Panic in Bishkek

Pakistani students who returned from Kyrgyzstan share harrowing stories of the mob violence they faced last week

Yusra Salim May 26, 2024


The air had been tense on the streets of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan since May 11 when unrest escalated after an incident of harassment with female students from Egypt. The international students there, particularly those from Pakistan and India, spent the night of May 17 in their hostel rooms in fear of getting killed or molested.

It was around 9pm to 10pm when Raj Kumar, an Umerkot native based in the US, received a call from his sister in Bishkek who was locked in her hostel room. She usually doesn’t call him during his working hours. The moment he answered, Kumar felt numb. “I had to sit down when she called. Thank god I wasn’t driving or it would have been difficult for me to keep calm because my younger sister was crying helplessly and was just saying one sentence ‘They will kill us,’” Kumar told The Express Tribune. She had called her brother instead of her father who resides in Pakistan as it would have been quite late in the country.

Fortunately, on Monday night, his sister retuned home safely.

The trigger

What started as a clash between a few students misbehaving with female students turned into full-blown mob violence. At first, the locals protested in front of the hostels blaming the administration over its lenient behaviour towards international students. “Within an hour or so, they started entering the hostel buildings and thrashing each and every door, misbehaving and mishandling the students as well,” narrated Hasnain Muhammad Mustafa who hails from Dera Ismail Khan and is a final year student at the International Medical University Kyrgyzstan.

Mustafa shared that his experience with the locals in the five years he has been in the country hasn’t always been pleasant. “Only six days after my arrival in the country, I was beaten up by locals who ran away with my money. This is not unusual. There is no check and balance system for such incidents,” he said. On Monday they also harassed a girl on the streets and stole her belongings. When a passerby started making a video, they fled the scene.

However, what happened on the night of May 18 came as a shock.

Costly ambition

Among the 12,000 Pakistani students that are enrolled in the university’s MBBS programme, the majority have big dreams of getting a degree because Pakistan cannot accommodate many of them. “It is not that studying here is cheap. My family has almost spent 10 million rupees to get me a degree from here. As so much was at stake, I couldn’t tell my parents about the behaviour of the locals with us here and that is why I kept mum all these years,” said the 22-year-old final year student who is awaiting his return to Pakistan.

Mustafa also shared that the attitude of the locals towards Asians is not welcoming. “They always try to get into a fight and even create problems for us. It’s a common understanding that we should not go out alone, so we usually go in groups of three to four boys even to get grocery,” he said. Coming from a humble background where his parents have invested everything in his education he felt he had few options left than to bear with such a situation.

The Government of Pakistan issued an advisory the day after the incident and asked the students to stay indoors while it launched a plan to repatriate the students safely. “The embassy is issuing lists of students who will be flying back. My name hasn’t been on any list yet so I am waiting. But the situation in Bishkek is much better now. When the administration here realised that students are going back and it will eventually affect them financially, their behaviour totally changed towards us,” he explained. For instance, on Tuesday when he went out to get some groceries, the locals showed him respect and let him pay his bill without waiting in line. Many people on the streets as well apologised to him for what had happened.

Fear and loathing

Studying in another country is already something that not many are comfortable with but to get a degree and a better future, many aspiring doctors avail such options. Kumar’s sister was disappointed after the unfair means used in MDCAT exams three years ago. “She used to study day and night and I was the one who would tell her that she shouldn’t worry, she will get into a medical college. But for many years we have seen how MDCAT is badly executed. It has ruined many lives and dreams. So Bishkek was one option to fulfill her dream and I sent her there,” he said. His sister was to have her final exams for third year from May 28 but for now he isn’t sure if they will be sending her back even for the exams because his sister is going through severe post-traumatic stress disorder where she wakes up from her sleep crying and howling that they will kill us.

“I was constantly with her over the phone trying to calm her down when the attack happened… I told her to put all the furniture against the door so they can’t enter her room, but still they managed to break the door open. They pushed her badly and broke her bed as well,” Kumar said. Kumar also shared how he had recently sent her sister the fee for her final exams, which were just around the corner.

When the protest escalated into mob violence, the university administration was absent but teachers, dean and other administrative officers arrived in the morning and helped the students. Moeed Butt, a final year student, said, “They apologised to us and assured us that we would be safe and the situation was under control but the trauma that we faced the night before is not something to forget easily,” he said. He also said that right now everything is back to normal and the locals are more welcoming and hospitable. “There are good and bad people everywhere so we can’t judge but, yes, a big reason is that now they fear their international image has been sabotaged because of a few locals,” he added.

Contradictory versions

Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, spokesperson and additional foreign secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan shared that the whole situation took a bad turn when fake news and misinformation was spread on social media. She asserted that it only added misery to the parents whose children and especially daughters are still in Bishkek. The Government of Pakistan has facilitated the students’ return home but it will be the students’ choice if they want to go back to resume their studies. “When such an incident happens, the Government of Pakistan facilitates in such missions. So far more than 3,000 students have returned home safely via PIA flights, a few commercial carriers and air force planes. Many more flights are scheduled in the coming week as well,” said Baloch.

While issuing an advisory as soon as the clash began, the foreign office also shared helpline numbers to guide the students. “One thing that needs to be taken care of is that the mission of the ambassador in Kyrgyzstan is very small, with just two diplomats and two officers, while the number of students is between 5,000-7,000. They have been on their toes since the incident happened and have been trying in every way to facilitate,” she said.

The Pakistani students on the other hand narrated a totally different story. According to them, the Ambassador of Kyrgyzstan came out in public and said nothing serious had happened and only a few people were injured. “We kept calling the whole night, no one picked up the call. I have the ambassador’s personal number but it’s been five days and he hasn’t read my messages,” said Mustafa, who claimed that for three days there was no help from the Pakistani embassy while the Indian embassy helped their students.

Kumar too expressed disappointment in the ambassador. “The problem with our system is we don’t work proactively and always go for mitigation when things get out of hand,” he said. “Since the May 11 incident, it was in the air that locals will retaliate. The protest was planned to take place outside the hostel on the night of the clash but their was no advisory, no security nothing,” he lamented. He added that reportedly a very senior figure in a ministry of Pakistan has shares in a university in Kyrgyzstan, which is why more and more Pakistanis would be coaxed into studying in the Central Asian country despite the risks to their lives and health.


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