Coming after the Tsarnaev brothers set off bombs at the Boston Marathon, the arrest in May of Fazliddin Kurbanov, the Uzbek truck driver living in Idaho
Kurbanov allegedly supported the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which coalesced during the breakup of the Soviet Union and operated from bases in Taliban-era Afghanistan, just as Al Qaeda did. Decimated by U.S. forces, what’s left of the IMU is scattered in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, Tajikistan and apparently in this case, Idaho and Utah. Federal prosecutors found the Kurbanov case so complex that they successfully petitioned to delay his trial until July 2014.
There are ways to scrutinize unrest associated with both Chechnya and Uzbekistan but other than the coincidence of timing, the Boston and Idaho cases happen to have nothing that much to do with each other. If the notion that the Boston Marathon bombing was the start of an American front in the Chechen conflict seems strained, then the idea that the Kurbanov arrest is just the beginning of Uzbek radical cells running amuck in the Black Pine Ridge is even more fanciful. But the Idaho case is tied to a disturbing and deeper narrative—rooted in genuine intrigue and mystery—and says quite a bit about Uzbekistan’s notoriously subterranean politics.
When Kurbanov arrived in Boise in the summer of 2009, he joined the remnants of a wave of refugees who fled Uzbekistan for Idaho three years earlier in the wake of a massacre of unarmed street protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan. (In the early morning of May 13, 2005, an armed prison outbreak in Andijan precipitated an antigovernment demonstration in the city’s main square. By evening, government forces had opened fire and many hundreds of civilians—the exact death toll is contested—were slaughtered.)
But within months, many of these same refugees who had desperately sought asylum were returning to Uzbekistan, usually as a family or groups of families. “It is extremely rare, in my experience the idea or situation of a group returning en masse, together is unprecedented,” said Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, as quoted by Cynthia Sewell in her well reported 2008 article in the Idaho Statesman. With no change in an Uzbekistan regime that was continuing to persecute people associated with Andijan, the return of the refugees beginning in 2006 was baffling and ominous, although little noticed except by human-rights organizations.
Then, also in 2006 and within the span of a single month, two refugees—seemingly healthy young men, friends who lived in nearby Boise neighborhoods—were found dead in their beds. The first one to die, Olimjon Sobirov, worked in an electronics factory. The coroner found he had some hardening of his arteries but nothing that could plausibly explain his sudden death at the age of 33. The second, Zohid Makhmedov, was even younger at 29. Suddenly dead in his bed under identical circumstances, he had nothing in the way of health problems.
The unexplained deaths got a lot of local press coverage and convulsed Boise’s Uzbek community—at the time, Idaho was home to about 70 Uzbek refugees—and that was about it. But there was a lot that was alarming about the two deaths, and just weird. Various local law enforcement personnel had told reporters that the FBI had become involved; the FBI informed the Idaho Statesman the agency was staying clear. Sobirov and Makhmedov may have been active in discouraging other Uzbeks from returning to Uzbekistan, although they had only recently arrived in Boise themselves and were described by friends as apolitical.
In any case, the county coroner claimed not to have the resources to test for poisoning in the absence of symptoms, neighbors and friends of the two men say they were never interviewed by local police, and the bodies were shipped back to Uzbekistan for burial. Speculation was rife that Uzbek security forces must have had something to do with the deaths, but the befuddling case of Sobirov and Makhmedov, in so far as it was ever open, has been long closed. Meanwhile, many of the same Uzbek refugee families who had returned en masse to Uzbekistan were reported to have left the country again, this time mostly crossing national borders within Central Asia.
A hallmark of dictatorships is fear and paranoia, but Uzbekistan’s strain of totalitarianism is especially brutalizing. Physically, to be sure: the government’s gruesome propensity for torture is hair-raising.
But the government’s capacity to infiltrate deep into the most intimate reaches of people’s lives is really what distinguishes life in Uzbekistan from more run-of-the-mill authoritarianism. When I reported in Uzbekistan in 2010 I was struck by the topsy-turvy conviction that almost every quotidian thing was somehow a possible manifestation of a government decision: whether meeting the demands of a job, realizing the ambitions of sons and daughters, or satisfying the appetites of a spouse.
And if able to find refuge in Idaho, well, government enforcers may knock on a relative’s door back in Uzbekistan. Or just maybe they can slip into a Boise apartment and plunk a poison pill into a bedside glass of water. A history of national humiliation and oppression, the relentless threat of coercion and control from without and within, can be disfiguring in ways difficult to fathom. We don’t know yet what propelled Fazliddin Kurbanov hurtling toward the crimes he is accused of, but whatever his motivations they surely are not homegrown on American soil. For many Uzbeks, leaving home is not the same as escaping it.
Ilan Greenberg is a journalist and a professor in the Globalization and International Affairs Program at Bard College.
Image: Flickr/Charles Knowles (The Knowles Gallery). CC BY 2.0.