© UNICEF Kyrgyzstan/2010/McBride

Akbolush Kyzy Janylai, 10 and Jumabai Kyzy Nargiza, 9, near a UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in Osh Province. Forty-five such spaces have been created for children in the region, following the outbreak of ethnic violence in June.

Kyrgyz and Uzbek Reconciliation Starts in Schools

by Rob McBride

14 September 2010, Osh, Kyrgyzstan: “It will be sad because she is in a different class at school and I won’t see her as much,” Nargiza, a 9-year-old Uzbek girl commented about saying goodbye to her new friend Janylai, a 10-year-old Kyrgyz girl she met at UNICEF’s Child Friendly Space.

This is just one of many friendships that have blossomed between Kyrgyz and Uzbek children in the 45 Child Friendly Spaces that were set up in Osh and Djalal-Abad in southern Kyrgyzstan after violence erupted in June 2010, killing hundreds and displacing an estimated 375,000 people. These spaces permitted children to recover by providing a sense of normalcy through activities such as drawing, singing, small concerts and puppet shows. The children were in a safe environment, helping them to start rebuilding trust between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities.

For some of the younger children who were starting school for the first time, these Child Friendly Spaces have helped them get into the rhythm of school. As part of UNICEF and its partners’ ‘Welcome to School’ initiative, children entered classes that were ethnically mixed and were provided with learning materials and teaching methods designed to build reconciliation and promote non-violence in and around learning spaces and schools. One of the teachers, Sharipa Tarykchieva, explained, “At the start, parents did not want to let their children come, but eventually we had so many from all different communities and they really integrated well.”

In the towns and villages of southern Kyrgyzstan there were real concerns that parents would be too afraid to allow their children to return for the new school year. UNICEF therefore worked with the local communities and non-governmental organizations to ensure safe access to and from school and to promote peace-building and conflict prevention. Ms. Abdullaeva, the Vice Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic, acknowledged the growth in trust between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz and the hope of reconciliation through school. “Thanks to the ‘Welcome to School’ initiative,” she said, “we have convinced people to send their children to school and we can now see this trust.”

The Child Friendly Spaces have been a positive step towards reconciliation, but in this deeply divided city, there are huge challenges ahead. While UNICEF has provided life-saving emergency health, nutrition and water supplies, as well as establishing the Child Friendly Spaces and developing a ‘Welcome to School’ initiative, it is the long-term solutions ensuring peace and reconciliation that now demand attention. “In order for there to be peace and tolerance among communities, education is absolutely critical to the future of the country,” said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF’s Representative in Kyrgyzstan. “We therefore need donors to come forward and support UNICEF now.”

As the children of the Child Friendly Spaces share tender goodbyes to new friends made during a summer that their communities might rather forget, reconciliation must be solidified through long-term commitment and international donor support – to ensure such violence does not return.