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Humanitarian Disaster Looms in Kyrgyzstan as Uzbek Borders Close

June 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Violence in Kyrgyzstan continues as Uzbekistan closed its borders, leaving refugees on the run. Margaret Warner talks to guests about the political and humanitarian ramifications of the continuing ethnic bloodshed.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on all of this, we turn to Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. From 2006 to 2009, she served as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. And Simon Schorno, the U.S. spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is one of the few international humanitarian aid groups on the ground in the affected Kyrgyz/Uzbek region.

Welcome to you both.

MARGARET WARNER: SIMON SCHORNO, I will begin with you.

How bad is the humanitarian situation on the ground, from what your people have been able to observe?

SIMON SCHORNO, U.S. spokesman, International Committee of the Red Cross: Well, clearly, a humanitarian crisis on the ground, with several hundred people killed, tens of thousands displaced, within Kyrgyzstan and now in Uzbekistan. The situation is critical for those people.

They lack everything. The medical facilities are overwhelmed, with very little medicine. The people being displaced have no water, no food. So, we have been able now to come in, but the needs are enormous for the displaced, and, clearly, many people killed on the ground as well.

MARGARET WARNER: How are they living? I mean, are they just out in the open or do they have shelters?

SIMON SCHORNO: We met many people, thousands of people, in fact, living in schools, buildings that have been taken over, mosques. Yesterday, we met 6,000 people huddled in a mosque, for example. So, very difficult for people all over the place, occupying buildings and living where they can be.

MARGARET WARNER: Have you been able to talk to people and help people on both sides of the border or just the Kyrgyz side of the border?

SIMON SCHORNO: For now, we’re on the Kyrgyz side, but we landed a plane today in Uzbekistan, and we will be there by tomorrow.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you’re not able to say whether either group is getting along better?

SIMON SCHORNO: Very difficult for now to say, and, really, I think it’s too early for us to assess this.

MARGARET WARNER: And what are people saying about whether they want to return home?

SIMON SCHORNO: You know, really, at this point, we really haven’t got than far, because really assessing the humanitarian needs. And the needs are such that people talk about what they need right now to survive, and that’s where we focus.

MARGARET WARNER: And not long range.

Oh, and finally the medical situation. There are so many injured. What can you tell us about that?

SIMON SCHORNO: Well, as I said, hospitals have no medicine or very little medicine following the influx of wounded patients. So they have been able to cope with the means they have, very limited means. They need medicine. They need to bring in additional staff, which we’re trying to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I wanted to ask you, the U.N. report just out today said there was an unusually high incidence of sexual violence. Are you able to confirm that?


SIMON SCHORNO: Yes. We did meet several women in the past days who had been raped, definitely. And we collected their testimonies and we will follow up. But, certainly, we have met many cases of raped women.

MARGARET WARNER: So, FIONA HILL, these two groups have been living together in this valley for, I don’t know, centuries, maybe. Is this ethnic tension run amok, or is there something else going on here in terms of what explains it?

FIONA HILL, senior fellow, Brookings Institution: I think this is a combination of many things. In your introductory segment, you pointed out that, in 1990, there had been similar clashes in the region over land disputes. This is something quite different.

You also mentioned that, in April, there was the overthrow of the previous government. So, there’s a really strong political component to this. I mean, it’s clearly — from some of the evidence that’s been gathered so far by people on the ground, that, in many respects, this was deliberately instigated, that there were groups of armed men who went into neighborhoods and started to take pot shots, both at Uzbek populations and at Kyrgyz populations.

And it’s easy to spark off something in this region, where there’s — already political tensions are high. And, also, this is a region of high unemployment. Osh is one of these transit areas throughout the whole region, where a lot of people pass through. And you have a lot of ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks from the region who have been seeking employment next door in Kazakhstan, further afield in Russia, sending money back.

And all of these populations have been very hard-hit by the economic downturn. So, this is a lot of — there’s a lot of tensions in the area over the economic situation, over political issues, and everything else.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you already have a — what you’re saying is a volatile situation. And then who has the incentive to light the spark?

FIONA HILL: The problem is that there are multiple people with incentives.

There was a reference in the segment to President Bakiyev, who was ousted in April.

MARGARET WARNER: Right. And the current government is accusing him of doing this.

FIONA HILL: Correct.

But there’s also a lot of evidence that criminal gangs who operate in the area — this is a trafficking area for drugs, smuggling. It’s an area of just general contraband that goes through the Oshians and the local markets.


MARGARET WARNER: And a lot of it from Afghanistan, I understand, the drug trade.

FIONA HILL: That’s correct. I mean, this is one of the — the thoroughfares on the drug routes from Afghanistan through Central Asia and into Russia. So, you have got a lot of stakes at play here for groups who have a vested interest in keeping things as they are, keeping their roots open, and then, also, you know, the youth violence that we have seen here, disaffected young men who are easily stirred up on the idea of a grievance and of taking revenge against other groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, speaking of stakes, what is the U.S. stake here? I mean, Secretary Clinton was on the phone today to both the Kyrgyz president. She was scheduled to also call the Uzbek president. The U.S. has stepped up so far with $32 million worth of aid for the U.N.-led effort.

What is the — what could go wrong for the U.S.? What’s at risk for the U.S. here?

FIONA HILL: Well, Osh is some distance in the south of Kyrgyzstan, away from the base that was referenced.

We have now a transit center in Manas in — outside of Bishkek, which has been one of the main transit routes for our troops and also supplies for the coalition efforts in Afghanistan.

FIONA HILL: So, clearly, it’s very important to keep this line of communication open for us. And, at various points, the Kyrgyz government had been trying to leverage this by encouraging us to also think about building a similar transit center in the south in Osh, precisely because they were worried about the volatility of this region and thought that having a U.S. presence there might be a stabilizing factor.

Clearly, we have been reluctant to move in that direction, but we do have some stakes there. And, clearly, broad instability in Kyrgyzstan that spread throughout the region would be of great concern to us.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, that U.N. special envoy that we quoted in the piece also said today — or said yesterday to Reuters — that, if you had continuing instability there, that it would provide what he said was fertile ground also for Islamic extremist organizations, who are already active in other parts of Central Asia, and, in fact, from Uzbekistan, have sent a lot of fighters to Afghanistan.

FIONA HILL: That’s correct.

There’s actually been quite a vibrant in the past insurgent movement, militants in the region, Fergana Valley. We have had incidents in Uzbekistan just across the border. People will probably recall a few years ago the incident in Andijan, which, in fact, is where the International Red Cross had been sending in their supplies.

And so, the more that you have instability and tensions here, the easier it is for militant groups like this to recruit in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: And, quickly, do the Russians also have an interest in stability here? Do you think that the U.S. and the Russians will cooperate on this? Or do you think that — I mean, the Kyrgyz government asked the Russians to send in troops, and they said no, for now.

FIONA HILL: We’re already talking to the Russians about this. This is a unique situation in Kyrgyzstan. There’s a Russian base and a U.S. base both in Bishkek. The Russians had also been talking about setting up a counterterrorism center in the south, a training center against the insurgency threat that’s been a great concern for all the regional powers.

The U.S. really does want stability, just as Russia does in this area, so we actually have mutual interests here.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Simon, back to you, what’s next for the international aid effort?

SIMON SCHORNO: Well, it’s starting to take shape. We were only — the sole organization on the ground until yesterday. So, we have focused on Osh and the surroundings of Osh. As I mentioned, we’re now landing a plan in Andijan, where we will try to reach the refugees that have crossed the border. And that’s the focus now, to reach those refugees as soon as possible and provide basic supplies to them, so they can cope with the daily needs in the coming days.

MARGARET WARNER: And are there enough resources to do this, to do what needs to be done?

SIMON SCHORNO: Well, the needs are enormous.

So, a single organization like the International Red Cross can’t cope with those needs. There will be a need for a greater, larger, wider humanitarian effort. So, I think we’re just seeing the beginning of that effort now.

MARGARET WARNER: And, just very briefly, what about the political situation on the ground? In other words, are both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments making it easy for you all to operate?

SIMON SCHORNO: We had a presence in Kyrgyzstan before this latest round of violence. We were able to deploy fairly rapidly in Kyrgyzstan.

In Uzbekistan, we’re still negotiating access to the — the places where refugees are, but we’re fairly confident that, within 24 hours, we should be able to get there.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. And we were told that that was going to be the subject of Secretary Clinton’s call to the Uzbek president.

So, Simon Schorno, thank you very much, and Fiona Hill.

FIONA HILL: Thank you, Margaret.