Kyrgyz pogrom is international disgrace

It is over a week since armed mobs began to murder, rape and burn their way through the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in Kyrgyzstan, where ethnic Uzbeks have been purged by gangs of Kyrgyz men. Latest estimates place the number of people displaced by the violence at over 400,000. While the official death toll is still less than two hundred, Acting president Roza Otunbayeva admitted to the Russian press on Friday that it could be as high as 2,000.

Why didn't the international community act to contain the violence?

Some $36m of aid has now begun to arrive in southern Kyrgyzstan, but as late as Monday, the only named government on the WHO's bulletin of donors was Italy. It was listed as funding a trauma kit good for 100 patients. In a situation that's being talked about as "genocide", is that really the best we could do?

The true number killed will never be known. Birth and marriage often go unregistered in southern Kyrgyzstan, where administrative failure and corruption has left the vulnerable and poor unprotected and uncounted. There's no reason to suspect that their deaths will be different. Many hundreds may have been buried already, according the Red Cross, and eyewitnesses talk of trucks loading up with bodies from the side of the roads long before relief workers arrived on the scene.

Could anyone have predicted the scale of this week's atrocities? People who grew up in Osh and Jalal-Abad speak in shock about the lack of ethnic tension on the streets they remember, lending credence to rumours that outside agitators began the bloodletting. But there is a precedent to this week's events from 1991, and for the last 20 years, a dark side to the rural Kyrgyz identity has been expressing itself through "cultural" activities like bride kidnapping and domestic violence.

In any case, some sort of counterrevolution has been expected since the previous government was toppled by a popular uprising in April. At least four attempts at creating similar disturbances have been reported in the capital, Bishkek, over the last few months, including the burning of houses in a Turkish quarter.

Kyrgyzstan was prepared for trouble, but it was ill-equipped. Unlike the wits at the UK treasury, when Otunbayeva announced her country was down to its last few dollars back in April, she meant it. Religious leaders and the volunteer militias, the narodnaya druzhina, are said to have played as large a role as the police in containing the Bishkek outbreaks. In the south, it's possible to drive 200km between police stations; legal authority is often held by courts of village elders.

That Otunbayeva's pleas for assistance to help restore peace in Osh and Jalal-Abad were rebuffed is a shocking indictment of an international community that speaks of protecting the vulnerable.

It is inconceivable that bodies like the UN were caught unprepared. Little regarded by most, this desperately poor country is well-known by world leaders because of its strategic importance and unique position as the only country to host both a US and a Russian airbase. But while vested interests fiddled, the innocent burned. There are now fears in Bishkek that agent provocateurs will strike again while government forces are diverted to Osh and Jalal-Abad in the south. A neutral force is needed not just to keep the peace, but to distribute aid in areas where Uzbeks don't trust Kyrgyz volunteers and are refusing them access.

The names of recent ethnic conflicts have become bywords for international incompetence at humanitarian intervention: Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, the list goes on. The speed of the response to those caught in Kyrgyzstan's cleansing shows how little we've learned from them.

Adam Oxford, a freelance journalist who writes about technology and international development.