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Kyrgyzstan urges longtime Uzbek-Kyrgyz enemies to marry

- - Friday, December 2, 2011

OSH, KYRGYZSTAN — In 2010, clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan's southern city of Osh left dead an estimated 2,000 people, mostly Uzbeks.

Today, the local government is trying to heal wounds left by the violence by encouraging the two groups to come together — in marriage.

"Well, for starters, the children are more beautiful," said "Babur," 27, with a smile, referring to the benefits of his interethnic marriage.

(Babur asked not to use his real name because he fears publicity might bring harm to his family. He is an ethnic Uzbek married to a Kyrgyz woman in Osh.)

Last year, the mixed neighborhood where he lives was one of many areas in Kyrgyzstan's southern regions destroyed in riots fueled by a long history of ethnic tensions.

Uzbeks, who trace their lineage to Turkish and Persian tribes, traditionally have been city dwellers. The Kyrgyz were nomads and have Mongol heritage. This rift in culture, custom and ethnicity set the framework for cycles of internecine warfare that continues today.

Kyrgyz account for 65 percent of the country's population of 5.6 million, and Uzbeks make up 14 percent.

Over the course of three days in June 2010, ethnic violence — and the Kyrgyz government's response to it — resulted in hundreds of Uzbek and Kyrgyz casualties.

"Many died," said Babur, staring at the floor. "Others were detained and tortured, others disappeared."

The conflict is a common subject of discussion in Osh — what happened and who is to blame.

"There were many rumors that Kyrgyz mobs were coming to kill everyone in the mahallah [the Uzbek word for 'neighborhood']," Babur said. "And so, my wife helped hide our Uzbek friends and children."

He turned on his cellphone and showed photographs of their children.

"But yes, of course, I think more interethnic marriage would help the situation," he said. "We need more talking, more discussion."

The couple met at university in 2006, married two years later and have two young children, a boy, 5 and girl, 3. It was more acceptable for ethnicities to mix then, but Babur admits there was friction in his neighborhood.

"It was never too bad," he said. "All of my friends celebrated with me."

As in all marriages, things were not perfect. There was fighting between the newlyweds' families, but Babur says they were the standard spats any new couple might face.

But since the violence of 2010, a stigma associated with mixed marriages lingers. That's why the state has begun to pay newly married couples of Uzbek and Kyrgyz descent.

"In our work since 2010, it appears [the program] is helping to unite Uzbek and Kyrgyz families," said Gulmara Erkolova, a state employee at the city hall in Osh who has helped implement the plan, working closely with the mayor.

Ms. Erkolova said that when a couple marries, they and their families are eligible for payment of up to just over $2,000. "We must pay this amount of money," she said. "Uzbek and Kyrgyz families are huge, and they need enough money to share their own personal customs."

Ms. Erkolova added that as well as paying for wedding ceremonies that include Uzbek and Kyrgyz traditions, the money sometimes helps secure the couple's home because rural Kyrgyz families fear for the safety of daughters moving to the city to be with their Uzbek husbands.

Osh is the only city to implement the payment scheme. Ms. Erkolova said she hopes that its successes will encourage other regions by showing that the program is helping to ease ethnic tensions.

Kyrgyz officials would not disclose how many Uzbek-Kyrgyz couples are in Osh and how much money the government has paid mixed couples.

Babur said last year's violence was started by ethnic Kyrgyz from outside the neighborhood and that he has good relations with his Kyrgyz neighbors.

"You know, it's true that now my neighbors, my Kyrgyz neighbors, respect me more," he said. "We are closer now after the events because we helped each other."

His children study Uzbek and Russian at school, as well as Kyrgyz; another attempt by the state to reform policies that aim to mollify residual tensions.

Babur and his wife never received state funds. He is a psychologist and makes enough money to support his family, but he says he supports the initiative.

"The violence, the clashes, they were bad. So much was burnt. So many were killed," he said. "But at least now, my village is stronger. There are friendships there that weren't there before. My marriage is now stronger. If more interethnic marriages occur, I'm sure it will be the same for them."