All Quiet on the Southern Front

June 11th, 2011 Sections: News, Weekly_Postcards

The other day I went to the cupboard and rifled through my collection of DVD’s for a film to watch, but was frustrated because I couldn’t find the film I was looking for, Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” … Clint Eastwood didn’t star in it, he directed it and was one of the co-producers.

This is a long but fascinating film about the epic, six week battle during February and March, 1945 when the Americans invaded and eventually captured the island in order to control the three airfields that could then be used to direct attacks against the Japanese mainland.  It was to be some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific Campaign of the Second World War.   The number of casualties suffered by the Americans, (just over 26,000) exceeded that of the Japanese defenders of the island, (just over 22,000), although most of those were injured whereas only something like 216 of the Japanese survived.

The film is shot in Japanese, but comes with English subtitles.  Normally, this would detract from the appeal of the film, but there aren’t that many English language films available here in Bishkek and the Eastwood name and reputation helped to overcome this and I decided to buy the disc.  I am glad that I did because I found it a fascinating film and managed to watch it from beginning to end in one sitting – without falling asleep, which is, I am afraid, what often happens.

That was last year and I recently decided that I would like to watch it again.  Hence, I was rummaging around in my cupboard.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it, and I am not sure if I have lent it to someone, (I don’t remember doing so), or if I have just mislaid it.

One of the fascinating aspects of the film was that, despite the fact that it was made by an American studio with an American director, it tells the story of the battle from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers that took part in the battle.  Apparently it received warm reviews, although did not exactly escape criticism for some historical inaccuracies and it grossed relatively modest takings at the box office.

I think it was Churchill who said that “History is written by the victors”, so the attempt to portray the defeated enemy in a neutral if not positive light and the empathy that was portrayed in the film was particularly noteworthy.

I remember feeling a similar intrigue when I read Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”, about the extreme physical and mental stress experienced by a 19 year old on the battlefields of the First World War.  I felt odd reading it as a teenager.  In a way, it seemed a betrayal to be feeling sympathy and empathy for those on the “other side”; the enemy.   However, I remembered my father’s comment when describing his experiences as a tank driver in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War.  Although he was never fond of the Germans, (or anything German, for that matter), he couldn’t blame the men on the other side who were trying to kill him; they were young men just like him; doing their job, their duty.

This thought came back to me this week as we have been commemorating the anniversary of the tragic events in Osh last year, when over four hundred people were killed in mass civil disorders, riots and ethnic conflict.  The day itself was designated a Day of Rememberance with public prayers in the mosque, and the unveiling of a specially commissioned monument, “Mother’s Weeping”, a symbol of grief and loss depicting Kyrgyz and Uzbek mothers embracing each other, weeping.

A one minute silence was observed at 9.00 am across the country, as Kyrgyzstan mourned the victims. Flags on all government buildings, and apparently at the Kyrgyz diplomatic missions abroad were flown at half mast.  Although events to commemorate the occasion were held in all oblast and rayon centers around the country, the main events were held in Osh, with the President, Roza Otunbaeva, and other key officials, including ambassadors and religious leaders, in attendance.  Although Valdimir, the Metropolitan of Central Asia, arrived from his base in Tashkent to take part as a representative of the Orthodox Church, apparently there were no official representatives from Uzbekistan.

The speeches at the events in both Osh and Bishkek, were rather pointed, poignant and, apparently, at least one was highly emotional.  The stress, of course, was on learning from the mistakes of the past and coming together to face the problems of the future as a single multiethnic nation.

A former Interior Minister, for example, apologized for his failure in being able to curtail and contain the disorder, and has announced his retirement from political life, resigning as a Deputy and from his political party.   The CSTO, (Common Security Treaty Organization – including most of the former Soviet Republics), has indicated that if there is more disruption and disorder, then the fact that they did not intervene last year should not be taken as a sign that they wouldn’t do so in the event of a repetition of the events in the future.  The government don’t think that will be necessary, however, as plans are already in place for such a possibility, including a massive mobilization to flood some 3000 police officers into the region within six hours of a situation escalating.

You can imagine that the event attracted a lot of attention, both here and in the international media.  Even the BBC carried an item about the efforts of Salzhan Sharipov, (the “Kyrgyz astronaut”), to help bring about reconciliation in their regular radio programme, “From our own correspondent”.

Many of these reports seem to have centered on the continuing tensions and distrust felt in the region; the perceived potential for further violence; the migration of many – especially ethnic Uzbeks – to seek jobs and new lives abroad, for example in Russia.  A few, however, have pointed to more positive signs, such as: efforts by some local municipal officials trying to address and relieve the tension, including events such as athletic competitions and celebrations of local holidays to bring communities together; cash grants offered to newlywed interethnic couples; some examples of Uzbek and Kyrgyz entrepreneurs establishing new business partnerships; comments about how the troubles were unexpected and came “out of the blue”, that “compared with last year, things are much quieter …”, about people’s worlds “slowly coming back to life” and how people “are tired” of both, “living in fear” and constant upheavals.

Amongst the measures suggested to help improve the situation and relieve tensions is the devolution of government to the regions.  Although this has been suggested several times, as far as I am aware, the only national state organization to be based outside Bishkek is the Border Guard service.  One deputy suggested moving the parliament to Osh, but the deputies rejected this idea, however, they approved the idea of moving the President down South.

As might be expected, however, the central thrust of most of the analysis and comment has concentrated on the past … what happened last year in Osh, but also the reactions of the authorities in the intervening period.  Yet another report into the events, for example, has been issued; this time from Amnesty International.

Not all the analysis has, however, been looking back in hindsight.  Attention is beginning to shift to the future and the impending Presidential election.  Statements, for example, by both the General Secretary if the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, and Roza Otunbaeva, have expressed the hope for smooth and fair Presidential elections.

During the week I received a newsletter from a friend in the UK, entitled “10 things you didn’t know last week”.  It was full of interesting tit-bits, such as:

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch procejt, it deosnt mttaer waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter. Cmabrigde Uinervtisy

(I must remember to use as an excuse next time I make some typographical errors which the autocorrect feature in Microsoft Word doesn’t catch.)

During the week there was an interesting tweet on Twitter which asked: Did you know …?, and it was definitely one of those things that I didn’t know last week.  It was revealed this week that Hilary Clinton made an unscheduled stop at the airport earlier in the year as her plane was refueled.  Apparently, the Secretary of State didn’t meet anyone on this visit – she slept all the time the plane was on the tarmac.

Amongst the other interesting tit-bits on the internet this week was one item reporting the gossip about the reaction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the demand from the Vice Prime Minister that they put forward proposals to implement a visa free regime for a selection of Western countries as a way to help boost the tourist industry in the country.  According to the tweet, they are considering proposing a visa free regime for the citizens of countries like Andorra, Slovenia and Macedonia … countries from which we get very few tourists … and, in the case of Andorra for example, where it is very unlikely that we will ever be able to get many tourists.

Funnily enough, tourism has also featured in other news items during the week.  Whilst Roza Otunbaeva was in Europe to attend the World Economic Forum, she apparently had discussions in Hungary about developing the country’s tourism potential, and the Vice Prime Minister has also been involved in discussions on the theme … with Lebanon.

I am still not sure how this season will eventually evolve.  There seem to be very few Western tourists around … some, but not many and not as many as we would normally expect.  There is some hope that as the season progresses, the main resorts on Lake Issyk Kul may yet see an upsurge in numbers.

Amongst the many advantages that are often quoted for tourism are things like increased revenues and the provision of work places for the local population, the increase in foreign currency earnings for the country and tax revenues for the government.  There are, however, other more indirect advantages, such as the provision of, and improvement in, facilities and infrastructure for the local population as a result of investment made in order to meet the demands of visitors.  (Just one small example of this might be, as I have often said in the past, that there are things such as improvements in the country’s museum fund which would be of benefit to both the visitor and the local.)

Then again, there are the intangible advantages such as providing the opportunity for people of different nationalities and cultures to meet and interact, to learn from one another and to gain a greater understanding.  Seeing them as people, individuals, with their own lives and loved ones, rather than labeling them as belonging to a different ethnic group.  This is the sort of thing that will help to relieve tensions and distrust between peoples.

In the meantime, I happy to be able to report that, “all is quiet on the southern front.”









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