When Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan, awoke on July 3 to a state of emergency imposed after two days of violent unrest, it was as a city traumatized.
At the local morgue, a man emerged weeping just after identifying the body of one of 18 people killed during clashes between protesters and security forces.
Anxious relatives paced outside the hospital, waiting to hear if their loved ones, who were among the 243 injured in the violence, would survive. Outside the heavily guarded police precinct, people sought news of family members they suspected might have been among the 500 or so swept up in a dragnet of detentions.
Internet communications had been unplugged by authorities anxious that coordination among demonstrators would preserve the momentum of turmoil on the streets. That left townspeople in the dark about what was going on around them and unwittingly lent energy to the wildfire spread of rumors.
Well-armed troops and military-style vehicles patrolled empty streets. Stores and restaurants were closed.
Roads around the main administrative buildings were blocked off from the rest of the city by checkpoints. Masked officers with assault rifles nervily trained their weapons on the surrounding area.
The normally heaving bazaar was almost entirely deserted. A few sellers vied for the trade of the trickle of customers who had ventured outside for provisions.
One trader, Ulmeken Allanazarova, a mother of four in her mid-30s, owns a small trinket store. Her name, like that of all the townspeople interviewed for this article, has been changed to preserve their anonymity. Fear was running high in the wake of the chaos.
When Allanazarova opened her store as usual on the morning of July 1, she did not expect to end the day teargassed by security forces and fleeing a water cannon.
But that was exactly what happened after she joined demonstrations that spiraled into the kind of strife that would have felt barely conceivable in this sleepy desert republic until only a few days earlier.
With order only just restored in Nukus on July 3, Allanazarova sat outside her store with a couple of other despondent stallholders. This little group mulled over the events with a blend of sadness and anger, compulsively flicking through clips of disturbances that began a short walk from Allanazarova’s store. Cell phone footage was being shared old-school style from person to person, since the internet was down.
The serious trouble all started, Allanazarova said, when news swept through the bazaar of the arrest of a popular citizen journalist from Nukus. Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov had come out in opposition to a proposal to change the constitution to dilute the special status that Karakalpakstan enjoys as Uzbekistan’s only autonomous territory.
Like the rest of the country, Allanazarova had only heard about the amendments a few days previously. The committee putting together these changes had failed to properly consult the public while doing so. News of the proposed constitutional reforms set the Karakalpak social media space buzzing.
Like most locals interviewed in Nukus by Eurasianet over three days, Allanazarova said she was strongly opposed to any alteration to the status of Karakalpakstan, which is formally designated a republic, as opposed to the other territories of Uzbekistan, which are regions. Karakalpakstan has its own government and parliament. The Karakalpak language, which is closer to Kazakh than Uzbek, enjoys official status.
Under the current constitution, Karakalpakstan has been entitled to invoke a referendum to secede from Uzbekistan since 2013. Nobody of note inside Uzbekistan has ever publicly called for that right to be exercised, but the notional privilege is nevertheless jealously protected. The tinkering to the constitution would have done away with that right.
On July 2, even before the trouble in Nukus had died down completely, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev dropped those particular amendments – a sure sign that he recognized the danger the idea posed.
The day before, Allanazarova was sharing in the anger with her fellow Karakalpaks. And when she heard about the arrest of Tazhimuratov, an advocate of autonomy, she joined the traders and shoppers who mustered in vast numbers in a large open area in front of the bazaar to demand his release. The crowd quickly swelled to become several thousand strong. At one point, there was such a mass of people, some of them waving the blue, green, and orange Karakalpak flag, that the demonstration blocked the busy main road in front of the market.
Many just wanted to retain the constitutional status quo for Karakalpakstan, a common view among the townspeople. Others, like Allanazarova, were advocating for a radical step: seceding to create an independent Karakalpak state.
“I personally wanted freedom for Karakalpakstan,” she told Eurasianet. “That's why we went out. [...] We want our own republic.”
Such yearnings are anathema to the government, as illustrated by stark warnings from Mirziyoyev about reprisals for inciting separatism.
By the time Tazhimuratov appeared before the crowd on the square, having been momentarily released as a peace-seeking concession, events had already taken on their own momentum. As evening descended on July 1, the crowd outside the bazaar, Allanazarova among them, decided to march to the Karakalpak parliament, known as the Jokargy Kenes.
There, a tense situation degenerated into pitched battles between security forces and protesters who, officials say, tried to storm the building.
Unrest continued overnight and into the following day, when law enforcement structures say they repelled two attempts to storm the main police precinct. The turmoil went on throughout a second night, before being quelled by the morning of July 3.
This chronicle of the events leading up to the outbreak of violence, as recalled by Allanazarova and several others who witnessed the protests at the bazaar and the parliament building, is broadly in line with the government’s account.
But there is strong disagreement on one crucial point: Who started the violence?
According to Allanazarova, it was the security forces, who, unprovoked, fired tear gas, water cannons, smoke bombs and stun grenades at peaceful protesters.
“It was a peaceful rally. We had no weapons,” she said. When pressed, she conceded that “yes, people threw small stones.”
“But we had nothing more,” she said.
The view that the security forces attacked peaceful protesters was widespread among the irate townspeople. They tended, moreover, to believe that officers who arrived as reinforcements from other parts of Uzbekistan were more zealous and unsparing than their Karakalpakstan-based colleagues in crushing the demonstrations.
“What upsets us is that they killed all these harmless unarmed people,” said Ziuar Alikhanova, an indignant 70-year-old woman who witnessed clashes on July 2 in her neighborhood near the airport.
Some video clips, however, put the lie to the idea that all the demonstrators were peaceful. Nukus police provided Eurasianet with footage harvested from security cameras and social media accounts showing protesters beating up officers whom they had captured and stripped of their body armor.
In one video, an officer is seen hobbling away, covered in blood and propped up by his colleagues. In another, protesters swarm over an armored vehicle they have attacked. It has not yet been possible to ascertain the circumstances leading up to these assaults.
There is also footage of men hurling Molotov cocktails at officers and of a vehicle delivering fuel in jerrycans to create more of the makeshift weapons.
In an interview in the police headquarters on July 5, Nukus police chief Colonel Ziyautdin Zaitov denied that security forces had used undue force. He instead blamed demonstrators for provoking the violence.
“Under the influence of certain people, they organized mass unrest on the streets,” he said. “They set fire to tires and threw stones. As a result of the demonstration, the lives of the townspeople were endangered […] For that reason, special measures were taken.”
Security forces used only tear gas, water cannons, stun grenades and smoke bombs to disperse protesters, but they refrained from deploying live fire, he said. There was no evidence, Zaitov insisted, that the actions of officers or the riot control tools that they deployed were responsible for any fatalities, or even injuries.
To soothe tensions while these rival narratives compete, Mirziyoyev has promised to investigate the actions of the security forces and punish anyone found to have acted illegally.
Immaterial of whether excesses were committed, human rights campaigners have registered concern that the government resorted in a knee-jerk fashion to forceful dispersal when confronted with demonstrators. The disconnection from the internet has troubled them as well.
This was a “brutal crackdown on the right to peaceful assembly in Nukus,” Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, told Eurasianet.
“The telecoms blockage and the routine repression of free expression in Uzbekistan serve to obscure the events, but the casualty numbers, the hundreds of injured and the high number of detained people speak for themselves,” Fossum said.
In the city morgue, forensic pathologists have preliminarily determined that the 18 fatalities – all male, four of them law-enforcement officers – were caused by what they termed “thermal” or “mechanical” injuries, or a combination of the two.
In layman’s terms, that means burns in the former case and being struck by a hard blunt object in the latter, explained Asel Kalymova, a senior examiner at the Nukus forensic testing center.
Anything from a piece of metal to a car can cause mechanical injuries, while smoke grenades can cause thermal injuries, she said.
A hypothesis advanced by Kalymova to explain the fact that many bodies bore thermal wounds to the hands, head and chest is that people tried to pick up smoke bombs that security forces were directing at protesters.
One piece of footage supplied to Eurasianet by the police could support that theory. It shows smoke bombs flying on a trajectory that suggests they were hurled out of the crowd near parliament toward the security forces guarding it late on July 1.
As for the claims of officials that protesters had consumed alcohol and drugs, forensic testing has confirmed moderate amounts of alcohol in 11 of the deceased, Kalymova told Eurasianet. Testing for the presence of narcotics was incomplete, she said. The National Guard has separately claimed that many demonstrators had taken Tramadal and Lyrica, two drugs banned in Uzbekistan.
At the hospital where most of the injured were taken, medics treated wounds caused by anything from stun grenades to stones, Yernazar Kalmurzayev, the hospital’s deputy director, told Eurasianet.
Like many healthcare staff in Nukus, Kalmurzayev had been working flat-out for days. He was being assisted by doctors brought in from other parts of Uzbekistan, he said.
Both Kalmurzayev and Kalymova said their work had revealed no evidence of live fire used against protesters.
Kalmurzayev said in-patients included law-enforcement officers injured after being struck with metal objects and sticks and at least two children trampled in a crush.
On July 4, one family sat grimly on a bench in the hospital grounds, staring at the ground. A young man had been operated on for a head wound. Relatives were waiting to hear if he would survive.
Across town at the city’s police headquarters, around 200 people had gathered outside trying to locate detained relatives. By the accounts of people there, Interior Ministry and National Guard forces – both bodies were engaged in quelling the upheaval – were indiscriminate in their sweeps, at times hauling away citizens innocently going about their business in broad daylight.
One man was looking for his son, who had been detained shortly after sitting a university exam on the second day of the violence. A young woman was looking for her sister – she was detained while doing her job at a grocery store, she said.
A middle-aged woman was not sure if her brother had been detained at all. Arrest would have been easier to bear than any alternative explanation for his disappearance, however.
“We've looked in the hospitals, we've looked in the morgue. He’s not there,” she said desperately.
Zaitov denied anyone had been detained without justification.
As relatives waited outside the precinct, officers periodically emerged to call out the names of detainees over a megaphone.
Each time a familiar name was heard, it evoked feelings of worry and relief, or both, to somebody in the crowd. Many fretted that police might be abusing the detainees. There is a well-documented history of jail inmates being beaten and tortured in Uzbekistan.
Zaitov flatly denied that anything of that kind could be happening.
Time may tell if Zaitov was being truthful, but there is already unambiguous evidence that policemen detention of well-known Karakalpak journalist Lolagul Kallykhanova, of whom nothing has been heard since she was taken in on July 1, allegedly after uploading a video appeal calling for Karakalpakstan to secede, will further underscore those concerns. Tazhimuratov, the citizen journalist who was briefly released on that day, has similarly disappeared.
In the absence of a rigorous inquiry allowing for an explanation of the unrest rooted in domestic factors, the authorities may revert to the habit of blaming the trouble on nebulous and unidentified external forces. President Mirziyoyev has already made public declarations signaling that intent.
The turmoil had been prepared “for years by foreign forces,” Mirziyoyev alleged on July 6. Their aim was to “infringe the territorial integrity of Uzbekistan and create interethnic conflict.”
He offered no insight as to whom he was alluding.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
This article was first published by EurasiaNet.