The Grassroots of Kyrgzstan’s Coup

Koichieva Gulbubu lies in her hospital bed in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. She was injured by a grenade during that country’s April 7 protests. (Molly Loomis/GlobalPost)

The Grassroots of Kyrgyzstan’s Coup on Global Post

Molly LoomisJune 12, 2010 07:57 Updated June 15, 2010 10:47

Editor’s note: Two months since a coup deposed Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, uncertainty still reigns in the central Asia country, home of a crucial U.S. air base. On Friday, violence erupted in the southern city of Osh and 37 were killed. While the significance of that violence is unclear, life is still not back to normal in cities like Naryn, in northern Kyrgyzstan, where April’s mass demonstrations began.

NARYN, Kyrgyzstan — Koichieva Gulbubu pulled back a flowered hospital blanket to expose her legs. The left is wrapped in yards of fresh, white gauze and the right is speckled with aqua polka dots — the residue of a disinfectant that guards her shrapnel wounds from infection. But Gulbubu does not regret the protest that landed her here.

On April 7, Gulbubu, along with thousands of other Naryn citizens, gathered on the town’s main street to demonstrate against the Kyrgyz government. While she was standing at a corner, a grenade thrown by riot police exploded next to the 52-year old grandmother. It reduced her left calf to bone and peppered her legs with shrapnel.

“If I had the choice I’d do it again and I’d go to [the capital] Bishkek. I’d lie to my children and tell them I’d be back soon,” she said. “Change needs this kind of sacrifice.”

The protests and coup that ousted Kyrgyzstan’s then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power in April weren’t a spontaneous uprising. Beginning early this year, Naryn residents convened five public meetings. A coalition of human rights organizations and opposition parties had warned the government that if the concerns presented at these meetings remained unaddressed by April 7, they would demand the resignation of Bakiyev and his administration.

Erkin Asanalev stood quietly at foot of Gulbubu’s bed. Like Gulbubu, Asanalev doesn’t look much like a revolutionary. He has a short crew cut, pointed leather loafers and a briefcase. But Asanalev, a 32-year-old lawyer with the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, was a key organizer of the petitions against electricity hikes that circulated around Kyrgyzstan at the end of 2009, as well as of Naryn’s public meetings. Asanalev’s speeches motivated Gulbubu to get involved, she said, and gave her the courage to speak at a March meeting in Naryn before a deputy prime minister.

Unlike many of Naryn’s inhabitants, for whom the spike in electricity rates resulted in the snipping of power lines and a forced return to the burning of dung, Gulbubu says the tariff increase didn’t effect her — she couldn’t have paid it regardless.

Although one of Kyrgyzstan’s five largest towns, Naryn retains a frontier feeling with a dusty main drag just a few blocks long and stark Soviet-style buildings lining the street. Located 6,690 feet above sea level, winters are brutally long and the growing season impossibly short. The majority of Naryn’s 52,300 residents are still subsistence farmers and herders. My translator tells me no one moves to Naryn for work, they just grow up here and never leave.

Gulbubu, a former hospital janitor, lives in a 12-by-12 room with her two daughters and two grandchildren. They share a single bathroom with the 10 other families living in the building. What concerned Gulbubu was the amount of land the government was selling to foreigners in places like Kazakhstan and Turkey.

“Land is the main wealth of the Kyrgyz people,” she said. “If we sell the land what will we give the next generation?”

Gulbubu says the thought of death or injury didn’t enter her mind when she decided to join the demonstrations on April 7. She was shocked when riot police began shooting rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas wafted over the crowd. Gulbubu fought to protect the young people around her.

“I put my hand on my chest and yelled, ‘Don’t shoot! I gave you my milk, you are also my children. You are shooting each other!’” she said, sitting up in bed, clutching her breast, reliving the moment. “Then the grenade exploded.” It took Gulbubu several seconds to realize she was injured. “I looked down and my leg looked like a banana peel.”

Gulbubu fought to stay at the protest but Asanalev carried her away. She addresses him with a scolding tone. She wanted to protect Asanalev and his friends.

“I cried and shouted, ‘Don’t shoot at the young men, shoot at me. I am an old woman,’” she said.

Gulbubu is not alone in her shock at the government’s use of violence against the protesters. Disbelief that a government would shoot its own people is widespread. After all, this is a country where tribal ties run deep. A good Kyrgyz is supposed to know all the members of the seven proceeding generations and foreigners joke that within 10 minutes of meeting, most Kyrgyz can figure out how they’re related. It isn’t long before Gulbubu and my translator determine they’re distantly related through an older man that has recently died.

On the surface, life quickly returned to normal in Naryn as a transitional government settled into Bishkek. A woman sells fermented mare’s milk and yogurt on the street corner where the grenade that injured Gulbubu exploded. Everyone injured in the revolution has long gone home — except for Gulbubu. Her doctors want her to remain in the hospital for at least another month. They say the bone will heal but the muscle around her calf is gone. It is uncertain how Gulbubu, living in severe poverty and now weakened with a serious injury, will manage. Her country, still suffering from economic downturn and unrest, faces some of the same questions.

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