Who's Bekistan?

Don't Panic!... Your war questions answered

No, you mean Uzbekistan. Say it with me now: ooz-BEK'i-stan'. Good.

You probably know Uzbekistan as the home of Tamerlane, the 14th-century Mongol who conquered India, Turkey and all points in between. Known for his fantastic cruelty, his hobbies included slaughtering virgins and piling the skulls of his victims into large pyramids. Tamerlane's exploits were immortalized in one of the seminal works of the Elizabethan theater, Christopher Marlowe's epic historical play Tamburlaine. Without Tamburlaine, William Shakespeare may never have been inspired to write the historical plays on which he built his early career. Without the success of those early plays, he may never have gone on to write Romeo & Juliet. Without Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story would never have been conceived. Without West Side Story, Broadway might never have known the songwriting genius of Stephen Sondheim. So, you see, no Uzbekistan, no "Send In the Clowns." OK, so maybe that's not how you know Uzbekistan.

Maybe you know it as the California-sized chunk of former Soviet Central Asia where the government recently massacred hundreds of peaceful, unarmed protesters. The slaughter was one of the biggest massacres of protesters by a government since China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The killing began after a mob stormed a prison in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon during the early morning hours of May 13 to free 23 businessmen charged by the Uzbek government of being Islamic militants and members of an offshoot of a banned Islamic extremist group. Emboldened, perhaps by the usually fiercely authoritarian government's seemingly weak response to the prison break, thousands of Andijon residents poured into the city's central square by midday for what eyewitnesses described as a calm, peaceful government protest. A public address system was set up, and people in the crowd took turns complaining about Uzbekistan's election-riggin', opposition-imprisonin', torturin', freedom-hatin', money-stealin' President Islam A. Karimov.

Unfortunately for the protesters, though, the government's response wasn't weak. It was just slow. Government forces moved in and, beginning in the late afternoon, violently broke up the gathering. Here's what an eyewitness told the BBC:

"We don't know what happened to us. All of a sudden these heavy armoured vehicles came. We don't know how it all happened. We are simple citizens, ordinary people. I don't know if it was an armoured vehicle or a tank. A helicopter was flying above, and after this helicopter turned up above our heads, the shooting started. Can you imagine, they were shooting us from above, with our children. We lay on the ground, and panic broke out."

Most reports say that government forces gunned down between 500 and 1,000 people. Many of the victims were women and children, some shot in the back of the head. President Karimov, of course, disagrees with that assessment. He says that 169 people died. Would you care to guess what word he uses to describe the victims of the massacre? No surprise here. He calls them terrorists.

What might surprise you, though, is that the White House seems rather unconcerned with the Uzbek government's behavior.

Even though President Bush just stood in front of a microphone in the former Soviet Republic of Latvia and announced, "We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability," the White House has thus far refused to meaningfully condemn the slaughter.

Why? Mr. Karimov is our pal, of course. Islam Karimov is one of our so-called allies in the War on TerrorTM. He provides the U.S. military with an air base in Uzbekistan that we now use for operations in Afghanistan - and hope to use in the future to secure pipelines pumping fuel out of Central Asia to ports on the Arabian Sea. He lets us stash suspected terrorists in his prisons. In exchange, we give millions to the Uzbek police force and act like we don't notice when groups such as Human Rights Watch publish large reports about how Uzbek police like to rape people and boil them alive.

I guess when President Bush said in November 2003 that "stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," he wasn't talking about Uzbek liberty.