One of the gauges of the humanity of a society is the way in which it treats the cemeteries and memorials of the foreign combatants who perished on their territory. In some countries such graves have been defiled or even obliterated. In Uzbekistan, by contrast, the dead of any nation, friend or foe, are treated with respect. This is evident in the cemeteries that hold the bodies of the thousands of prisoners of war who died here during the twentieth century.
The first influx arrived in the wake of the Great War, when the Tsarist Empire formed part of the Allied (Entente) Powers: during these years thousands of prisoners of war from the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria) were sent to detention centres in ‘Turkestan’ (mostly modern Uzbekistan). The majority were repatriated after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but those who did not survive the hardships of internment were buried in public cemeteries. In the Second World War, the same pattern was repeated. This wave of POWs included some Italians and Germans, but the biggest group was that of the Japanese, numbering about 23,000. Most were billeted in Uzbekistan, where they were put to work on construction projects, including the Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre in the heart of Tashkent. Several hundred Japanese POWs died in Uzbekistan, where they were buried in neighbourhood cemeteries. The local population was well disposed towards them and when the Japanese were allowed to return home the 1950s, the mutual bonds of friendship remained strong. After independence, Japanese and Uzbek organisations, governmental and non-governmental, worked together to create fitting memorials to these fallen soldiers. Today there are 13 Japanese cemeteries in Uzbekistan, the largest of which is in Tashkent (Yakkasaray). The tombstones and memorial stones are inscribed with appropriate insignia and citations. Today, relatives and former comrades often come to Uzbekistan to pay their respects to the deceased – and to thank the Uzbek people for showing such kindness to their kin.
The Polish contingent has a very different history. There was already a sizeable Polish population in Uzbekistan before the outbreak of the Second World War. However, a new wave arrived in 1939 after the Soviet annexation of the Polish and Belarusian borderlands. Many of the Poles from these areas were deported to Uzbekistan. In July 1941, a peace treaty was concluded between the Soviet Union and the Polish Government-in-Exile in London; one of the terms was that General Władisław Anders, a fiercely anti-Soviet Polish patriot, was to be released from the dreaded Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Then, in accordance with the Polish-Soviet military agreement signed on 14 August 1941, he was given permission to establish a Polish army on Soviet territory. The new force initially mustered in the Russian town of Totskoe, near the border with Kazakhstan. Yet local conditions were unsatisfactory so the entire body, numbering some 42,000 soldiers and many more civilian dependants, was soon moved to Tashkent, where the Polish Eighth Division was formed. However, what with the heat and the acute shortage of food, life here was not much better. Thousands of soldiers and their families and support staff died within a few months. In all, twenty Polish war cemeteries were laid out in Uzbekistan. In March 1942, Stalin agreed that the bulk of General Anders’ army should be relocated to Iran, now under British and Soviet control. After further transfers, many of these troops were deployed in Italy and fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino.
I learnt about the foreign war graves gradually, through chance encounters with the relatives of former prisoners of wars who had come to visit the places associated with their captivity. Over and over again these visitors told me that although some of the cemeteries had, at times, suffered from a lack of proper maintenance, there was never any deliberate damage. Rather, local people had always tried to preserve what they could. I knew something about the Japanese burial grounds, but very little about the Polish cemeteries. So, when I went to Tashkent in 2017 to take part in a conference at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, I planned my schedule to allow enough free time to fit in a visit to the nearest Polish war graves. I had expected them to be in the vicinity of the Polish-run Roman Catholic church in Tashkent, but that was not the case. Instead, they were some way outside the city, in the countryside beyond the town of Olmazar, in two cemeteries. I persuaded a couple of car-owning friends to help me and together we set off on our journey of discovery. We drove through the bustle of central Tashkent, traversed the newly developed outer suburbs and eventually found ourselves in the rural green belt beyond. We reached a small village and asked a local farmer for directions – vague hand gestures took us down a narrow lane (inconveniencing an on-coming herd of cows) and then into a field. It was time to abandon the car and proceed on foot to a gate in the hedge: suddenly and unexpectedly, it opened on to an oasis of serene beauty. There were 25 simple white tomb stones, with names, ages and rank inscribed in Polish on black stone blocks. Some were youngsters, aged between 12 to 17; a few were women; the oldest soldier was 58 years old. Most were riflemen. The gravel pathways were neatly raked and the tall trees, gently rustling, gave shade. It was a place of infinite peace.
As with the Japanese war graves, there is official Polish support for these cemeteries, provided by the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites (Rada Ochrony Pamięci Walk i Męczeństwa). Yet it is the local village people who care for the graves on a daily basis and I am not the only person to be impressed by their level of commitment. In June 2017, Senator and Secretary of State Anna Maria Anders led an official Polish delegation to Uzbekistan. Daughter of General Anders, there was a sense of historical aptness in her visit to a Polish war cemetery. When she summed up her feelings she did not use polite tropes but spoke from the heart: ‘We are immensely grateful to the Uzbek people for honouring the memory of our ancestors … … we will bow low to the generous Uzbek people who provided the Polish military with everything that they had and carefully preserves the memory of the untimely fallen heroes of Poland.’ Several other nations share this same feeling of gratitude to the people of Uzbekistan for their spontaneous generosity in difficult times. Whatever the international political climate of the day there is, and no doubt will remain, a deep emotional bond between those who gave, and those who received unconditional succour.
Shirin Akiner, London 2018