By Sarah Kendzior
May 12, 2015
On May 13, 2005, military forces dispatched by the government of Uzbekistan fired on a massive protest in the city of Andijon, killing hundreds of Uzbek citizens. The day before, thousands had gathered in Andijon’s Bobur Square to protest the imprisonment of 23 businessmen and, more broadly, to protest the deteriorating social, political and economic conditions of Uzbekistan.
The next day the crowd grew to over 10,000, some drawn by an expectation that President Islam Karimov would come to address the protest. Instead, demonstrators were greeted by gunfire. According to eyewitness accounts, the military fired indiscriminately, killing innocent bystanders. Human rights activists put the death toll at more than 700.
This is one narrative of what has come to be known as the Andijon massacre. It is the narrative that the Uzbek authorities do not want you to hear. According to the Uzbek government, what happened was this: A jailbreak of criminal businessmen led by a band of terrorists resulted in a necessary military response. Only 187 people were killed, all of them armed insurgents.
Immediately following the violence, the Uzbek government expelled all journalists and human rights campaigners from Andijon and forbade an international investigation. The title of Mr. Karimov’s 2005 book on the events sums up the insular regime’s philosophy: “The Uzbek People Will Never Depend on Anyone.” The Andijon massacre was Uzbekistan state business, and anyone who dared promulgate a version that contradicted the official narrative faced arrest or exile.
There was one problem: the Internet. During the crackdown that followed the massacre, many of Uzbekistan’s journalists, writers and activists were driven from the country. Most were given asylum in Europe and North America, where many obtained regular Internet access for the first time.
Exiled from their homeland and isolated from one another, Uzbek dissidents banded together online, creating blogs and forums that served as safeguards of forbidden narratives of Andijon. Thanks to the Internet, exile ended up facilitating the very political interaction that it was supposed to prevent.
Witnesses to the violence posted firsthand accounts. Citizens uploaded photos. Poets commemorated victims in verse. And forums filled with commentary, as Uzbeks both inside Uzbekistan — where all news of the massacre was censored — and outside the country traded information, trying to make sense of the tragedy. Scattered around the world, Uzbeks developed an immunity from the censorship and persecution of the state — at least, for a time.
One of the most popular phrases found on the Uzbek-language Internet in 2005 was “Andijonim qoldi mening” — “my Andijon remains.” It was a line from an Uzbek poem by the 16th century conqueror Bobur, an Andijon native for whom the bloodied square was named.
“My soul remains here with pen and sabre in hand,” he wrote while in exile. “My soul remains here where they attacked by night. My soul has been taken but my Andijon remains.”
Bobur’s mournful poem provided solace for a traumatized population for whom Andijon had become a symbol of both grief and resolve. They were determined to keep the memory of Andijon alive online. For Uzbeks around the world, a collective digital memory had been born.
Ten years later, what’s left of “my Andijon remains”? Not much. Since the massacre, Uzbekistan’s politics have remained essentially unchanged. President Karimov — the first and only president of Uzbekistan — was re-elected in 2007 and 2015, with both elections ruled unfair by international observers. Repeated calls for an international investigation into Andijon have been ignored. Opponents of the regime have been persecuted both inside Uzbekistan and outside — such as the killing of the journalist Alisher Saipov in 2007 in Kyrgyzstan and the shooting of the imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov in 2012 in Sweden. Both men were outspoken online critics of the state’s role in Andijon.
But as the Karimov regime set about suppressing information about Andijon and persecuting those who spread it, a different challenge to documenting the events was taking shape. The forums and websites that housed information challenging the state version of events began to close one by one, until little of the original content about 2005 remained. Uzbeks became victims not only of state censorship, but of the subtler menace of digital erosion.
Google’s vice president, Vint Cerf, recently warned that we are entering a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” due to the inability to retain the vast amount of digital data produced every day. Because technology changes so rapidly, data formats become outdated, inaccessible or simply atrophied. Mr. Cerf was speaking of democratic societies, but the consequences of digital erosion for the citizens of an authoritarian state like Uzbekistan are dire. When censorship rules the homeland, the Internet is often the only alternative. When you lose digital data, you lose the memory of a nation.
In 2011, Arbuz, a forum where hundreds of threads about Andijon were written, was shut down by its owner abroad after users of the site were threatened in Uzbekistan. In 2012, Muslim Uzbekistan, a website that housed a large collection of Andijon photos and firsthand accounts, closed abruptly. In 2015, UzNews, a website that documented Andijon for 10 years, folded for financial reasons and in response to state pressure. And dozens of blogs that cropped up in the weeks after Andijon — blogs with names like Isyonkor (“Rebel”) and Yangi Dunyo (“New World”) — closed because the owners could no longer afford the upkeep, both in money and time.
Some sites closed for even more mundane reasons: “Do not forget 2005 Andijon massacre,” an early Facebook group, lost its content when Facebook redesigned how groups were run.
Today a new website, Virtual Uzbekistan, is attempting to curate what Andijon materials remain. It faces an uphill battle since the disappearance of so many websites has led to materials being lost. As a new generation of Uzbeks grows up in a highly regulated media environment in which a narrow version of history is taught, Andijon falls into the category of forbidden folklore, a rumor that the government can dispel as online evidence vanishes. Like their ancestor Bobur, Uzbeks will view Andijon from a distance.
Sarah Kendzior is a writer, researcher and critic.