By Rob Packer
Only yesterday, I was telling some of my secondary school language teachers about how beautiful Samarkand and Bukhara are (see previous posts for photos). Today, I was reminded by the BBC’s Crossing Continents documentary (listen online or link to podcast here) of the absolute horror of everyday life in Uzbekistan.
The government of the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, is notoriously repressive and Craig Murray, a British ambassador there, was dismissed for exposing human rights abuses. In 2005, the regime killed hundreds or thousands—it’s unclear how many—of its citizens in the city of Andijon in 2005 (see here for background).
When I visited in 2009, the people I spoke to looked towards other (marginally) freer Central Asian countries with a mixture of envy and sadness. At the same time, some were also quite candid to me, a Russian-speaking foreigner, about their distaste for the government and their nostalgia for “our USSR”. It felt like they were trapped. When I passed through Andijon on my way back to Kyrgyzstan, the city was deserted under cold December drizzle. Maybe it was the weather. Could it have been fear? I don’t know (the now notorious city of Osh across the border in Kyrgyzstan, in comparison, was bustling with traffic and bazaar crowds).
This documentary looks into reports of a forced sterilization programme in Uzbekistan, in which women are subjected to hysterectomies or other procedures, sometimes without their knowledge. Natalia Antelava, the journalist, was deported on arrival in Tashkent Airport and conducted interviews with Uzbeks fleeing to Kazakhstan, making independent information hard to come by. According to one source, 80,000 women were sterilized over seven months in 2010; another talked about provinces with quotas to sterilize 1000 women a month; most people say that around 80% of Uzbek women give birth through caesarean section and a particularly disturbing story was of one woman had a hysterectomy without her knowledge after her first baby was born: her baby later died and she will never have children.
The reasons for this programme are opaque—the government describes it as “slander” and denies that it exists. A likely reason could be population control, but Uzbekistan has not had a census since the 1980’s. But more chilling was a suggestion from Human Rights Watch that the increase in caesareans and sterilizations is to somehow improve the country’s ranking in infant mortality rates. This seems both illogical and within the perverse logic that I’ve seen before in Central Asia.
When I think of Uzbek families, I think of grandmothers taking to the dance floor in restaurants to dance to Pitbull and taking sweaters from a worried mother to her daughter studying in Bishkek. But Uzbekistan is also a country that makes me feel unspeakably sad for its people from the ubiquitous green-uniformed police to widespread prison torture (it is estimated to have more political prisoners than all former Soviet states combined). It’s depressing to hear that the state is making its mark felt on families too.
Even more depressing is to replay the documentary in my mind and realize the amount that didn’t surprise me.