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In May​ 2005, in the city of Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan, 23 local businessmen were on trial, accused of being Islamic extremists. There had been a peaceful protest outside the court building for the duration of the trial, but on 12 May the verdict was postponed. In the early hours of the following morning, armed supporters of the men stormed the prison where they were being held and took over the Hokimiat, the local government offices. Thousands of local people, including many women and children, began to gather on Babur Square, in front of the Hokimiat, demanding an end to corruption and injustice; there were rumours that the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, was coming to Andijan to address their concerns.

Karimov didn’t arrive. Instead he sent troops, who surrounded the square and fired indiscriminately at the protesters, the vast majority of whom were unarmed. Several hundred people were killed. Witnesses say the security forces gunned down the protesters methodically, pursuing any who tried to escape.

About five hundred people managed nevertheless to get away and cross the border into Kyrgyzstan. A few days later, I arrived at their refugee camp with several colleagues from Human Rights Watch and started asking people what had happened. They tried to explain why they’d stayed in the square, even after government forces opened fire. ‘We have been waiting for this moment for so long,’ said Mohamed, a man in his late fifties. ‘If you are alone, one, or two, they will just arrest you, but we thought if we gathered all together and stated our complaints, the government would listen.’ Mohamed carried a traditional Uzbek skullcap around with him – it had a bullet hole in it, which he kept poking, still finding it hard to believe that a bullet had missed his skull by a centimetre.

Another man, Batir, told us that ‘when an APC opened fire, three people standing next to me were immediately killed. One of them was hit with a bullet in the head – the entire upper part of his skull was blown off by the shot. The other one was hit by two bullets – one in the stomach and one in the neck. I could not tell how the third one was wounded – other people carried him away immediately. When the APC drove by I suddenly felt like my right ear was burning – I thought I was wounded, but it turned out the bullet passed just by me. I became deaf for some time.’

Dozens of people told us similar stories, but it soon became clear that if we wanted to establish the actual scale of the killings we had to get into Andijan itself. By now, however, the Uzbek authorities had sealed the borders and closed all the roads into Andijan, arrested journalists who were already there or trying to get there, threatened their drivers and fixers, and confiscated phones and cameras with footage from the square.

The more we planned, the more unlikely it seemed that I’d be able to reach Andijan. I’d have to enter the country at an official border crossing without being identified as a human rights worker (smuggling routes were easier, but I was warned that getting caught inside Uzbekistan without an entry stamp on your passport carried a prison sentence of six months to three years). There were six checkpoints on the way to Andijan and the closer I got the more obvious it would be where I was going and why. Even if I managed to get there, I’d need a driver, a fixer and possibly a translator. I would have to interview witnesses, take photographs and collect evidence without endangering my contacts: officers from the Uzbek secret service, the SNB, or their informants, were bound to be on every corner.

A Russian passport, Uzbek dress and headscarf, and an Uzbek family who bravely agreed to accompany me across the border did the trick. I was questioned at the border but I got my passport stamped and was instructed to go straight to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. Instead, we got a taxi to take us to Andijan. I had no cover story, nothing to say at the checkpoints to explain my presence: I could only pray that the soldiers would wave us through without checking our documents. They did, until we got to the last checkpoint, just outside Andijan, when the soldiers signalled to the taxi to stop. I pretended to be asleep. The man I was travelling with took two Uzbek passports, his and his wife’s, out of his pocket and waved them at the soldier. They exchanged a few words, and thirty endless seconds later I felt the car moving forward.

I went to Babur Square, where street-cleaning trucks had been busy washing blood off the pavement. A few bullet holes were still visible, but most had been patched and covered with fresh paint. I couldn’t stop to look closely: everywhere I went, there were armoured personnel carriers, with soldiers scanning the area through binoculars. Meetings were arranged for me with people who had survived the massacre, and with those who had witnessed the aftermath. One of the survivors, Rustam, was in bed when I visited him. He had a serious gunshot wound to his arm, but couldn’t go to hospital for fear of arrest. ‘When the shooting started, the first rows fell,’ he told me. ‘I stayed on the ground for two hours, fearing to move. The soldiers continued to shoot when anyone raised their head.’ Rustam managed to crawl away after dark, and hid in a nearby building. The next morning, he told me, the soldiers started finishing off the wounded: ‘Around 5 a.m., five large trucks arrived and a bus with soldiers. The soldiers would ask the wounded: “Where are the rest of you?” When they did not respond, they would shoot them dead and load them into the trucks. There were no ambulances … Soldiers were clearing the bodies for two hours, but they left about 15 bodies on the spot.’ Another witness, who was also wounded, said he had survived by hiding under the bodies of four other protesters.

Several people told me they had not been able to find their relatives’ bodies after the massacre; there were rumours of mass graves outside the town. One man said that his brother, a conscripted soldier, had been ordered to help clear the bodies. His brother claimed that they had loaded truck after truck, and that the trucks had left town because there was no space in the morgues. The number of victims, and the destination of most of their bodies, is still uncertain. As many as a thousand people may have been killed.

I had worked in Chechnya and several other war zones, but I had never seen such levels of despair. Few people agreed to talk; no one wanted their real name to be used. We spoke quietly, staying away from windows so that plainclothes agents wouldn’t see us from the street. Everybody seemed scared of their own shadow. My driver changed his number plate every day, and I spent every night in a different house to minimise the danger to my hosts. I was running out of tricks for hiding my tiny handwritten notes. Eventually I managed to get back across the border to Kyrgyzstan with all the information I’d been given, and even a few photos of bullets that survivors had picked up in the square.

Two weeks after I left, Human Rights Watch published a report based on our findings; the European Union started to discuss imposing sanctions and an arms embargo on Uzbekistan. At this point, the Uzbek government changed its strategy and began to create its own narrative of events. It also sought out anyone it believed was a witness to or a survivor of the massacre, subjecting thousands to a process that became known as ‘filtration’: they were arrested, detained for days or a few weeks, and threatened or tortured until they signed confessions incriminating others. Such coerced ‘evidence’ was intended to prove that there had been an armed uprising by an Islamist group connected to Hizb ut-Tahrir, and that one way or another these extremists had been responsible for the deaths. Some of the confessions were broadcast on the TV news.

It was hard to promote this version of events, however, when five hundred witnesses remained in a camp in Kyrgyzstan, available and eager to talk to journalists, UN representatives and other international observers. The Uzbek authorities filed hundreds of extradition requests to Kyrgyzstan and, to ensure co-operation, threatened to cut off gas supplies. One day, Kyrgyz police took a group of refugees from the camp to a local police station, and then a few hours later, when the UN monitors had left for the night, handed four of them over to the Uzbeks. These men, according to some reports, were all jailed; one is thought to have died after being subjected to torture. Their fate made clear that the refugees weren’t safe in Kyrgyzstan, and should be moved to a third country and resettled.

When their extradition requests were ignored, the Uzbeks bused in relatives of the people in the camp, who tried to persuade them to return. It was a massive operation. I talked to some of them: a few truly believed their relatives had made a terrible mistake and should come back and beg the government for forgiveness; most said they had no choice. SNB officers had made it very clear that if they refused to make the trip to the camp the rest of their family would be put in danger. One of the refugees, Akhmed, told me that the authorities in Andijan had blackmailed his family: ‘My father came to visit me and my younger brother … We refused to go back, and then he told us that our mother was in desperate need of an emergency operation. She had liver problems. Officials told my father: “If you don’t bring your children, then your wife will not get an operation.”’ Akhmed’s brother had decided to go back and Akhmed was convinced he would never see him again.

The Uzbek secret services also tried to kidnap refugees. I was in the camp one day when an elderly woman came to talk to her son. She seemed very frail, and was accompanied by two beefy men who helped her walk. They all went into the tent where her son was waiting, and seconds later the men dragged him out of the tent, past the Kyrgyz guards at the gate, and towards their car. I ran after them, screaming at the guards to intervene; a cameraman who worked with me filmed the whole scene. The guards eventually ran after the group, freed the man and brought him back to the camp. Footage like this helped to persuade the UN refugee agency to move the Uzbek survivors. In July, three months after the massacre, Romania agreed to host the refugees while their asylum claims were being processed, and they were airlifted out of the camp. Most went on to Germany, the United States or Australia.

Not long afterwards, the EU issued visa bans against the Uzbek officials it believed were responsible for the massacre, and imposed an arms embargo. It even looked as though there might be an international inquiry into the massacre. Unabashed, the Uzbek authorities conducted a series of trials of demonstrators they had tracked down, which generally resulted in long prison sentences. They also started hunting down refugees who had settled abroad, using a combination of threats and incentives to make them return home. Dilorom Abdukadirova, then 39 years old and a mother of four, had been given refugee status in Australia, but she wanted to see her family and the Uzbek authorities promised that she would be perfectly safe if she returned. So in January 2010 she decided to go back. She was detained at the airport, briefly released, and then charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and leaving the country illegally. At her trial, she looked thin and her face was bruised – she’d been tortured. She is now serving an 18-year sentence.

Clearly, Uzbekistan hasn’t met any of the conditions for the removal of sanctions. Despite this, the EU lifted its arms embargo in 2009; in 2014 Germany renewed a lease for an airbase in Uzbekistan and German companies signed a $3 billion investment deal with Uzbek state companies. In 2012, the US waived its restrictions on military aid and this year began a five-year plan for military co-operation with Uzbekistan. The US calls this new approach a policy of ‘strategic patience’.

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