Witness to Chaos in Kyrgyzstan
Gripped by adrenaline and shaken by bursts of automatic gunfire just outside my apartment window in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, I've barely slept. Yesterday, protests in the city gave way to a revolution that ousted the country's president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev -- but not without a fight from government forces. I caught some of the state's response personally, in the form of an unexploded tear gas canister that hit me in the face, resulting in a black eye, and a lingering burn in my lungs from the gas around me.
With at least 75 dead and 1,000 wounded, according to the Ministry of Health, Kyrgyzstan is now in total disorder. Casualties mounted steeply, as anti-government protesters became insurgents, whether in setting an intelligence building on fire to free political prisoners or in capturing a tank to assault the presidential residence.
Video courtesy of EurasiaNet.org
As night fell in Bishkek, looters began to gather throughout the city's square, destroying business after business. Sidewalks are lined with discarded and smashed goods stolen from shops. At one popular grocery store, all that's left is wet cardboard and broken bottles stacked outside the windows. Over night, the livelihoods of shop owners have been ruined.
In part to answer the looters, private militias have formed -- mostly by young men, some of whom confiscated weapons from police and soldiers in yesterday's rioting. One man tells me why another joined one of these militias: "It was his duty as the youth and future of Kygryzstan to protect our country."
But the country may not only need protecting from the deposed government's forces now.
After I returned to my apartment, an anthropologist and development specialist I've been staying with received a frantic phone call from a local friend who feared for her safety. Over 300 "marauders" had supposedly gathered in her neighborhood. I called up a trusted local friend of my own to help us get to her, who was able to get through to us, first, only by entering our neighborhood decorated with a flag he'd taken from the White House.
As we made our way down one road, men wielding pipes and rocks began moving up the street in our direction. Seeing the numerous vehicles screech to a stop and attempt u-turns in the street's tight corridors, we immediately turned around. All along the side of the road were abandoned cars and trucks, many with broken windows and dented hoods. It was clear that the men heading toward us were not focused on putting Kyrgyzstan on the path to stability. They had other plans. By the time we made it to my house mate's friend, she refused to leave with us. She was armed with a shotgun.
Throughout the city, militias are guarding intersections near the main square and around government buildings. Not too far from my apartment, a group of militiamen are wearing red arm bands and keeping a pit bull, also marked with a red band. Martial law has now been declared; police and soldiers have instructions to shoot looters on-sight.
Bishkek is rife with uncertainty and apprehension, as order dissolves further, looters swarm through stores, and roving gangs flood the streets. Bakiyev, the deposed president, has issued a statement of reassurance that's only more disturbing: "Many wait in fear, hoping that new efforts by the security services and continued efforts by the volunteer militias can set Kyrgyzstan on the right foot forward."
For now I can only try again for a few hours of sleep, away from the windows and out of sight.