Babur Square

[Kara Kolbe]

Babur Square is located in Andijon, Uzbekistan and is part of the Fergana Valley. The Fergana Valley is a volatile and politically restive area in Uzbekistan, and is the focal point for a conservative Islamic revivalist movement in the region. It was “in the Fergana Valley that Islamist unrest first broke out in the early 1990s, only to be brutally suppressed by the Uzbek president Islam Karimov” (Lewis).  The Square is named for Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century and a national hero in Uzbekistan; his statue is displayed prominently at the center of the square. The square was the site of the May 2005 massacre. During a political demonstration, Uzbek troops opened fire on the protesters, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. The violent event has been criticized in the international community, and caused a break in friendly relations between Uzbekistan and the United States. The Andijon Massacre represents authoritarian repression and the continuous struggle for human rights in the region.

In the years prior to the massacre in Andijon, the United States and Uzbekistan greatly strengthened their political alliance. Following the September 11 2001 attacks in New York City, the United States was eager for a geopolitically beneficial ally. Karimov offered support for the United States in the aftermath of the attacks and his “keenness to enter the US-led coalition answered an urgent American need for facilities on Afghanistan’s northern border” (Akbarzadeh, xiv). Washington’s security agenda in the Middle East played an increasingly important role in shaping its relationship with Uzbekistan in the early 2000s. Significantly, U.S. criticisms against human rights abuses and flagging democratization in the country were reduced during this time. Though Washington criticized unjust Ukrainian elections in 2004, no condemnations of corruption were publicly released following elections in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, the burgeoning relationship between the two countries did little to affect political openness and human rights awareness in Uzbekistan. Instead, it reinforced Karimov’s convictions in his absolute authority. He became increasingly confident that domestically his behavior “however authoritarian, [would] not lead Washington to reassess fundamentally its relations with Uzbekistan” (Akbarzadeh, 4).

On May 13, 2005, hundreds of civilians gathered in Babur Square in peaceful protest at economic and social injustice in the Fergana Valley. Gathered participants speculated that government officials, perhaps even Karimov himself, would arrive to answer questions and address concerns. Instead, Karimov sent the Uzbek military soldiers, who fired indiscriminately, killing “men, women and even children. Troops “pursued those who fled the square. It was the bloodiest protest in Uzbekistan since it gained independence in 1991” (Jones and Hill, 112).

The Uzbek government has described the Andijon Massacre as a justified retaliation against a terrorist uprising. According to official government statements, armed religious extremists broke into a jail in Andijon and freed terrorists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. When militants began to take hostages, president Karimov sent out soldiers from the Uzbek military to “suppress the insurgency. In the gun battle that ensued, 187 people died, but, the Uzbek government asserts, ‘not one peaceful citizen’ was among them” (Kendzior, 317). This report contains major discrepancies from international coverage of the events of that day. International human rights organizations across the globe have estimated as many as 1000 people lost their lives.

Many victims have described the peaceful protest leading up to the massacre. The protest on May 13 was motivated by economic and social grievances against harmful taxation and trade policies in the Fergana Valley, which is a center of trade in Uzbekistan. Protesters arrived to express frustrations, hoping to air “pent-up complaints about everything from poverty and corruption to poor schools and hospitals” (Hill and Jones, 111). In 2003, Karimov’s regime introduced “new tariffs and government licenses to regulate bazaars and cross-border shuttle trading”, which caused massive shortages, inflation of prices of basic necessities, and the loss of livelihoods for those living off of small-scale trade (Hill and Jones, 113). Already struggling families were now faced with increased utility costs, decreased welfare benefits, and delayed salary payments, as well as frequent power outages and gas shortages.  Protesters did not call for violence or revolution; most simply wanted the Uzbek government representatives, especially Karimov, to address their concerns. Though this was a peaceful and relatively spontaneous protest, the Uzbek government saw instead a large-scale organized revolt.

The Andijon Massacre in 2005 significantly increased repression in Uzbekistan. Karimov quickly embraced an “authoritarian style of rule marked by a powerful police presence, persecution of Muslims who practice their faith in non state-sanctioned sites, absolute media censorship and arrest or exile of perceived political opponents” (Kendizor, 319).  As of 2010, Uzbekistan received the lowest possible scores on Freedom House indexes examining human rights, civil liberties and freedom of the press. Following the brutal suppression of the protests on Babur Square, it is “arguable that… the Karimov regime now relies on terror to control the population” (Adams, 202). International journalists have collected evidence suggesting “state security services [are] recruiting citizens to report on each other for ‘suspicious’ activities related to Islam or contact with foreigners” (Adams, 202). Karimov also exercises complete control over the Uzbek media. After the violence in Andijon, leaders in various media organizations gathered in Tashkent. Editors were threatened with violence for publishing articles that failed to stay in line with government requirements (Human Rights Watch).  In the face of criticism from the international community, Uzbek authorities have changed tactics. The State Department issued a series of reports on human rights abuses and failed democratic reform in the months following the Andijon massacre. However, this merely encouraged officials to “behave deceptively, ordering an end to mass media censorship one day and sacking newspaper editors the next for publishing undesirable material” (Akbarzadeh, 5). These restrictions on free speech pervade throughout society, especially restricting victims and their families in Andijon; newspapers are forbidden to publish articles on the topic of the massacre, family members of victims are threatened and silenced, and poets and authors face strict censorship and violent repression for treating the massacre in their works.

In 2005, Uzbek poet Haydarali Komilov penned ‘Nima qilib qo’yding oqpadarlar!?!’ (‘What have you done, you wretches!?!’), describing in graphic detail how Uzbek soldiers endlessly fired on innocent bystanders as state officials brazenly covered up the brutality. Komilov aired the piece on Radio Free Europe, and was arrested only months later. Another piece, a folk song composed by Dadaoxon Hasanov, ‘Andijond qatli om bo’ldi’ (There was a massacre in Andijon), also “describes the indiscriminate slaughter of Uzbek civilians by the Uzbek military forces” (Kendizor, 318). Hasanov and any listeners caught with a copy of his song have been violently persecuted by Karimov’s regime. These forbidden literary pieces are highly significant within the framework of Uzbek repression. They are more than just creative outlets, and have become invaluable modes of “reportage through which illicit information is spread and official history redefined” (Kendizor, 319). The poems are more than a response to the massacre, serving as a testimony for the victims whose stories would be left unheard in traditional Uzbek media. Poetry has provided “continuity of culture for a country that has undergone sweeping political and social transformations” through the Soviet period and into the present (Kendizor, 320).

In order to contextualize repression in Uzbekistan, it is important to consider the avenues through which these poems are delivered to the public. Some pieces are self-published and distributed from hand to hand, much like information and material exchanges during the Soviet period (samizdat). Today, many more are published over the Internet, which “serves as a public space where the alternative narrative can be displayed and, mainly among members of the Uzbek diaspora, debated” (Kendizor, 320). Online access to poetry undermines state-sanctioned accounts of the Andijon Massacre, inspiring many to write down and post their own perspectives.

The statue at the heart of Babur Square (a monument to the great leader atop his war horse) evokes compelling parallels.  Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babura 15th century conqueror and founder of the Mughal Empire, crusaded with a massive army across Central Asia and into Southern Asia. While on his military expeditions, Babur kept detailed records of his experiences. This collection, known as the Baburnama, is often considered the first autobiographical work in Islamic literature. In the introduction, Babur carefully outlines his intentions:

I have not written all this to complain: I have simply written the truth. I do not intend by what I have written to compliment myself: I have simply set down exactly what happened. Since I have made it a point in this history to write the truth of every matter and to set down no more than the reality of every event, as a consequence I have reported every good and evil (Babur, in the Baburnama).

Ironically, Babur emphasizes the importance of truth, something sorely neglected in the state-sanctioned account of the events in Andijon. In 2010, Uzbekistan celebrated the 528th birthday of Babur. The Ministry of Public Education in Uzbekistan held “literary forums, reading and poetry evenings, meetings and seminars in schools and libraries” ( Babur was celebrated for his role in encouraging in youth “the spirit of kindness, humanism and love to Motherland,” traits which have been ignored and abused by the government. This celebration of Babur’s honesty is especially ironic, because modern writers in Uzbekistan are severely persecuted for pursuing their similarly candid accounts.  Babur is a symbol of truth, yet the events on Babur Square have been shrouded in persecution and silence. Today, it is impossible to visit the original site of the 2005 Andijon massacre. Karimov has since destroyed Babur Square after the Andijon events of May 13, 2005  ( However, Babur Square was not entirely demolished; the statue of Babur was removed and relocated prior to the demolition of the square.

The statue now stands at the center of the recently created (and renamed) Babur Square – a pedestrian area located near the major train station in Andijon. In the aftermath of controversial state violence, it is not unusual for repressive government to destroy evidence of atrocities. Destroying the square diminishes the site as both a place of mourning and center of resistance. Moving the statue, however, emphasizes the power of the government. The statue becomes a symbol of Karimov’s absolute authority in Andijon – with the statue displayed prominently near the train station, Karimov is not trying to hide from the events of May 13, 2005. Instead, he uses the statue as a symbol of strength, and as a constant reminder of the violent repression of which he is capable. Babur’s statue symbolically witnessed hundreds of civilians slaughtered by their own soldiers. Now, the statue serves as a clear warning against future confrontations, while simultaneously occupying local consciousness as a beacon of resistance against Karimov’s atrocities, especially through literary expression. Despite Karimov’s intent, even a transplanted statue can, given the right circumstances, become a focus for commemoration of the massacre by others. Once a monument is displayed publicly, it’s  ‘meaning’ becomes almost impossible to control.


Works Cited:

Laura A. Adams,  The Spectacular State: Culture and National Identity in Uzbekistan (Duke University Press, 2010).

Shahram Akbarazadeh, Uzbekistan and the United States: Authoritarianism, Islamism and Washington’s Security Agenda (New York: Zed Books, 2005).

Nozar Alaolmolki, Life After the Soviet Union: The Newly Independent Republics of Transcaucasus and Central Asia (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001).

Fiona Hill and Kevin Jones, “Fear of Democracy or Revolution: The Reaction to Andijon,” The Washington Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, 2006, pp. 111-125)

Sarah Kendzior, “Poetry of Witness: Uzbek Identity and the Response to Andijon,” Central Asia Survey, vol. 6, no. 3, 2007, pp. 317-334.

David Lewis, The Temptations of Tyranny in Central Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

Images Used: – Photo Credit, David Pin