College alumnus reports on riots in Central Asia

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April 20, 2010

5:56 AM

Dalton Bennett ’09 ducked into a hospital in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. After dodging gunfire on the streets, he followed a trail of blood to navigate the chaotic hallways.

Earlier that day, on the morning of April 7, thousands had gathered in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek to protest President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s corruption and alleged human rights violations.

By the end of the day, the government had fallen, Bakiyev had fled the city and over 80 people were dead following the outbreak of violence between police and protestors.

In the following weeks, former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva stepped in as leader of the interim government and demanded Bakiyev step down from the presidency and face the charges against him. By April 15, Bakiyev was in exile in Kazakhstan, and had issued a letter of resignation. Otunbayeva is still demanding Bakiyev face charges.

Bennett, a reporter for EurasiaNet and the Sons of Hedin Foundation — which he founded — has been living in Kyrgyzstan since January, and found himself at the center of the historical government overthrow as it garnered international attention and coverage.

According to Bennett, there is a climate of uneasy peace in Bishkek.

“Things have returned to normal, more or less,” he said.

Bennett said that this was a marked contrast from April 7, when the streets of the city were chaotic — protestors convened outside the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan’s headquarters, and police broke out tear gas and rubber bullets to hold off those protestors. Eventually, both police and protestors began firing live ammunition, resulting in countless injuries and dozens of deaths.

“I wish on no one the things I saw,” Bennett said, recounting stories of bodies being carried through the streets and the dead lying in the overwhelmed hospital. “At the hospital, I saw this older man in a suit and tie, shot in the back of the head. There was no chance of survival.”

Looters filled the streets, and the Bishkek night was punctuated by gunshots from gangs and police forces.

“That night, the city was in total lawlessness,” Bennett said.

The situation did not improve the second day. Bennett said he did his best to remain composed during the riots.

“It was filled with total fear and chaos,” Bennett said. “You just try to maintain a grip on reality and stay strong, because you have a job to do.”

Bennett, who graduated from the College of William and Mary in December 2009 with a B.A. in government, began to focus on Central Asia following a semester in the William and Mary in Washington program and a year abroad in China. Through the Washington, D.C. program — which was centered on post-conflict state building — Bennett cultivated an interest in states within the Soviet sphere of influence.

“I found [the region] to be a fascinating and peculiar place,” he said.

Bennett said that classes with government professors Paula Pickering and Rani Mullen gave him experience with world affairs.

“I got exposed to a lot that was going on,” Bennett said.

Following graduation, Bennett and a friend established the Sons of Hedin, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting a global understanding of Central Asia. The organization was named for Sven Hedin, a Swedish scholar who explored and mapped the region.

Since January, Bennett has worked primarily as a reporter for EurasiaNet, a Central Asian online newspaper, and as a journalism instructor at American University of Central Asia. Following the violent protests last week, he has contributed articles and interviews to The Atlantic, PBS and multiple radio networks, offering firsthand accounts of the events as they develop.

“Obviously, the political order in the country has been redefined,” he said. “The new government is the best shot [Kyrgyzstan] ever had at true democracy.”

The interim Kyrgyz government has discussed setting up a parliamentary government, which would be the first in a post-Soviet country.

While the U.S. government has recently signaled its support for the new Kyrgyz government, the American response was not immediate, a fact that Bennett feels greatly impacted sentiment in Kyrgyzstan, a country crucial to U.S. strategy in the war in Afghanistan.

“The biggest deal is how much credibility the U.S. has lost, given their response to everything,” he said. “In the streets, there is pretty widespread disillusionment with the U.S.”

However, both the U.S. and Russian governments offered economic aid to the new Kyrgyz government April 14, and the United States sent senior diplomats to Kyrgyzstan to meet with the interim government, signaling American support for the new regime. Both the United States and Russia maintain military air bases in the country, and Kyrgyzstan continues to be a critical base of support in Central Asia for the two powers.

Bennett said he will continue to report from Bishkek as the future Kyrgyz government continues to take shape.

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