s second-largest city.
Kyrgyz military raids continue in Osh after masked men gutted its main marketplace June 10 and set fire to most of the central part of the city, a 3,000-year-old trading post on the historic Silk Road.
“Whole blocks of houses of Uzbeks burned to the ground, people slaughtered — their families, women, children — mountains of corpses in the streets,” Victor Ivanovich*, a Russian living in Osh, said June 15. “There are wounded whom no one has helped. Entire units of young people are running about the city with weapons in hand, killing and burning everything in their path.”
While Uzbeks make up only 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population, the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, which border Uzbekistan in the south, are predominantly Uzbek. Many stores in Jalal-Abad have suffered looting and fire damage similar to that in Osh.
Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s acting president, has said the death toll from violence in Osh and Jalal-Abad could be 10 times higher than the official count of 214.
The United Nations estimates 400,000 people have been displaced as a result of the attacks. At least 100,000 Uzbeks have fled across the border to Uzbekistan, which is feeling enormous strain on its health care system and food supplies.
Although calls for an international peacekeeping force have yet to be answered, humanitarian assistance is arriving at the Uzbekistan border for the thousands of refugees who have fled Osh and surrounding villages. The United Nations, nongovernmental organizations and countries including the United States are providing aid.
Southern Baptist workers in the region hope to coordinate a response to the humanitarian crisis as the situation stabilizes in Osh. Baptist Global Response is coordinating with field partners to get an accurate assessment of needs and a multi-organization assessment team is expected to be on the ground in Kyrgyzstan by the weekend.
Christian worker Matthew Lake* saw smoke still rising from the Osh marketplace four days after the fires were set.
“Piles of restaurant furniture were burned and laying in heaps of ashes,” he said. “Profane graffiti was written across most of the buildings. There were very few people on the streets. We saw no commerce of any kind — a city broken.”
Despite the ethnic tumult, Kyrgyz believers have reached out to help Uzbek neighbors, often risking their own lives, Lake said.
There is much fear among the various ethnic groups of Kyrgyzstan — the Dungan, Russians and Uzbeks, said David Smith*, who oversees International Mission Board work in Kyrgyzstan.
While Christians there may not understand why the violence is happening, Smith said they are praying God will work in people’s hearts to reconcile them to each other and to God.
“Our heart cry is that a [spiritual] harvest will come through this,” Smith said.
Smith asks Southern Baptists to pray for Christian workers to know the best ways to help the hurting Kyrgyz and Uzbek people.
Kyrgyzstan enacted a law restricting religious activities last year. The number of evangelical Christians in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is less than 2 percent of the population. The Fergana Valley — a swath of fertile farmland that stretches across the countries of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — is known for its strong Islamic identity.
Despite these challenges, Smith said there is great unity among believers in Kyrgyz and the Gospel has spread along old trade routes through the valley.
Across Central Asia, more than 400 people groups have yet to be engaged by any known Christian witness, making this region the most unreached in the world.
*Names changed. Beth Alexander is an International Mission Board writer living in Central Asia. To read more about Southern Baptist work in Central Asia, visit www.centralasia.imb.org. To learn more about the cities along the ancient Silk Road, go to www.alongthesilkroad.org.