This past week Elisa and I were in Kyrgyzstan. She had to renew her visa, and mine requires me to leave the country every 90 days. It’s a frustrating bit of bureaucracy, but it was also nice to get to see another country with my wife for four days. We walked around Bishkek, which seems like it hasn’t changed much since the fall of the USSR, enjoying the beautiful weather, trying the different local drinks they sell in barrels on the street, and looking at the sights. The new square, the parliament building, various parks. A camel sitting next to a dilapidated shack.
We had to stop and take a long look at one building, though. It was completely black, charred. The windows were all ripped out, with twisted metal littering the dead grass in front. Almost exactly one year ago, in April 2010, there was a revolution in Kyrgyzstan, and this was one of the remnants that was still to be repaired. You may have heard about it in the news. More than 80 people were killed. A real tragedy.
But what you probably didn’t hear is that in June of last year, after the rioting had all but stopped in Bishkek, racial violence erupted in the Kyrgyz city of Osh between the ethnic Kyrgyz and the ethnic Uzbeks. At the end of the fighting, several dozen Kyrgyz were killed, but hundreds of Uzbeks, possibly even up to two thousand, were killed. Tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks, many of whom were born in Kyrgyzstan and had never even set foot in Uzbekistan, were forced to flee. The message was clear: this land is Kyrgyz land and we don’t want any dirty Uzbeks on it. It was racial cleansing, to use a euphemism, or attempted genocide, if we want to be blunt. That’s not the message you hear from many of the locals, though.
On Wednesday, Elisa and I went to the banya, which is sort of like a sauna with hot tubs. You can get massages and whatnot. It was nice, but not exactly my way of relaxing, so I finished about an hour before Elisa did. I went out to the lobby, looking forward to reading on my Kindle for an hour—which is my way of relaxing. But, as tends to happen in Central Asia, a Kyrgyz man sitting near me noticed that I was American and wanted to practice his English. We ended up talking about a lot of things that you might expect. He told me about his job and his family; I told him about my wife and how much the average salary is in America (which is a question I get more than you’d think). He also noticed that I was reading the Bible on my Kindle, so we talked about Jesus. I shared with him how, as a good Muslim, it’s important for him to know about all the prophets, so I encouraged him to read the Bible in order to learn more about Jesus. When that conversation drew to a close, I was emboldened to ask about what he thought about the fighting in Osh.
I got a very different story than what I’d read online and heard from Westerners. He told me that the Uzbeks in Osh are very rich because they sell heroin. They want to secede from Kyrgyzstan and have their own country, so for a year before the fighting, he tells me, they were collecting guns. The Uzbeks started the violence, killing hundreds of Kyrgyz. Only then, in self-defense, did the Kyrgyz fight back. Sure, a few Uzbeks were killed, but far fewer than the Kyrgyz. And anyway, they had it coming. I asked him if he thought Allah loves the Uzbeks. He paused, thoughtful for a moment, and then said, “No, I don’t think Allah would love people that sell drugs like that.”
From what I’ve heard, many Kyrgyz agree with this story, especially in the south. When it’s not all out hatred, it at least rears its head as a general attitude of, “Well, it’s our land, and they shouldn’t be there anyway.” Even among some of the believers.
I hear these things, and I can’t help but think, how is such hate possible? This isn’t the burning hate that we’ve all felt that quickly arises and then, just as quickly, dissipates, when someone cuts us off on the highway or even cheats us out of something we earned. It’s a dull, constant hate. It surrounds us, and is almost indistinguishable from the air that we breathe. It’s not something we feel guilty for because our environment makes it seem so perfectly natural. It’s a hate that creates lies to justify itself without even realizing that those are lies it’s creating.
Looking at this hate, which we can see all around the world—from Kyrgyzstan to the recent killing of an Italian peace activist in Israel to the racial hatred we watch, and even sometimes believe, on our own evening news—it seems overwhelming. We want to just destroy that sort of hate, that evil infecting the world. If only we could cordon off this evil, we could protect ourselves from it. But Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian writer held in a Kazakh prison camp during the Soviet Union, responds to this thought:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
G.K. Chesterton, the great Christian writer who heavily influenced C.S. Lewis, echoes Solzhenitsyn. When asked by Time Magazine to write about what is wrong with the world, he responded in two words: “I am.”
I’ve come to realize more and more why I’m here in Central Asia. It’s the firm belief that there is much evil in this world, including in my own heart, and that the only answer for that evil—the only answer—is Jesus Christ. I believe in God who sees the evil in my heart and instead of destroying it, and me in the process, chooses to transform it. When we see evil, let us not seek to destroy it, but work to see those who evil infects to kneel with us at our sides and confess with us: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”