Uzbek Refugees Are Forced To Wait Out Diplomatic Storm
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
BAZAR KORGON, Kyrgyzstan -- Before arriving in Kyrgyzstan and forming the center of a Central Asian diplomatic storm, the men and women sweltering in tents here lived in Uzbekistan, the country next door. They came to the Kyrgyz border on foot the night of May 13, after Uzbek troops fired volley after volley into throngs of protesters gathered in the nearby trading city of Andijan.
Hundreds were killed. "We ran away from the death," said a construction worker who gave his name as Mohammadjan and told of seeing two nephews cut down by automatic weapons. "We came here hoping people will protect us from the death. But day by day, hope is declining."
The refugees fear that the Uzbek government will succeed in an intense campaign to have them sent back to the country they fled in terror. Four were quietly delivered to Uzbek agents in June. The fate of the remaining 450 has drawn so much attention that in some ways it recalls the 19th-century competition between the British and Russian empires for influence among rulers in the region.
In the current struggle, Uzbekistan has found allies in Russia and China, which share Uzbek President Islam Karimov's view that what happens inside a country's borders is the business of that country alone.
The three governments are leaning hard on tiny Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation that became a beacon for democratic aspirations in March when protesters abruptly overthrew its autocratic ruler. Some refugees said those events figured in the uprising in Andijan.
Western powers and international human rights activists are pushing hard for the Kyrgyz government to abide by international treaties safeguarding refugees and to refuse to ship the Uzbeks home to a country notorious for torture.
"It's all these heavy authoritarian regimes putting all this pressure on the one country that has the potential to be Central Asia's single functioning democracy," said Michael Hall, regional director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based advocacy group.
Carlos Zaccagnini, head of the Kyrgyzstan mission of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the international rivalries had helped create a spy-novel atmosphere and that the refugees were "hostages to the whole tale."
As the refugees tell it, while seated on thin mats on the floors of U.N. tents, the story is simple. They gathered in Andijan's public square not to overthrow Karimov, but to protest his government's heavy hand in their lives, especially the economy. The flash point was the trial of 23 businessmen on charges of supporting Islamic extremism. The Uzbek government felt threatened by the businessmen's economic success, many people here say.
When the Uzbek troops opened fire, from rooftops, armored personnel carriers and barricades, as many as 700 people were killed, according to witnesses and rights organizations.
"If Karimov catches us, he will tear us into small pieces," said Rano, 36, who left behind her husband and five children and, like most of the Uzbeks seeking asylum, declined to provide a full name.