Dancing as the people die

Observations on Uzbekistan

I once danced with President Karimov's daughter Lola at her nightclub, the Katakomba. After a few seconds her bodyguard cut in, and off she went past Uzbekistan's elite, her head set like a princess's under the flashing lights.

Since then things have changed in Tashkent. Local news reports are heavily censored, but friends in the city tell me people on the buses and metros are talking openly about the massacre of hundreds of Uzbek citizens in the east of the country by security forces loyal to Lola's father.

I have been to Andijan three times in the past few years, researching a book on Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. The Ferghana Valley was his first kingdom, and as Babur's story attests, what happens there can have far-reaching consequences. In his day, Andijan was famous for its music. It was also prosperous from the soil and from trade. But Karimov has maintained the Soviet policy of turning the valley over to cotton, and has stifled the cross-border trade in the interests of "security". I have seen people there living under plastic sheeting in the fields. De- spite the poverty, Andijan still loves its music, and in the tea houses and pavement cafes, as in Lola's nightclub, the music is always played too loudly.

Since last summer, the people of the town have been deeply uncomfortable about the arrest and trial of 23 local businessmen: one owns a furniture factory, another a private medical centre. The men are followers of Akram Yuldashev, a local maths teacher who wrote a book, The Path to Faith, about how to live a good Muslim life. They are popular because of their contributions to a fund distributing significant sums of their money to causes such as an orphanage. Religiously motivated actions of any kind are very dangerous in Uzbekistan. Many more of Yuldashev's followers, or "Akramiya", as the government has branded them, have been arrested in Tashkent. Men from the SNB, the Uzbek version of the old KGB, are said to have taken their cars and computers.

Andijan has long been a town of fear, with its prison sitting like a monument to state terror between the town centre and the municipal gardens on the outskirts. I remember asking a man in a conspi-cuously empty museum in a fine, 19th-century religious building what it had been. He replied that it had been a mad-rasa - "before the Wahhabis disappeared". "Wahhabi" was the earliest of a series of labels designed to confuse pious Uzbek Muslims with armed militants. After the "Wahhabis" came "Hizb ut-Tahrir", and then "the Akramiya". I wonder whether Yuldashev, who is in prison in Tashkent, will be seen again.

Andijan is also pious and independent. Tension has been growing in the town since the start of the trial of the 23, fuelled by their hunger strike. On the night of 12 May, a group of townspeople stormed the jail and supporters of the 23 crowded into Babur Square, a great crossroads divided with lawns between whitewashed stones. When, two days later, I saw a photograph of bodies swathed in white sheets, I recognised the building as the unspeakable old hotel in which I once stayed. All around Babur Square, hiding behind the facade of Soviet town planning, is an old town of courtyard houses where pomegranate and apricot trees grow. The security forces have been breaking down doors in the city, looking for the ringleaders.

Who is really to blame for this atrocity? As always in central Asia, that depends on whom you ask. The people of Andijan say they were protesting against pov- erty and injustice. After his return from "taking personal control of the situation", Karimov declared: "Members of the Akramiya, which is a new sect of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, have organised this disorder." There certainly are Uzbek militants, but the Akramiya are not these.

The next time Lola Karimova goes dancing, perhaps it will be in Moscow, in exile. But how many will have died before then?