Bishkek: Bloodsoaked Revolution

Our correspondent provides an eyewitness account of the bloody and brutal coup in Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday 7th April

Dispatches

First you hear the shouts, then the cries and the screams of “Down with the dictator.” Then you see that people have stopped working, have come outside of their shops and offices to stare at the marching mass. Thousands of men are picking up rocks, ripping up paving stones and striding towards the seat of power. At the front three armoured trucks are leading the march onwards as those aboard bang their metal surfaces with anything to hand. These vehicles had been dispatched hours earlier by the authorities to crush the unrest only to be overwhelmed by the protesters. They ripped the helmets, the shields and the truncheons from the hands of the riot police. Now they are streaming towards the President’s offices. This is the around lunchtime in Bishkek. The revolution has begun.

“Down with Bakiyev…down with Bakiyev….down with the dictator.”

The march is swelling, magnetically drawing in passersby.

“Join us cowards…down with the Dictator and his family of criminals.”

Men push forwards into the mob, in small groups and alone. Once they have slipped into the columns their faces seem to change, their eyes bulge and they begin to cry and whistle with the rhythm of the mob. They are no longer alone in drudgery. They are part of something now.

“Today is the revolution…we are going to overthrow the government…the people are overthrowing the government….the people want power…power!”

I am walking forward in this drably clothed river of faces. Men are ripping pieces off shop fronts, waving in the air what they will use as weapons. The armoured trucks are leading the way, their green painted steel giving the crowd its confidence and glint. Those onboard are screaming, their veins strikingly visible. They are high on their audacity, drugged by revolution.

“But yesterday we lived fine. How will we live tomorrow?”

She is trying to tug her husband back from the march, but he is caressing a rock and will not turn back. He is one among thousands now. The leafy main thoroughfare is lined with vast crowds. They are watching, spectators to their future, as the trucks accelerate and race forward towards the seat of power, a constructivist Soviet-era headquarters known as the White House. 

“This revolution will really change things. We are the true revolution.”

This boulevard has seen it all before. In 2005 Kurman Bakiyev and his men surged towards the White House, shouting oh-so similar slogans, deposing the previous regime in an episode of mob rule known as “the tulip revolution”. Bakiyev promised a democracy, prosperity and a better life for the people of this resource-poor Central Asian state.  Instead he pioneered greed-governance, drifted into despotism and distributed tasty chunks of the economy and apparat to his family. His brother was awarded the local successor agency to the KGB – the SNB – and his son rapidly rose to the post of Kyrgyzstan’s premiere mafiosi.

“Come on….do it…forward…”

The armoured vehicles are accelerating towards the White House. The rioters are running alongside them, whistling and howling. A forklift is sweeping behind them, followed by a tractor and a mobile crane. Thousands are perching around the main square, trading questions, confusion and excitement.

“Drive forward….come on.”

I shiver, then shudder. Five metres to my left is a man in a gasmask waving a Kalashnikov. I shudder because I know he is going to fire that weapon. I shiver because I know he is here to kill.  Around him they brandish stones and the truncheons they ripped from the hands of the police. Two guards of honour are still standing perfectly still by the monument that commemorates independence from the Soviet empire. They will not be there for long.

“Down with the dictator.”

The crowd roars like a hideous animal, shrieking with glee as the armoured trucks have reached the ornate, gold-painted grillage enclosing the White House. The men onboard are waving the national flag and beating their chests. With a sudden groan they hit the accelerators and smash through the grills into the compound. I am standing twenty metres away, my eyes on the phalanx of riot police standing to attention on the steps of the government headquarters. The trucks are racing towards them. The people are stunned with the elation, the suddenness of it all. The helmets of the riot police catch the shine of the light. Then the shooting starts. And so does the screaming .

Crackling gunshots are peppering the air, whistling into the crowds. Hundreds are running for their lives. I am one of them. When you run for your life you do so thoughtlessly. Nothing goes through your mind but running itself. The shooting is getting louder and closer. I hurl myself headfirst into the mud and a rosebush.

“Run…” 

“Forward….we shall not surrender.”

 ”Mummy….!”

Explosions. They are firing stun grenades into the crowds. Lights crack and bang in the air above the mob. They are firing tear-gas into the people. Hundreds are darting back. Hundreds are rushing forward, hurling stones, pieces of paving stones. My eyes are stinging. I am coughing uncontrollably. I have to get back. Those around me are pulling their shirts over their mouths, wiping their eyes with spit. Pulling myself together, forgetting my cuts, I get out of the rose bush and rush back. It sounds like thunder. It sounds like war. 

“We are not Islamists. We want a democracy like there is in Europe. We want no more corruption.”

But the man who tells me this suddenly starts to run. The cracks, the bangs and the boom of exploding tear-gas canisters are getting louder. Like so many on the square, I try to calculate where to hide. A gust of running people dashes into the covered walkways out of range of the authorities. The crackling has cut out. The tear-gas has dispersed. A soft rain is coming down. The crowd has gone nowhere. 

“The Russians are supporting this, giving the opposition money, but I am opposition and nobody gave me any money.”

The crowds are alive with rumours because Kyrgyzstan is a tinpot republic at the crossroads of empire, the only country in the world with both Russian and American military bases. Putin has been pushing for more of his men to be on the ground here and the US recently opened a counter-terrorism centre in the south, as militants are rumoured to have been crossing the mountains from Afghanistan. China is investing heavily, building roads towards the west through the mountains as migrants move from the People’s Republic.

But the US base here is no ordinary outpost. The airfield at Manas is critical for the war effort against the Taliban, with an estimated 40,000 troops transiting a month. The mountains are so steep in the north of Afghanistan that transport planes need to land to refuel before heading westwards. This is why Nato needs a base in Kyrgyzstan and why it has been backing the Bakiyev regime. Right now all this hangs in the balance.

“Storm the palace. Charge!”

Protesters are driving more trucks towards the White House. The mob roars, whistles its acclaim as thousands throng the covered walkways of the square, camera-phones filming. Hundreds are walking forwards, filing in from the side streets. Suddenly everyone screams, louder and louder. They have started shooting again. Throngs are rushing for cover, trying to find somewhere, anywhere. Somewhere in that crowd I am running too. Masonry is being smashed by exploding stun guns and gas canisters. The crowd is spluttering. Pushing, pulling, I am part of a group shoving its way into a basement for shelter.

“What’s going on?”

“Are those rubber rounds?”

“They’re real rounds!”

“This is revolution…!”

We are huddling and then ducking as the shooting crackles beyond. Then it stops and I push outside. Masked men are smashing up cars. A throng is pushing forward, holding a wounded man aloft by his arms and legs. He is bleeding profusely from his stomach. I think he is dead. A car swerves forward and the body is loaded onboard. The gutter he was hoisted over is filled with litres of thick blood. I am staring at this blood when shooting comes from behind me. An official car is trying to force its way through a mob that is smacking it, trying to puncture the glass and capture those inside. They force a hole through the back window but the car accelerates, hitting over 100 miles an hour straight down the main street. It doesn’t care if it hits anybody now. The driver has nothing to lose.

“They are killing!”

Presidential riot police are firing in the air. These gunshots could be live or rubber but I am taking no chances. I am running again through a park to the side of the main boulevard beside the square. Out of breath, I arrive by a locked-up nightclub called Fashion Bar. Those who work there are standing around, watching the situation from afar.

“Do you think Bakiyev will fall?”

“These people are peasants shipped in from the countryside!”

Watching a historical event unfold is being part of a state of mass total confusion. Then shots are fired again. Men are filing towards the square. People have started drinking and nearby they have started to loot. Aggressive thugs are bellowing with rage as they rush towards the square. This is not a velvet revolution. This is coarse and violent peasant power. A canister of tear gas explodes nearby. Choking again, running again, I find myself outside the Russian Theatre. People are milling around a luxury bar to my right.

“Please let me in.”

The night before I had a gin and tonic in this elite spot, but as I walked in it was unrecognisable. The staff had blockaded the glass wall windows with the furniture and were milling around nervously. The lounge music had been switched off and they were drinking French wine from the drinks cabinet. Some were scoffing treats from the kitchen. A social order is dependent on a political structure. But the anarchy outside had turned Bishkek and this bar on its head.

The thick-set Russian bouncer tried to make sense of it all. “They are drunks outside, smashing it all up, but Bakiyev and his boys had it coming.” The skinny Uzbek barman was raiding the Ice Tea, peach flavour, but still had time to muse. “They are saying that Bakiyev might be in the US base outside the city. They are saying Russia has a hand in this. All the superpowers want a piece of us.” Some of the boys were keeping guarding outside. The sound of AK-47s, thunderous explosions and whistle of stun guns was the music of chaos. “This could go on for days, and they are already looting the malls and the supermarkets,” squealed a youngish man in a baseball cap.

Trapped inside a historical event – those that experience it have very little idea what is going on. “The White House has fallen,” shouted an elegant music promoter who was holed up here too, but others shouted back, “The text messages I’m getting say no.” The boys tried to switch on the television, but state TV had gone blank, showing only a sentimental painting of a snowy mountain, as mute as the city was chaotic.

“We are going to the square. We must join our brothers.” A fat man had polished off some Chablis and suddenly turned courageous. He was met by unenthused faces.

The leafy streets beyond the bar had turned quiet. It was around 4pm. I returned to the square. All rules of decent driving had collapsed. Cars were speeding, driving the wrong way down roads or parking on the pavements. Drunken peasants harassed me as I strode forth, heart beating, trying not to show tension. “We will fight on!”

The whistling again. Jeers and howls of anger. The animal sounds of men that have ceased to be individuals and become a mob.  The crowd is baying as I join the thousands on the main square. The air simmers with electricity, anger and the unexpected. Yesterday central Bishkek was the balmy heart of a subdued authoritarian state, but I am standing in a zone with no rules where nothing is certain. Plumes of black and white smoke are rising from trucks that have been set ablaze around the White House. More vehicles are hurtling towards the lines of riot police that ring Bakiyev headquarters.  There is a crackling sound in the distance.

“That’s AK-47s firing!”

Rain is falling. The sun is setting and this drably clothed mass is moving towards the angel statue commemorating breaking away from the USSR. Catcalling with glee, the crowds are hailing one of their leaders, the opposition figure Temur Sariyev.  They holding him aloft as he gestures to them. There is a smile on his face and he is dressed for the occasion, in a dark suit and bright yellow tie.  As thousands call out his name does he imagine himself a Lenin or a George Washington? He is waving his fist. Nobody in Bishkek has time for such reflections at this hour. Everyone is caught up in the total movement of the now. Trying not to make eye contact, I push towards the edge of the White House, overhearing the rumours and the curses around me.

“There are snipers everywhere.”

“Around 30 people are dead.”

“Other cities have fallen.”

I am standing next to a pool of crimson blood, dappled by drain water and mud. Crowds are pushing forward. Just a few days ago most would have been afraid to criticize Bakiyev in public, let alone gather to make political demands. We are entering that critical phase that determines whether the insurrection will become a revolution. Have people lost their fear or will a spraying of bullets into the crowd make them take to their heels? Because once they have stop being afraid they will stop at nothing.

Shooting. Louder, louder, closer. I am running, panting, throwing myself over bushes, like hundreds around me in a stampede. I throw myself behind a portico on the main square. The shrieks are inhuman. One terrifying thought that pushes me onto my heels again into the backstreets. “This is it.” Pelting through the park I have made a mistake. The area is exposed and I can see riot police thirty metres away. I am coughing again. They have let off more tear-gas. Hundreds of men are striding in my direction. Is this all over?

“We are going to take over  the secret services, liberate arrested opposition figures, arm ourselves…the people are winning,” shout the men.

The crackle of gunshot is in the distance now. An orchestra of explosions rolls around Bishkek. The voice of a revolution. Dusk is falling over the carnage. The opposition are claiming that more than100 people have been shot dead and the President’s forces are still firing from the besieged White House. I can hear Mao’s famous saying inside my head. “A revolution is not a tea party.” There is nothing romantic about this. Trying to find my way back to the bar which sheltered me earlier, my path is crossed by looters and honking cars. My mind is filled with the stale taste of disgust at all those armchair Marxists that romanticise these bloodbaths.

The bouncer shakes my hand as I push back into the Da Vinci luxury bar, begging for water. “Brother, you are alive. We were worried. The security services headquarters have fallen.” The young men sheltering there are now tucking into a full meal. The conversation is rapid and tense. One has heard that the supermarkets have been looted, others that the opposition might burn petrol stations tonight. Darkly-clad men are striding past the bar to the square. The sound of a shotgun, incredibly loud and extremely close. Those around me are chattering rapidly in shock.

“What now?”

“The Interior Minister has been lynched.”

Buses are arriving from the countryside filled with rural supporters of the opposition, paid in alcohol and food.  Nobody knows what is going in this anarchy. The Prime Minister has claimed the opposition have been given a green light by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. President Bakiyev’s son is reportedly in Washington. Rumours circle that Bakiyev’s forces are massing in his southern strongholds to carry on the fight.

“Brother you must leave. It is too dangerous for you to be here. The night is coming and in the night they will be shooting. They will be beating anyone they find.” They mean it. I have to find somewhere secure. As I walk briskly through the streets people shout names at me.  “Foreigner…!” Men are walking around carrying sacks of loot or random electrical appliances they have ripped out of seized government buildings. The parliament has fallen. Or has it?

“Come stay with me. I’m in a compound, not far from the White House.”  It is the voice of Sergei, a young investment banker who woke up this morning as part of an equities firm exploring a Central Asian emerging market only to find himself in the middle of mob rule. The streets are starting to stink of gunpowder,  burning buildings and fear.

“I think we’ll be safe here, but we need to work out what to do if looters jump over the wall and start pillaging the place. I think there are enough supermarkets to keep them busy.” Sergei is completely collected but his colleagues are not. An American businessman is chainsmoking as he waits for a car to the airport. “I’ve got to get out of here while the airport is still functioning.” He steals away within hours, catching the only flight out of town, to Ulan Bator, the capital of famine-gripped Mongolia.

Sergei and I are watching the White House from the sixth floor. A blueish dusk frames the building. There are howls, we can hear the shrieks and then we pull back from the window. The shuddering, unmistakable blast of machine-gun fire. Rounds, what sound like bombs. The night is here and it sounds like Baghdad, alive with anger.

The machine-gun is unnervingly close.

Sergei and I rush downstairs to his first-floor apartment, drawing up escape and contingency plans. What we are going to do if the carnage continues tomorrow or if we come face to face with drunken looters in the coming hours. We switch the television on. For a while opposition activists appear wearing blue scarves proclaiming victory, then suddenly go off air. All Kyrgyz channels are blocked showing just colour-stripped screens. We laugh as we flick the switch to see a mudbike race on a US channel. Bishkek is falling to pieces but elsewhere the flippancy of things goes on.

Sheltering behind a sofa we receive reports that Bakiyev is massing his forces in the south. This chills us. Kyrgyzstan is a cleft nation – starkly divided between a highly Russified industrial and secular north and an agrarian, heavily ethnic Uzbek and devoutly Islamic south. The spectre of civil war stalks the night. We drift in and out of sleep amidst the gunshots, the smell of powder and smoke creeping through the window.

Reports arrive that the White House has fallen and the sounds of fighting dim to be replaced by roaring cheers and hooting cars around the ex-seat of power. Towers of smoke crawl towards the sky and we can make out the sounds of demonstrators’ megaphones. The opposition is now claiming to have formed “a temporary government of people’s trust”. Its men rule the darkness. Bakiyev’s forces have slipped away. The army – absent from the day’s carnage – is reported to have switched allegiance to the new leaders. The switch of the military is a critical moment in any revolution, as it hands control of the monopoly of armed force to the insurgent. Exhausted and hungry, but kept awake by the occasional sound of a shotgun 30 metres away, Sergei and I wait until the early morning before venturing outside.

A clear bright clear light throws every shattered paving stone and damaged building into sharp relief, highlighting every burn mark on the White House and the glint of the broken glass beneath our feet. We stride towards it. Thousands are still surrounding it on the square and hundreds are drifting inside. Inside the symbol of yesterday’s power looters are carrying away everything they can carry or just gawping at the wreckage. Portraits of the former leaders have been ripped off the walls, documents flung on the walls, any breakable surface shattered. Men are lugging away electric parts, computers or souvenirs such as official chairs or letter paper. The building looks as if it has gone through a blender. Men start accosting us only to be pushed off by a so-called “protection force.”

“Watch out for the young men here, they’re drunk.”

We are surrounded by menace and drunken greedy stares. Outside, opposition megaphones are announcing they are in control of the city. “We are victorious.”

The crowds staring at the ransacked White House, the political corpse of the Bakiyev regime, wonder what the blood-soaked chaos will mean for their future. Bakiyev is reportedly in the Islamic south of the country in his clan strongholds trying to turn the north-south divide into a civil war and some kind of political future. The Kremlin has made it clear he is not welcome in Moscow and the US would be reluctant to host a man who yesterday ordered his troops to open fire on his own people.

It is unclear if the opposition – a colourful coalition led by large personalities who until recently were too busy fighting each other to form a united front – will hold or be able to establish a viable regime. Many of them have been hostile to the West.  The US base outside the capital may be forced to close. The dust will soon settle – or the storm may have just begun.

“Now what?”

 ”What are the new government going to do?”

 ”Is there going to be war?”

Bishkek is awash with uncertainty as the opposition attempts to gain recognition by the superpowers. On the edge of the main square I watched some young boys rip apart and then piece together like a puzzle a portrait of Bakiyev they had grabbed from the White House. His power has been ripped to shreds – but his country may prove a lot harder to put back together again.