From Khiva I made the journey back eastwards to Tashkent by train from Urgench. It was a slow, trundling overnight journey of almost twenty hours, but my sleeper compartment was relatively comfortable. Much of the journey took us across the bleak landscape of the Kyzylkum Desert. I had planned to have supper in the restaurant wagon. My host in Khiva had told me that, as this was a domestic, Uzbekistan train, there should be no trouble getting a meal. By contrast, he said, on the international trains from Russia all the food had gone long before the train reached Urgench. But my companion in the compartment had other ideas. To my surprise, when he entered the compartment he automatically started speaking to me in Uzbek. Was it not clear from my appearance that I was a foreigner? I felt quite pleased with myself. Once he understood, he seemed delighted, repeatedly shaking my hand and clapping me on the back. I was slightly dismayed when he produced a pair of two-litre bottles of beer which he insisted on sharing with me. The idea of a long booze-filled journey was not especially appealing. It could have been worse; he didn’t have vodka. He then produced a nan loaf of bread (the typical Central Asian loaf, known to Russians as a lepyoshka) and a pot of beef stew. Eating was with the hands. I was a little disconcerted by his habit, as host, of taking pieces of meat between his fingers and offering them to me. But it was tasty, and I was grateful.
Back in Tashkent for just a single night, early the next morning I made my way to the place where shared taxis set off for the Fergana Valley. There are trains from Tashkent to Fergana, but they pass through Tajikistan, and I did not have the necessary double-entry visas. The road over the mountains, through the narrow strip of territory that links the Fergana Valley with the rest of Uzbekistan, is a good, fast road. But for some reason buses are not allowed along it. On this occasion I waited several hours before the taxi had enough passengers to depart. Driving through the pass into the Valley, there is a big checkpoint, looking very much like a border post, at which IDs are checked, and at which all foreigners entering or exiting the Valley have to be registered. It was a formality, but, handing over my passport, it felt like I was entering a different country.
Fergana does feel different, distinct. The Valley, in fact a large plain surrounded by mountains, is divided up among three former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, their borders twisting around each other crazily, breaking up the natural unity of the Valley and cutting off its different parts from each other. Fed by tributaries of the Syr-Darya River, it is the most fertile region of Central Asia, quite different from the mountains, desert and steppe that predominate elsewhere. It is the most densely populated part of Central Asia too, and accounts for a large share of its agriculture. Through millennia of shifting boundaries, Fergana’s unity had been maintained until the Soviet period, when Stalin, as commissar for nationalities, sought to impose a national division on to Central Asia that had never been known before. But the different nations were jumbled up, and could not be neatly parcelled out among the newly created republics. It mattered less during the Soviet period, when they were all united within the one overarching union. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it has brought no end of tension, especially between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Despite the overlaying of national identities on the former Khanates of Central Asia, strong regional identities remain important, and have been the key to understanding political divisions in all the Soviet successor states of the region. In Uzbekistan, the Fergana Valley is regarded with suspicion by the Tashkent elite, which has resulted in violent confrontations. Among the distinctive traits of the Valley is its conservatism, and greater piety. It has also been a breeding ground for Islamist militants. The founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was active in Tajikistan during its civil war in the 1990s, and alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, came from the Fergana Valley. The movement was largely destroyed along with the Taliban during the US-led invasion in Afghanistan in 2001, its remnants scattered, some of them taking refuge in Pakistan. While there has in recent years been little evidence of any Islamist threat in Fergana, it has nevertheless suited the Karimov regime to brand any manifestation of opposition in the Valley as extremist.
The Khan's Palace, Kokand
My first destination in the Valley was Kokand, the former capital of the Kokand Khanate, which in the 18th and 19th centuries had ruled over eastern Uzbekistan, including Tashkent, as well as bits of southern Kazakhstan and much of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kokand does not match its one-time rival, Bukhara, for fine architecture and historical monuments. This is partly because of the extensive destruction that accompanied the Bolshevik crackdown in 1918 on the so-called ‘Kokand Autonomy’, a rival to Bolshevik rule, during which many thousands of the city’s inhabitants were slaughtered during a three-day orgy of rape and destruction by the Red Army. Among old photos from the early 20th century in the museum in the former Khan’s palace, there is one that shows the destruction of the medressas in Kokand at that time.
It rained during most of my short stay in Kokand, but still I trudged around the old city, seeking out the remaining historical buildings. The Khan’s palace sits in a park on the other side of the main thoroughfare that bisects the city centre from the maze of streets that form the old town. It was built in the early 1870s, just as Kokand was succumbing to Russian rule. Following the Russian seizure of Tashkent in 1865, Khudayar Khan was forced, in 1868, to accept vassal status vis-à-vis the Tsar. But in 1875 just a couple of years after the completion of the palace, a rebellion drove him into exile. His replacement by his anti-Russian son prompted the Russians, the following year, to abolish the khanate and bring it under direct Russian rule, as part of Russian Turkestan. The palace has been partly restored, and now houses a museum. Interiors are richly decorated with elaborate geometric and floral patterns. The harem was demolished by the Russians in 1919.
The Narbuta-Bey Medressa, Kokand
Among the few remaining medressas (there were once 35 in Kokand, and hundreds of mosques), the Narbuta-Bey Medressa, having been closed by the Bolsheviks, was reopened after independence, only to be closed again in 2008. It has an imposing façade, reminiscent of medressas in Bukhara. Built at the end of the 18th century, craftsmen from Bukhara who had been taken captive in warfare between the two neighbouring khanates were brought to work on its construction. An elderly man appeared at the entrance, and showed me around. Having visited many disused medressas in the region, it was interesting here to peer into one of the cells leading off the courtyard, which had been restored. Sparsely decorated, there was a platform at the back of the room where students would have slept, on the floor a carpet. The cells on the outside of the building, flanking the entrance, were occupied.
Behind the medressa is an old graveyard, including a couple of rather grand mausoleums where members of the Kokand royal family were laid to rest. Among them is Nodira, the wife of Umar Khan. When her husband died in 1822, leaving an heir who was still a child, Nodira took over as ruler, evidence that, in the Islamic world too, it was not doubted that women were no less capable of ruling than men, even if it was never publicly acknowledged. Nodira was most notable as a poet, considered one of Uzbekistan’s greatest. She wrote in both Uzbek and Tajik. Under her, Kokand became a centre of the arts. She remains a hugely popular figure in Uzbekistan, and Nodira is a popular girl’s name. She appeared on a postage stamp issued after Uzbekistan’s independence. Her son, Madali Khan, extended Kokand’s borders to their furthest extent, but his expansionism brought down the wrath of Nasrullah Khan of Bukhara, who had executed the two British emissaries, Stoddart and Conolly, that same year. In 1842, Nasrullah captured Kokand, and had Madali, his brother and Nodira all put to death.
The old town, Kokand
From Kokand, I continued eastwards to Andijan, not far from Osh, across the border in Kyrgyzstan, which I had visited the previous year. This time I decided to go by bus. Kokand’s bus station is right by the Dekhon Bazzar, with its busy little workshops, men hammering out pieces of metal into the desired shapes, rows of stalls selling nan bread, towers off water melons, and piles of grapes, oranges, olives and figs. I bought my ticket, in fact just a little slip of paper with something the seller had scribbled on it. And then I waited. Someone offered me a seat. Men came and chatted to me. Where was I from? Which football team did I support?
Then the colourful little bus pulled up, and we all piled in. Apparently the scrawl on my ticket included my seat number, but the numbers on the seats did not go as high as mine, and in fact any idea of reservations was a nonsense. Everyone took whichever they could. The friends I had made while waiting took care of me, and I was given a seat. As we trundled out of Kokand, more and more people piled in. Soon the bus was crammed full with people from the villages along the way, together with the provisions they had bought in the town. Some stood, others sat on their bags. It was all immensely cheerful. However crushed and uncomfortable, people laughed and joked and offered round pieces of fruit and biscuits, as if it were all a big party. The ticket seller, who had to push and shove his way around the bus, joined in the fun, joking as he went. He also spoke a little English. When he translated my humdrum answers to his questions about myself, my home, the ladies around us hooted with laughter. I smiled uncertainly, not knowing what he had told them about me.
There are many good things about Andijan. First of all, the hotel I stayed in was terrific; a big, comfortable room, a swimming pool, and a marvellous breakfast, all for a very modest price. The thing I enjoyed most of all was the melons. Fergana is famous for them. Andijan’s most celebrated son is Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. Born in Andijan, he succeeded as ruler of Fergana near the end of the 15th century, at the age of 12. At 15, he conquered Samarkand. However, facing rebellions, he ended up losing both Andijan and Samarkand. His fortunes later rose, as he captured Kabul and ruled Afghanistan before moving on to the conquest of India. But it seems he never ceased to lament the loss of his homeland, or of Samarkand, the capital of his ancestor, Timur. In his memoir, the Baburnameh, Babur wrote repeatedly of the delights of melons. He knew what he was talking about. I have never eaten more delicious, juicier, sweeter melons than those I ate in Andijan. Other fruits were excellent as well. The figs were wonderful.
The Eski Bazaar, Andijan
I hopped in a minivan to go to the old town, clustered around the sprawling Eski (‘Old’) Bazaar, one of the most inspiring in Central Asia, with its piles of produce, the rich bounty of Fergana’s fertile land. I ate there two or three times during my stay. Everything seemed tasty. The salads were wonderful, the tomatoes sweet and delicious. It is something that had struck me before in the Fergana Valley, during stays in Osh, in Kyrgyzstan, as well as Khujand, in Tajikistan. The food is good in Fergana. It is typical, simple Central Asian fare, laghman, manty, shashlik and the rest. But somehow it is better, tastier, fresher. The chaikhana I frequented during my stay was bustling with life and colour. Each time I received a warm greeting, and a cheerful sense of fun as we tried to work out what I should eat. I found Andijan delightful.
A chaikhana, Andijan
Since 2005, the name Andijan is associated with something altogether more negative, the massacre that took place there in May of that year. The violence of the security forces, the huge over-reaction of the authorities, speaks volumes about the regime’s paranoia, its fear of its own people. Concerns about the oppressiveness of the regime had been growing for some time. Uzbekistan had acquired strategic importance for the United States and its allies following the invasion of Afghanistan. From 2001 to 2005, Uzbekistan hosted a US military base, which was used in supporting its operations in Afghanistan. The importance of this trumped human rights concerns. Things changed after the massacre. The Americans departed at the insistence of the Uzbekistan government following US criticism of the bloodshed in Andijan.
In 2004, the British ambassador in Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, had been forced to resign following his outspoken criticism of the country’s human rights record and what he saw as the tolerance of it by the US administration of President George W. Bush. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, he had said that "there is no point in having cocktail-party relationships with a fascist regime". Murray fell out of favour with the UK Foreign Office. He was removed from his post in Tashkent, and agreed to resign from the diplomatic service the following year. Whatever the reasons for his falling out of grace, his case illustrates the dilemma faced by diplomats (and international organisations) when they have to maintain relations with a distasteful regime. Unlike many, Murray chose not to dodge that dilemma.
The backdrop to the massacre was the trial of 23 local businessmen, who the authorities, with precious little evidence, accused of Islamic extremist activities. Specifically, they were accused of membership of the Akromiya movement, inspired by an imprisoned mathematician, Akrom Yuldoshev, who in the early 1990s had written a pamphlet calling on businesses to pool resources for the common good of society, in line with Islamic principles. More likely is that they were caught up in a power struggle following the purge of a long-serving Andijan governor. In a country submerged in corruption and cronyism, the arrests may have been part of a crackdown on businesses not under the thumb of the authorities. When the trial began in February 2005, protesters gathered outside the courtroom, their numbers gradually swelling over the following weeks.
Matters came to a head following the arrest on 12 May of several protesters and relatives of the accused men. The next day, armed men attacked the prison, releasing the 23 men as well as several hundred others. Several prison guards were killed. The armed men also seized Andijan’s government administration building, taking several senior officials hostage. They tried but failed to take over the headquarters of the National Security Service. Their principal demand was the resignation of Karimov. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the trial, this was clearly a serious criminal act, an act of rebellion, to which the authorities had to respond. But the violence and indiscriminate nature of their response was beyond all proportion to the threat they faced. The massacre came not long after the colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Perhaps the example of those exercises in popular will impelled Karimov to such a fierce response in Andijan. Perhaps he thought the US-led ‘war on terror’ gave him cover for such violence against his own citizens.
During 13 May, protesters continued to gather on the central Bobur Square. That evening, the square was sealed off and security forces attacked the crowds, according to witnesses firing indiscriminately. The numbers of victims are disputed, but several hundred were killed, including children. The government blamed Islamist extremists for the violence, but most of the dead were ordinary civilians. Thousands of panicked people fled for the border, seeking refuge in Kyrgyzstan. The crackdown did not stop there. Following the events, many journalists went into exile. Several international NGOs and media organisations were forced out. Uzbekistan’s already sham democracy had been snuffed out, all pretence gone. This was now a regime whose legitimacy derived from brute force.
Since the events of May 2005, Bobur Square has been renamed Navoi Square, after Alisher Navoi, the great 16th century poet. The statue of Babur that had stood there has been moved (it is now close to the hotel where I stayed). A big open space, criss-crossed by major roads, there is nothing to indicate what happened there. All is now peaceful, no obvious sign of tension. A gang of colourfully dressed women tilled over the earth on a roundabout at one end. The people of Andijan went busily about their work. They smiled happily. They were welcoming and hospitable to the visiting foreigner. But it cannot be imagined that the events of 2005 have been forgotten. The scars are surely there.
- Melons and Massacres in the Fergana Valley