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Among the ‘stans of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is something of an outlier. Remote and mountainous, the tiny republic is home to the region’s only parliamentary democracy and a vibrant civil society. Not once, but twice, its people have taken to the streets to force out their rulers—a considerable exception in a part of the world dominated by iron-fisted, post-Soviet apparatchiks.

Yet Kyrgyzstan is also a microcosm of Central Asia as a whole. A significant proportion of its impoverished population ekes out a living as migrant labor abroad. The rusted traces of a Soviet past line its cities and towns, while Moscow’s long history of gerrymandering borders and resettling whole communities gives it a complex, volatile ethnic make-up. Tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country flared in 2010 and riots led to as many as 2,000 deaths. Its legacy still smolders.

Over the span of some four years, French photographer William Daniels chronicled Kyrgyzstan’s tumultuous progress. His work, entitled Faded Tulips, documents the false dawn of democracy: in 2005, the country’s quasi-authoritarian regime was toppled in an uprising hailed the “Tulip revolution.” But the man drafted in to oversee democracy’s blooming across the Central Asian steppe—President Kurmanbek Bakiyev—proved to be cut from the same cloth as petty despots elsewhere in the region.

Allegations of corruption mounted as well as reports of voter fraud and intimidation of dissidents and the media. In 2007, Daniels arrived in a Kyrgyzstan where the illusion of democratic change was beginning to slip. He was on hand in 2010 when protests broke out against the Bakiyev regime, eventually forcing the putative strongman to flee into exile in Russia. Months later, as an interim government tried to right Kyrgyzstan’s listing ship, ethnic riots between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the country’s south led to hundreds of deaths and a geo-political crisis. Neighboring countries closed their borders, while up to 400,000 people—mostly Uzbeks—fled their homes. Daniels’ pictures of charred, gutted neighborhoods in the southern city of Osh—an ancient Silk Road town that’s long been a rich crossroads of peoples and faiths—bear stark testament to how lifelong neighbors can wake up one day as enemies. “I particularly tried to understand how this small country could descend so quickly into extreme violence,” Daniels says.

But while much has yet to be reconciled following that spasm of violence, there are real glimmers of hope in Kyrgyzstan. The country’s seemingly successful transition into a multi-party parliamentary system has weaned it off the grip of a domineering executive—the main impediment for real political change elsewhere in Central Asia. But the country’s economy is still in desperate shape, and new President Almazbek Atambayev, who has so far engendered cautious optimism among most analysts, has to steer Kyrgyzstan through a maze of competing American, Russian and Chinese interests. “We will see how and where Atambayev will lead the country,” says Daniels. His photos, though, show a Kyrgyzstan as haunted by the past as it is uncertain for its future.

William Daniels is a photographer based in Paris. See more of his work here. He is currently engaged in a crowdfunding effort to publish Faded Tulips as a book; the drive is still ongoing, but the funding goal was reached while Daniels was reporting for TIME in Syria. Read about his harrowing escape from that situation here on LightBox.

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ESSAY CONTAINS EXPLICIT CONTENT

William Daniels

Faded Tulips

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Since late 2007 I have traveled several times to Kyrgyzstan to work on an ongoing project entitled Faded Tulips, a long term social portrait of the former Soviet republic, two decades after its independence, undermined by poverty, corruption and chronic political instability: an explosive mixture.
The “Tulip Revolution” of 2005 brought hope and a promise of democracy to Kyrgyzstan. However, within a few years the situation had worsened, democracy was regressing and the economic situation dire. 40% of the population now live below the poverty line and some studies say nearly half of the population regret the passing of the communist era. Unsurprisingly, a bloody revolution in 2010 plunged the country into a new wave of violence. Two months later, in Osh, the southern capital, the ethnic confrontations between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks ended in an anti-Uzbek pogrom. Up to 2,000 people were killed and 400,000 displaced.

I reached Osh a few days following the clashes. I was deeply moved by the atrocity of the evidence I witnessed, and the scale of the drama. These sudden and violent tragic events cast further light on the ethnic tensions that exist in south Kyrgyzstan, which in turn led me to understand that my long term work on the republic should be completed by an investigation of these tensions, many of which resulted from the original borders of the USSR, drawn up by Lenin decades earlier.

I plan to visit Uzbek and Tadjik enclaves: Sokh, Chakhimardan, Voroukh, and would return to Osh where the situation remains tense. I will also spend some time in the eastern mountain villages, epicenter of Kyrgyz nationalism, and from where many young men came to participate in the massacres.
I will also take a further look into the presence of this radical Islam in which the Uzbeks may take refuge. In Osh, an Uzbek told me “we have been in contact with the Islamists. They will come and defend us. It will be the Jihad. It’s not what we want but we don’t have the choice.”

Bio

William’s work revolves around social issues and humanitarian concerns mostly focusing on isolated or weakened communities. He has worked on many global issues such as the 3 main pandemics -Malaria, Aids and Tuberculosis- the Tsunami aftermaths in Asia, Haiti earthquake aftermaths, and he has been working on Kyrgyzstan since late 2007, among others issues. Recently he covered the Libyan conflict on assignment for Polka magazine.

His long-term work on malaria was exhibited in partnership with the Global Fund on the Pont des Arts Bridge in Paris, in London, at the European parliament in Brussels, and he published it in the book Mauvais Air. His images appear regularly in French and international press: Time, Newsweek, Le Monde, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Polka and he was Awarded once at world press photo, 3 times at Picture of the year and shortlisted in many international awards such as Anthropographia and Sony Awards.

He is represented by Panos Pictures.

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William Daniels

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