KARA-SUU, Kyrgyzstan -- About 1,000 people on April 20 rallied in Kara-Suu city, Osh Province, denouncing extremism and calling on their fellow citizens to stay away from terrorist recruiters and radicalism.
Participants, who included schoolchildren and college students, marched through downtown Kara-Suu, carrying placards with messages like "We oppose extremism and terrorism!", "We need peace!", and "Let Kyrgyzstan prosper".
"We used to hold more events at [lower] levels ... but we've decided to hold demonstrations city-wide and for all of Kara-Suu District," Zarlyk Turgunbayev, mayor of Kara-Suu city, told Caravanserai. "Kara-Suu District has more than 411,700 people. It's the biggest district in Osh Province."
Many locals in Middle East
The rally comes as about 600 radicalised Kyrgyz fight in Syria and Iraq.
Although Kara-Suu District accounts for only about 7% of Kyrgyzstan's population of 6 million, it has produced about 1/3 of the country's insurgents fighting abroad.
"Two hundred Kara-Suu [District] residents have gone abroad to join foreign wars," said Ruslan Omoshev, chief of the Interior Ministry (MVD)'s 10th Main Administration office in Kara-Suu District, during his speech at the rally. The 10th Main Administration fights extremism and terrorism.
"Twenty-seven of those [Kara-Suu residents] returned home in the past years," he added.
Those returnees faced prosecution depending on the extent of their culpability, he said.
Other militants who stay in the Middle East are courting tragedy, he said.
"We have information that some of our compatriots who fought ... against Syrian government forces already have perished," said Omoshev. "Their families have been left there without the means to survive."
Meanwhile, relatives of the Kyrgyz militants fighting in Syria are seeking the Kyrgyz government's help in repatriating them, said Turgunbayev the mayor.
"When people with loved ones in war zones come to us for help, we co-operate with our security agencies to render the maximum help possible," said Turgunbayev.
Such families now speak out openly at anti-extremism demonstrations without fear of persecution by militant sympathisers, he added.
Sharing personal experiences, warning others
Some rally participants shared their families' own tragic stories to warn listeners about the machinations of terrorist recruiters.
"My daughter Barchinoi left for Istanbul in August 2014 along with her two small children," Sobirjon Turabayev, a 62-year-old aksakal (community elder) and one of the marchers, told Caravanserai. "My son-in-law Shavkat left Kyrgyzstan that spring."
Shavkat duped Barchinoi into going to Turkey, from where he brought her and the children to Syria, said Turabayev.
Since then, Turabayev's son-in-law and older grandson already have died, said Turabayev.
"During my last communication with Barchinoi on WhatsApp a few months ago, she wrote that she was being held against her will in al-Raqa [Syria]," he said. "She hasn't gotten in touch since. I miss my daughter and [remaining] grandson very much."
Turabayev urged other demonstrators to ignore extremist recruitment efforts and to stay away from radicalised Muslims.
He expressed hope that the government would help bring back his daughter and grandson.
One former would-be insurgent told Caravanserai his own story of redemption.
"My brother-in-law ... recruited me," Akbarjon Kasimov told Caravanserai. "He used every way possible to persuade me to help Muslims who allegedly were suffering ... at the 'infidels' hands."
Law enforcement arrested him at the Bishkek airport in 2015 before he could board a plane to Turkey, the jumping-off point for Syria, he said.
"I regret taking that step," said Kasimov. "My remorse convinced the judges that I had been fooled. I received two years of probation, which I've already completed."
"I still don't know whether my relatives [in Syria] are alive," he said. "I requested assistance [from the government] in finding and repatriating them."
During the rally, Kasimov thanked law enforcement and expressed hope for his sister's return from Syria. He urged youth to stay on guard and to avoid the recruiting efforts of extremist groups that "sow the seeds of deceit, evil and cruelty".