Remembering the dead in Kyrgyzstan

A century on from the Great Exodus of Kyrgyz people from their Central Asian homeland, known as Urkun, Kyrgyzstan unveils a new memorial to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.

Photo by: Bunyamin Kasap (TRT World)
Photo by: Bunyamin Kasap (TRT World)

The image is cropped from a footage by TRT World, showing soldiers are standing beside the monument of 1916 victims.

Updated Sep 8, 2016

It’s not surprising really. Very little of what went on is known outside Central Asia. And even the countries involved don’t know the exact numbers about who died and can’t agree on all the details.

So I got on the bus with the rest of the media pack in central Bishkek and headed out to the National Cemetery just outside the city.

It’s a large area - now with a huge memorial to Urkun in it - where most of the Kyrgyz national heroes are buried. 

There are two huge murals showing scenes from what happened, and a large frame representing a tent and the unity of the nation to go with them.

Part of the new Urkun memorial. [Bunyamin Kasap - TRT World]

Urkun means ‘Great Flight’ or ‘Great Exodus’ in the Kyrgyz language. It’s thought of by many as the first time the Kyrgyz people started to fight for their independence and their nation.

It happened after they tried to rebel against a decision by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II to try to conscript most Kyrgyz adult males to fight in the First World War.

They resisted and tens of thousands were killed. Tens of thousands more died from the cold, disease and starvation trying to flee through the mountains to China.

But its been complicated by the fact that up to 4,000 ethnic Russians died in the run-up to these events in fighting between the people over land.

Some nationalists have been calling for an apology and compensation from Moscow, and even for the events to be labeled a genocide.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev (second right) at the ceremony. [Bunyamin Kasap - TRT World]

But that’s been played down by both governments. Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev made a diplomatic speech at the memorial while emphasising the sacrifices his people had made.

He said: “Dear compatriots, we should not forget the events of 1916. A lot of people lost their lives and were cruelly killed.

“During Urkun, many Kyrgyz people starved, both old and young lost their way and did not survive.”

He added: “The people who died during the national liberation fight and Urkun must stay next to the people who established the Kyrgyz nation.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his special representative Mikhail Shvedkoy, who was born in the town of Kant in Kyrgyzstan.

He also put forward a conciliatory tone. “This was a very complicated and very tragic story for both of us and it’s why the Russian president sent me. 

“The people who try to portray this as a genocide are wrong. This was a joint tragedy. I know this land and these people and these marvelous nations. 

“Russıa and Kyrgyzstan have marvelous relations. We should not allow this to destroy this relationship.” Putin will now visit the memorial in September.

It’s not just in the National Cemetery that you can find the tributes. In Bishkek, there’s the Aaly Tokombayev Museum.

A politician and writer, his entire family died during the Urkun - and he later wrote about the experience in a series of poems known as The Bloody Years.

Author: Andrew Hopkins