Reporter’s Notebook: What’s behind Uzbekistan’s deadly unrest? | Environment News


The darkish facet of the moon. That is the sensation I typically had when reporting from Uzbekistan’s largest and most environmentally troubled area with a barely pronounceable identify – Karakalpakstan.

As a result of the world is aware of extra in regards to the moon’s least-known elements than about Karakalpakstan which occupies two-fifths of the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation.

Karakalpakstan means “land of the black cloaks” after a medieval Turkic tribe that was a part of nomadic coalitions roaming the Eurasian steppes from the Black Sea to northern China.

Karakalpaks settled down south of the Aral Sea, an inland physique of water the scale of Eire fed by two rivers whose discharge equalled that of the Nile.

They switched to fishing and farming within the delta of the Amu Darya, an immensely fertile oasis with excessive groundwater ranges that are perfect for rice paddies.

Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous nation with 34 million inhabitants, however Karakalpakstan’s inhabitants is barely above two million as a result of elements of it really feel as appropriate for human life because the darkish facet of the moon.

Artifical apocalypse

In 2016, I discovered myself in some of the surreal and inconceivable locations on earth – the Aral Sea‘s former backside.

From horizon to horizon, it was stuffed with nothing however white, cigarette ash-like “salt mud” – an official scientific time period for a poisonous cocktail of salt, pesticides and chemical fertiliser.

The slightest gust of wind raised the salt mud that collected within the Aral Sea after many years of Soviet insurance policies of boosting cotton manufacturing in Central Asia.

The insurance policies led to the ocean’s desiccation – and the biggest artifical environmental catastrophe in historical past, in line with the United Nations.

Karakalpakstan has for many years been its epicentre – and can stay such for the foreseeable future.

Toxic salt-dust is almost everywhere in Karakalpakstan
Poisonous salt mud is sort of all over the place in Karakalpakstan [File: Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

The windblown salt mud and the environmental degradation made the incidence of tuberculosis the best within the former Communist bloc.

It made virtually each Karakalpak lady and youngster anaemic and led to numerous sorts of most cancers and oesophageal ailments.

I realized all of that within the late Nineteen Nineties after I labored for Medical doctors With out Borders, a medical aid organisation that began a tuberculosis therapy programme that helped tens of hundreds of Karakalpaks.

I nonetheless bear in mind the tears of a physician at a tuberculosis hospital who realised {that a} bunch of foreigners in entrance of him had been really going to assist with drugs, tools and coaching. They usually did.

However they and dozens of worldwide humanitarian tasks couldn’t assist revive the ocean as a result of all of Central Asia and northern Afghanistan nonetheless want the water that when flowed into it.

And the muddy spring water that does attain Karakalpakstan continues to be collected in its north for rice farming – and reaches locations like the previous seaport of Muynak solely by mid-summer.

Fishing boats in the sands around former seaport Myunak
Fishing boats within the sands round former seaport Muynak [File: Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Karakalpaks grew to become the collective victims of the area’s growth. Their frustration was exacerbated by the negligence of the federal government of President Islam Karimov who dominated Uzbekistan with an iron fist between 1991 and 2016.

Ingesting water was barely handled. Hospitals seemed like they’d simply been bombed.

In some elements of Karakalpakstan, the soil was so contaminated that nothing grew on it apart from desert shrubs that made cow milk as bitter because the lives of their masters.

Many of the meals was subsequently imported and costly, and rural Karakalpaks had been so poor that retailers merely didn’t supply purple meat or poultry.

Their solely supply of protein was fish from numerous canals and little lakes that also dot Karakalpakstan, however even fishing was sophisticated by shortsighted authorities laws and corruption.

That’s the financial a part of what triggered a latest revolt in Karakalpakstan.

Autonomy accepted

The political half was extra nuanced and complex.

Karakalpakstan is nominally an “autonomous republic” inside Uzbekistan with a little bit of self-governance resembling an area parliament.

Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet structure even stipulates that Karakalpaks have a proper to secede.

A handful of activists cherished the concept, however the majority of the inhabitants was extra preoccupied with bodily survival. Many grew to become migrants who went to work in neighbouring oil-rich Kazakhstan and a few went to Russia.

Additionally they knew how the previous longtime ruler of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, dealt with a preferred revolt on the opposite facet of Uzbekistan, within the jap metropolis of Andijan, the place authorities troops killed a whole bunch of protesters in 2005.

After Karimov’s loss of life in 2016, his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev began cautious financial reforms and eased among the harshest restrictions that made Uzbekistan appear to be North Korea.

In the meantime, a number of vitality firms began drilling pure gasoline within the former seabed and Karakalpakstan began getting extra authorities funds.

However a number of weeks in the past, Mirziyoyev’s authorities introduced a constitutional reform.

Dozens of amendments had been proposed, together with an extension of presidential phrases, and the transfer was extensively seen as a replay of what Russian President Vladimir Putin did in 2020 to “nullify” his earlier phrases.

However among the amendments included the abolition of even the vestiges of Karakalpakstan’s self-governance.

Karakalpaks protest

In late June, hundreds of Karakalpaks started protesting within the regional capital, Nukus, and in smaller cities.

Tasked with quelling the rallies, Karakalpak regulation enforcement officers sided with the protesters, a Karakalpak man informed me on situation of anonymity.

Then, Tashkent despatched planeloads of riot police who clashed with their Karakalpak colleagues and the protesters on July 1.

“They had been incited by Individuals,” a safety officer in Tashkent informed me.

A handful of cell phone movies posted by a handful of impartial media retailers and Telegram channels confirmed police throwing stun and smoke grenades on the protesters and beating them with golf equipment.

Different movies and pictures confirmed the blood on the streets of Nukus and the our bodies of younger males with gaping gunshot wounds.

An Uzbek law enforcement officer guards a street in Nukus
An Uzbek regulation enforcement officer guards a road in Nukus [File: KUN.UZ/Handout via Reuters]

Uzbek authorities mentioned 18 had been killed and 243 had been injured, together with 18 regulation enforcement officers.

Greater than 500 had been detained, they mentioned however supplied no additional info.

The federal government additionally shut down internet access and restricted entry to Karakalpakstan.

Some locals describe the violence on account of additional negligence on the a part of Tashkent.

Karakalpaks “didn’t actually like Uzbeks, however issues very actually removed from actual resistance. Furthermore, Tashkent began paying extra consideration to the area, channelling cash,” a Karakalpak buddy informed me.

It was the authorities who pushed the state of affairs to the acute, he mentioned.

“First, once they launched the amendments, after which no person in any respect within the halls of energy responded to the discontent,” he mentioned.

President Mirziyoyev flew to Nukus on July 2 and pledged to scrap the amendments associated to Karakalpakstan’s autonomy.

A day later, he warned in regards to the risks of inciting separatism.

“Requires separatism and mass riots can be firmly crushed in line with the present laws. These liable for this may endure inevitable punishment,” he mentioned.

An Uzbek service member guards a street in Nukus, capital of the northwestern Karakalpakstan region.
Mirziyoyev has declared a state of emergency within the province of Karakalpakstan [Kun.uz/Reuters]

Leave a Reply